This paper serves to argue in favor of cultural relativism, which claims that the correct moral standards are relative to a certain culture or society. This argument suggests that “an act is morally acceptable just because it is allowed by the guiding ideals of the society in which it is performed, and immoral just because it is forbidden by those ideals” (Landau, 2001). I will first present cultural relativism and its implications. As we move past the central argument, I will present a series of criticisms on both things that are in favor of cultural relativism and things not in favor of it.
The central argument for cultural relativism successfully establishes and enforces the fluidity and multitude of cultures and diversity there are, in different places around the world. Are moral standards relative to the individual or the society? Cultural relativism answers that an individual’s beliefs and actions should be evaluated from that individual’s society perspective. If this is broken down, it is in fact representative of societies throughout history. This argument suggests that each society and its people share a common moral code.
Each culture has a different set of values and viewpoints, so we cannot as people from different societies try to understand or critique other societies, because we do not share the same views on subjects. Consider this, if a Christian individual from the United States were to consider the life of a woman living in Syria under Islamic law, that individual cannot begin to understand what that woman goes through or why she goes through it. If you then explain to this individual why this woman lives the way she does, he or she cannot begin to relate or understand her.
That individual has grown up in a society completely different from Iraq. To understand this woman’s life, you would have to look at it through her society’s perspective. This is what the basis of cultural relativism is. Consequently, different societies around the world have expectations, cultures, and identities unique to them. Marlin Jeschke quotes, “every society on the face of the earth, past and present, has its codes of conduct, identifying behaviors it will not tolerate. Accordingly, the arguments for cultural relativism are as follows: 1) Different societies and cultures have different moral codes. 2) There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code to another. 3) The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, within that society. 4) It would be arrogant for us to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.
I will not be arguing for all four of these arguments, but only one of them. Of these four, the single most persuasive and applicable argument is: “the moral code of a society determines what is right within that society. ” This argument is better known as the Cultures Differences Argument. We, both as a people or as an individual, cannot objectively judge societies different from ours, without our own subjective biases hindering our judgement. There are critiques against the implications of cultural relativism.
James Rachels in his chapter “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism,” explains these critiques: “Does it follow, from the mere fact that they disagreed, that there is no objective truth in the matter? No, it does not follow; for it could be that the practice was objectively right (or wrong) and that one or the other of them was simply mistaken. ” This reasoning explains that just because one society deems a practice true and another deems it false, this does not mean that there is no objective truth. To portray this, we can consider a scenario.
In Society A, the people believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun. In Society B, the people believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth. There seems to be a disagreement at hand. Per cultural relativism, there is a stalemate, in which case, does it follow that there is no objective truth because societies A and B disagreed? To that, we must answer no. There cannot be an impasse every time two societies disagree about something. Just because only one of the societies believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth, does not mean there is no objective truth.
We must know and understand that societies are sometimes wrong; if there is proof that something clearly exists or works a certain way, we cannot say that there is no objective truth because one society disagrees with the proven claim. To understand this to the fullest, we must look at the definition of the word objective. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, objective is defined as expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations. When I say that if there is proof that a condition exists, then it must be a fact.
We must look at facts objectively. Why? Well, because a fact is a fact no matter how we feel about it. This critique serves as a strong argument against cultural relativism, in that it tries to derive a conclusion about a subject based on a disagreement. It must be clarified that this logical approach is based almost solely on the structure of the argument. Insofar, we have examined a more scientific debate of cultural relativism. This allows me to turn to my third premise. Cultural relativism is applicable to matters that do not have a definite answer.
These matters are intertwined with hundreds of years of conditioning, culture and more importantly so, religion or lack thereof. Issues of moral obligations and behaviors that differ greatly from one society to the next “can be endlessly documented. A field of human behaviour may be ignored in some societies until it barely exists… [o]r it may almost monopolize the whole organized behaviour of the society” (Benedict, 1934). We cannot possibly begin to arbitrate the daily lives and decisions of people whose upbringings we know nothing about. Consider again the example of the Iraqi,
Muslim woman. That woman, say, must maintain her position in the house while her husband works for the family. A cosmopolitan woman living in New York City would look down on this lifestyle. The cosmopolitan woman, in the moral code of her society, cannot begin to understand what the Iraqi woman’s lifestyle. We can compare these two women to two independent functions, traveling the same x-axis. These two functions may at some value intersect, but they are not synonymous. We shouldn’t study these two functions together, but apart, each with their own values or in our case, moral standards.
The argument behind this is that people from different cultures should not be studied together. Studied together, they are too different morally. To truly understand a culture, that culture shouldn’t be studied against or with another. To recall, we previously said that things are labelled true or false based on the objectivity of the circumstance. While we can label scientific statements as true or false, we cannot do the same on matters like the role of a woman in a society: “there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture. The fundamental mistake in the Cultural Differences Argument is that it tries to derive a functional conclusion about a subject (morality) from the mere fact that people disagree about it. The final argument against cultural relativism is the extent to which the differences between societies are in our values, or in our belief systems. This will serve as my final argument against the notions of cultural relativism. Consider a culture in which people believe it is wrong to consume non-piscine seafood, like shrimp. This society would appear to have values very different from our own. But does it?
There must be a reason, as to why these people don’t consume seafood. Maybe it’s because shrimp represent vice in the eyes of the people. Now, just because it represents vice in their society, does not mean they have different values from ours. There are many factors at play to make up the customs of a society, and the society’s values are only one of them. This basis of this argument is that two people from different cultures don’t always necessarily have different values, but different belief systems. If we were to analyze different cultures around the world, we can observe that there are many values that are shared almost universally.
One example, as pointed out by Rachels, is truth telling. Thus, there is less extent about the difference in values than there appears to be. To conclude, cultural relativism is a strong way to challenge the notion that morality is objective. Cultural relativism concludes that “[w]e could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own… [w]e would have to stop condemning other societies merely because they are ‘different” (Rachels, 1986). It offers genuine insight into different states of mind and behavior that arise in societies.
There are so many practices around the world that are just a product of different cultures and morals. Cultural relativism is an attractive theory with some faults, as proven throughout the paper. Moreover, it is important to keep an open-mind when evaluating different cultures and behaviors, as Herodotus once said “[e]veryone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best. ” (History of Herodotus, 440 BCE). If we keep this in mind, we can come to understand that our feelings and perceptions are all a result of cultural conditioning.