Ethnocentricity, Moral Beliefs and Moral Truth

Adam Etinson writes in The Stone on ethnocentrism (defined as ‘our culture’s tendency to twist our judgment in favor of homegrown beliefs and practices and against foreign alternatives’), skepticism about universal morality and the existence of moral facts as  a response to it, and finally, on whether such skepticism is warranted. To wit, concern about ethnocentrism in the domain of morality finds its grounding in universally acknowledged datum: that disagreements are extensive, intractable (and disagreeable), that ‘culture and upbringing’ play a significant role in such clashes. Is moral relativism or skepticism about the existence of objective moral facts an appropriate response?

Etinson thinks not:

For one, however obvious it may be that culture plays an important role in our moral education, it is nevertheless very hard to prove that our moral beliefs are entirely determined by our culture, or to rule out the possibility that cultures themselves take some direction from objective moral facts….Second, moral relativism, for its part, seems like an odd and unwarranted response to ethnocentrism. For it’s not at all clear why the influence of culture on our moral beliefs should be taken as evidence that cultures influence the moral truth itself  — so that, for instance, child sacrifice would be morally permissible in any community with enough members that believe it to be so. Not only does that conclusion seem unmotivated by the phenomenon under discussion, it would also paradoxically convert ethnocentrism into a kind of virtue (since assimilating the views of one’s culture would be a way of tapping into the moral truth), which is at odds with the generally pejorative understanding of the term.

These are curious responses to make.

The first is made in the face of the acknowledged data (about disagreement over moral beliefs and the existence of cultural variance in moral practices). If ‘cultures themselves take some direction from objective moral facts’ then surely there should be greater agreement over our moral beliefs? Perhaps Etinson takes our existing moral agreements to be the evidence of such influence, no matter how attenuated?

The second response, contra moral relativism, assumes that there is a ‘moral truth’ out there, one influenced by cultures. But the skepticism about moral facts that goes by the name of ‘moral relativism’ is not committed to any such truth; it takes all its cues from its claim that the empirical particulars of cultures generate moral beliefs, which vary by time and place. That kind of relativism does not think that a ‘moral truth’ is the product of a culture’s influences; rather, the culture merely generates a set of permissible actions. There is no commitment here to the notion of a moral truth that would be made accessible by ‘assimilating the views of one’s culture’; rather one brings oneself into line with one’s culture and what it deems permissible by assimilating its views. (Note that Etinson himself, in writing of ‘moral truth’ in connection with moral relativism adds the caveat, ‘for any given people.’) This would ensure that ethnocentrism retains its non-virtuous standing, a concern important to Etinson, for presumably it leaves open the possibility that these sets of permissible actions could remain the subject of moral critique.  But having made this concession, a further question is almost immediately prompted: isn’t the assumption of objective moral truth and facts our primary, if not sole, reason for imagining ethnocentrism to be non-virtuous in the domain of morality? If so, then is Etinson’s skepticism about moral relativism warranted?

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