The idea that actions can be morally different depending on the views of the people, or culture, around that act is known as cultural relativism.
Some people naturally feel disinclined to attach moral judgement onto other societies’ actions, reasoning that different societies have different moral codes, and these different codes should be accepted, and judgement withheld.
Calling another cultures’ actions ‘wrong’ (when it isn’t deemed so by that culture), implies both that their moral code is ‘wrong’, and that our code (the code by which we are judging their action ‘wrong’) must be ‘right’, or superior, in some sense.
Many people are reluctant to take this stance, giving cultural relativism much intuitive appeal as system of morality.
One reason why this system of thought might have become more popular recently could be the rise of the secularist division of morality and religion that has taken place in much of the West in recent years. This division has led to an inability to invoke a set of divine (be they given, taught or interpreted) morals that overarch all societies, and therefore to which all actions can be held accountable.
While people may have claimed ‘what you’re doing in your different culture is wrong because my God says so, and God created us all so his rules bind us all’ many are no longer willing to claim this. Even without divinity, most people don’t want to maintain that there are ‘free floating moral truths’ out there.
Without a divine, or ‘free floating’ morality, justification there is no reason to say what we have been taught since birth is any more ‘right’ that what a person in a different society has been taught since birth.
Yet despite this initial appeal cultural relativism has several issues that may lead many to end up rejecting it as their theory of ethics. And no, one of the issues is not that terrorist attacks would be permissible under cultural relativism, because the people enacting it believed it to be the right moral action. As the attacks often take place within a different culture, that cultures’ moral code is what defines right and wrong within it. Presumably that moral code would hold that it is wrong to kill many people in an attack of any kind.
The Female genital mutilation example
The primary example of an issue that cultural relativism faces is its inability to criticise other societies. While a primary strength of the theory, and often the source of its appeal, this also prevents us from criticising things we feel we should be able to. Such as human rights violations. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the commonly given example of something we feel that we should be able to condemn even when it takes place in other societies.
FGM is a truly horrific practice, affecting an estimated 200 million girls (according to the World Health Organisation).
It has zero health benefits for the women forced to undergo it. Seems to have no practical or social benefits, and is often motivated by a desire to control female sexuality. Which is another thing that as a society it seems we should be able to criticise others for doing. FGM is also often defended under the explicit justification of cultural relativism, with FGM’s status as a cultural tradition being used as an argument for its continuation.
While we may want to consider other societies norms and morals before condemning them, to see such practices take place, and stand completely idle, refusing even to condemn the human rights violations taking place in the world hardly seems like the correct moral path. Instead seeming clearly immoral.
The inability to allow criticism of our own cultures
A second distinct issue with cultural relativism, similarly to the prior issue, is its inability to allow criticism of our own cultures moral code, or, to allow for moral progress within a society. If what defines the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ or any action in society is what that society calls right or wrong, then is it impossible to criticise that moral code, and claim that a moral status should be changed.
By definition, if a society feels that killing animals for food using the most excruciatingly painful method was right, it would be right within that society. As under cultural relativism the rightness of that action is only decided by what people in that society believe.
Therefore, if within that society a minority of people felt that perhaps we should kill animals in the least painful way instead, a pretty reasonable demand, then under cultural relativism there would be zero basis for this argument. This not only impacts our ability to criticise, but also the concept of moral progression of a society, through the inability for a moral code to be judged as anything other than correct.
Additionally, a more minor issue cultural relativism faces is defining at what point does a group of people have enough ‘cluturalness’ to claim their own moral code. The obvious line to draw seems to be nations. But what about cases where there is a lot of conflict within nations, presumably each faction within that nation considers it morally wrong to kill members of its faction, but not of the other. Do they therefore each count as having a separate moral code?
Or other examples, without active conflict, where we seem to accept different moral codes within nations. A small rural town in the US likely has different moral views to a metropolitan centre like New York. Or even within cities, from deprived neighbourhoods to wealthy ones. Do they each have a separate code of ethics?
Or is the deciding factor something like ‘which code is agreed upon by more people within the nation?’. This would open minorities to persecution.
As mentioned before, if the majority of people in a society felt it wasn’t wrong to do a thing, like persecute a minority, it would by definition be morally permissible.
Does this mean to avoid these issues each subculture would have to have its own autonomous code of morality, and therefore be free of any outside criticism. Therefore, defining at what point a group of people have enough ‘cluturalness’ to have a separate code of morality is an issue facing people wanting to adopt weakness of cultural relativism.
Free floating moral truths
Finally, another, more philosophical, weakness of cultural relativism, and one that returns to us the ‘free floating moral truths’, is that it does not necessarily follow from cultural relativism’s argument that cultural relativism is true. At its core cultural relativism seems to stem from the idea that:
- Different cultures have diverse moral codes.
- Therefore, there is no objective ‘right’ moral code. Right and Wrong depend on what a given society believes.
While the former is perfectly true and clearly provable through observation of the world, the latter does not follow from this. We cannot know that because people disagree that none of them are right. It remains entirely possible that one culture is right; that their set of ethics is objectively the right one (according to some free floating moral truths out there), and everyone else is unfortunately mistaken.
Or perhaps that no culture has the right ethics, and instead there is a code of ethics out there which is objectively right (again according to free floating moral truths), but no culture has adopted it. This doesn’t entail that cultural relativism is wrong, or is likely to push people to rejecting it, it’s merely a philosophical point that cultural relativism’s premise does not lead to its conclusion.
Shiite Muslims join a procession and flagellate themselves with daggers to the head, among other means, in order to pay tribute and absolve sin; people spill their own blood and those of their relatives to mourn the fact that they were not being present to save Hussein. credits all-that-is-interesting
The point here is not to justify any and all criticism of other cultures. There are many and varied reasons not to do so. A hesitation to stick your boot in someone else’s social norms is not a bad thing. Many of the disagreements between societies are just down to the way we have been raised.
I am merely highlighting that cultural relativism seems to go too far, and withholding all judgement and criticism is the wrong course of action. I feel cultural relativism is often invoked when perhaps all of its consequences are not fully clear; perhaps the position is slightly less appealing when taken with these issues attached to it.
For those interested in a deeper understanding of the subject this article was based on the paper: The Challenge of Cultural Relativism, by James Rachels, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy (2010).
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