Tuesday, July 08, 2014


Mores & Ethics

Mores (from Latin mōrēs or ‘habits’) is a term coined by William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), an early U.S. sociologist, to refer to social norms that are a) originally informal in nature even if they have been formalised, b) are more widely observed and have greater moral significance than other social norms, and c) are attached to greater social penalties. For example, mores include societal taboos against incest and pederasty.

Sociologists contrast mores with ‘folkways’ (also a term coined by Sumner), which are social norms for routine or casual interaction, including ideas about appropriate greetings and proper dress in different situations. For example:

In many rural regions, people crossing paths in the street nod and say ‘hello’ or ‘how are you?’ Drivers meeting one another on remote country roads give each other a quick wave. But in most urban regions, neither walkers nor drivers acknowledge one another unless provoked. Urban residents who travel to remote places may notice the difference and find the folkways unusual. The local residents may find the urban newcomers strange or a little cold if they do not offer greetings, but they will probably not sanction them formally or informally. Likewise, in the city, residents may think newcomers from the country a bit odd if they give unsolicited greetings, but those greetings will probably not draw sanctions.[1]

Hence mores ‘distinguish the difference between right and wrong, while folkways draw a line between right and rude. While folkways may raise an eyebrow if violated, mores dictate morality and come with heavy consequences.[2]

One might say that folkways describe behaviours that a society considers right or wrong only relative to that society, in that its possible to recognize that other societies have different ‘club rules’ and that there is no objectively correct set of such rules per se. By contrast, moral mores relate to beliefs about moral values that are considered to be trans-cultural and even objective in nature. Thus eating soup with the ‘wrong’ spoon at a dinner party would be an example of transgressing a ‘folkway’. The other guests would consider one uncouth, uncultured or unfashionable, but wouldn’t think one was morally evil, for using the ‘wrong’ spoon. On the other hand, using one’s dinner knife to murder the other dinner guests wouldn’t merely be frowned upon as rude, but would earn you a jail sentence for doing something considered morally wrong.

The distinction between mores and folkways can be drawn irrespective of how one answers the further meta-ethical question of whether or not anything is objectively right or wrong in the first place, since it only requires that people believe some mores or values to be objectively correct. Nevertheless, moral values are either Objective (independent of the subject) or Subjective (not independent of, and therefore relative to, the subject – hence this view is also called ‘moral relativism’). Moral Objectivism claims that there are moral truths that don’t depend upon our belief in them. For instance, one culture may believe that cannibalism is right, and another may think cannibalism is wrong. In order to argue that at least one of these cultures is wrong, one must be a moral objectivist (the objectivist needn’t claim to know which culture is wrong to coherently claim that one of them is wrong).

Suppose one group of people think the sun goes around the earth, and another thinks the opposite. Scientists wouldn’t say ‘These are equally true claims’, but that ‘At least one of these contradictory claims is wrong’. In this case, we know the earth goes around the sun; those who think otherwise, however sincerely, are simply mistaken. Moreover, our coming to know that the earth goes around the sun was a matter of discovering the truth, not inventing it. Likewise, moral objectivists see ethics as a matter of discovering objective moral facts about right and wrong, facts that hold even if we sincerely disagree with them. Hence, according to the moral objectivist, if there’s a moral disagreement, the fact that some people think one way and others think another way simply means that some people’s beliefs are mistaken. William Lane Craig defines moral objectivism as the view that:

moral values . . . are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not. Thus, to say, for example, that the Holocaust was objectively wrong is to say that it was wrong even though the Nazis who carried it out thought that it was right and that it would still have been wrong even if the Nazis has won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brain-washing everyone who disagreed with them.[3]

As Thomas L. Carson and Paul K. Moser explain, meta-ethical relativism or subjectivism: ‘states that moral judgements are not objectively true or false and thus that different individuals or societies can hold conflicting moral judgements without any of them being mistaken.’[4]

According to subjectivism, the belief that slavery is okay and the belief that it is not are equally valid, there being no objective fact of the matter. However, it seems obvious that great moral reforms have come about when one person, or a group of people, have stood out against the false ethical mores of their generation and by so doing have not merely changed things, but changed them for the better. The abolition of the slave trade was brought about because William Wilberforce and his friends believed that it was objectively wrong even though it was both socially acceptable and legal, and the abolitionists worked to convince other people of this fact. But if subjectivism is accepted, then the change from a society that traded people to one that didn’t was not progress, because for the subjectivist there can be no moral progress, only change. On the subjectivist’s theory there is no objective value-added between slave-trading Britain and non-slave-trading Britain, because there is no objective value to add.

Here’s the same ethical dilemma in general terms: Does one maintain that subjectivism is true, and therefore accept that one cannot progress morally, or does one reject subjectivism in favour of objectivism and so comply with the intuition that a state without the slave trade is better than one with the slave trade? One can’t have it both ways. Either subjectivism or our intuition that some things are objectively wrong must go out the window. Which horn of the dilemma is most plausible? According to the objectivist, the proposition that some things are wrong (e.g. slavery) is more plausible than the claim that subjectivism is true. As atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen argues: ‘moral truisms... are as available to me or to any atheist as they are to the believer [in God]. You can be... confident of the correctness or, if you will, the [objective] truth of these moral utterances... They are more justified than any sceptical philosophical theory that would lead you to question them.’[5]

Recommended Resources

Francis J. Beckwith & Gregory Koukl. Relativism; Feet firmly planted in mid-air (Baker, 1998)
Robert K Garcia & Nathan L King (ed.’s). Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (AltaMira Press, 2009)
Francis J. Beckwith, ‘Why I Am Not A Moral Relativist’ www.lastseminary.com/moral-argument/Why%20I%20am%20Not%20a%20Moral%20Relativist.pdf
Peter Kreeft, ‘A Refutation of Moral Relativism’ www.peterkreeft.com/audio/05_relativism.htm

[2] John J. Macionis & Linda M. Gerber, Sociology 7th ed. (Pearson Canada 2010), p. 65.
[3] William Lane Craig, God? A debate between a Christian and an Atheist (Oxford, 2004), p. 17.
[4] Thomas L. Carson & Paul K. Moser, introduction, Moral Relativism; a reader (Oxford, 2001), p. 2.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?