(Our textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, by Shafer-Landau, lists several basic moral intuitions that we should keep in mind as we work out an ethical framework. I’m going through the list and considering them one by one.)
Moral intuition #1: Neither the law nor tradition is immune from moral criticism.
We have all heard of the Nazis in World War II who committed atrocities because they were “just following orders”. The usual conclusion is that they were still wrong, that when an order is ethically wrong we should disobey it. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were famous for teaching civil disobedience, that is, that we should be willing to disobey the laws when doing so is necessary to promote a greater good.
Cultural relativists would say that all ethical truths are relative to the culture in which people were brought up. If that’s completely true, though, then we have an obligation to obey the ethical dictates of our culture. Not only were the Nazis permitted to commit atrocities, it would actually have been wicked of them not to!
I don’t think cultural relativism makes sense, because I think we can ask whether one cultural mindset is morally better than another. Today a lot of people believe in being tolerant of other cultures, but they also believe that it is a good thing to be tolerant. They are glad we live in a society which practices tolerance for other people’s views. They are glad we uphold individual liberties. I agree; it is a good thing. I think it is nobler for us to value people’s rights than not to. I think if two cultures are exactly identical in every way except that one lets people be free and the other does not, then the society that promotes freedom is morally superior to the other one.
On the other hand, is there some moral value to obeying laws and traditions? There are good practical reasons to obey the laws: you might get into trouble if you don’t. That doesn’t mean that you have a moral obligation to obey them. I think perhaps we do, though; I think it’s a good thing to be willing to submit to the laws of the land.
How about traditions? If there is no actual rule that we do things a certain way, it’s just traditional, do we have some small moral obligation to follow tradition just because it is tradition? Once again, there may be practical reasons to do so: you will get along with everyone better if you follow tradition than if you don’t. Is there a moral reason though? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m biased by my own culture, though; the U.S. really emphasizes individualism.
(For those who are interested, the related post on my personal blog explores this idea from an explicitly Christian perspective.)