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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

A Tale of Two Reflexes: Cultural Egoism vs. Cultural Relativism

I teach ethics to wide-eyed freshman at least once every year. It's one of my favorite classes to teach. We start the term by talking about the status of morality. Is ethics real? Do we discover the correct ethical rules or create them? Inevitably, my students quickly adopt one of two positions.

Some believe strongly that there is just one true moral code. And when you ask them about what that code is like, it almost always sounds like the status quo. These students gravitate naturally to the way we've always done things and insist that it's the right way for everyone to do them. If others disagree, well, they're just wrong. These students are regularly criticized by their peers as being egoistic about ethics.

Another group gravitates naturally towards the idea that there is no one right way to do things. We create moral boundaries; we don't discover them. Each group has its own standards, and no group is more right than anyone else. For example, some will think that eating meat is right for some people but wrong for others. That means there is no one true moral code. These students are regularly criticized by their peers for embracing moral relativism.

In other words, almost all of my students start out thinking about ethics through one of two lenses: either my culture's got it right (and others have it wrong) or else every culture is just as right as any other. It's almost like humans have a moral reflex that falls along one of these two lines.

Very few of my students stick with either of these positions over the course of the term. Many of them come to endorse a third view that is widely shared among professional philosophers: there is a universal moral standard but no culture lives up to it perfectly. This view is called moral realism, and it avoids what many see as mistakes with the reflexive positions we initially stake out.

On moral realism, the fact that another culture differs from ours doesn't mean it's worse. That's the mistake made by the cultural egoist. In fact, if there's a universal moral code, there's no antecedent reason for thinking that any one culture has captured it moreso than any other. That realization provides a powerful dose of epistemic humility. Just because we've always done it this way doesn't make it the right way.

Similarly, the fact that another culture differs from ours doesn't mean that it's the same or just as good, either. That's the mistake of the cultural relativist. In fact, if there's a universal moral code, then when cultures widely disagree with one another about the same issue, they can't all be right. In fact, it's likely that many of the moral standards cherished by various civilizations over the years are heinously mistaken.

The punchline is that if moral realism is true, then each of our reflexive positions requires some adjustments.

I think about these two reflexive tendencies a lot when I watch cultural skirmishes play out in newspapers and social media. Sometimes those in the public square take up the banner of the cultural egoist. They are skeptical of multicultural initiatives in schools, dismissive of criticisms of the status quo, and instinctively protective of local customs.

On the flip side, other participants in public conversations are more likely to talk like moral relativists. They seem to think that all cultural practices are automatically worth preserving, that criticizing another culture is always egoistic, and that local practices are morally no better or worse than any others.

The moral realist wants to find a middle way. The fact that others have a different moral standard doesn't automatically imply that they are mistaken. But it doesn't show that they are right, either. Against the egoist, just because another group does something differently doesn't mean that it's morally worse than our way of doing it. Against the relativist, just because another group does something differently doesn't mean that it's morally on par with our way of doing it, either.

All of us are looking for the morally appropriate way to live together. If there's a universal prescription for how to do so, then inter-cultural moral disagreement is evidence that we haven't yet arrived.

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