Empowerment Ethics: “Is Morality Just Culturally Relative?”

This is a new installment of my “Empowerment Ethics” series.

Anthropologists, sociologists, historians, social psychologists, and other academics are all very interested in accurately describing different culture’s de facto systems of moral practices and norms. Famously these vary quite a bit. And good science requires not letting one’s own culture’s value judgments compromise one’s ability to accurately understand the logic of other people’s cultures. We do poor science if our approach to human societies different from our own is to simply note how they’re good or evil by our own lights and unflatteringly interpret everything they do that varies from what we do as amoral or immoral for not having the same norms as us.

So it is valuable that, at minimum for purposes of understanding, people in the social sciences and the rest of us when thinking with our social science “hat” on allow ourselves some critical distance from our own values and some empathy for others’ values. One might call it a “methodological cultural relativism”. For the sake of understanding, assume that no matter how wildly different a given culture’s norms, values, and practices related to “good and evil” are that from within that culture these norms, values, and practices feel like very right, maybe even like rightness itself, and they think of themselves as either “moral” or their culture’s nearest equivalent designation to our idea of “morality”.

This is a crucial perspective to rotate into our thinking on a regular basis. It’s a crucial mode of attitude to adopt to highlight various important features of moral situations in foreign cultures. In different lived situations, different norms, practices, and values can simply mean very different things both in terms of tangible effects and felt experience of the people within those cultures.

But this is not the only perspective worth adopting. This perspective is one major aspect of what we might call “descriptive morality”. Descriptive morality is the study of what psychologically, anthropologically, socially, historically, culturally, religiously, or through some other means a given person or people at a given time and/or place actually think of as their “morality”, or how their moral judgments are in fact made. So a descriptive, “scientifically neutral” account of morality does not leap to judging whether a given moral value forming mechanism or action motivating psychological dynamic is a good thing or bad thing. It just asks, “how does this person or people arrive, either implicitly or explicitly, at their judgments of good and evil and the actions related to such judgments?”

But moral thinking must go further. We use moral categories of thought to determine vital life decisions, including how to make many of our most decisive social and political arrangements. The study of human morality is not just the disinterested cataloguing of facts as though we were studying ants. We must not only study the moralities of cultures and individuals out of mere intellectual curiosity. We must figure out how to best conceive of our morality for the greatest empowerment of the greatest number (including those in other cultures). We must at sometimes rotate our perspective away from the enterprise of descriptive morality to the enterprise of normative morality, which is the study of what our norms should be and why.

Some people want to say that all a morality could be is what a people decides it is for themselves and that there is no way to have moral authority distinguishable from their culturally enshrined norms, values, and practices. There can be no neutral third party standard by which to judge a culture. Whatever they call morality is the sum of morality to them.

But what they are recommending with this conflation between descriptive and normative morality is an unjustified abdication of the responsibility of normative morality itself. It’s internally incoherent for them to do this and it would be destructive of all normative progress for peoples to take this stance with respect to their own values, practices, and norms.

The only way that cultures can have discussions about how to improve its values, practices, and norms is if they assume that the prevailing opinion of their society could be wrong. Otherwise, with arbitrary traditionalism, someone could always say to an idea that questions received morality, “You must be wrong about morality because it differs from received morality and that’s the only morality there could possibly be.” In practice, peoples do change. Sometimes they’re in denial that they have ever changed and tell bogus stories about how fixed from ancient days to the present their values and norms are. But clearly they can change. And when they do all sorts of factors of tangible consequences, socio-political realities, and realizations that there are unsustainable formal inconsistencies in their values, norms, or practices make this change happen. Sometimes it’s more philosophically driven, sometimes it’s more organic. But changes happen and they happen usually because people are adjusting their values, norms, and practices to their realities and to changes in their moral consciousness (whether for better or worse).

We shouldn’t marginalize the dissenter within a given culture by robbing them of their voice. We do that when we tell them that their culture’s dominant norms are identical with what is morally normative just by virtue of being popular and socially enforced. Cultural relativists have a wise appreciation that cultures preserve ways of life that to one extent or another work for people (or at least did in the past) and that they shouldn’t be demonized at first glance for differing from our own. But their appreciation is excessive when this makes them dogmatically assume that dominant norms, practices, and values really favor the flourishing of everyone. They do no one any favors when they abandoned those oppressed by their cultures. They do no favors to foreign cultures when they refuse to criticize practices that are outdated or have always been inadequate. If there are ways that a culture’s norms demonstrably are internally inconsistent and unfair and/or hold their people back from their maximum overall empowerment according to their powers, then that culture’s own interest is to rationally scrutinize itself. And part of that can be insights and criticisms from other cultures that have empowered their people in the ways that that culture is failing to.

Another caveat here is to remember, before criticizing a culture that is not thriving, is that there are both global and national sociopolitical and economic power structures that can vastly contribute to a given culture or subculture not flourishing. It’s facile to assume a direct correlation between a particular group’s material, social, intellectual, or moral poverty and its virtues. Many countries live under the boot heel of de facto imperialism or appallingly unjust debt peonage or with the legacies of former imperialistic rape and plunder or with simple challenges from the natural environment, all of which can depress a people’s ability to flourish without problems in norms, values, or practices being at all directly to blame.

Plus, it is important to gauge the difference between a substantial harm and a different, but equivalently defensible, distribution of goods. So in two hypothetical cultures prosperity might be comparable whereas one puts unique burdens on individuals the other doesn’t but also compensates them with benefits the other doesn’t offer (and vice versa). It also could be that one culture excels on metrics related to a couple of areas of human flourishing while lagging in others, whereas another culture excels in opposite areas and lags in opposite areas. In both cases it could be that to some extent sacrificing the one area of flourishing for excelling in the other might be a necessary trade off, as things stand in that culture at present, to flourish in either area. In other words, it is possible that in some cultures at some times, not all goods are maximally realizable and so they have to make choices that involve trade offs (and different cultures could make comparably justifiable choices of priorities, either of which involves a gain and a loss, with no rational way to decide that the one is absolutely better or worse a choice).

The two cultures might think each other too onerous in distribution of burdens and not appreciate that the compensating benefit the other provides its people is equally satisfying to their own benefits from living in their own culture. Or they might think that the other culture is unconscionably neglecting a vital value, by the standard of their own culture’s priority choice. In formal terms, these are the sorts of differences, even sometimes in moral judgments, that can be culturally relative without being pernicious. As moral pluralists, rather than cultural relativists, we can allow for such variations, past and present, given people’s different needs (in their time and place) and even some of their subjective preferences.

Nonetheless, if we can make arguments that another culture or our own is capable of improving the overall flourishing in the greatest number of human excellences for the greatest number consistent with the empowerment of the worst off, then we have every right to argue that either our own culture’s present state of moral understanding or another culture’s should be improved in such and such a way that more people might be empowered to flourish and more of the metrics of flourishing would be met by the culture overall.

To really take any set of social norms, practices, and values as identical with morality itself (at least for that society) and live by such a mindset would be to forestall every society from improving its norms or priorities. That would be to irrationally cede our responsibility to our fellows within our society and around the globe in other societies. We should be sensitive to understand why cultures make the tradeoffs they do, how such tradeoffs might be contributory to the goods they have, and be tangible about having constructive solutions for how they can improve what they lag in without losing what they are succeeding in and seeking to preserve.

Your Thoughts?

Not satisfied with some aspect of my moral philosophy yet? Click the question or challenge that is closest to yours or raise it below in the comments if you don’t see it:

What is Empowerment Ethics?
Who Is Anyone To Tell Others What To Do?
How Can We Find External Criteria To Assess Morality’s Truth and Authority?
Is Empowerment Ethics Atheistic?
Can Morality Mean Something Other Than Absolutist Morality?
Is Morality Just Subjective?
Are Individuals’ Moralities Merely Personal?
Is Morality Relative?
Does Everyone Mean Something Different By The Word ‘Good’?
Are Moral Issues Too Subjective To Argue Over?
Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?
Is Morality Just Culturally Relative?

Empowerment Ethics Permanent Page, Regularly Updated With Answers To More Challenges and Questions

I am a philosopher who specializes in ethics. For years, starting in my doctoral dissertation and then continuing right here on Camels With Hammers, I have been drafting, defending, and developing my own spin on the perfectionist and humanist ethical traditions that I call “Empowerment Ethics”. I write about everything from the most abstract foundational issues related to the nature of value and morality themselves (what philosophers call “metaethics”), to the most pressing moral controversies of our time, to how to live a good life in practical terms. The post above was an entry in this larger series. For a regularly updated full list of posts in this series and a very brief, 5 paragraph long, primer on what “Empowerment Ethics” is about as a moral philosophy see and bookmark this permanent page. A more thorough overview of the views can be found in my post My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications To Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People.

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