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The Normative from the Descriptive?. DER  NER. NER does not follow automatically from DER, and the best explanation argument for NER may not get off the ground. But, as Rachels notes on p.21, this does not mean the conclusion, NER, is shown to be false. DEU  NEU

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The Normative from the Descriptive?


  • NER does not follow automatically from DER, and the best explanation argument for NER may not get off the ground. But, as Rachels notes on p.21, this does not mean the conclusion, NER, is shown to be false.

    DEU  NEU

  • NEU does not follow automatically from DEU, but NEU is not shown to be false.

  • Rather these results show that DER and NEU are compatible, and DEU and NER are also compatible.

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Philosophical Questions About Ethical Relativism/Absolutism

  • Do the established facts support DER?

  • Does DER support NER?

  • What are the implications of NER?

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Implications of NER

  • Impossibility of correct cross-cultural or cross-individual ethical judgments

  • Incoherence of ‘ethical progress’

  • Undermining of the Principle of Tolerance

  • We will see them in order.

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1. Impossibility of cross-cultural Judgments

  • The impossibility of ethical judgments across different cultures

    • The problem about judging individual acts and agents from a different culture.

  • The impossibility of ethical comparisons of different cultures (Rachels, 2.4.1 on p. 21)

    • The problem about comparing two cultures’ ethical codes and practices (slavery, anti-Semitism etc.).

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A. Ethical judgments across different cultures

  • Normative Ethical Relativists hold that there are NO universally correct ethical standards and there are NO practices that it would be correct to adopt universally.

  • Thus, you can correctly criticize an individual’s, say Makoto’s, sexual or racial discrimination, promise-breaking, unfair grading etc. only if the ethical standards correct for his culture, say the Japanese culture, condemn these actions.

  • A person living outside your culture does not have to mind your ethical condemnations that apply ethical standards correct only in your culture.

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B. Ethical comparisons of different cultures: E.g. Foot Binding

  • Foot binding in China lasted from the 10th Century until 1911, when it was outlawed.

  • At some points, a majority of Chinese women had bound feet.

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Ethical Relativism and BindingFoot Binding Culture

  • Normative ethical relativists say there is NO universally correct ethical standard and there is NO practice correct to adopt universally.

  • Therefore, they are forced to say the following: it is groundless and incorrect to think that our ethical practice (condemning foot binding) is superior to the practice of foot binding in the 10-19 Century China.

  • According to NER, we can make no correct ethical comparison of different cultures.

  • Thus Rachels says: “We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.” (p. 21: So the above is the answer to Q2.) For saying so is groundless and incorrect.

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Implications of NER: 2. Incoherence of Binding‘Ethical Progress’ (Rachels, 2.4.3 on p. 22)

  • If culturally dominant judgments and practices, including the ethical codes and practices, are replaced, one culture dies and another arises.

  • If so, as slavery, the subjection of women, anti-Semitism etc. are abolished, a new culture arises.

  • Then, the judgments of ethical progress are ethical comparisons of two cultures across time.

  • If we can make no correct ethical comparisons of different cultures, then we cannot correctly judge one culture to have improved or progressed over time.

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Implications of NER: 3. Undermining of the Principle of Tolerance

  • The Alleged Connection between relativism and tolerance

  • The Confusion

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The Putative Connection between NER and Tolerance Tolerance

  • Some people’s motivation for accepting NER is advocacy of tolerance.

  • They seem to think that NEU is necessarily committed to intolerance or provides a basis for intolerance. They think that NEU condemns other cultures and holds that ours is objectively ethically superior.

  • They believe that NER, denying any universally correct standards, makes it impossible to condemn other cultures; so, they believe, it forces tolerance.

  • Their views about NEU and NER are confused.

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What Normative Ethical Universalists Do ToleranceNOT Say

  • Weknow what the objectively correct moral principles are.

  • The objectively correct ethical principles are specific and thus culturally insensitive.

  • We are justified in coercing others to act in accordance with the objectively correct ethical principle.

  • People who do not act in accordance with the objectively correct ethical principle are necessarily bad people.

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Why Can Normative Ethical Universalists Endorse Tolerance? Tolerance

  • They distinguish the evaluation of an action from the evaluation of interference with (i.e., of the prevention or penalization of) that action. (Rachels, p.29)

    • This makes room for not coercing the action while judging it to be wrong.

  • They distinguish the permissibility of an action from the blameworthiness of the agent.

    • This makes room for not blaming the agent while criticizing the action.

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1. Unethical Actions and Their Prohibition Tolerance

  • The Fallacy:

    • Act A is wrong.


    • Therefore, act A ought to be prohibited.

  • The “Right to do Wrong”

    • It is not morally permissible to coercively interfere with all morally wrong actions. (E.g., reading pornographies privately, smoking, binge drinking etc.)

    • Liberty involves, as F.A. Hayek says, “The right to go to Hell on your own road.”

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2. ToleranceThe Permissibility of Actions and the Blameworthiness of Agents

  • Because of social circumstances, an agent’s knowledge, upbringings etc., people who are well (or decently) motivated may wind up doing wrongs.

  • In such cases, we need to distinguish the permissibility of the actions from the blameworthiness of the agents who perform these actions.

  • This means that even if we may take the actions to be wrong, we may not blame the agents themselves.

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Normative Ethical Relativism and Tolerance: Real Connection Tolerance

  • NER says there are no universally correct ethical requirements. Then, tolerance cannot be a universally correct ethical requirement.

    • According to NER, when you urge people to be tolerant, this judgment may well be correct only for your culture. (I suppose here that the principle of tolerance is correct for your culture.)

    • Perhaps in another culture, intolerance is required.