James Rachels Moral Relativism Term Paper

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Moral Relativism

On the surface moral relativism seems not only plausible but good: in creating tolerant and open-minded social values we avoid conflicts with other cultures and resist false superiority. However, as James Rachels points out in the Elements of Moral Philosophy and especially in Chapter 2, "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," the theory of moral relativism rests on spurious logic. Rachels also shows how morals do not differ as much as they seem to across cultures, and the reasoning behind different traditions is generally the same in every culture. Moral relativism also denies the existence or even the possibility of a universal moral standard. Yet clearly some moral standards are essential for the survival of a community, let alone a complex society. Behaviors that inhibit good communication, or which create inordinate chaos are immoral in any society for practical reasons. Even if morality is entirely divorced from religion, absolute moral standards can and do exist.

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Another key reason why Rachels challenges moral relativism is that it precludes the possibility of moral progress. Substituting the word "time" for "culture," a relativist could argue that no moral code is right, good, true or universal across all time. If morals change, they don't necessarily change for the better because there is no such thing as "better" or "worse" in terms of morality. Rachels claims that in spite of the flaws still extant in modern society it is undoubtedly more enlightened by some standards. For example, women are more or less treated like human beings, whereas only a hundred years ago no female could vote. In some cases, females were excluded from receiving an education or being able to work outside the home. Unless a person can argue that the suppression of half the human population is somehow beneficial then Rachel's theory holds true: moral progress is possible.

Term Paper on James Rachels Moral Relativism Assignment

Moral progress is not only possible, it is also desirable. Women's rights, religious tolerance, and strict laws prohibiting discrimination and hate crime can all be considered more evolved moralities. One of the reasons why Western culture assumes an attitude of smugness is because of the truth of moral progress. However, as Rachels warns, moral progress should not be confused with absolutism. Western society can be wrong and probably is wrong on a number of moral or ethical issues. Also, the social norms Westerners condemn in others do not differ so greatly from our own. As Rachels points out, the values behind moral beliefs are usually strikingly similar across cultures, even if the rules for acceptable behavior differ greatly. If a society prohibits women from working outside the home it may be because of the perceived need for regular childcare and because women bear children it is assumed they are naturally suitable for childrearing. We might not like it that the Eskimos leave their elderly to die alone in the snow, or kill female babies, but as Rachels points out, we never have to face the kinds of choices nomadic Eskimos do. Rachels also stresses an important fact: Eskimos do not kill babies indiscriminately or because they like to. In fact, to do so would probably be morally reprehensible in their society as well as ours. Infanticide is a "last resort," an undesirable practice used to ensure social stability.

Social stability is not in itself a good benchmark for moral standards, though. Using the example of women: women in patriarchal societies have few civil rights or liberties. Those restrictions are viewed as essential for the stability of the society. Yet a closer examination would reveal that maintaining social order by restricting the rights and freedoms of half of the population cannot be considered moral for several reasons. First, coercion is necessary to uphold that set of values. Just as coercion is required to maintain a slave labor force, so too is coercion required to keep women subordinate to men. Second, extending the analogy, slavery also ensures social stability. The plantation south was in many respects a… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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