Relativism: Objectives and Readings

Many people are convinced that morality is simply a matter of cultural convention. Many people think that what's moral in one culture isn't necessary moral in another, you should do what's right in your culture, and you should not presume to judge the moral beliefs of another culture. The view I have just described is called moral relativism. Relativists like to say, "It's all relative."

Certainly it seems true that different cultures have different beliefs about morality. But does that imply that what's actually moral differs from culture to culture? That conclusion is not so clear, and philosophers are generally wary of moral relativism, for reasons that will become clear to you as you do the readings.

There is a lot of reading (and writing) on relativism, so we are taking a couple of weeks on it.


After studying this material, you should be able to:

  1. Explain the views of the various authors in our reading. The majority of writers in this section are not philosophers, but social scientists (anthropologists, psychologists, and a cognitive scientist). The philosophers are Rachels and Pojman.

  2. Write the paper on relativism.

Weeks 6-7 Relativism Notes on Relativism
JR Ch 2
Introduction to Metaethics
William Graham Sumner "A Defense of Cultural Relativism" (SS)
Ruth Benedict "A Defense of Moral Relativism" (SS)
Louis Pojman "Who's to Judge?" (SS)
Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban "Cultural Relativism and Universal Rights" (SS)
Lawrence Kohlberg "The Child as Moral Philosopher"
Steven Pinker Excerpt from The Language Instinct
Writing a Paper on Relativism Writing a Paper on Relativism


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