KNOWLEDGE AND INDIGENOUS SOCIETIES:
EXORCISING CULTURAL RELATIVISM
WHAT IS MORAL RELATIVISM?
In their Ethics Toolkit academic philosophers Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl (2008: 89) define a moral relativist as
anyone who rejects the view that moral rules and principles are absolute and universal, applying to all persons, in all places, and at all times.
This is not the same as taking the crude position that “anything goes.” Outright subjectivism, or extreme cultural relativism, is, of course very quickly exorcized by a consideration of the nationalist and totalitarian genocides of recent history. Baggini and Fosl declare that being a moral relativist “is a bit like being a post-modernist” No moral philosopher of repute “would maintain simply, as relativists are thought to do, that no moral judgments are superior to any others.” The problem is that “what they say is often close enough to confuse those not prepared to attend to the details.” There are philosophical difficulties in pinning down moral rules and objective moral facts. In the real world:
morality changes and evolves over time and place, and that moral codes appropriate for one set of circumstances may not be appropriate for another.
For Baggini and Fosl this is not subjectivism because “[d]ifferent objective features of different societies may yield different objective moralities.” The disconcerting aspect of this is that competing and “incompatible moral standards” eventually “collide” and “there may be no way to resolve the difference between them rationally.”
Baggini, Julian and Fosl, Peter S. (2008) The Ethics Toolkit: A Compendium of Ethical Concepts and Methods. Blackwell: Malden, MA.
Students should read, and then be invited to ask clarification questions about the Baggini and Fosl perspective on moral relativism. Broaden the discussion using the slideshow of Cultural relativism images as stimulus material. The images range greatly in ethical import. Next, students should be grouped in trios and invited to attempt the following assignment:
Read carefully and understand the following categories. Brainstorm examples for each category in your group and discuss. Try to reach consensus on three examples in each category. Write them in the spaces provided.
Something done differently in a country or culture that is not your own that has little or no ethical importance. It is just an interesting cultural difference that makes the world more interesting.
Something done differently in a country or culture that is not your own that you disagree with on ethical grounds but can tolerate because your ethical disapproval is balanced by your general respect for cultural differences.
Something done differently in a country or culture that is not your own that you strongly disagree with on ethical grounds and worth campaigning against at the international sanctions and diplomatic level.
Something done differently in a country or culture that is not your own that is so extreme in terms of violating human rights that military intervention or full blown war is required to stop it.
If you have pacifist views this final category would be reserved for direct action or civil disobedience. You would be willing to put yourself in harm’s way or risk a harsh prison sentence to protest the injustice.
FOR CLASS DISCUSSION
Next a nominated spokesperson from each group should report back and be prepared to fields questions from the entire class. The following guiding questions may or may not add value as animated discussion is unleashed:
What issues compelled you to take a stand?
Did you discover any aspect of your own convictions that had been previously unexamined?
To what extent are you a moral relativist according to Baggini and Fosl's characterization?
What competing moral standards emerged that seemed impossible to resolve by reason?
Where do your own ethical stances come from?