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Support for Conventionalism

Support for Conventionalism

Author: John Lumsden

Identify common arguments in support of conventionalism

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In this tutorial we will be considering one of the main ways that people argue for conventionalism, before looking at some of the support for this argument in historical examples. Our discussion will break down like this:
  1. The Cultural Differences Argument
  2. History and Convention

1. The Cultural Differences Argument

To begin with, recall that conventionalism is a relativist theory of ethics that maintains that what is good is determined relative to a society, convention, or culture. On this account, no society or culture is better than another.

A popular way to support conventionalism is to appeal to the cultural differences argument, which goes like this:

If there were universal ethical truths, cultures wouldn't have different moral values. Different cultures have different moral values.  Therefore, there are no universal ethical truths.

There are many examples where cultures have different moral values. For instance, some cultures value personal achievement and individual competition, whereas others value solidarity and cooperation.

In countries such as Denmark, there is comprehensive state support, including things such as maternity pay for both parents, universal child care, and free higher education. This level of state support isn't available in the United States.

In contrast to America, Japan also prefers cooperation over competition, but it does so in a different way. Family is highly valued in Japan, and from this comes the norm of “harmony” within the group, which means a respect for your role in society above pursuit of self-interest.

These cultural differences indicate that moral values aren’t the kinds of things you can put under a microscope in order to agree upon their nature. If they were, then there would be much more agreement across cultures, in the way that there is in the sciences.

2. History and Convention

If disagreement between societies and cultures does indicate that moral values are relative, then the more evidence for disagreement we can find, the stronger the argument will be. More evidence can be found by looking back over history as well as looking at different parts of the globe.

Many countries used to have slavery, but don’t anymore. So there is cultural variance over time, but within the same place.

An important part of this historical change is found in the fact that people used to justify slavery by saying that they were better than the people they enslaved. Part of the reason they did this was simply because the people they enslaved seemed different than the slave owners.

This is a typical case of associating what is unfamiliar, different, or “abnormal” with what is bad. In a similar way, the defenders of slavery associated the familiar or “normal” with the good when they rejected the idea that white people could be slaves.

These types of associations can be found in many different societies across history.

Many cultures throughout history have thought that abnormalities in nature (e.g. an animal born with the wrong number of limbs) was a sign that something bad was going to happen. But if nature appeared in the way they expected, then things would turn out well.

Some farmers believed they would have bad luck if a sheep was born with a black face. The saying black sheep of the family is thought to have come from this superstitious belief.

There are other ways that humans have unthinkingly preferred what they are familiar with over what is unfamiliar. For instance, victims can sometimes prefer the familiarity of their captors to the unfamiliarity of freedom (commonly referred to as Stockholm syndrome). This can be seen in broader contexts as well.

Many people choose to support an oppressive political situation because they haven’t known anything different, and fear a new way of doing things because it is unfamiliar. This conservative way of looking at things can be summarized in the saying "better the devil you know than the devil you don't."

We started this tutorial by outlining the cultural differences argument and considering some support for this argument in examples of differences in ethical valuations. Then we looked at the relationship between history and convention, focusing on the way that the familiar was associated with the good, and the unfamiliar with the bad, at different times.