Universalism vs. Ethical relativism

4th December 2022 0 By indiafreenotes

Some of the questions that Ethics is concerned with are “What do words like ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘virtue’, ‘vice’ mean?”, “Why are right actions right?”, and “What actions are right?”. These are only a few of the questions that fall under the part of philosophy called Ethics, but they should give you some idea of the sorts of things Ethics is concerned with. We have already seen Plato address some of these questions. Now we will see Mill deal with these questions as well.

There are five basic approaches we can take to moral theory: absolutism, universalism, relativism, skepticism, and nihilism. Allow me to give very brief characterizations of each of these approaches. Ethical nihilism denies that there are any moral truths whatsoever. Ethical skepticism denies, not that there are moral truths, but that we can ever come to know what they are. Ethical relativism asserts that moral truths vary from person to person or culture to culture. Ethical universalism asserts that moral truths do not vary in this fashion. Ethical absolutism takes universalism one step further, and denies that moral truths depend on human nature. (Hence, absolutism is a stronger version of universalism.) Plato is an ethical absolutist.

Moral universalism, so-characterized, is a doctrine postulating the objective reality of concrete   touchstones for judging what is right and wrong. Its posited moral charter is concrete in the sense that it sets forth clear and determinate instructions, principles or commands for the actual behavior of individuals and members of groups (do and don’ts such as “thou shall not bow down before carved images”; or “thou shall never use physical punishment to discipline a child”; or “thou shall always permit widows to remarry if they want to, but never require them to do so”). Those concrete touchstones of the moral charter are then said to be objective in the sense that (according to the doctrine) their requirements (obligations, duties, rights, prohibitions) are, and always have been, binding on all persons (or groups) without exception, and are universally obligatory regardless of a person‟s or peoples‟ subjective or conventional acceptances, actual cultural practices or historical circumstances.

Indeed that distrust was so widespread and deep that one suspects that if extreme versions of moral  relativism have ever had any appeal to cultural anthropologists it is largely because the doctrine may  initially seem to offer an effective counter to this or that despised version of moral universalism (or  absolutism). Moral relativism as conventionalism or subjectivism does provide one way to oppose on philosophical grounds the imperial and globetrotting project of using an imagined one true moral charter to draw a moral map of the peoples and cultures of the world. This is frequently a map according to which the customary practices of the peoples and cultures studied by anthropologists were, and still are, designated as morally backward (for example, with respect to their customary treatment of women and children), and as ripe for moral uplift by activists and interventionists who view themselves as altruistic, compassionate, righteous reformers of morally defective ways of life.

The counter offered by extreme versions of moral relativism runs as follows: If, for each and every person or group, the mere belief or acceptance that something is right (or good) is all that it takes to make it right (or good) then the very idea of the one true (objective and absolute) morality is itself really nothing other than a projection of the subjective preferences (likes and dislikes made manifest in habits and customs) of particular agents. The rub of course is that some of those proselytizing universalizers may also have the wealth, influence or power to successfully project or spread their subjective preferences widely, even among local elites in other societies.

Many who embrace moral universalism in anthropology will recoil at extreme characterizations of their doctrine as well. They will recoil because in their own minds the primary aim of their objectivism (and invocation of moral absolutes) is not to congratulate their own way of life as the best or only way  to live a moral life but rather to provide insiders and outsiders, minority groups and majority groups,  (in other words everyone) with a common frame of reference for engaging in genuine moral debates  and for judging what is right and what is wrong in one’s own society, and in other societies as well.