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Module 2: Challenges to Ethics: NegotiatingRelativism and Self-InterestCallatians and GreeksYou may be familiar with elements of the story of the Callatians and the Greeks, who were summoned to the court of Persian King Darius I. Here is the story, told in the words of Herodotus himself (5th century BCE).“Darius in the time of his rule called those of the Greeks who were present and asked for how much money would they want to devour their fathers, when they die, and they asserted they would not do that for any. Then after that, Darius called those of the Indians called Callatians, who consume their begetters, and asked, while the Greeks were present and learning what was being said through an interpreter, for what amount of money they would prefer to burn up their fathers with fire, when they met with their end, and they let out a loud cry and bade him hush.” (Herodotus Book 3)The Wisdom of DariusDarius, we are told, was a wise king, because he did not make fun of these foreign customs. This story expresses the characteristic stance of what we will call cultural relativism: right and wrong, good or bad vary with community culture.As you think about this story, try to come up with some values that both Greeks and Callatians shared. There are more than one.The Ring of GygesAnother well-known tale is that of Gyges, a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia. It is from Plato’s Republic (4th century BCE). Gyges comes across a magic ring which allows him to becomeinvisible at will. He goes to the court of the king and “as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.”The story continues with the following generalization: “Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just [man] put on one of them and the unjust the other. No man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men.” (Plato 359d—360d)The Lessons TaughtUnless there is an authority with the power to punish its members and preserve what is accepted practice in the community, they will all tend to act in what they perceive as their own self-interest. This is a typical statement of egoism. As you think about this story, try to come up with some alternate scenarios. For example, what would happen if only a few had a magic ring? What would happen if all individuals had a magic ring?As the stories of Darius and the ring of Gyges point out, practices among groups of people vary, and individuals can be expected to defect from them if it suits their self-interest. We will call the firstposition cultural relativism and the second, egoism. These ideas are not new, as the tales of Dariusand Gyges show. Yet, ethics is the normative study of morals. Its job is to examine and formulate standards of the good and right that are justifiable and shareable.

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Term
Fall
Professor
AUSTIN

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