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Rachels on Cultural Relativism. Connections between Mill & relativism Gertrude Himmelfarb argues that Mill, by making truth dependent on falsity (false ideas are useful for keeping true ones alive and for finding good reasons for the true ones), tends to make truth and falsity equals.

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rachels on cultural relativism
Rachels on Cultural Relativism
  • Connections between Mill & relativism
    • Gertrude Himmelfarb argues that Mill, by making truth dependent on falsity (false ideas are useful for keeping true ones alive and for finding good reasons for the true ones), tends to make truth and falsity equals.
      • She argues that this position lends credence to the current relativist temper.

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  • Another argument for a connection between Mill’s ideas and the current relativism is rooted in Mill’s individualism.
    • Extreme individualism fosters the view that each person’s beliefs and values are valid for him or her; there are no objective beliefs and values. Each person is his or her sovereign.

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  • What is relativism?
    • The main ideas
      • 1. There is no over-arching system to which one can appeal for determining what is good or bad, true or false. There are no external standards for determining goodness & truth.

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  • 2. All truth and value claims are relative to either personal choice or culture. Thus all standards for assessing truth and goodness are internal to a system or framework.

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  • Different types of relativism
    • Based on level or size
      • 1. Individual - what is good & true & beautiful is a matter of individual choice
      • 2. Cultural - what is good & true & beautiful is defined by the rules & practices of the culture

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  • Based on area of human ideas & activity
    • 1. Cognitive
    • 2. Moral
    • 3. Aesthetic

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  • James Rachels. “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism.” In, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 3rd ed. (NY: Random House, 1999): 20-36.
  • Different cultures have different moral codes.
    • The story from Herodotus (Greek historian, c.484 - c.425)
    • What follows from this?

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  • Some social scientists (e.g., William Graham Sumner) argue that what follows is that there are no universal truths in ethics; all ethical norms are relative to cultures.
  • Reconstruction of the argument
    • 1. Different societies have different moral codes
    • 2. The moral code of any given society has no special moral status.

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  • 3. There are no universal moral truths.
  • 4. The moral code of each society determines what is right or wrong for that society.
  • 5. The advantage of cultural, moral relativism is that it promotes tolerance.

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  • Examination of this argument -- three criticisms
  • 1. The argument contains a non sequitor
    • The key premise & conclusion in the argument are:
      • (1) Different cultures have different moral codes.
      • (2) Therefore, there are no objective truths in morality.

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    • Rachels: this move is fallacious.
    • It moves from what people believe to a claim about what is really the case.
      • Cf. Geocentrism or the phlogiston theory
  • 2. Tracing out the consequences of CR
      • If CR is true, there is no justification for criticizing practices such as slavery or anti-semiticism or female excision.

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    • If CR is true, we can determine what is good or evil simply by consulting the prevailing standards of our society.
    • If CR is true, the idea of moral progress & moral reform is nonsensical.
  • Notice that each of these criticisms can be put into the form of a reductio ad absurdum.

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  • 3. The premise of CR can be challenged
    • Is it really the case that fundamental values differ from culture to culture?
    • E.g., Eskimos & infanticide & treatment of the elderly

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  • What about the claim that CR has the advantage of promoting tolerance?
    • Rachels: One can criticize the moral values of other cultures & still be appreciative of many of their beliefs.
    • [Cultural relativists are often very intolerant of those who claim that there are some universal moral truths. Indeed, cultural relativists often smugly content with current moral values, & not open to other values.]

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  • Despite its flaws, CR can teach us some lessons.
    • 1. The values of our culture tend to look natural & rational to us.
    • 2. Our awareness of # 1 can lead us to be more open-minded

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