One Kind of Absolutism and Three Kinds of Relativism About Morality


1.  Normative Cultural Absolutism About Morality (NCA) = The view that the norms of one culture (typically one’s own) are universal—that is, they apply to all cultures[WJT1] . 


2.  Descriptive Cultural Relativism About Morality = the purely descriptive claim that different societies disagree on at least some moral judgments.   


3.  Metaethical Relativism = moral anti-realism or moral skepticism = the claim that there are no moral truths (moral anti-realism) or that human beings can never have any moral knowledge or any justified moral beliefs (moral skepticism). 


4.  Normative Cultural Relativism About Morality = The normative moral claim that people ought to comply with the moral norms of their own culture (or, at least, that it is always morally permissible for them to do so). 




        Important Fact:  Everyone, even the Normative Cultural Absolutist, can agree that descriptive cultural relativism about morality is true.


        Second, Normative Cultural Absolutism includes both a metaphysical element and an epistemological element.  What are they?

























EPISTEMIC IMMODESTY [Moral Infallibilism] = A claim to certainty or infallibility[WJT2] .


EPISTEMIC MODESTY [Moral Fallibilism]= An acknowledgment of fallibility and the lack of certainty[WJT3] .


METAPHYSICAL IMMODESTY = A claim that some moral judgments are objectively universal—that is, they apply to all moral beings, regardless of whether they agree[WJT4] . 


METAPHYSICAL MODESTY = A claim that no moral judgments are objectively universal.  This covers Moral Anti-Realism, Moral Skepticism, and all forms of unqualified Normative Moral Relativism.  There are many varieties of normative moral relativism—for example, the claim that our moral principles only apply to members of our own species or our own linguistic community or own religion or to those who accept our moral principles, etc[WJT5] . 




The AAA’s 1947 Defense of Normative Cultural Relativism


The three central propositions of the AAA Statement: 


1.  The individual realizes his personality through his culture, hence respect for individual differences entails a respect for cultural differences[WJT6] . 


2.  Respect for difference between cultures is validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered[WJT7] .
















3.  Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates[WJT8]  that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole[WJT9] . 


        Proposition 3 is a version of normative cultural relativism about morality.  In support of it, the AAA offered a version of what we will call "the cultural imperialism argument[WJT10] ." 


















The Cultural Imperialism Argument


        There are many different versions of this argument.  What they all have in common is that they begin from the claim that it was wrong for the Western Europeans to impose their moral and religious norms on the American natives and they conclude with an endorsement of Normative Cultural Relativism (NCR). 





















The AAA's Defense of Normative Cultural Relativism is based in part on Cultural Imperialism Argument.  Important facts about the Cultural Imperialism Argument:


(1) The Cultural Imperialism Argument is incompatible with Moral Nihilism/Moral Skepticism.  Why?


(2) Although the Cultural Imperialism Argument has undeniable moral appeal, it is deeply incoherent.  Its conclusion (NCR) is incompatible with the claim that cultural imperialism is morally objectionable.  To see why, consider the example of the Spanish Conquistador and the American Native[WJT11] . 














                       NA says:         SC says:





































SCNCA = Spanish Conquistador NCA

NANCA = Native American NCA

NCR = Normative Cultural Relativism

NNRT = Non-Relative Norm of Tolerance















        One way of trying to state the conclusion of the Cultural Imperialism Argument is to say that it should lead to the conclusion that all moral points of view are equally valid.  But the example of the Spanish Conquistador illustrates a logical problem with this conclusion:  The Spanish Conquistador does not believe that all moral views are equally valid?  Is the Spanish Conquistador's view equally as valid as the view that all moral views are equally valid[WJT12] ?


Two ways out:  The Wishy-Washy Relativist Response:  The view that all moral points of view are equally valid is only true for those who accept it.


The Non-Relativist Way Out:  The Spanish Conquistador is mistaken in claiming that only his moral view is valid. 








Two Norms of Tolerance


Moral Wishy-Washiness[WJT13]  = the view that my moral judgments only apply to those who agree with them.


A Relative Norm of Tolerance (Wishy-Washy Tolerance):  I should be tolerant of other cultures, because my culture has a norm of tolerance, but that the norm of tolerance does not apply to cultures that do not have such a norm.  This view holds that there is only a relative duty to be tolerant of other cultures.  It only applies to cultures that have it.  This is the only duty of tolerance that normative cultural relativism about morality could ever justify. 


        An alternative to Wishy-Washy Tolerance would be a Non-Relative Norm of Tolerance.  To formulate such a norm, it is helpful to introduce some useful distinctions[WJT14] .










Two Kinds of Practices and Two Kinds of Norms[WJT15] 


Internal interactions or practices are interactions or practices that involve only members of the same culture. 


External interactions or practices are interactions or practices that involve members of different cultures. 


An internal norm is a norm of a culture that applies to the culture's internal interactions or practices. 


An external norm is a norm of a culture that applies to the culture's external interactions or practices.   















A Non-Relative Norm of Tolerance = That the members of each culture should follow their own internal norms (or at least it is morally permissible for them to do so) and that all cultures (whether or not they accept a norm of tolerance) should tolerate (not interfere with or attempt to change) other cultures' internal norms.  This view holds that there is a non-relative duty to be tolerant of other cultures' internal norms.  It applies even to cultures that have a norm of intolerance toward other cultures[WJT16] . 


        The discovery of a non-relative norm of tolerance enables us to formulate a new, qualified form of moral relativism:















        Normative Cultural Relativism About Internal Norms (NCRAIN) = the claim that there is no moral basis for the members of one culture to criticize the internal norms of another culture.  Every culture ought to respect every other culture's internal moral norms. 


        Although the 1947 AAA statement explicitly appeals to normative cultural relativism, it is most plausibly understood as advocating a Non-Relative Norm of Tolerance of the internal norms of all cultures—that is, as a defense of NCRAIN. 


        Notice one striking fact about NCRAIN:  It is metaphysically immodest.  













Combining Metaphysical Immodesty With Epistemic Modesty:  How is it Possible?


One of the First Advocates of NCRAIN in the Western Tradition: 

Bartolomé de las Casas.


1.  A universal moral standpoint[WJT17] :  The original position behind the veil of ignorance.  A standpoint from which to make fallible but universal particular moral judgments.


2. An example of taking the universal moral standpoint to evaluate an external norm:  

        a. Las Casas[WJT18] ' criticism of the Western European treatment treatment of the American natives. 


3.  The role of empathic understanding[WJT19]  and bottom-up reasoning in moral judgment.  Las Casas believed that moral reasoning was top-down, but we can see how it makes sense to think that his moral reasoning was actually bottom-up.

        The wrongness of slavery was not self-evident to Las Casas.





4.  How moral blindspots can be supported by socially enforced[WJT20] , self-serving[WJT21]  reasons.


When a justification for a conclusion is self-serving, it is not the case that the conclusion is accepted because the justification is accepted; rather, the causal relation is reversed, and the justification is accepted (at least in part) because it supports the desired conclusion[WJT22] .



Examples from the debate between Las Casas and Sepulveda; Dred Scott; Senator James O. Eastland.


What do all of these self-serving reasons have in common?  They are paternalistic.


Why is there no logical test for when a justification is self-serving? 


What kind of evidence indicates that a justification may well be self-serving? 


What kind of evidence indicates that a self-serving justification is socially enforced?






Paternalistic intervention = intervention to force the target to do something for his/her own good, though the target does not believe that the intervention is good for him/her.  In paternalistic intervention, the target's own judgment about what is good for him/her is overruled by the person intervening[WJT23] .


Moral Imperialism= the view of someone who holds either that anyone who disagrees with me on a moral question is mistaken (epistemic immodesty) or that I am permitted to intervene paternalistically to force others to act in accordance with my moral views for their own good (moral paternalism[WJT24] ). 



Moral Wishy-Washiness[WJT25]  = the view that my moral judgments only apply to those who agree with them.  It is a form of moral relativism.


A simple example of a position that is metaphysically immodest but not morally imperialistic:  the epistemically modest advocate of the following as a universal moral norm:  "Moral imperialism is always wrong." 





        Las Casas was a moral imperialist for most of his life.  Why? 


        Surprising Fact:  Near the end of his life, Las Casas gave up his moral imperialism[WJT26] .  His change is an example of bottom-up reasoning.  Can you explain why?


        Las Casas may have been the first proponent of NCRAIN.  Did Las Casas discover human rights[WJT27] ? 


        Explain why NCRAIN is not compatible with an individual right of freedom of religion.













Three Stages of Bottom-Up Moral Reasoning in the Life of Las Casas



MN1:  It is morally right for Christians to use force, if necessary, to convert non-Christians to Christianity (from the Requirimiento)


The American natives are non-Christians


Conclusion:  PMJ1:  It is morally permissible for me to use force, if necessary, to convert the American natives.



Most of the Spanish colonists reasoned top-down to the conclusion.  Las Casas reasoned bottom up.  He rejected the conclusion, PMJ1, and this led him to reject the premise MN1.  This is an example of bottom-up reasoning.  Why?










MN2:  It is morally right for Christians to seek the voluntary conversion of non-Christians to Christianity.


The American natives are non-Christians.


Conclusion:  PMJ2:  It is morally right for me to seek the voluntary conversion of the American natives to Christianity.



Near the end of his life, Las Casas concluded that even the voluntary conversion of the American natives had had a devastating effect on their lives and their culture.  He came to the conclusion that it would have been better for the American natives if they had never converted.  So he rejected PMJ2 and concluded that it was wrong even to seek voluntary conversions of the American natives to Christianity.  Rejecting PMJ2 led him to give up MN2.  This is an example bottom-up reasoning.  Why?







But Las Casas did not simply give up MN2, he accepted a new moral norm to replace it, a version of NCRAIN.


MN3 (a version of NCRAIN): Every culture ought to respect every other culture's internal moral norms and not try to change them. 


The internal moral norms of the American natives are non-Christian.


Conclusion:  PMJ3:  Every culture, including my culture, ought to respect the non-Christian norms of the American natives and not try to change them.



Near the end of his life, Las Casas reasoned bottom-up from PMJ3 to MN3, a version of NCRAIN.  Can you explain why the reasoning is bottom-up?










Objective Universality of Moral Judgment


Objective Universality of a Moral Norm or Principle:

To understand a moral norm or principle as universal is to believe that it applies to all people and cultures, whether or not they do or would agree[WJT28] .


Objective Universality of a Particular Moral Judgment:  To understand a particular moral judgment (e.g., that the Western European treatment of the American natives was wrong) as universal is to regard it as true from any point of view, regardless of whether everyone would agree. 




















Subjective universality is universality based on agreement.  Human rights norms would be subjectively universal if their universality depended on their being accepted by all moral traditions or cultures. 


Objective universality is universality that does not depend on agreement.  Objectively universal human rights norms would be norms that should be respected in virtue of the characteristics we share as human beings, regardless of whether the rights are accepted by all moral traditions or cultures. 












NCRAIN and the Possibility of Subjectively Universal INTERNAL Rights Norms


1.  Why NCRAIN could never support objectively universal internal human rights norms. 


Charles Taylor's hope for an "overlapping consensus[WJT29] " where different moral traditions would give different justifications based on different fundamental principles and values for roughly the same internal rights norms[WJT30] , which all moral traditions would agree on.


        The good news:  The prospects for an overlapping consensus on internal rights norms are better than you might have thought:  Many different traditions have been hospitable to some of the main human rights ideas[WJT31] .

  (a) Taylor on Reform Buddhism[WJT32] ;

  (b) Wiredu on Akan society[WJT33] ;



Why does the idea of an "overlapping consensus" on subjectively universal rights fit with the top-down model of moral reasoning?




The bad news:  There are significant limits to the consensus.  Can you think of any examples of traditional norms that are still accepted today that conflict with human rights norms[WJT34] ? 


Consider Taylor’s examples:  Is there an overlapping consensus by all moral traditions that any of the following is wrong:  genocide, torture, slavery? 


Which rights in the UNUDHR are the subject of an overlapping consensus today?


















Why does the bottom-up model of moral reasoning make it possible to think that there might someday be general agreement on objectively universal human rights, even if there is no "overlapping consensus" on them today?

        Consider an example:  The Dalai Lama on Human Rights[WJT35] .  Taylor fails to see the main significance of the example of Buddhism.  Even an anti-individualistic tradition such as Buddhism can be transformed by a bottom-up process to come to accept the importance of individual dignity and human rights.


        The process can be found in every tradition, including the AAA.  Compare the 1999 AAA Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights.















A tradition of rights to religious tolerance[BT36] ?


A tradition of democracy[BT37] ?


A non-oppressive tradition?


Why do human rights apply to all cultures?

A cultural universal:  the inferior status of women.


There is no human rights tradition. 

Human rights have developed in spite of an overlapping consensus against them. 











 [WJT1]Requirimiento 20



 [WJT4]15-16, 30-33






 [WJT10]AAA 17-118; Talbott p. 41

 [WJT11]Talbott p. 41



 [WJT14] At this point, I need to frame the coming discussion in terms of finding a place to stand from which to judge another moral view to be mistaken.

Do the demonstration, with Religious Authorities and the Proof Paradigm on one side and Normative Cultural Relativism, Moral Nihilism, and Moral Skepticism on the other.  I need a place to stand in the middle. 


 [WJT16]CRAIN, 44


 [WJT18]BLC thinks his reasons are top-down, 60;

 [WJT19]59, 65-67;  include Guarocuya/Enrique, 66, and Tecumseh, 67









 [WJT27]No CRAIN,  84-85

 [WJT28]Talbott, 30, also 48-49, 50;

409;  [WJT29]Distinguish norms from (top-down) justifications, 409-411;

 [WJT30]genocide, murder, torture, and slavery 411.

Key passage 415

Asoka (convert to Buddhism) 417

Taylor's conception of a right  as including enforceability 412

 [WJT31]Many traditions are more hospitable to human rights norms than the absolutistic, intolerant Western tradition.  Asoka in 3rd century BCE (Taylor 417)

 [WJT32]criticism of. Donnelly on human dignity as a universal value 410; Theravada Buddhism anti-individualistic basis for democratic rights 416

unforced consensus 420

 [WJT33]dignity, respect 300; mutual aid 303; representative of the general populace 305; destooling 306; tolerance 310; summary on 311

Example of Iroquois and democracy.

 [WJT34]historical consensus against equal rights for women.

 [WJT35]291; the potential for bottom-up development:  Dalai Lama's reply:  right to freedom, equality, and dignity 293; equality of all human beings 294; precious air of liberty 294; equal dignity 295.

 [BT36]Zagorin quote.  Emperor Ashoka in 3rd century BCE India

 [BT37]Absolute monarchies.  Contrast Akan chiefs.  Benjamin Franklin and the Iroquois.