What do you think Holmes means when he says ethics is "a normative discipline interested in the truth or falsity of moral beliefs"?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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By this Holmes means to distinguish ethics from other disciplines that seek to understand moral beliefs as products of specific social, cultural and material factors. To draw this distinction, he quotes anthropologist William Sumner, who describes sets of ethical beliefs as simply one example of "folkways," which:

like products of natural forces...handed down by tradition and admit of no exception or variation, yet change to meet new conditions, still within the same limited methods, and without rational reflection or purpose.

This leads one naturally to a "relativist" approach, which emphasizes that ethical systems are specific to contexts, and therefore very diverse. Ethics, says Holmes, takes almost a completely opposite approach to understanding moral beliefs. Ethicists try to locate more general values within moral systems that may transcend local contexts:

Even where particular moral practices and rules vary, universal areas of value related to human needs can readily be identified: life and health, economic sufficiency, marriage and family.

Ethicists, then, are occupied with thinking about which moral beliefs are best, or appropriate across contexts. Holmes, as a Christian ethicist, claims that

there are universal moral principles that ought to be regarded as exceptionless in every culture, and that the moral rules we adopt...should apply those principles to universal areas of human concern and activity.

Holmes wants to suggest that positing certain moral truths that transcend cultures should not be dismissed as simple ethnocentrism, but rather is essential for humanity's progress. He claims that cultural relativism can lead us to tolerate practices that we surely should not be willing to tolerate, like slavery or cannibalism. So some moral beliefs are patently false, or wrong, contrary to a strictly relativist approach.