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2 Tutorials that teach Conventionalism
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Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify the characteristics and descriptors of conventionalism

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Hello. I'm Glenn. And this is the ethics tutorial on conventionalism. Let's look at a couple of things to keep in mind and then cover the content for this tutorial.

A key term in this tutorial is conventionalism, our relativist theory of ethics that maintains that what is good is determined relative to a society, convention, or culture. In this tutorial, we're going to cover some of the basic tenets of conventionalism including its foundation and its characteristics. We will see that it has some advantages and important points to consider.

So conventionalism is the ethical perspective. It is a relativist theory that maintains what is good is relative to a culture, a convention, or a society. And what we can use this for is then to determine right and wrong, good and bad, based upon different cultural understandings and experience. It is the only ethical theory that equates what is socially accepted to what is good.

This is based upon the idea of cultural relativism. And cultural relativism simply says different cultures and societies have different norms of behavior. This is the basis for understanding conventionalism.

Now, a couple of examples of this where what is socially accepted as good is that it's a good idea to not eat cows, to not eat beef in India. And this is a social convention because there's not a lot of grazing land in India, and cows are more valuable for their milk than they are for their meat. It is beneficial. There is social reasonings, cultural reasonings behind this.

Another example could be that it's good to shake hands in America upon greeting someone. And it's good to bow when greeting someone in Japan. Each is an acceptable way of showing respect when you greet another person. And they are dependent upon the cultures, the situations and societies.

Now, a result of conventionalism being based upon cultural relativism-- and you can decide whether or not you think this is an advantage or disadvantage-- is that there is no such thing as a universal good. There are no universal ethical rules or laws. There is no absolute right and wrong.

So there is no such thing as trying to use a so-called objective third-party omniscient point of view to evaluate one culture versus another. Each have their standards. Each have their social norms. And they are on equal standing. That is to say there is no outside standard, no godlike perspective from which different cultures can be held up to or judged against each other. And this results in the conclusion that no society or culture's views are better than any others.

When we don't have that universal or absolute good in the background, there are some results that can seem a little bit confusing and may also lead to other difficult ethical conundrums. Let's look at a couple of examples. For example, in Saudi Arabia, it is right, it is good for a woman to cover her head in public. In the United States, this is not the case. It's OK to go out without head coverings.

It is immoral to kill newborn infant females in the United States, yet it is sometimes accepted and OK to do in China. It is OK to eat beef in some countries, but it is not morally good to eat beef in India. All of these show different ethical directives that come from different cultural understandings of what is proper or improper or socially acceptable or unacceptable based upon cultural relativism. And this presents sometimes then the conundrum of, if we do not have an outside standard to judge these by, we kind of have to admit that they're all on equal standing.

However, we can also see that we can acknowledge the fact of cultural relativism without necessarily committing ourselves to conventionalism. That is we can agree that different cultures do, in fact, have different views on what is right and wrong, on what is good and bad. But we don't have to therefore commit ourselves to the belief that that's the way it should be. And remember, this is the difference between cultural relativism and conventionalism or moral relativism.

Cultural relativism is simply a statement of fact. This is the way things are. Conventionalism as a normative theory-- a relative moment of theory of ethics-- is a statement of how they should be.

So we can say, yeah. People operate differently. People have different beliefs about what is good and bad in different countries. But I'm still going to abide by divine command theory where I will obey the directives of God. And I think those should apply to all people.

In summary, we've looked at a couple of the basic tenets of conventionalism, its foundation in cultural relativism, and a few of the characteristics that result from exploring the implications of conventionalism.

Terms to Know

A relativist theory of ethics that maintains that what is good is determined relative to a society, convention, or culture.