Outline of James Rachels’s Moral Objectivism

Are moral values relative, or are there some that are objective–true for all places and times?

Let’s begin with James Rachels’ version of moral objectivism, since this writing appears in standard philosophy textbooks.

I. Different Cultures and Moral Codes

A. Examples, to begin with

1.. Darius and Greeks and Callatians

a. Darius said Greeks burned (cremated) their dead, while the Callatians ate their dead.

b. Darius asks–Can anyone say one practice is better than another?

B. Conceptions of right and wrong

1.. Variations from culture to culture

II. Cultural Relativism

A. “Different cultures have different moral codes.”

B. No universal truth in ethics

C. Six claims:

1.. See letter A above

2. No objective standard by which to judge a code

3. Our own code has no special status

4. No universal truth in ethics

5. Moral code of a society determines what is right or wrong

6. It is arrogant to judge; we must be tolerant

III. Cultural Differences Argument (CDA)

A. Form of CDA

1.. Different cultures have different moral codes

2. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture

3. Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality.

B. Problem with CDA:

1.. Deriving a substantive conclusion about a subject (morality) from people’s disagreement on it.

IV. Consequences of Cultural Relativism

A. Why can’t we judge another society’s code?

1.. Example: Nazis and anti-Semitism

2. Example: South Africa and apartheid

3. We can judge these as wrong and society’s need to reform

B. Why can’t we judge our own society’s code?

1.. Example: Slavery

2. We can judge it as wrong and see the need to reform.

C. If we can’t judge, moral progress is doubted

1.. Women’s rights in the past v. today

2. MLK, Jr.– If he didn’t judge his own society, then how could he launch a movement to improve society?

V. Less Disagreement

A. Values (v. Belief) v. Customs

1.. Not eating cows (custom)

2. Grandma may have been reincarnated in that cow (belief) [Interruption: Rachels apparently has in mind India, but it’s an insult to say Grandma got demoted to a cow in her next life–it’s like saying your Grandma is in purgatory or even hell!]

3. One must respect Grandma (value), and here is where many cultures agree

B. Another example: Eskimos

1.. Infanticide (custom)

2. Children are precious (value)

3. But the custom is only to ensure survival of family in severe environment (value)

4. Little known fact: infanticide only in extreme circumstance, as last resort; adoption is preferred, so in appearances the custom is gruesome, but they still value children–a universal value.

VI. Values in All Societies

A. Big payoff / Crescendo

1.. Rachels writes:

“There are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist. The rules against lying and murder are two examples. And in fact we find these rules in force in all viable societies.”

a. The key word in above excerpt is “viable” or societies that survive.

“Therefore it is a mistake to overestimate the amount of difference between cultures. Not every moral rule can vary from society to society.”

VII. Lessons to Be Learned

A. Many customs are mere preferences

B. Though all viable societies have values in common, be open minded and tolerant in attitude.

ARTICLES IN SERIES (alphabetical order)

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

Clifford’s Ethics of Belief

Descartes’s Meditations I and II

Hick’s Evil and God of Love

Hume’s Argument against Design

Hume’s Theory of Knowledge

James’s Will to Believe

Kant’s Ethics

Locke’s Theory of Knowledge

Mill’s Ethics

Nietzsche’s Madman and the Death of God

Paley’s Watchmaker and Design Argument

Plato the Soul Man

Plato’s View of Justice and the Soul

Rachels’s Moral Objectivism

Ryle’s Category Mistake

Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism”

Socrates’s “Apology”


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