Are we Justified in Condemning the Moral Beliefs of Other Cultures?

Moral Beliefs Relativism

By Verena Zimmermann, 89 Scotland

Today the question whether we are justified in condemning the moral beliefs of other cultures is generally answered in the negative – thankfully. After centuries of exploiting and oppressing indigenous people abroad and minorities at home, Europe is right to be extremely cautious when making judgements about different cultural practices. At the same time, EU foreign policy is – at least theoretically – based on universal human rights. Embracing human rights adds up to the belief thatsome rights are held by everybody. This in turn assumes that some moral rules apply no matter where you are from and what your beliefs are. In other words, moral beliefs that conflict with human rights are wrong. We are therefore justified to condemn those.

It seems then that we hold contradicting beliefs. On the one hand, we embrace ethical relativism – the belief that there exist no objective and universal valid moral principles which all actions can be evaluated against. After all, who’s to judge what is right and wrong? On the other hand, we seem to uphold ethical objectivism. According to this view, there are certain fundamental moral principles that apply to everyone everywhere – no matter someone’s cultural, temporal and environmental background. It is wrong to kill innocents. This is true regardless of what society you belong to and what you think. Some moral rules, like those established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are thus objectively true.

However, upholding both beliefs would be an inconsistent foreign policy strategy for the EU to adopt. So which theory should be discarded? Let us turn to ethical relativism first. Is it not a legitimate assumption that different societies value different moral principles? Many examples support this stance. The European Union, for instance, condemns discrimination on the basis of gender in any form (see for example the International Convent of Civil and Political rights). In many other countries however, it is morally permissible. Similarly, abortion is deemed to be a violation of moral principles by the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Men while it is not in by the European Convention of Human Rights. It seems safe to say that moral standards do not apply universally. Does this not prove that ethical objectivism is less plausible for it appears to be incompatible with cultural variation?

It does not. According to ethical relativism, the right- or wrongness of an action can be judged on the basis of the society to which the actor belongs. However, evaluating the morality of an action following this method is extremely hard. This is because it is notoriously difficult to choose the society by which the moral rightness of an individual’s action is to be determined. The problem is that one individual may belong to various different societies. For example, George, a Greek citizen and deeply devoted Mormon is required by the moral principles of his country to serve his Greece either by doing military or alternative service. On the other hand, according to his religious community it is morally wrong to prioritize service to the country and he should instead volunteer as a missionary after finishing school. Is it right for him to join the armed forces? Or is this morally wrong? Can he choose what society he primarily belongs to? But now suppose he has the desire to torture someone. If he joins a torturing society, are his actions morally right? This would mean that all you need to do to act morally right is find a small subculture that approves of whatever action. It seems impossible to use the relativists approach to determine whether or not it is right for individuals to act in a certain way. Similarly, it will be difficult for EU foreign policy makers to locate the right moral principle by which to evaluate other states actions. Is Saudi Arabia to be judged by the human rights standards of the international society or rather by the morality of Islam?

One major concern is that giving preference to some moral principles over others is discriminative and intolerant. Relativism on the other hand, is argued to entail tolerance. Since tolerance clearly seems to be a virtue for the EU who has introduced a “tolerance law” in 2012, ethical relativism may after all seem like the better alternative to adopt by European nations. This belief is often supported by the claim that there is no universal basis for judging other society against. From this, it follows that we ought to be tolerant of the moralities of other cultures. 

However, this argument is mistaken. It seems to assume that tolerance is exempted from ethical relativism by suggesting that everyone ought to be tolerant of the moralities of other cultures. But this would in turn mean that at least one universal moral principle exists: the principle of tolerance. Yet, according to relativism it is just as good to be morally tolerant as it is to be intolerant. Hence, given that the fundamental importance of tolerance can only consistently be argued for from the point of ethical objectivism, the EU better turns to ethical objectivism as the philosophical foundation for justifying its foreign policy.

Many citizens and politicians who preach tolerance might still feel uneasy about this conclusion. And given European’s past as ruthless imperialists, rightly so. This feeling, however, may largely be due to a conceptional confusion of ethical relativism. It is important to note that cultural relativism and ethical relativism are distinct concepts. This distinction is crucial to understanding why ethical objectivism is compatible with cultural variation. Objectivism does not claim that all moral standards apply universally. Only some moral principles are universally valid, while others are not. Cultural relativism arises when the same basic moral principles are applied in different living situations. For example, the major difference between pro-life and pro-choice supporters is not whether it is permissible to kill innocent life but rather whether a foetus is already a living being in the relevant sense. The fact that women are taken to be completely equal to men under European law, while this is not the case in other parts of the world is not because the Europeans believe that treating women well is a moral duty and others do not. All cultures adhere to this principle but in specific situations different outcomes may be generated. Hence, although moral rightness and wrongness of certain actions sometimes vary from society to society, this does not mean that there are no universal moral standards held by all societies. They are judged differently due to being situated in different societies but will ultimately be explained by referring to a basic universal moral principle.

Thus, the next question we have to ask is whether human rights resemble those basic moral principles. To establish this, a further argument is required. But assuming that it can be defended successfully, it turns out that we are indeed justified in condemning some “cultural” practises of other societies (and possibly also our own). The EU is therefore right to lecture other states, such as Egypt, on human rights. The principle of freedom of torture and the right to a free trial are among those fundamental rights that pertain to all societies and cannot be circumvented by alleged differences between the European and Egyptian society. Since cultural relativism is not the same as ethical relativism and tolerance can only be defended by rejecting the latter, the EU’s resolution condemning human rights violations in Egypt and elsewhere is supported by philosophical arguments for ethical objectivism.

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