Thursday, March 04, 2010

Moral Relativism by Steven Lukes

I was disappointed by Steven Lukes Moral Relativism. I had expected an interesting treatise on the philosophical aspects of moral relativism, but instead the book is grounded more in sociology and anthropology, which, by personal taste, I find less engaging.

Lukes makes some interesting points about moral relativism. He asserts that there are two kinds of moral relativism. First is the concept that there are many moral systems instead of a single universal one; Amazonian tribal peoples have a different moral system than suburban Californians. Moral relativism also encompasses the belief that no moral system should be more privileged than another and that the morality of a particular behavior depends on the context. It is this idea that agitates people.

Lukes' discussion of moral relativism made clear to me that moral disputes can be a disagreement over the fundamental facts of the matter in question, rather than a disagreement about a particular moral precept. The prohibition of murder is an example of a fairly universal moral precept. But, how does this relate to the death penalty? I am against the death penalty because I think it is murder, the intentional killing of another human being. I live in the state of Texas where many people are pro death penalty. Does that mean they don't believe murder is immoral? Of course not. We disagree not about a prohibition against murder, but about whether execution of a convicted felon is murder. It seems that many disputes about morality are like this, more about definitions than about actual morality.


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