The year was 1943. Hundreds of Jewish people were being marched into the gas chambers in accordance with Adolf Hitler's orders. In the two years that followed, millions of Jews were killed and only a fraction survived the painful ordeals at the Nazi German prison camps. However, all of the chaos ended as World War II came to a close: the American and British soldiers had won and Hitler's Third Reich was no more. A certain ethical position would state that the anti-sematic Nazi German culture was neither right nor wrong in its actions. In fact, it is this view of the cultural relativist that assumes all actions considered right in a culture to be good for that culture alone. Moreover, the relativist claims that these actions cannot be judged according to their ethical correctness because there is no absolute standard by which they could be compared. In the above case, this position would not allow for the American and British soldiers to interfere with the Nazis; the relativist would claim that the Allies were wrong in fighting the Germans due to a cultural disagreement. In truth, it is the relativist position which has both negative logical and practical consequences, and negligible benefits.
The first logical consequence of relativism is that the believer must contradict himself in order to uphold his belief. The view states that all ethics are relative while putting forth the idea that no absolute standard of rightness exists. If this is the case, then what is cultural relativism relative to? From a purely logical point of view, this idea is absurd, for in assuming that something is relative one must first have some absolute by which it is judged. Let the reader consider this example to reinforce the point. A young woman is five feet tall, and her older friend is six feet tall. The younger female considers herself short because she looks at her friend and sees that she is taller than her. It would be illogical to say that the first woman is short if she were the only female in existence; if this were the case then there would not be anyone for her to be relative to in height. However, this logical fallacy is what the relativist assumes by stating that there is no standard of rightness for relativity. Quite simply, the cultural relativist is stating that he is relative to an absolute which he considers non-existent.
One other logical error that the relativist makes lies in his "Cultural Differences Argument.1" The premise of this argument is that "different cultures have different moral codes." The conclusion that the relativist derives is that "there is no objective 'truth' in morality, [and therefore] right and wrong are only matters of opinion [that] vary from culture to culture.2" The main logical problem with this argument is that the stated conclusion does not necessarily need to be the case if the premise is given. The premise states what different people believe to be true, and the conclusion jumps to the assumption that this belief must necessarily be the case. Let the reader consider this instance, which closely follows the form of the above given argument. Assume that there is a society that believes that sunning as much as possible in the nude can only benefit a person. Due to scientific study, it has been experimentally shown that overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer. Being in the American culture, people know this to be true and therefore would disagree with sunning too often. According to the relativist, since the two cultures disagree concerning the practice of sunning there is no objective truth about it. However, this is a faulty conclusion because empirical evidence shows that the first culture would be wrong in its beliefs. In truth, one cannot "derive a substantive conclusion about a subject (morally) from the mere fact that people disagree about it.3"
Having discussed the logical consequences of relativism, it is necessary to expound upon the effects of its practice. The first of these repercussions is that the culture determines what is functionally right and wrong. This means that the individual has no say in the matter, and if there is a conflict between the two, the individual's ethical belief is not given any consideration. Of course, in theory this does not seem to create an enormous problem; but let the reader consider this instance of racial segregation in the early 1900s. In this case, southern blacks were kept from attending white schools, and, sometimes, they were barred from an education entirely. In the southern culture, this practice was considered normal and right; the whites believed that blacks were ignorant slaves that did not deserve such things as proper schooling. The cultural relativist would state that this southern white culture was right in segregating the blacks. This is completely false. In fact, there were many intelligent blacks (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, etc.), who, if they had been given the chance, could have contributed their ideas to the white school children. Because of this, it would have been functionally right to have included such black students in the white schools. Thus, just because a culture deems an action right, it does not mean that the action is functionally correct for that culture.
Moreover, the "relative" beliefs of certain cultures have not only caused dysfunctionality for that culture alone; but, also, cultural beliefs and actions have caused devastation on a much larger scale. An example that comes to mind is the quest to gain back the Holy Land, Jerusalem. In this case, thousands of Muslims were killed because the Christians believed that Jerusalem was sacred ground. The relativist might say that each culture was doing what was right; but when such chaos is the final outcome, relativism seems much less practical.
The second consequence of practicing cultural relativism is that it is impossible to judge the actions of any culture as to their morality. In fact, because the relativist believes that what is right is what is functional for a specific culture, there is no room for comparing one culture's actions to another culture's. This may seem quite benign to the reader, but under certain circumstances there are negative ramifications. Suppose that one culture practiced infanticide, and another society believed that babies are to be protected from all harm. The relativist would explain that neither culture was more correct in its views; both societies would be doing the functionally right action for their culture alone. However, "the failure to condemn [this] practice does not seem 'enlightened.4'" Upon casual observation, it seems that infanticide is wrong, and therefore, the culture that practices it is also morally incorrect.
Just as one culture could not criticize another society, there cannot be criticism of a culture from within it. Consider the instance of a culture that fought others simply to rape and pillage them. The relativist would not allow for and individual in the belligerent culture to speak out against their inhumane actions. This is because, as previously mentioned, the relativist states that one culture's actions cannot be judged as to their morality.
A third consequence of practicing relativism is that there cannot be any moral progress in a culture. Since the relativist does not allow for any action of a given culture to be objectively right or wrong, he cannot give the name of progress to any change in a given society. At best, the cultural relativist can only admit to change in that culture. Let the reader consider this example of women's rights. "Throughout most of Western history the place of women in society was very narrowly circumscribed. They could not own property: they could not vote or hold political office; with a few exceptions, they were not permitted to have paying jobs; and generally they were under the most absolute control of their husbands.5" However, in the modern age, women have been viewed as equal to men (at least most people hold this position). According to the relativist stance, this cannot be seen as moral progress, since the relativist does not allow for it.
This third consequence of relativism also leads to an even worse state: stagnation. Because the relativist does not leave room for moral advance, there would be no reason to promote moral change in a given culture. Consider the previously mentioned example of women in the American society. In the last few years, women have taken on more productive roles and have exercised their well-deserved freedom (by joining the workforce, owning their own homes, and rising to positions in politics, etc.). The relativist would be inclined to say that this is simply a change in cultural policies that has no moral merit whatsoever. Moreover, he would state that, since the new policy on women's rights does not indicate any progress per-say, then it does not differ (morally) from the original oppressive state of affairs. In effect, the cultural relativist allows for a society to remain in a state of paralysis concerning moral practices.
Thusfar, the logical and practical consequences of relativism have been discussed; at this point it is necessary to draw attention to its negligible benefits. The first of these is the idea that cultural relativism promotes tolerance of differing cultures. Granted, this statement has some truth to it. For instance, the relativist would claim that a society that believed in placing jewelry with the dead so that they may have these possessions in the afterlife is to be accepted by another culture. In this instance, the relativist belief seems fairly harmless; however, let the reader consider a more serious case. Suppose that a society believed in genocide as a normal cultural function. In this case, the relativist would necessarily adopt the position that the above mentioned culture should be respected in its belief. Why should this belief be tolerated, though? If the relativist position is considered seriously, many such instances of "over-toleration" can be pointed out. In fact, the outcome of the position under such circumstances is utter barbarianism.
Another remote benefit of the position is that it "warns us... about the danger of assuming that all our preferences are based on some absolute rational standard.6" The relativist may sight the example of the mound-men, an early culture which piled their dead in the field and then covered them with mud (in the shape of a mound). His argument would be that, even though the American culture does not carry out such activities, the early culture was not objectively (or rationally) wrong. Once again, this makes good sense, for if cultures were to uphold this strict objective standard, then they would be culturalcentric and totally unaccepting. However, let the reader consider this example of the primitive headhunters. As part of a religious ritual, these societies would hunt and kill people from other cultures in order to keep their skulls as trophies. From the relativist perspective, the primitive culture is doing what is right for them and its practices cannot be judged as immoral. However, the action of killing without just cause is immoral, and since this culture practiced it, the culture should be said to be committing a moral outrage. In such circumstances, an absolute standard of morality is needed in order to halt wrong acts.
One final negligible benefit of the relativist position is the idea that the position advocates keeping an open mind. The relativist would explain that just because one culture's ideals differ from another's, one should not automatically label these ideals as immoral. In some cases, this is quite important. The far-fetched example of aliens coming to Earth with their customs comes to mind. Here, just because this new culture may have very different, yet harmless beliefs, other cultures should not condone these beliefs. However, an example can be given in which an open mindshould not be extended. Let the reader consider the recent crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Serbs and Croats are "ethnically cleansing" villages in the area. It seems quite immoral to kill others simply because of their ethnicity, yet the relativist would consider such and incident with an open mind. Obviously, there are certain events that cannot be considered in such a way.
In the final analysis, it is the relativist position which has both negative logical and practical consequences, and negligible benefits. The logical consequences include the fact that the relativist must contradict himself in order to uphold his belief, and that his "Cultural differences Argument1" is not sound. The problems of actually practicing cultural relativism are numerous. They include the fact that the culture determines what is right and wrong, that it is impossible (being a relativist) to judge a culture morally, and that there cannot be any moral progress in a culture per-say. As discussed, the negligible benefits of cultural relativism such as tolerance, lacking of an absolute standard, and an open mind can only be applied to a limited range of instances. As previously shown, extreme relativism "in its vulgar and unregenerate form7" leads to stagnation of cultural morals and passive acceptance of ethical injustice. Of course, just as in any ethical theory, there are some things to be learned from it. One of these is the idea of not being too critical of other cultures. Also, the theory shows the importance of not becoming so culturalcentric that one looses the ability to learn from other socities. In truth, if more cultures tempered their tolerance with wisdom, then many of the evils that plague us could be effectively eliminated.
- Rachels, James. "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism." Reason and Responsibility. Ed. Joel Feinberg. p. 454.
- Rachels, p. 454.
- Rachels, p. 454.
- Rachels, p. 455.
- Rachels, p. 455.
- Rachels, p. 457.
- Williams, Bernard. "Relativism." Reason and Responsibility. Ed. Joel Feinberg. p. 451.