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Harry Gensler's Views on Cultural Relativism and Subjectivism: Analytical Essay

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Harry Gensler, a professor of philosophy at the University of Scranton, compares and analyses theories of cultural relativism and subjectivism. Gensler analyses the problems that arise from cultural relativism and subjectivism. What a leader believes from a moral and ethical point of view is often influenced by what the leader has been told to grow up with. Each person has a set of morals that they learned at some point in their life. Gensler argues that cultural relativism and subjectivism are neither useful in situations such as racism, global warming, and teaching morality to children. Whereas, he uses these situations to prove his argument and the problems with Ima’s point of view. He states that cultural relativism leads to forced conformity, questionable results about racism, GW, and moral education, and denies the freedom to form one’s own moral beliefs. Furthermore, he argues that subjectivism even though it allows for moral freedom, it communicates a negative result about topics similar to racism and global warming.

Gensler outlines the main problems that arise from cultural relativism throughout the first chapter of his book. He states that CR forces conformity, leads to questionable results when applied to racism, global warming, and moral education, and CR also denies the freedom to form our own moral beliefs. Cultural relativism states that what is “good” is “socially approved” by an individual’s society/culture (Gensler, 2017. P8). Gensler analyses Ima’s views on cultural relativism and divides them into three different arguments and analyses these arguments through premises. These arguments highlight the problems as Gensler breaks down Ima’s premises. The first argument argues that cultures can differ radically on moral issues, Gensler formulates two premises from this. Premise one “No idea on which there is wide disagreement is objectively true” and premise two “all moral beliefs are ideas on which there is wide disagreement” with the conclusion that therefore “no moral beliefs are objectively true” (Gensler, 2017. P12). Furthering on, his analysis on Ima’s argument illustrates that while some moral beliefs have vast disagreements majority have global agreements (Gensler, 2017. P12). This analysis presents that when applying the view of morality to issues such as racism cultural relativism fails to satisfy the views on how to attack racist actions (Gensler, 2017. P10). When applying cultural relativism to another issue such as global warming two views are created. The first view is on climate change affirmers believing that the “earth is rapidly warming” and that this is a result of human activity. The second view on climate change deniers believes that human activity is not a significant cause for recent temperature rises. These views contradict one another and create a standpoint for different societies and cultures to only believe in one view or the other. The Harvard Law Review (Kronman, 1998. P9) outlines the reasons for morality behind cultures and moral thinking. This review states that a good upbringing is dependent on a way of life that many individuals shares.

Gensler outlines the main problems that arise from subjectivism throughout the first part of chapter two. Subjectivism allows for moral freedom, but through Gensler’s analysis of Ima’s point of view, it states that subjectivism comes from an individual’s opinion. Meaning what is said to be “good” is what that individual likes (Gensler, 2017. P.23). About racism, global warming, and teaching morality to children, subjective relativism fails to be used within these situations. In the context of racism if subjectivism is used, for example, “if I like hurting people, then hurting people such people is good” (Gensler, 2017. P.25). This contradicts moral values as hurting people is morally wrong. Another problem is global warming when applying subjectivism to this issue it can make individuals think ignorant and confusing. For example, a specific policy about the environment is likable thereby it is a good policy, making the thinking confusing, selfish, and ignorant, therefore according to Gensler subjectivism thinking “could be very harmful to the planet and future generations” (Gensler, 2017. P.25). The third issue of teaching morality to children when applying subjectivism fails as it teaches teachers to teach students to follow their feelings and believe that their likes and dislikes are good and bad (Gensler, 2017. P.25). Even though subjectivism allows for moral freedom, it diminishes logically thinking towards issues of racism, global warming and also teaching morality to students.

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I am agreeing with Gensler’s beliefs and views towards cultural and subjective relativism, mainly in regard to his argument against Ima’s point of view of cultural relativism and how it leads to conformity within society. Gensler believes that Ima’s sense of basic morality is wrong as cultural relativism forces individuals to “conform to society’s norms or – or else we contradict ourselves” (Gensler, 2017. P10). Conforming to society’s norms is an issue and something that has tried to be avoided in this 21st postmodern society. Conformity allows for leaders to take charge and boss individuals around, even though some believe that by conforming they will fit in, other believes that conformity can destroy individualism. Moral philosophy is “often the only way a person can clearly comprehend the material and social circumstances required for a successful moral education in his or her community” (Kronman, 1998). This means that it isn’t until an individual appreciates their culture they can then come to terms with the moral values that the culture upholds.

Gensler argues that cultural relativism wants us to conform to our society’s norms as if something is “good” it is “socially approved” which is contradictory (Gensler, 2017. P.10). Gensler states that “the central virtue of the moral life is conformity (being a follower instead of an independent thinker); good actions are the ones that are socially approved. This philosophical way of thinking could “stagnate society and violate the critical spirit that characterizes philosophy” (Gensler, 2017. P10). Gensler argues throughout his first two chapters about the importance of moral freedom and how moral truths are relative to the individual. These arguments allow for a better understanding of his point of view and why he is against Ima’s view of thinking.

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) argued that the superior principle of morality is a standard of judiciousness that he believed in the “categorical imperative” (CI). Kant typified the CI as a necessity that must be followed despite any natural desires an individual may have (Johnson, 2004). Johnson goes into a discussion on Kant’s categorical imperative view on moral judgments. Johnson states that “on the surface moral judgments can look as if they describe a moral world”. This is imperative as through thinking morally without applying subjectivism and cultural relativism, a moral world can be created. Kant illustrates that moral judgments lack objectivity, as well as Gensler as he states that “objectivity is an illusion that comes from objectifying our subjective reactions”, which means that our moral judgment cannot be objectified Kant and Gensler agree to this viewpoint. Richard Mervyn Hare, another philosopher, explored the way of moral thinking and the distinction between ‘critical’ thinking, the golden rule, and an intuitive level (Price, 2014). Hare divided these two levels of thinking that define “not two social castes but two roles between which each of us learns to alternate as appropriate” (Price, 2014). This definition of these two ways of thinking allows individuals to communicate and compare what is right and what is wrong instead of conforming to society’s norms.

Harry Gensler analyzed and thoroughly discussed Ima’s point of view of cultural relativism and subjectivism within today’s society. Due to his analysis, the conclusion came to the judgment that CR and subjectivity fail to comprehend logically thinking within certain situations. These situations include racism, global warming, and teaching morality to children. Gensler argued agreeable points when saying that CR forces conformity when thinking morally.

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