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Problems with Conventionalism

Problems with Conventionalism

Author: Glenn Kuehn

Identify possible problems with the cultural differences argument.

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Hi. I'm Glenn. And this is the ethics tutorial on problems with conventionalism. Let's look at a couple of things to keep in mind and then the content of this tutorial. Make sure to keep in mind the definition of conventionalism, its assumptions, and review the cultural differences argument.

In this tutorial, we will be looking at a couple of issues that arise with the cultural differences argument. Notably, we'll examine its structure and the premises and see if it works well as an argument. And we're also going to look at some issues that pertain to descriptive and normative ethics as they are applied to the cultural differences argument.

So starting with some issues regarding the cultural differences argument. We've reviewed the argument and things to keep in mind. And now, let's look at it as an argument. One thing to note is that differences-- that is factual differences between cultures-- don't necessarily entail moral relativism. Just because different cultures have different moral codes and have different moral norms doesn't mean that something like objective moral truth does not necessarily exist.

That is there may be objective moral truths, and the cultures may not know about it. Or they may know about them but choose not to abide by them. Or they may know about them, choose to abide by them, but have different interpretations. We have to be careful that we realize that the facts of cultural relativism do not necessarily conclude that moral relativism is the case. A couple of examples can help clear this up.

We could still hold to the idea that murder itself is objectively wrong. It's an objective moral truth. It's just simply wrong to murder. And to hold that ideal is pretty much a good thing.

Yet, a particular culture may not see infanticide as all that problematic if it's done because of the cultural needs of place, location, food resources, and so forth. I mean, you only can have food to sustain so many people. And that means you can't have to many more people around to feed. It may be culturally necessary to engage in infanticide as awful as that may sound to some people. Yet, this culture may still believe that murder itself is wrong.

Another case would be, lying is wrong. It just seems inherently bad for lying to occur. And one culture may abide by the rules that it's never appropriate to lie, and no one does. But in another culture, they may not generally approve of lying. But sometimes, there may be cases where it's appropriate to lie a little bit or to omit the truth-- you know, lying by omission.

You can still hold to the idea. But in practice, the actions may come out differently. And so this shows that just because the facts of how people behave are different doesn't necessarily entail that they abide by completely moral differences. Moral relativism does not necessarily come from that.

So therefore, looking back at the cultural differences argument as such, we can see that the first premise is not true. Therefore, the argument is not sound. A sound argument must be valid, and it must have two premises. If we show one of the premises to be untrue, we can guarantee that this is an unsound argument.

And also we need to be wary, therefore, of drawing a wrong conclusion from this. Disagreement about a fact does not mean that both people or both parties are wrong. It just means that at least one of them are. And because there is a disagreement, we do not necessarily have to resort to the default position of agreeing to disagree.

There are a couple of further issues to consider. Some have to do with showing that descriptive ethics does not necessarily entail normative ethics. That is describing what a culture does does not entail endorsing what a culture should do. Another simpler way of saying this is "does do" does not imply "ought to do."

For example, in the 1950s in the United States, segregation was considered widely to be a good idea. Those were the actions of what was going on. However, in retrospect, it's pretty clear that this is not what ought to have been going on. And the evidence for that is that these rules were changed.

If we go back 100 years before that and further in the United States, the culture thought slavery was a good idea. This is evidenced by how people behaved. However, that fact does not entail what ought to have been going on. And clearly, it hasn't because slavery ended by a constitutional amendment.

So what a culture does does not entail what a culture should do. Descriptive ethics does not necessarily entail normative ethics. And then a further issue that could overcome what I would call severe relativism or severe moral relativism is that, even though there are again factual differences between cultures, it doesn't mean there's absolutely, necessarily no universal moral standards whatsoever. We can see this in a couple of examples where, even though cultures do have different practices and do have different values that play themselves out in actions, nevertheless, we can show that pretty much all cultures hold to a couple of similar, what appear to be, universal truths.

One of them is honesty. All cultures, even ones that endorse lying to some extent, value honesty. And the reason is that we need to be able to believe what each other says on a very basic level. Otherwise, there would be no basis for communication whatsoever.

And if we're not going to talk to each other, we're not going to believe what each other says is at least sometimes honest. There would be no reason to communicate at all. And if that were the case, the culture itself would dissipate. It would cease to exist. So it's necessary for the culture to be honest.

All cultures pretty much also say that we should care for children. And the reason for that is because, if you don't care for the children, they won't grow into adults. And they won't make more children. And those children won't grow into adults. And the society itself will cease to exist.

Again, in both of these cases-- in honesty and caring for children-- survival of the culture is at stake. So these values could be seen as overcoming moral relativism. And I want to emphasize the word "could." This could point to universal values regarding certain behaviors. It could run against conventionalism.

It could even be a refutation of conventionalism. Is it absolutely a knock-down, drag-out argument against it? Maybe. Maybe not. That would have to be a topic for further consideration and something for you to look into, but they are strong counter-issues that need to be taken into consideration.

In this tutorial, we have looked at some concerns that arise from taking the cultural differences argument seriously within the context of conventionalism. We've looked at the soundness of the first premise, the possibility of drawing a wrong conclusion, and then also some issues that arrive when we falsely consider that descriptive ethics would entail normative ethics.

Notes on “Problems with Conventionalism”

(00:00 – 00:22) Introduction

(00:23 – 00:43) Things to Keep in Mind

(00:44 – 01:10) Content of Tutorial

(01:11 – 04:50) Issues with Cultural Differences Argument

(04:51 – 08:31) Descriptive Doesn’t Entail Normative

(08:32 – 09:01) Summary