4.3 The Argument from Learning

A second way to argue that relativism is true is to appeal to how we acquire moral concepts. It seems plausible that we get our ideas about what is right and what is wrong by learning them from those around us. We may have certain built-in reflexes but moral judgments seem to be learned and not to be innate. The evidence for this would be their global variability and their local consistency. Cultures around the world differ in terms of their basic moral concepts, so this story goes, but we each tend to embrace values similar to those in our immediate social environment. This is a commonly held view on morality – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Likewise it is also a commonly held view that raising a child with strict moral guidelines is the best way to ensure that she will continue to adhere to those values later in life. We will get back to the question of whether or not this is really the best way to look at morality in a moment. For now we can grant it as the premise for a second argument in defense of relativism.

If we get our values from our cultural environments then our values are culturally determined.
If values are culturally determined then they are relative to cultures.
We do get our values from our cultural environments.

Thus relativism is true – values are relative to cultures.

This is at least a valid argument. If in fact values are best understood as ideas that we pick up or learn from those around us and what we learn is relative to the cultural environments in which we happen to grow up, cultural relativism seems to follow. The question then becomes whether or not it is sound. Are the premises in fact true? The key premises are the first and the third. Consider the first premise: “If we get our values from our cultural environments then our values are culturally determined.” There are two ways we might understand this statement – one of which makes it true by definition and the other of which makes it just plain false. If getting our values from our cultural environments means the same thing as our values being culturally determined, then the first premise is true, but completely uninformative, since it gives us no new information. It just tells how we happened to acquire an idea. Of course if I learn about the meaning of the symbols for numbers and mathematical operations in a math class then they are “relative” to the class I learned them in.

But if, on the other hand, this claim is not true by definition it is in fact false, since it just does not follow that where we get an idea in any way determines what the content of that idea is. As a counterexample: just because we learn arithmetic within the particular cultural environment of a particular math class does not mean that the content of arithmetic is at all determined by this environment. 2 + 2 = 4 wherever you happen to learn it. What we learn is at least in principle independent of where we learn it. Saying otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy.

The third premise, “We do in fact get our values from our cultural environments,” is equally suspect. It is possible that this is true, but it assumes some things about human psychological development that are simply unknown at this point in time – the extent to which the ideas that we have in our heads are products of our immediate environments, and the extent to which they are products of built in psychological capacities and functions. Well then, where would ideas about right and wrong they come from, if not from the environment in which a person is raised? One possibility is that human moral development is somewhat built in, that we are all born with the capacity for social interaction and that this gets switched on, in a sense, as we grow and interact with others. And maybe, moral rules are, just like mathematical truths, things that we discover in our interactions with the world and other people. Just as we all come to see how more abstract ideas about quantity, space and structure work by generalizing from the details of our interactions with things in space and time, why couldn’t we learn about the value of kindness and generosity and fair treatment in and through our interactions with other people? If this view were correct we would expect to find that the variation of moral ideas among is humans is less pronounced than relativism claims. And in fact, if we ignore the surface differences between human value systems and look at the core values people seem to accept, they start to look much more similar than moral relativism would lead us to expect.