It is hardly a matter over which we might have violent disagreement, or, really, any meaningful disagreement at all. You like one and your friend likes the other.
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How exercised can one really get about Coke vs. Pepsi, or what your favorite color is? If ethical egoism is correct, then morality is just as subjective as matters 1. Suppose Joe thinks eating babies is morally wrong and Jane thinks eating babies is not only morally permissible, but delicious to boot.
As in the cases of taste, there is no true disagreement between Joe and Jane—they are doing no more than expressing the preferences they have, in light of the goals and desires they each possess. Joe advances his interests by not eating babies, and Jane advances her presumably culinary interests though cannibalism. Joe is doing the morally right thing for Joe and Jane is doing the morally right thing for Jane. Therefore they are in no position to criticize each other.
But each is acting to pursue his or her own self-interest, which is exactly what ethical egoism says they ought to do. If you think that it is entirely reasonable and morally fair to criticize Jane for her can- nibalism, then ethical egoism is not the correct moral theory.
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Objection 3: Equal treatment The third objection to ethical egoism is that 1. The principle of equal treatment does not require that everyone be treated alike; it allows variable treatment. Discrimination gets a bad name because people tend to conlate reasonable discrimination with unreasonable dis- crimination. Fitness, age, and height are all relevant criteria for basketball performance.
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These are cases of discrimination—treating people differently—but there are relevant differences that make the varying treat- ment permissible and expected. There is also prejudicial discrimination, which is more pernicious. If one picks basketball players on the basis of skin color, or hires for a managerial posi- tion on the basis of religious beliefs, then that is treating people differently when there is no difference among them relevant to basketball or job per- formance. It is because those cases violate the principle of equal treatment that we tend to regard them as cases of immoral treatment.
So, as an ethical egoist you will act to ad- vance your own interests regardless of how that may affect the interests of others. But the principle of equal treatment states that you should treat two people the same unless there is some relevant difference between them. What, then, is the relevant difference between you and everyone else that you should give no weight whatsoever to their preferences?
Ethical egoism implies that you are such a unique snowlake that you ought to treat every other person differently than you treat yourself, since you should care only about promoting your own interests. But what makes you so special? In fact, runs the objection, none of us is so special that we should each treat ourselves completely differently from how we treat every other living creature. In short, ethical egoism is just a form of prejudicial discrimination, and for that reason should be discarded.
According to ethical egoism, morality is no more than your own code of 1. Perhaps morality should be understood not on the personal level but on the social level. Here are some representative slogans of this idea, the idea of moral relativism. With ethical egoism, morality is relativized to individuals; but with moral sometimes called cultural relativism, moral truth is relativized at a broader scale to cultures or societies themselves. To some extent, debates over moral relativ- ism are just analogues to the pros and cons of egoism.
Descriptive and moral relativism To start with, notice that there is a difference between descriptive relativism 1. Moral relativism: the truth of moral claims and which values people should adopt vary across cultures divided by times and places. What is morally permissible in one culture may be morally wrong in another culture. Moral relativism is attractive in lots of ways. A young woman from Saudi Arabia may consider American college students in miniskirts to be no better than immodest whores who conven- iently label themselves with tramp stamps, and American coeds may think that Saudi women are living under the false consciousness of repressive patriarchy, yet both groups manage to raise their children and ind ways to lead satisfying lives.
When practitioners of a reli- gion decide that they have discovered the one true way that everyone ought to live, the results tend to be the Spanish Inquisition and people lying airplanes into skyscrapers. When countries decide that their form of politi- cal economy alone will lead to human lourishing, then we get wars to force others to accept democracy, or become communists, or Roman subjects, or whatever it will take to remake foreigners into people Just Like Us.
Moral relativism is offered as a corrective to such arrogant and aggressive moral absolutism, one that respects cultural diversity and allows for more than one decent way to live. Moral beliefs vary all over the world, from place to place and from time to time. The values crafted by a tribe or a nation it their speciic circumstances and may be completely at odds with the moral codes of other societies—codes that they developed given their own idiosyncratic situation. The harsh morality of Sparta,19 beset by warring enemies in a dry and rocky terrain, is hardly suited for the laid-back free-love natives of the tropical Trobriand Islands.
The results will range from excellent, to palatable, to execrable. Moralities grow organically, and what works in one culture is inappropriate for another. Not only do moral beliefs and values vary across societies, but they should. In other words, the fact of descriptive relativism provides an excellent reason to adopt moral relativism. There can be little doubt that moral practices, customs, and beliefs vary considerably from one society to the next.
For Muslims, it is immoral to drink alcohol, yet for most Christians it is a sacramental imperative to drink alcohol. Western European societies consider the death penalty immoral, whereas China does not. In the United States, polygamous marriages are considered unethical, but in Islamic countries and the indigenous cultures of sub- Saharan Africa, they are expected.
The ancient Spartans considered it their moral duty to leave weak or defective infants alone to die from the ele- ments, and perhaps no modern society condones such a practice. On the face of it, then, it seems that moral beliefs are quite variable from 1.
However, it would be hasty to conclude that descrip- tive relativism is deinitely right. The anthropologist Donald E. Brown has identiied traits as human universals21—characteristics present in every human society that has so far been identiied and studied Brown, , ch. Some of these traits are facts about language use, patterns of infer- ential reasoning, symbolic gesturing, and the structure of social groups. However, the majority of human universals involve moral or proto-moral judgment and behavior.
Some philosophers have argued that the moral norms universally adopted 1.
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As a purely descriptive matter, relativism turns out to be partly true and partly false. But the fact that there are at least some moral universals stops any simple inference from descriptive relativism to moral relativism. A second reason to reject the argument that descriptive relativism leads 1. Descriptive relativism, if true, is something that anthropologists ought to discover.
Moral relativism, on the other hand, is not a matter for anthropology. Consider an analogy. Anthropologists and historians have provided convincing evidence that human societies throughout history have had a great variety of scientiic and medical beliefs. Nevertheless, modern science and scientiic medicine have now shown that all of those beliefs are false. Perhaps people have had lots of false moral beliefs as well. Knowing what people in fact believe very rarely tells us what they ought to believe.
Criticism objection 1.
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Under moral relativism, the moral truth itself varies from one society or culture to the next. An act might be morally wrong in one society but morally permissible or even obligatory in another—not simply believed to be permissible or obligatory, but in fact permissible or obligatory. It would therefore make no sense whatsoever for people in the irst society to criticize the members of the second society for their moral views since those views are, by hypothesis, true in that society. To criticize them is to criticize the truth, which is surely misguided.
Here is an illustration.
According to the World Health Organization WHO , up to million women are living with the consequences of having their geni- talia ritually mutilated. Their legs are tied together for weeks after- wards to allow the scar tissue to form. Village elders carry out these operations typically without sterilization or anesthesia. Medical consequences include loss of sexual pleasure, infertility, reproductive and urinary tract infections, and various risks concerning childbirth. Girls have also died from shock, blood loss, and infection as the result of female genital mutilation.
According to WHO, there is no medical beneit to these surgeries. The answer is because of social mores. There are also aesthetic beliefs regarding modesty and femininity, and the proper way that women should look. Finally, practitioners often believe that there are religious reasons for female genital mutilation, although no major religion condones it.
If we accept ethical relativism, then it seems that mutilating the genitals 1. Again, not only do Somalians and Egyptians believe that it is morally acceptable, but it really is morally acceptable. Of course, it is immoral to maim children in other places, like the United States. Under ethical relativism, here are two true propositions: Pro-FGM: There is nothing wrong with female genital mutilation in central Africa.
While it is consistent to hold both pro-FGM and anti-FGM views, the objection to moral relativism is that one should not hold them both, because it is entirely reasonable to criticize female genital mutilation as cruel and wicked butchery. This is not ethnocentrism; in fact it takes the beliefs and practices of foreign cultures more seriously than does moral relativism. Moral relativism presumes that different cultures are so estranged that they cannot sensibly have a dialogue together about moral- ity; instead each must go their own way.
Somal- ians are just as entitled to criticize Americans for failing to practice female genital mutilation.