A Short Overview of Cultural Relativism

Cultural Relativism is one of several moral/ethical theories, which are defined as systems of thought that 1) provide a method for deriving moral rules and guidelines and 2) provides a justification and criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.

Thus, like any ethical theory, cultural relativism seeks to establish an organized approach to how morality is formed and how various actions can be judged and analyzed in terms of their moral legitimacy. Specifically, a cultural relativist holds that there can be no objective, universal, and independent standard for judging morality because different cultures adhere to different moral codes.

Before proceeding further, two things should be noted: first, there is an important distinction between cultural relativism as an ethical theory and cultural relativism as a methodology (although the two are interrelated). The latter, known as Methodological Cultural Relativism, is an approach within the social sciences – namely anthropology – that treats all cultural views as equally valuable for the sake of understanding them better. In applying this method, an academic can study a variety of cultures and belief systems without necessarily deriving an overall ethical theory from their approach.

Second, cultural relativism applies to societies not individuals. Obviously, every individual in any given society has their own nuanced opinions and moral guidelines, which may run contrary to what is the general standard in their society. But the point is that the culture in which any given person lives in has established moral norms that they are raised and pressured to adhere to. Therefore, cultural relativism is focused on those society-wide moral customs and traditions.

Cultural relativism as an ethical theory emerged mostly from the academic field of anthropology (the study of human cultures), which was established primarily in the Western world around the later half of the 19th century. Once scholars and researchers began to study other cultures in an ostensibly objective manner, it wasn’t long before the methodology gave way to insights and conclusions about the nature of human morality.

It was observed (then, as now) that there was no such thing as a universal truth in ethics, only various cultural codes and traditions from which distinct moral “truths” – that applied only to those societies – emerged. In light of this, cultural relativists developed (and continue to espouse) the following argument:

  • P1: Different cultures disagree on moral rules
  • P2: Morality is subjective, so there cannot be universal rules
  • C: There are no objective moral rules

Put another way, this ethical theory denies the existence of any moral truth – of the ability to judge an action as “right” or “wrong” – because morality appears to be subjective (as determined by the vast differences that exist among human societies all over the world). No culture has the moral high ground from which it can judge another; each individual is indoctrinated in just one of many moral systems, so none of us has the authority to denounce or approach of certain moral actions over others. After all, we’re all biased in this regard.

The Advantages of a Culturally Relativistic Outlook
As we’ll soon learn, cultural relativism has many unsettling ethical implications. But there are some valuable lessons and insights that can be derived from it as well. For all its flaws, cultural relativism offers the following:

1. Tolerance and Open-Mindedness
Cultural relativism teaches us to view other cultures with a nuanced outlook, and to not immediately assume (as many people do) that our own preferences are the absolute best ones. Many (though not all) practices, customs, and beliefs may seem odd or even repulsive, but they’re generally harmless as far as their ethical consequences.

Examples would generally include funeral practices, wedding rituals, cuisines, and attitudes towards romantic relationships. As upsetting or odd as certain cultural approaches to these things may be, at worst, they are peculiarities that fit the specific needs and traditions of a certain society. They are not detrimental to their practitioners or us, so their unusualness shouldn’t merit bigotry or anger.

In a similar way, we should view our own culture within that paradigm; cultural relativism reminds us that our own standard of what is “normal” and “rational” could otherwise be seen as strange or unacceptable to others. In that sense, such an outlook can build bridges and make us more empathetic.

2. Learning Opportunities
From the tolerance and open-mindedness offered by cultural relativism is a chance to learn about other cultures and ways of doing things. Even if cultural relativism is wrong in claiming that there is no absolute moral truth (more on that later), we can still find ourselves learning from or even adapting certain moral concepts that we would have never otherwise known about.

For example, the values of Buddhism, such as self-control and moderation, can certainly offer useful insights and benefits to non-Buddhist societies, while the concept of civil liberties, which derived largely from Western thought, has much currency in non-Western societies. With the intensifying diffusion of various cultures and ethical guidelines across the world, cultural relativism can provide us with a proper attitude with which to respond to our increasingly globalized world.

The Problems With Cultural Relativism
Unfortunately, despite some merits, a cultural relativism theory has some serious problems. Applying such an outlook to its fullest extent can lead to some troubling moral positions. Furthermore, there are certain flaws with the premises underpinning the theory’s conclusions.

Perhaps the biggest problem comes with the central point of cultural relativism: that no culture’s traditions or customs can be criticized, let alone challenged. This seems to work fine, if not ideally, when directed towards practices that are harmless (as discussed in the advantages of cultural relativism).

However, what about less innocuous norms? Certain societies restrict freedom of speech or deprive minorities of equal treatment, for example. But as cultural relativists, not only would we have to preclude any criticism of such practices, but we’d have to admit that are own society – which grants such freedoms – is no better. Every culture’s moral code would, in essence, have to be accepted as equal. Yet it seems patently obvious that a society that deprives people of their dignity or reduces their well-being is worthy of opprobrium, while it would be irrational to claim that giving people freedoms is no better than not doing so.

A similar problem arises with respect to judging the prevailing morals of our own culture. Cultural relativism determines the moral legitimacy of an action based on whether it comports with the overall standard of the society in which it occurs. For example, someone in Afghanistan may question the ethics of barring women from education. If approaching the matter as a cultural relativist, she would have to conclude that there is nothing wrong with this practice, given that it’s part of her society’s cultural norm.

The flaw in this approach is that every society has widespread and established customs that merit challenges and criticisms. There’s not a society on Earth in which popular norms can’t be improved in some way; yet cultural relativism makes it so that we cannot question, much less seek to improve, the status quo, nor can we look to other cultures to provide us with better alternatives (since all moral systems are, in effect, equal).

This in turn leads to a third disadvantage of this ethical theory: there can’t be any notion of moral progress. Cultural relativism precludes any transcultural judgment, including across time. So under a culturally relativistic framework, even the past cultural norms of a present-day society are above criticism. Thus, we cannot view our current society’s prohibition against slavery as morally progressive,because that would suggest that the once-widespread acceptance of slavery was bad – a sentiment that cultural relativism disproves of.

Aside from all these disquieting ethical implications, cultural relativism is undermined by scientific and empirical evidence. For starters, cultural relativists may exaggerate the extent to which societies differ. As it turns out, many cultural and social norms are ultimately derived from practical needs. For example, a society that traditionally cremates its dead may have developed the practice because of lack of space for burial; even if the custom is couched in religious or traditional motivations, it’s far less alien or reprehensible when one considers the pragmatism that originally guided it. Obviously, not every cultural practice can be explained away like this, but the point is not to take the moral differences between cultures as being so absolute and foreign. Societies that differ could still nonetheless understand the trans-cultural reasoning that motivates some of their distinct customs.

Furthermore, cultural relativism’s central assertion – that universal morals do not exist – is in fact untrue. There are several practices that can be found across history and in every human society. Examples include prohibitions against murder, the valuing of truth-telling, and the raising of children until they’re self-sufficient. Granted, each culture may have slight variations to these – such as what age a child is considered an adult – but the same overall ideas underpin each custom. Therefore, cultural relativists must concede to their being some sort of objective and independent standard after all.

In short, cultural relativism has many weaknesses and doesn’t seem to offer a complete or satisfying ethical approach by which to guide our lives (or our society). But at the same time, its flaws – as well as some admitted strengths – do inform our understanding of the nature of morality and its intersection with sociocultural factors. In that sense, cultural relativism is worth studying.

5 comments on “A Short Overview of Cultural Relativism

  1. Pingback: A Short Overview of Kantian/Deontological Ethical Theory | Sarvodaya

  2. An Epicurean critique of c.r. would have nature as the guide and would accentuate the tension between nature and culture, leading to an insight into the importance of hedonic calculus. Nature is transcultural. There are cultural practices that do generate huge suffering and evil in natural beings.

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