Cultural Relativism vs. Universal Morality: Exploring Ethical Frameworks

Classified in Philosophy and ethics

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Cultural Relativism: A Critique

One can only be judged by the standards and morals of their culture because morality is determined by each culture. You can't judge any culture outside of your own because you don’t understand why they believe what they believe. However, if enough people are part of that culture and believe that what they are doing is good, then there must be some truth in that.

If cultural relativism was universally supported and believed to be true, then there shouldn’t be any international governing bodies such as the United Nations or the European Parliament. This is because, under cultural relativism, you should be accepting that each culture has its own opinion on what is good and bad, and from an outside perspective, you won't understand why that is if you're not part of the culture.

Objections to Cultural Relativism

One of the objections to cultural relativism is that there is a difference between what society says about morality and what is truly good. For example, throughout history and to some extent still in the modern day, slavery was widely accepted throughout many cultures, yet you wouldn’t say that it is good from a universal perspective.

Callicles' Hedonistic Egoism

Callicles believes that the best life is the most pleasurable one and that one should expand their appetites as this allows you to have more pleasures. This is called hedonistic egoism, which states that one ought to attain as much pleasure as possible. In addition to this, Callicles says that by nature the better rule over the rest and convention is just a made-up idea to suppress the stronger and keep them from gaining the power and pleasure that they deserve from being in that position.

Socrates' Response to Callicles

In response to Callicles' argument, Socrates tries to shame him by comparing the life of hedonism to three different examples:

  1. The “Leaky Jar”: Socrates says that Callicles' idea of desiring pleasures is like being a jar with holes in it that constantly needs refilling as opposed to a jar that is complete.
  2. The Stone Curlew: This refers to a mythical bird that eats and defecates at the same time, representing the idea of perpetually filling yourself without satisfaction.
  3. Prostitution: Callicles is offended and shocked that Socrates brings this up. However, Socrates points out that he cannot believe in hedonistic egoism if he doesn’t agree with this as it suggests you can live any life in pursuit of pleasure.

Socrates' View of the Virtuous Life

On the other hand, Socrates believes that the best life is a virtuous one. The motivation behind all of your actions shouldn’t be solely for personal gain and pleasures, but it should also be to keep the soul in order and do things that one truly wants to do.

John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism

The principle of utility states that actions or behaviors are right insofar as they promote happiness or pleasure and wrong as they tend to produce unhappiness or pain. Hence, utility is a teleological principle.

Objections to Utilitarianism and Mill's Responses

  1. The “Life of Pigs” Objection: This objection argues that utilitarianism reduces human life to the pursuit of base pleasures. Mill responds by distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures (qualitative differences). He argues that a person who has experienced both will always choose the higher pleasures over the lower pleasures, even if it involves some pain.
  2. Utilitarianism Allows for Intuitively Bad Actions: Critics argue that utilitarianism could justify actions that seem inherently wrong. Mill responds by stating that every action admits of exceptions, but actions of expediency have a detrimental effect on society.
  3. Utilitarianism is Too Demanding: This objection claims that it is impossible to constantly calculate the consequences of our actions for the greatest happiness. Mill responds by saying that one merely needs to consider their situation, act according to what you know, and according to the principle of utility.

Mill's Justification for Utilitarianism

Mill does not attempt to prove utilitarianism in a traditional sense. He believes that one cannot definitively prove a moral principle. The only evidence is a psychological one: if you feel that your actions are good and they are bringing you pleasure, then that is what you must continue doing personally.

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