Morality and Cultural Differences

Morality and Cultural Differences

Morality and Cultural Differences

Morality and Cultural Differences


The scholars who defend or dispute moral relativism, the idea that a moral principle cannot be applied to people whose culture does not accept it, have concerned themselves with either the philosophical or anthropological aspects of relativism. This study shows that in order to arrive at a definitive appraisal of moral relativism, it is necessary to understand and investigate both its anthropological and philosophical aspects. Carefully examining the arguments for and against moral relativism, Cook exposes not only that anthropologists have failed in their attempt to support relativism with evidence of cultural differences, but that moral absolutists have been equally unsuccessful in their attempts to refute it. He argues that these conflicting positions are both guilty of an artificial and unrealistic view of morality and proposes a more subtle and complex account of morality.


This book grew out of the years I spent thinking about moral philosophy while teaching at the University of Oregon. I had the good fortune to have colleagues there who shared my view that this area of philosophy was in need of a complete overhaul. Our discussions, spanning a dozen years, yielded many new points of departure, some of which will be found in part III of this book. Looking back on those discussions, I find it difficult to sort out which ideas were originally mine and which I owe, in part at least, to the others. Accordingly, I hereby give my thanks to those colleagues who in some degree shaped--or stimulated--my thinking about moral philosophy: Robert Paul, Joe Stephens, Peter Kushner, and William Davie. I hope they will find this book original in its entirety, but I will happily concede whatever insights they may regard as their own.

I wish to thank also my wife, Annie, who prodded me into publishing this material. She not only helped with the typing but wielded her red pencil with authority and precision throughout several drafts. Without her considerable assistance, I might never have completed this project.

Parts of several chapters of this book, or the ideas contained therein, I have previously published. The articles drawn from are the following: "Moral Relativism: An Ethnocentric Notion," in The Philosophy of Society, ed. Rodger Beehler andAlan Drengson (Methuen, 1978), pp. 289-315; and "Is There Evidence for Moral Relativism?" in Philosophy and Science, ed.Frederick Mosedale (Prentice-Hall, 1979), pp. 306-14.

Captiva, Florida J.W.C

July 1996 . . .

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