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A Preliminary Challenge to Ethics: Cultural Ethical Relativism


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Title: A Preliminary Challenge to Ethics: Cultural Ethical Relativism

A Preliminary Challenge to EthicsCultural
Ethical Relativism
  • Cultural relativism Different cultures (or
    societies) have different ethical beliefs and
  • Cultural ethical relativism Because different
    cultures (or societies) have different ethical
    beliefs and practices, different cultures should
    have different ethical beliefs and practices.
  • Ethics are relative to nothing more than a
    particular culture. Whatever a particular
    culture says is right or wrong, really is right
    or wrong, but only for that particular culture.
    There are no cross-cultural or universal moral
    norms that transcend particular cultures.
  • If you believe in cultural ethical relativism,
    what can you say about cultures other than your
  • Is cultural ethical relativism a good ethical

Another Preliminary Challenge to
EthicsIndividual Ethical Relativism
  • Individual ethical relativism cultural ethical
    relativism, but individual is substituted for
  • Ethics are relative to individual humans.
    Whatever a particular person says is right or
    wrong ,really is right or wrong, but only for
    that particular person.
  • There are no moral norms that transcend
    particular people. Whats right for me might be
    wrong for you.
  • If you believe in individual ethical relativism,
    what can you say about other people and their
  • Is individual ethical relativism a good ethical

Utilitarianism Main Features
  • 1. Consequentialist Only the consequences of
    an act are morally
  • significant.
  • 2. Teleological Actions are good or bad, as
    determined by the ends
  • of the actions.
  • 3. Egalitarian It applies to everyone equally.
  • 4. Core feature is a principle of utility An
    action or policy is right if
  • it maximizes good consequences over bad
    consequences for all
  • beings that stand to be affected by that action
    or policy.
  • 5. Value distinctions
  • Positive intrinsic value pleasure, happiness,
    or preference satisfaction.
  • Instrumental value that which leads to
    intrinsic value.

Types of Utilitarianism (U)
  • What makes consequences good or bad?
  • 1. Hedonistic U Pleasure vs. pain
  • 2. Hedonistic U Happiness vs. unhappiness
    (lifetime utilitarianism)
  • 3. Preference U Preference satisfaction vs.
    thwarting of preferences
  • This is sometimes called welfare
  • Happiness is sometimes couched in terms of
  • Ways utilitarianism can guide actions
  • 1. By applying the principle of utility to each
    act act utilitarianism
  • 2. By using the principle of utility to create
    rules rule utilitarianism

Utilitarianism (U) and the Environment
  • Very influential in shaping public policy through
    risk-cost-benefit analysis.
  • Used extensively by governments and other
  • Peter Singer and others extend U to include
    sentient animals who can be harmed and benefited
    and/or have preferences.
  • Difficult or impossible to extend U beyond
    anthropocentric and zoocentric versions.

Deontology Immanuel Kants (1724-1804)Moral
  • Deontological standards are derived from reason
  • Intrinsic moral worth good will.
  • Good will autonomous, can recognize duty, and
    can act out of a sense of duty.
  • Reason tells you what your duty is.

Grounding Kants Moral Philosophy
  • According to reason, the central feature of moral
    actions is universalizability actions must be
    universalizable so that everyone in relevantly
    similar circumstances can perform the same
    actions for the same reasons.
  • And remember that a good will has intrinsic moral
  • Kant grounds his moral philosophy in both reason
    and a good will.

  • Something is imperative if it must be done.
  • Hypothetical Imperatives What you want provided
    you have the relevant desires. The desires can
    be renounced. The desires are indexed to what
    you want in terms of consequences.
  • Categorical Imperatives What must be done
    (categorically) regardless of what you want as
    determined by consequences.

Kants Categorical ImperativeUniversalizability
  • Act only on that maxim through which you can at
    the same time will that it should become a
    universal law.
  • Maxim principle of action.
  • Take a possible course of action, turn it into a
    maxim, and see if it can be universalized without
    contradiction for all people in relevantly
    similar circumstances.
  • 1. If it can, the action is morally right.
  • 2. If it cannot, the action is morally wrong.
  • A categorical imperative admits of no exceptions.
    Therefore moral rules established by it will
    admit of no exceptions.

Kants Categorical ImperativeRespect for
Persons (or Human Dignity) Formulation
  • A good will comes attached to a rational,
    autonomous person.
  • Such a person is an end in herself or himself.
  • To treat such a person as merely a means is an
    affront to that persons autonomy and prevents
    that person from acting autonomously.
  • Act in such a way that you always treat
    humanity, whether in your person or in the person
    of another, never simply as a means but always at
    the same time as an end.

Kantianism and the Environment
  • Kants moral theory is anthropocentric. You can
    only have indirect duties to the nonhuman
  • Alternative autonomistic interpretation ?
    preference autonomy to have a preference and
    the ability to initiate action with a view to
    satisfying the preference.
  • Zoocentric Kantianism Tom Regan and others use
    this alternative to attribute preferences and
    inherent worth or intrinsic value to nonhuman

Human Rights
  • Human rights can ground ethics and justice. One
    is acting ethically right or justly when one is
    following human rights norms, or at least not
    violating such rights.
  • Human rights are norms and, as such, are situated
    within deontological approaches to morality.

Human Rights
  • Relationship between legal and moral rights
  • 1. Legalism Legal rights are conventions
    created by
  • political entities and are not related to moral
  • 2. Morality Legal rights follow from moral
  • But why do people have rights?

RightsSome Central Characteristics
  1. Rights inform us of our obligations to other
  2. Rights establish and are established by claims,
    powers, liberties, and immunities.
  3. Rights establish duties that we owe to other
    people and that other people owe to us.
  4. Rights are relationships between people.
  5. Rights typically override other non-moral
    considerations, and sometimes even other moral

Negative versus Positive Rights
  • Negative rights omissions that tell you what
    you cant do.
  • Positive rights commissions that tell you what
    you have to do.
  • Some people such as classic libertarians do not
    recognize positive rights.

Some Possible Environmental Human Rights
  • The right to a safe, livable environment
  • The right to natural resources
  • The right to live a life free from pollution
  • The right to make a living (subsistence) that
    requires natural resources
  • The right to live in a natural world
  • Many traditional rights such as rights to life,
    liberty, and property might require some forms of
    environmental protection

Virtue Ethics
  • The morally relevant features of actions are the
    character traits of the person performing the
  • Good people naturally perform good actions for
    the right reasons, and this naturally leads to
    good consequences.
  • We can give accounts of good virtues we should
    have and how we can go about acquiring such
  • Good people avoid vices.
  • When deliberating about what to do, virtue
    ethicists tell us to be good people. Virtue
    ethics are thus teleological because we aim at
    being good people.

Virtue Ethics
  • Virtues are at the center of morality. A virtue
    is a good character trait.
  • Having a virtue involves
  • 1. the disposition to act in a particular way,
  • 2. the ability to identify cases to which the
    virtue is applicable,
  • 3. having appropriate emotions and attitudes,
  • 4. acting for the right reasons,
  • 5. having role models to demonstrate the
  • 6. and inculcating the virtue in a holistic way
    such that it is part of your
  • basic character.
  • Virtue ethicists put a premium on moral

  • Plato (424/423-348/347 BCE) claimed that there
    were four central virtues
  • Fortitude strength of mind and body to
    persevere in the face of adversity. Fortitude is
    sometimes called courage knowing how to
    regulate fear.
  • Temperance control of all unruly appetites,
    especially appetites associated with drink, food,
    and sex.
  • Prudence practical wisdom and the ability to
    make the right choice in specific situations.
  • Justice fairness, honesty, lawfulness, and the
    ability to keep ones promises.
  • Aristotle (384-322 BCE) added many other virtues
    such as friendliness, generosity, modesty, pride,
    and truthfulness.
  • Christianity added theological virtues such as
    charity, faith, and hope.

Environmental Virtue Ethics (EVE)
  • Two main EVE approaches
  • Environmental virtues come from a theory of
  • Environmental virtues are gleaned from exemplary,
    environmentally virtuous people.
  • EVE as an environmental ethic
  • 1. Does EVE supply the entire environmental
  • or
  • 2. Does EVE complement an existing
    environmental ethic?

Moral Principles
  • Principle of Nonmaleficence
  • Principle of Beneficence
  • Principle of Utility
  • Principle of Respect for Autonomy
  • Principle of Justice

Informed Consent
  • Many cases of environmental injustice involve a
    violation of informed consent and thus violate
    the principle of respect for autonomy.
  • Informed Consent
  • 1. Competence
  • 2. Voluntariness
  • a. Free of compulsion and threats
  • b. There are alternatives
  • 3. Disclosure
  • 4. Understanding

  • Classic Formulation of Formal Justice Equals
    must be treated equally, and unequals must be
    treated unequally.
  • So what counts as relevant conditions for equal
    or unequal treatment?

Material Conditions of Justice
  • Equal and unequal treatment concerns how
  • burdens and benefits are distributed. This could
  • be based on some of the following
  • 1. Need 6.
  • 2. Effort 7. Race and ethnicity
  • 3. Contribution 8. Gender
  • 4. Merit 9. Economic class
  • 5. Full equality 10. Country of origin

Distributive Justice
  • This concerns what material conditions are used
    to determine how burdens and benefits are
  • Distributive Justice Equity.
  • Most past and contemporary theories of justice
    focus almost exclusively on distributive justice.

Three Preliminary Issues
  • 1. Scope Which entities are the legitimate
    recipients of burdens
  • and benefits? This could include some people,
    all people, all
  • current and future people, all people and some
  • animals, etc.
  • 2. Shape What patterns or criteria should be
    used to determine
  • who gets benefits? Classic answers are
    efficiency, equality,
  • priority, and sufficiency.
  • 3. Currency What material conditions should be
  • Classic answers are resources, welfare,
    opportunities for
  • welfare, basic capabilities, and access to

Three Issues continued and Three Preconditions
  • The relationship between the scope, shape, and
    currency of distributive justice can be posed as
  • What pattern (shape) should be used to determine
    who (scope) gets what (currency)?
  • Preconditions that supposedly lead to the need
    for distributive justice
  • Scarcity of resources
  • Technology developments
  • Social changes
  • Normativity what should be right/wrong or

  • Classically based on three rights
  • 1. Life
  • 2. Liberty
  • 3. Property
  • There is some debate as to which of these is most

  • Libertarianism as an expression of three
    principles of justice
  • 1. Entitlement to what you ownyour life,
    liberty, and property.
  • 2. Reparations to protect you against nuisance,
    trespass, fraud, and
  • force.
  • 3. Property Acquisition (from John Locke) you
    come to own things
  • by mixing your labor with them.
  • Two provisos
  • a. One must leave as much and as good for
  • b. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil
  • destroy (e.g., you can only have as
    much land as you
  • can till, plant, improve,
    cultivate, and use).

  • Government
  • 1. Exists only to defend and enforce the three
  • basic rights.
  • 2. Is retaliatory and has a monopolistic claim
  • the use of force against those who have
  • violated the rights of others.
  • 3. Should be a minimal state with a police and
  • military.

  • Classification of Laws
  • 1. Those that protect people against themselves
  • are illegitimate.
  • 2. Those that protect people against others are
  • legitimate.
  • 3. Those that require people to help others
  • (positive rights) are illegitimate.

  • Utilitarianism as a theory of distributive
    justice is really equivalent to utilitarianism as
    a consequentialist approach to normative ethics.
  • Two main elements
  • 1. Principle of Utility An action or policy
    is right if it maximizes
  • good consequences over bad consequences for
    all beings that
  • stand to be affected by that action or
  • 2. Egalitarian Principle Each person (or
    sentient being) to
  • count for one and none should count for
    more than one.

Social Contract Theories
  • These have been among the most popular approaches
    to political philosophy since the European
  • The best known social contract philosophers from
    this time period include Thomas Hobbes
    (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704), and
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).
  • All posit an original state of naturehistorical
    or logical.
  • John Rawls A Theory of Justice (1971) was a
    revival of this tradition.

John Rawls Liberalism
Rawls Getting Started
  • Society should be a fair system of cooperation
    between free and equal persons set up as an
    agreement by those who enter the system.
  • People who enter into this system are in an
    original position of reasonable pluralism where
    they cannot agree on moral authority, moral
    values, and natural law.
  • Consider this original position as a thought
    experiment that models
  • Fair conditions under which free and equal
    persons agree to fair terms of cooperation to
    regulate the basic structure of political
  • Acceptable restrictions on the reasons people may
    use to accept and reject principles of political
    justice when people advance their own different
    interpretations of what they believe is good.

Rawls People in the Original Position (POPs)
  • POPs are self-interested but not necessarily
  • POPs are under a veil of ignorance whereby they
    dont know the social positions or doctrines of
    the people they will be or represent POPs dont
    know anything specific such as their race,
    ethnicity, gender, and various mental and
    physical endowments.
  • POPs seek to create a social contract that sets
    up principles of justice for a basic structure of

Rawls More About the POPs
  • POPs are handed a menu of principles from the
    western tradition of political society and asked
    to choose their principles
  • Because the POPs are reasonable, they should
    follow a maximin rule whereby they maximize the
    minimum payoff Identify the worst possible
    outcome of each principle they could adopt and
    choose those principles whose worst outcomes are
    better than the worse outcomes of all other
  • Rawls central insight is Justice as Fairness.

Rawls Principles of Justice
  • In an original position, Rawls believes that the
    POPs will select two (really three) principles of
  • Equal Liberty Principle Each person has the
    same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate
    scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is
    compatible with the same scheme of liberties for
  • Equal Opportunity Principle (and Difference
    Principle) Social and economic inequalities are
    to satisfy two conditions first they are to be
    attached to offices and positions open to all
    under conditions of fair equality of opportunity
    and second, they are to be the greatest benefit
    of the least-advantaged members of society
    (difference principle). 

  • There are many different types of feminists. All
    of them typically believe that some version of
    the following statements is true
  • Part of the structure of the world has been and
    still is patriarchya system where groups of men
    have more power than groups of women and more
    access to what societies esteem.
  • Under patriarchy, sexist subordination (or
    domination or oppression) occurs.
  • Sexist subordination is morally wrong.
  • Sexist subordination ought to be ended, and we
    should work toward a post-patriarchal (or
    post-feminist) world.

Feminist Theories of Justice
  • Feminist theories of justice are related to
    feminist approaches to ethics and/or politics.
    Two main types
  • 1. Feminine or care-based approaches
  • 2. Power-based approaches
  • Feminist theories of justice tend to focus more
    on participatory justice and identity or
    recognition justice, rather than strictly
    distributive justice.

Ethics versus Politics
  • Traditional distinction between ethics and
    politics Ethics concerns personal relationships
    we have as individuals to other individuals,
    while politics concerns social relationships we
    have as individuals and groups to public
    institutions such as governments and markets.
  • But the same types of subordinating (or
    oppressive or dominating) relationships exist in
    both the personal and public spheres.
  • We thus must simultaneously address personal
    morality and public politics (the personal is
    the political).

Feminism Power-Based Approaches
  • Feminisms differ in terms of defining what
    subordination (or domination or oppression) is,
    how and why it occurs, and how it should be
  • Power-based approaches to feminism attempt to
    provide answers to at least three different
  • 1. Descriptive How can we accurately describe
    and discuss the
  • different experiences and viewpoints of people,
    especially women?
  • 2. Critical What explains the subordination
    (or domination or
  • oppression) of women and other groups of
  • 3. Prescriptive What should be done to end the
    subordination (or
  • domination or oppression) of women and other
    groups of people?

Ecological Feminism
  • Ecological feminism builds on other forms of
    feminism and adds in the domination of nature.
  • In addition to all of the ways women (and men)
    are subordinated, nature itself is dominated, and
    the domination of nature is conceptually and
    historically linked to the subordination of
    people, especially women.

Characterizing Ecofeminism
  • There is no one generic ecofeminism. Ecofeminism
    is a cluster of different positions minimally
    characterized by some or all of the following
  • All ecofeminisms are both feminist and
  • All ecofeminisms examine and critique a variety
    of connections between the domination of women
    (and others) and nature.
  • Ecofeminist insights concerning men/women,
    privileged groups/others, and humans/nature
    connections should be part of any theory of
    environmental ethics or environmental justice.
  • Beyond critiquing domination in all its forms,
    ecofeminists should work toward dismantling all
    forms and systems of human domination.
  • Ecofeminists should be committed to creative
    problem-solving in developing life-affirming,
    environmentally and socially sustainable,
    biologically and culturally diverse practices,
    policies, lifestyles, and communities of choice.

Capabilities Approaches
  • Central insight Human development concerns not
    just what people have (such as resources and
    money) but, more importantly, what people
    actively can do with their lives.
  • Amartya Sens approach is based on the idea that
    expanding peoples freedoms is both the principal
    means of development and the primary end of
  • Martha Nussbaums approach is based on the idea
    that there are core human capabilities that are
    central in human lives and that distinctively
    make us human.
  • These approaches support the creation of social,
    political, economic, legal, and moral conditions
    for people to develop and exercise their

Amartya Sen Development as Freedom
  • Justice concerns
  • 1. Elementary functions doings and
  • beings such as having access to
  • adequate food and shelter that can be secured
  • personal liberty, income, and wealth.
  • 2. Complex functions doings and beings such
  • having self-respect and being able to take part
  • political communities that depend on factors
  • independent of possessing resources.

Some Aspects of Sens Approach
  • Rather than an exclusive focus on economic
    indicators, focuses also on the range and quality
    of valued options of peoples choices.
  • To examine a persons capabilities, normatively
  • 1. A set of life paths that person could
  • 2. How that person actually lives.
  • 3. How satisfied that person feels.
  • 4. The goods/commodities that person uses.

Martha Nussbaum Capabilities Approach
  • Develops an open and revisable threshold list of
    central human capabilities that all people ought
    to be able to exercise.
  • This list can be used for public planning
    purposes by governments and other political
    entities. The goal would be to develop legal,
    political, and social institutions and procedures
    that create conditions in which people can
    develop and exercise their capabilities.

Nussbaums List of Central Human Capabilities
  • 1. Life being able to live a normal human life
  • 2. Bodily Health being able to have good
  • 3. Bodily Integrity being able to be
    physically secure, including rights over
  • ones own body.
  • 4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought being able
    to use these mental
  • capacities in a truly human way through adequate
  • informed consent, and freedom from repression.
  • 5. Emotions being able to have and freely
    express feelings and sentiments.
  • 6. Practical Reason being able to form a
    conception of the good and to
  • engage in critical reflection about the planning
    of ones life.
  • 7. Affiliation (a) being able to interact well
    with other people, and
  • (b) having the social bases for self-respect,
    dignity, and non-humiliation.
  • 8. Other Species being able to live with
    concern for the natural world.
  • 9. Play being able to play and laugh.
  • 10. Control Over Environment being able to
    effectively participate in
  • political processes, to have possessions, and to
    seek employment.
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