In section 1.6 of our textbook, Rachels defends what he calls “The Minimum Conception of Morality.” Morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason—that is, to do what there are the best reasons for doing—while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual affected by one’s action (2015, page 13.)
In the second chapter, Rachels argues that drifting from respect for cultural differences into the extreme view known as ethical relativism would entail a violation of this minimum conception. Do you agree? That is, would following blindly the traditions with which one has been raised fail to guide one’s own behavior by reason? You may find it helpful to consider two kinds of examples: cultural practices that are morally neutral and those to which it would be more reasonable to object.
In the follow-up conversation among fellow learners, look for opportunities to discover and build upon common ground. That is, conduct this moral discourse by looking for good reasons for action that consider everyone equally. Embody the minimum conception of morality.
Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2015). The elements of moral philosophy (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
1.6. The Minimum Conception of Morality
We may now state the minimum conception: Morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason—that is, to do what there are the best reasons for doing—while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual affected by one’s action.
This paints a picture of what it means to be a conscientious moral agent. The conscientious moral agent is someone who is concerned impartially with the interests of everyone affected by what he or she does; who carefully sifts facts and Page 14examines their implications; who accepts principles of conduct only after scrutinizing them to make sure they are justified; who is willing to “listen to reason” even when it means revising prior convictions; and who, finally, is willing to act on these deliberations.
As one might expect, not every ethical theory accepts this “minimum.” This picture of the moral agent has been disputed in various ways. However, theories that reject the minimum conception encounter serious difficulties. This is why most moral theories embrace the minimum conception, in one form or another.
2.1. Different Cultures Have Different Moral Codes
Darius, a king of ancient Persia, was intrigued by the variety of cultures he met in his travels. He had found, for example, that the Callatians, who lived in India, ate the bodies of their dead fathers. The Greeks, of course, did not do that—the Greeks practiced cremation and regarded the funeral pyre as the fitting way to dispose of the dead. Darius thought that a sophisticated outlook should appreciate the differences between cultures. One day, to teach this lesson, he summoned some Greeks who were at his court and asked what it would take for them to eat the bodies of their dead fathers. They were shocked, as Darius knew they would be. They replied that no amount of money could persuade them to do such a thing. Then Darius called in some Callatians and, while the Greeks listened, asked them what it would take for them to burn their dead fathers’ bodies. The Callatians were horrified and told Darius not to speak of such things.
This story, recounted by Herodotus in his History, illustrates a recurring theme in the literature of social science: Different cultures have different moral codes. What is thought Page 16right within one group may horrify another group, and vice versa. Should we eat the bodies of the dead or burn them? If you were a Greek, one answer would seem obviously correct; but if you were a Callatian, the other answer would seem equally certain.
There are many examples of this. Consider the Eskimos of the early and mid-20th century. The Eskimos are the native people of Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and northeastern Siberia, in Asiatic Russia. Today, none of these groups call themselves “Eskimos,” but the term has historically referred to that scattered Arctic population. Prior to the 20th century, the outside world knew little about them. Then explorers began to bring back strange tales.
The Eskimos lived in small settlements, separated by great distances, and their customs turned out to be very different from ours. The men often had more than one wife, and they would share their wives with guests, lending them out for the night as a sign of hospitality. Within a community, a dominant male might demand—and get—regular sexual access to other men’s wives. The women, however, were free to break these arrangements simply by leaving their husbands and taking up with new partners—free, that is, so long as their former husbands chose not to make too much trouble. All in all, the Eskimo custom of marriage was a volatile practice very unlike our own custom.
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