The idea that there might be a single universal and absolute criterion of morally right action strikes many who value cultural diversity as highly problematic. But lest we abandon monist approaches to ethical theory too quickly, we should note that the standards of right action offered by both the utilitarian and the Kantian are highly abstract and for this reason they are quite compatible with a rich range of diversity in more specific derivative guidelines for action. In fact, lots of cultural diversity can be explained in terms of more broadly shared underlying moral values. Eating the dead may be seen as a way of honoring them in one culture, but be considered a sacrilege in another culture. Both of these diverse practices can be seen as diverse ways of expressing respect for persons. The difference between cultures in this case is not really a difference of fundamental moral values, but a difference in how these are to be expressed. Similarly we consider infanticide morally wrong while other cultures facing more difficult environmental pressures may practice it routinely. What may seem like conflicting moral standards at this more specific derivative level might instead be understood as differing ways of maximizing happiness that are appropriate for the starkly different circumstances that the respective cultures must deal with. So absolutist, universalizing, monist ethical theories turn out to be considerably more accommodating of cultural diversity than we might have thought at first. Still, they may not be flexible enough.
It might be that some cultures value respect for persons over happiness while others value happiness at the expense of respect for persons and others yet value community or kinship relations more than happiness or respect for individual persons. That is, we might find conflicts in the most basic or fundamental moral values upheld by diverse cultures. How can ethical theory account for this without begging questions against one set of cultural values or another?
Recall that the ethical monist is out to discover a single rationally defensible moral truth that is grounded in a single kind of moral value. In discussing monist ethical theories I insisted that you can’t be both a utilitarian and a Kantian respect-for-persons theorist. This is because these theories offer logically incompatible principles of morally right action. There will be actions (like harvesting the healthy patient’s organs in the simple versions) that one theory will deem to be right and the other will deem to be wrong. So, you can’t coherently hold both a utilitarian principle of right action and a Kantain principle of right action to be true. If the principles disagree on even a few cases, they can’t both be true. But let’s set principles aside for a moment. I’m not suggesting we be unprincipled, I just want us to focus on the underlying moral values without worrying about truths that might be based on them. There is nothing logically incoherent about taking happiness and respect for persons to both be good in fundamental ways. And there may be other plausible candidates for fundamental goodness. Happiness and respect were just the ones that got most of the attention in the 18th and 19th century. Since then, feminist philosophers have argued that we should recognize a fundamental kind of value in caring relationships.
Environmental ethicists have argued that we should recognize a fundamental kind of value in the natural world. Hindus and Buddhists have long suggested that there is a kind of fundamental value in consciousness.
Perhaps this short list is long enough. Or perhaps it is already too long. A moral value is only fundamental if it can’t be explained and supported in terms of some other fundamental value. So if caring relationships matter just because they bring happiness to human lives, then we already have this kind of value covered when we recognize happiness as a kind of fundamental value.
But it is not at all clear that happiness fully explains the value of caring relationships. There are issues to explore here and feminist philosophers are just starting to map out this terrain. In any case, kinds of fundamental value might be rare, but still plural.
So what should ethical theory say about cultures that differ in the fundamental values that shape their customs and codes? Monist approaches to ethical theory would insist that we pick winners in this kind of situation. But should we? Certainly, in some cases we should. The fundamental values of Nazi culture were racist through and through. Good ethical theory should not be accommodating this kind of cultural diversity at all. Recall that our most compelling argument against Moral Relativism was that it is committed to accepting that racism is right relative to racist societies and our condemnation of racism has no more moral force than their endorsement of it.