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Topic: Present Ruth Benedict’s primary argument. Then present James Rachels’s criticism. Whose argument would Justin Macbrayer find to be superior? Justify your answer. Cite all the relevant texts to support your claims.
This paper will present Ruth Benedict’s argument for cultural relativism. Then it will construct James Rachels’s criticism. I conclude by arguing that Justin Macbrayer would think that James Rachels has the better philosophical argument.
In the article “Morality is Relative” Ruth Benedict argues that there are no universal values. She gets to this conclusion by way of anthropological evidence. She points out that people in different cultures behave very. Specifically, they have different views of what is normal. Some groups think it is normal to let others cook for them while some do not. (448) Some groups see homosexuality as abnormal while others do not. (447) This anthropological evidence is evidence in her argument, so it counts as a premise.
Here is her argument:
1 – What a group sees as normal tells us what the group sees as good. (450)
2 – Different groups see different things as normal. (447-448)
3 – So, different groups see different things as good.
Number 3 is the conclusion. It is supposed to follow from the premises before it. The argument is thus meant to be valid. The premises are synthetic. They are not true by definition, but if they are true it is because they correspond to reality.
James Rachels thinks that arguments like the one above are invalid. If the argument is supposed to prove that there really are no universal values, then the conclusion does not follow from the premises.
Rachels gives us an argument kind of like Benedict’s. The version he did is related to burial rituals. The Greeks burned their dead. The Callatians ate their dead. Thus, there is no proper way to deal with the dead. (454)
Rachel says that all arguments like this are roughly of the following form:
1 – Different cultures have different moral codes.
2 – thus, there is no objective truth and morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture. (454)
Number 1 is the premise. It is supposed to support the conclusion. (2) is the conclusion. It is supposed to follow from the premise.
Rachels argues that arguments on this form are invalid. (455) The premise can be true while the conclusion is false. This is how we test an argument to see if it is valid. The example Rachels uses is about the shape of the earth. Even if different groups have different opinions about the shape of the earth, that does not mean that there is no real truth about the shape of the earth. (455)
Rachels says more than this. He argues that all cultures share some beliefs about ethics. Groups have to, and in fact do, care for their young and avoid murder. (458) If they do not, there will be no group. He thinks that Benedict ignores this agreement. This is a problem because it shows that her premise might be false.
If Rachels is right, the argument is unsound. If the argument is invalid, it is unsound. Also, if the argument has a false premise it is unsound. Sound arguments must be valid and have all to premises. (Reading 1)
As for the argument, Justin Macbrayer would agree with James Rachels. I think he would agree for two reasons. First, Macbrayer is clearly not a relativist. He implies that there are very few relativists in philosophy. (Reading 12) He also seems to complain that his students are relativists. I take this to mean that he thinks we should not be relativists. And since Benedict wrote before Macbrayer I assume he is not convinced by her argument.
Second, I think Macbrayer would say that Benedict forgets that opinions can be true or false. Macbrayer says that he believes George Washington was the first president. George Washington was the first president. So his belief is true. If George Washington were not the first president, Macbrayer’s belief would be false.
For Benedict’s argument to be sound, it has to be the case that groups cannot be wrong. But she does not try to show that groups cannot be wrong. For all we know, there might be. In fact, she argues that anthropologists are wrong to expect everyone to develop Western values. (446) Thus, I think her argument would not convince Macbrayer.
In this paper, I presented Ruth Benedict’s argument for cultural relativism. Then I presented a criticism from James Rachels. I concluded that Benedict’s argument would not convince Macbrayer. I argued, instead, that Macbrayer would take James Rachels to have the philosophically superior argument.