It Ain't Getting Any Better:
A Look at Moral Progress
in Light of
Normative Cultural Relativism
The abolishment of slavery has been, and is, generally considered one of the greater achievements of Western society. The vast majority of North Americans take great offense if slavery – particularly slavery due to race – is presented as a good thing. The common opinion is that slavery was bad, is bad, and always will be bad. Many people will also take offense if one culture is presented as being better than another. At first these views appear quite similar – after all, if one race is not better than another, then why would one culture be better than another?
Closer examination shows that these two ideas are perhaps not so related, or even compatible, as they first appear to be. The idea that no culture is better, morally speaking, than any other – or any worse – is the fundamental belief of Normative Cultural Relativism (NCR)1. Basically, what follows from this tenet is that whatever one's culture says to be morally right, is morally right, and whatever one's culture says to be morally wrong, is morally wrong. When trying to ascertain the moral value of an action, one should simply look to what his or her culture says about the matter. Alternately, no person from one culture may criticize the ethical beliefs of another culture2.
It is easy to see that in different cultures, identical things may be given different moral labels. For example, in North America, polygamy is generally frowned upon. In some other cultures, such as certain African countries, polygamy is considered perfectly permissible. NCR looks at this observation and takes it one step further. Not only do different cultures attach varying moral labels to the same action, but under NCR, each culture is equally correct. It would be unethical for a person living in North America to simultaneously have more than one spouse, while having three or four spouses would not be morally wrong if the person belonged to one of those particular African countries.
What has this to do with slavery? Well, the abolishment of slavery was brought about as the result of a reform movement. Reform is simply a word meaning “major change”. Ethical reform, then, means a break with tradition and a society's moral judgment. Following this line of reasoning, if whatever one's culture says goes, then any cultural reform relating to ethics is necessarily bad, and cultural reformers are necessarily immoral. This includes reform like the abolishment of slavery in North America, and reformers like Martin Luther King, Jr.3 Three hundred years ago, slavery was considered normal, natural, and the nicest way to run a cotton or tobacco plantation. People who owned slaves were not judged to be immoral just because they owned slaves. Most residents of the southern American states saw absolutely nothing wrong with such a practice, and most of the slaves more or less accepted their lot in life. By most accounts then, a person who adheres to NCR cannot say that the abolishment of slavery was moral progress, but must admit that it was actually unethical, because it went against what the culture said was the case.
In fact, it appears that any idea of moral progress must be abandoned as far as NCR is concerned. If a culture is already perfectly moral, then it cannot get any better. Does NCR have the resources to allow for any such notion like “moral progress”?
One NCRist argument that perhaps could be used to justify the abolishment of slavery goes something like this:
The northern American states were much more densely populated than the southern ones were, and most of the inhabitants of the Southern states were either plantation owners or slaves. Typically, the slaves largely outnumbered the plantation owners. Presumably, the slaves themselves did not consider their enslavement to be ethically acceptable, as per those who lived in the north without slaves. Therefore, the cultural ethical norm was that slavery was bad, and it was actually the slave owners who were the immoral ones. The abolishment of slavery merely reinforced the norm that was already there – no true reformation happened.
The debate could go back and forth, but the point is not whether this is a sound argument or not, but whether or not it can justify labeling the abolishment of slavery a great moral achievement. No, this argument cannot, because nothing, ethically speaking, was achieved. An argument of this nature does nothing to defend moral progress within NCR, but dodges the issue.
But there is an argument that could be used to try to reconcile NCR and moral progress. Although it tries to allow for both to coexist, moral progress still takes a backseat and can only be claimed in very particular, certain cases4. The line of reasoning be as follows:
Prior to the Civil War, the United States was not living up to its own standards of morality, in much the same way that people may become frustrated with themselves for not living up to the standard they set for themselves. Americans believed all along that slavery was reprehensible, but owned slaves despite their contrary judgment. Abolishing slavery was a step closer to realizing America's own true ethical norm. This argument maintains both moral progress and NCR.
Is it possible for a culture to not live up to its own standards? While it sounds possible at first, perhaps this is a trick of wording. Does “standard” here mean “norm” or “goal”? Is it possible for a culture to not live up to its own norms? By definition, no. Is it possible for a culture to not live up to the goals it sets? Surely, yes, a culture can fail in that regard. If the dominant ideology of a culture is “we must achieve world domination”, those plans are likely to meet with failure. According to NCR, however, a culture cannot even set moral goals. Who sets the goals for a culture? Is it not the people within the culture itself? Unless those who constitute the culture decide simultaneously to set a moral goal for themselves, those who say that their culture is falling short of expectations are incorrect at best, reformers at worst.
The fallback to this rebuttal would probably be that a culture began a certain way, then digressed away from what it was originally. When the culture started, ethics and morality were viewed a certain way, but over the years the views morphed from those ideas into something new. These new ideas do not reflect the original intent of the culture, and thus it would be morally progressive to reestablish those earlier values.
The idea that cultures change over time may be true enough, but that fails to help NCR. It may have been wrong for a culture to make the shift away from the original values, but it would be equally wrong to change the culture back again. According to NCR, it may have been wrong to abolish slavery, but it would be equally wrong, now, to reestablish a norm that no longer exists. Reform is reform, regardless of whether the new values are only just recently realized, or old and rediscovered. A culture is not defined by its roots, although these are, admittedly, often important components. Genealogy is defined by roots. Culture is defined by the ideologies, traditions, and lifestyles of the people within. With this in mind, it seems more sensible to consider the original and the morphed versions of any society as two separate cultures than it does to consider them both the same thing5.
There is one more way that an NCRist could argue in order to maintain moral progress. One could claim that the “standard” a culture is failing to reach was not the creation of any breakaway group of reformers, but an ideal that is held simultaneously to a contrary ideal. For example – that all people are born free, and should be treated as such was a fundamental American notion during the time of the Civil War. Slavery was also a basic and accepted practice. Although the culture condoned both, the two ideas were, and are, entirely opposed to each other. How would NCR deal with a situation like this? It may be argued that when, for the sake of unity, a lesser notion must be eradicated from a culture to conform more fully to a greater one, however the lesser and greater may be determined, that this sort of reform is moral progress. It would be moral progress not because slavery was ever wrong, but because a culture that says both “all people are equal” and “some people are slaves” is not really doing its job – that is, giving its members a way to decide what is right and what is wrong. The abolishment of slavery could be considered moral progress because it is a progressive thing to move from having mixed notions to a fixed one. If this were the case, there would have been an equal amount of moral progress had the the Declaration of Independence been altered to say that all people are born free – minus the slaves.
This is a little harder to combat, because NCR does not explicitly state what happens when a culture simultaneously holds two opposing views. Again, one could respond that because view A stands in opposition to view B, the two cannot be a part of the same culture, but evidence that there are actually two cultures at large. A light bulb cannot be both on and off at the same time, and the chair either exists or it does not. If a computer tries to follow instructions that is telling it two opposing things, the whole system crashes. Yes, a person can claim to hold contrary opinions at the same time, but when push comes to shove, one opinion will turn out to be the stronger and motivate the consequential action. As stated earlier, since a culture is defined by the ideologies, traditions, and lifestyles of the people within it, it seems somewhat silly to claim that two contradictory lifestyles, with accompanying traditions and ideologies, are really just one culture.
The concept of moral progress does not reconcile to NCR, because any notion of progress entails change, and any change within a culture that involves ethics is morally forbidden by NCR. According to NCR, the abolishment of slavery was not moral progress. It may have even been a bad thing – at least, at the time.
Where does that leave NCR? Some people would claim that the loss of moral progress would render NCR an inadequate ethical theory. Normative ethical theories, however, are not required, by definition, to contain room for cultural moral progress. The only thing they must contain is a paradigm for making ethical decisions6. When defining an ethical theory, a culture's own ability to improve morally is an utterly moot point, though many would say that people's intuitions are nothing near irrelevant. Most people have learned that intuitions, though sometimes handy, are not always to be trusted above everything else. It is not a strong logical argument to say that NCR cannot be right because it seems to be intuitively wrong. That argument would only carry weight if it were understood that intuition can never be wrong. This is obviously false. But while intuition cannot prove NCR false, it can certainly do a good job at persuading many people. Intuitions, though not always correct, generally exist for a reason, and so it would not be absurd to doubt NCR's claim that no cultures are ethically superior to any others. On the other hand, it would not be altogether absurd to toss the idea of cultural moral progress, either.
What would be absurd is belief in both moral progress and NCR together. The two ideas are irreconcilable. One of them must be abandoned. The abolishment of slavery, though considered one of the greatest achievements of western civilization, is nothing that could be termed moral progress if NCR turns out to be true.
Janzen, Greg. Class lecture. Philosophy 351. St. Mary's University College, Calgary, AB. Winter semester 2008.
Rachels, James. “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism.” In Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues, eds. Steven M. Cahn and Peter Markie, 651-658. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
1Janzen, 10 Jan. 2008.
3Janzen, 10 Jan. 2008.
6Janzen, 8 Jan. 2008.
“We tend to idealize tolerance, then wonder why we find ourselves infested with losers and nut cases.” Patrick Nielsen