Every month or so, I encounter an argument of the following basic form:
- A representative of Florin claims that the Guilderians are unethical for having the death penalty.
- A representative of Guilder retorts that the Florinese are unethical for not having freedom of religion.
- Both representatives eventually tire of arguing and go gang up on the Ruritanians for polluting too much and encouraging young people to major in philosophy rather than STEM fields.
This is essentially the intersection between cultural relativism and applied ethics - my society accepts that X is unethical, so all societies that practice X are unethical under my standards.
That is all well and good, and pretty basic, but this question and associated discussion at Academia.SE gave me some pause. If cheating has become accepted practice at a particular university, is it ethical to join in? There are two major responses:
- Yes, because the ethical system of the university allows "cheating", which isn't really "cheating" at all because cheating involves the violation of social norms, and the proposed "cheating" behavior is not a violation of said norms.
- No, the university's culture has become corrupted - it is in violation of it's own standards or even has abandoned the entire idea of having ethical standards at all.
Is there a theory that would allow for #2 above? That is, can there be a society that stands in open opposition to its own ethical standards, or that is completely lacking in ethics at all? I'm excluding "law of the jungle" type scenarios, but speaking only of organized societies that do have some social standards or conventions. I am also not talking about notoriously famous "Evil Empire" cultures that do or did things that we disagree with - many "bad guys" throughout history have couched what they did in terms of their own ethical systems that allowed them to see their acts as justified or even praiseworthy.