Thursday, October 10, 2002

Greetings. And a special hello to befuddledatarians! (See previous post on idiotarianism.)

Moral Relativism III

Cultural relativism is moral relativism from culture to culture (as opposed to relativism from individual to individual, which, we've seen, is flat out false). Cultural relativism says that what's right in a society is determined by it's preferences. There is an extreme form and a moderate form. The extreme form says that anything goes; whatever a society prefers is right for it. The moderate form says that there are some absolute values that cannot be changed by preference, while there are also some values that are up to each society's preference to set for itself.

Extreme relativism is false. It holds that Naziism, Stalinism, female infant castration, and torturing children for fun are all right for a society if that society prefers them. The reason this can't be so, is that morality is, of necessity, a matter of balancing self-interest with concern for others' interests. This is why a society can't just decide that anything is right for it, such as requiring everyone to walk with a limp, to stare at a pig until everyone drops dead, or to think about hammers once every hour. None of those things has anything to do with balancing interests of the members of society, and the four atrocities, Naziism and the rest, are also devoid of such balance. In those systems, someone gets the shaft for no fault of his own. In addition, a society can't embrace incoherent values, such as "All men are entitled to liberty" and "it's okay to enslave blacks". Two inconsistent principles can't both be true. Finally, a society can't rightly hold a value based on a factual error. "Women don't care if you cut their clitorises off" and "blacks aren't people" are factual errors supporting perverse values. The lesson: oppression, incoherence, and factual error are limits showing that extreme relativism is false.

Moderate relativism is the position that within these limits there may be some play, some wiggle room in which a society can set its legitimate values differently from others. If Canada wants socialized health care and is willing to live with the reduced level of service, while the U.S. prefers privatized health care with its attendant millions of uninsured people, then these values are legitimately relative. "We ought to maintain a socialized medical system" is true in Canada, false in the U.S. Whether it's okay to punch someone who insults you is probably culturally relative. There are other examples. They all fall into the category of matters of moderate importance. As long as a society is coherent in its values and goes along with the bonafide facts of the matter, it is entitled to set its own values.

More later.