The Cultural Differences Argument: An analysis

The Cultural Differences Argument: An analysis

© 2010 by Jensen DG. Mañebog

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IN ETHICS, the theory called Cultural Relativism, which claims that there is no objective universal truth in morality, puts forward an argument which Philosophy professor at University of Alabama at Birmingham James Rachels (1941-2003) named as the Cultural Differences Argument:
          Different cultures have different moral codes.
          Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
          Using the cases frequently mentioned by anthropologists, Rachels, in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy(3rd Edition, USA: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1999) outlines the cultural relativists’ mode of thinking as follows:
          The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callatians believed it was right to eat the dead.
          Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.
          The Eskimos see nothing wrong with infanticide, whereas Filipinos believe infanticide is immoral.
          Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.
            The Cultural Differences Argument may appear to be persuasive but is nonetheless logically unsound. Why? Because the conclusion does not follow from the premise—that is, even if the premise is true, the conclusion still might be false. Notice that the premise concerns what people believe but the conclusion assumes what really is the case.
            To this form of reasoning, we could submit the following counter-argument (based also on the example used by Rachels):
          People in some societies (e.g. primitive tribes) believe the earth is flat, whereas Europeans hold that the Earth is (roughly) spherical.
          Therefore, there is no “objective truth” in geography. Belief in the shape of the earth is only a matter of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
          Clearly, just because various societies disagree on something does not mean that there is no objective truth in the matter. Some societies might simply be wrong in their beliefs. Hence, the Cultural Differences Argument errs in drawing a sweeping conclusion about a subject from the mere fact that people disagree about it. In Ethics, cultural relativism fails because it argues “from facts about the differences betweencultural outlooks to a conclusion about the status of morality.”

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There is Less Disagreement than It Seems
Cultural Relativism capitalizes on the observation that cultures differ dramatically in their views of right and wrong. But just how much do they differ?
            Rachels takes the case of a culture in which people believe it is wrong to eat cows. Such a society would appear to have values very different from our own. But upon learning that its people for instance believe that after death the souls of humans dwell in the bodies of animals—so that a cow may be someone’s grandmother—it becomes clear that their values are not really different from ours. The difference lies in belief systems, not in values. As Rachels puts it, “we agree that we shouldn’t eat Grandma; we simply disagree about whether the cow is (or could be) Grandma.”
            There are many factors, Rachels further explains, which work together to produce the customs of a society. Aside from society’s values, there are religious beliefs, factual beliefs, the physical circumstances in which people must live, and others. Since the difference in customs may be because of some other aspect of social life, then it’s wrong to conclude that there is a disagreement about values just because customs differ. Thus there may be less disagreement about values than there appears to be.
The case of the Eskimos and Callatians
The Eskimos, who often kill perfectly normal infants (especially girls), appear to possess a significantly different values from ours. But, as Rachels elucidates, it is not that Eskimos have less affection for their children or less respect for human life. An Eskimo family will always protect its babies if conditions permit. But they live in a harsh environment where food is in short supply that “life is hard, and the margin of safety small.”
            As in many “primitive” societies, Eskimo mothers nurse their infants over a long period of time, breastfeeding them for four years or longer. Unable to farm, Eskimos must move about in search of food and infants must be carried. A mother can carry only one baby in her parka as she travels and goes about her outdoor work. So even in the best of times there are limits to the number of infants that a mother can sustain.
            Infant girls are more readily disposed of because of the following reasons:
          1) The males are the primary food providers—they are the hunters—and it is obviously important to maintain a sufficient number of food providers.
          2) The hunters suffer a high casualty rate—the adult men who die prematurely far outnumber the women who die early. Thus if male and female infants survived in equal numbers, the female adult population, would greatly outnumber the male adult population.
In Eskimos very special case, therefore, infanticide, as Rachels concludes, is a recognition that drastic measures are sometimes needed to ensure the family’s survival.
Take note, too, that killing the baby is not the first option considered. As Rachels reports, adoption is common and killing is only the last resort. “There is a need to emphasize this in order to show that the raw data of the anthropologists can be misleading; it can make the differences in values between cultures appear greater than they are. The Eskimos’ values are not all that different from our values.”
          Essentially the same can be said of the funerary practice of the Callatians. Indeed, “eating our fathers” is an appalling idea to many of us. But as Rachels explains, performing such practice could be understood as a sign of respect. “It could be taken as a symbolic act that says: we wish this person’s spirit to dwell within us.” On that standpoint, any other funerary practice is either inappropriate or contemptuous. Again, what Callatians do to their dead loved ones does not necessarily indicate a difference in values for respecting the dead is generally shared by many cultures.
All Cultures Have Some Values in Common
Going back to the point that Eskimos are as well protective of their children, Rachels submits the following sound argument:
          Human infants are helpless and cannot survive if they are not given extensive care for a period of years.
          Therefore, if a group did not care for its young, the young would not survive, and the older members of the group would not be replaced. After a while the group would die out.
          Therefore, any cultural group that continues to exist must care for its young. Infants that are not cared for must be the exception rather than the rule.
            The same form of argument could be used to reasonably show that other values must generally shared by many cultures. Placing value on truth telling, for instance, is indispensable in the existence of a society, for without it there would be no reason to pay attention to what anyone says or communicate with anyone. And because complex societies cannot exist without communication among their members, the very existence of these societies proves that there is a presumption in favor of truthfulness in those cultures. The very few situations in which it is thought to be permissible to lie are more of “exceptions to the rule.”
            Rachels also mentions of the case of valuing or respecting life which necessitates the prohibition on murder. In a society where no one thought there was anything wrong with killing other at will, everyone would have to be constantly on guard. Avoiding people would become a mechanism for survival and large-scale societies would therefore be improbable. “People might band together in smaller groups with others that they could trust not to harm them. But notice what this means: They would be forming smaller societies that did acknowledge a rule against murder.”
            The “general theoretical point” here, Rachels concludes, is that “there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist. Cultures may differ in what they regard as legitimate exceptions to the rules, but this disagreement exists against a background of agreement on the larger issues.” Therefore, “it is a mistake to overestimate the amount of difference between cultures.” In fact, not every moral rule can vary from society to society. This flies in the face of Cultural Relativism. 

© 2013 by Jensen DG. Mañebog

Check the author's online Ethics Book:

 From Socrates to Mill: An Analysis of Prominent Ethical Theories

 How to cite this article:
“The Cultural Differences Argument: An analysis (Notes in Ethics)” @
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