Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response
Jesse Prinz argues that the source of our moral inclinations is merely cultural.
Suppose you have a moral disagreement with someone, for example, a disagreement about whether it is okay to live in a society where the amount of money you are born with is the primary determinant of how wealthy you will end up. In pursuing this debate, you assume that you are correct about the issue and that your conversation partner is mistaken. You conversation partner assumes that you are making the blunder. In other words, you both assume that only one of you can be correct. Relativists reject this assumption. They believe that conflicting moral beliefs can both be true. The stanch socialist and righteous royalist are equally right; they just occupy different moral worldviews.
Relativism has been widely criticized. It is attacked as being sophomoric, pernicious, and even incoherent. Moral philosophers, theologians, and social scientists try to identify objective values so as to forestall the relativist menace. I think these efforts have failed. Moral relativism is a plausible doctrine, and it has important implications for how we conduct our lives, organize our societies, and deal with others.
Cannibals and Child Brides
Morals vary dramatically across time and place. One group’s good can be another group’s evil. Consider cannibalism, which has been practiced by groups in every part of the world. Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday found evidence for cannibalism in 34% of cultures in one cross-historical sample. Or consider blood sports, such as those practiced in Roman amphitheaters, in which thousands of excited fans watched as human beings engaged in mortal combat. Killing for pleasure has also been documented among headhunting cultures, in which decapitation was sometimes pursued as a recreational activity. Many societies have also practiced extreme forms of public torture and execution, as was the case in Europe before the 18th century. And there are cultures that engage in painful forms of body modification, such as scarification, genital infibulation, or footbinding – a practice that lasted in China for 1,000 years and involved the deliberate and excruciating crippling of young girls. Variation in attitudes towards violence is paralleled by variation in attitudes towards sex and marriage. When studying culturally independent societies, anthropologists have found that over 80% permit polygamy. Arranged marriage is also common, and some cultures marry off girls while they are still pubescent or even younger. In parts of Ethiopia, half the girls are married before their 15th birthday.
Of course, there are also cross-cultural similarities in morals. No group would last very long if it promoted gratuitous attacks on neighbors or discouraged childrearing. But within these broad constraints, almost anything is possible. Some groups prohibit attacks on the hut next door, but encourage attacks on the village next door. Some groups encourage parents to commit selective infanticide, to use corporal punishment on children, or force them into physical labor or sexual slavery.
Such variation cries out for explanation. If morality were objective, shouldn’t we see greater consensus? Objectivists reply in two different ways:
Deny variation. Some objectivists say moral variation is greatly exaggerated – people really agree about values but have different factual beliefs or life circumstances that lead them to behave differently. For example, slave owners may have believed that their slaves were intellectually inferior, and Inuits who practiced infanticide may have been forced to do so because of resource scarcity in the tundra. But it is spectacularly implausible that all moral differences can be explained this way. For one thing, the alleged differences in factual beliefs and life circumstances rarely justify the behaviors in question. Would the inferiority of one group really justify enslaving them? If so, why don’t we think it’s acceptable to enslave people with low IQs? Would life in the tundra justify infanticide? If so, why don’t we just kill off destitute children around the globe instead of giving donations to Oxfam? Differences in circumstances do not show that people share values; rather they help to explain why values end up being so different.
Deny that variation matters. Objectivists who concede that moral variation exists argue that variation does not entail relativism; after all, scientific theories differ too, and we don’t assume that every theory is true. This analogy fails. Scientific theory variation can be explained by inadequate observations or poor instruments; improvements in each lead towards convergence. When scientific errors are identified, corrections are made. By contrast, morals do not track differences in observation, and there also is no evidence for rational convergence as a result of moral conflicts. Western slavery didn’t end because of new scientific observations; rather it ended with the industrial revolution, which ushered in a wage-based economy. Indeed, slavery became more prevalent after the Enlightenment, when science improved. Even with our modern understanding of racial equality, Benjamin Skinner has shown that there are more people living in de facto slavery worldwide today than during the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When societies converge morally, it’s usually because one has dominated the other (as with the missionary campaigns to end cannibalism). With morals, unlike science, there is no well-recognized standard that can be used to test, confirm, or correct when disagreements arise.
Objectivists might reply that progress has clearly been made. Aren’t our values better than those of the ‘primitive’ societies that practice slavery, cannibalism, and polygamy? Here we are in danger of smugly supposing superiority. Each culture assumes it is in possession of the moral truth. From an outside perspective, our progress might be seen as a regress. Consider factory farming, environmental devastation, weapons of mass destruction, capitalistic exploitation, coercive globalization, urban ghettoization, and the practice of sending elderly relatives to nursing homes. Our way of life might look grotesque to many who have come before and many who will come after.
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But, it is not a valid system. Obviously, this system would result in the destruction of the species. This is clear.
But you're making an assumption: that the continuation of the species is a good thing.
If we're going to play hypotheticals, then one could posit a moral system whereby the extinction of Homo sapiens is a moral imperative, and that the best means to achieve this end is to kill all women, given that it is women who give birth.
But also, this system is repugnant and undesirable.
Again, there is the afore mentioned assumption, together with a value judgement. In the West we view infanticide as repugnant and undesirable, but moral systems have and do exist where infanticide is permissible, where it is considered neither repugnant or undesirable. Indeed, we would be judged as morally inadequate for opposing infanticide.