Cultural Relativism: A challenge in Ethics



Cultural Relativism: A challenge in Ethics

 © 2010 by Jensen DG. Mañebog

Editors note: Very much indebted to James Rachels, this article can be considered a paraphrased version of the Chapter “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism” of his book “The Elements of Moral Philosophy”[3rd Edition, USA: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1999])


OPPOSITE TO THE VIEW that morality is objective, Ruth Benedict makes a straightforward conclusion that “Morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits” (Patterns Of Culture, 1946). This contention is of course not entirely without basis, and here we will analyze those reasons usually forwarded for such an “absolute” claim about morality.
            Herodotus’ famous narration in his The Histories could be given as a case to show that what is deemed right within one group may be entirely detestable to the members of another group, and vice versa. It recounts that the ancient Persian King Darius was once intrigued by the diversity of customs and cultures he came across in his journeys. He had noticed, for example, that a tribe of Indians called Callatians customarily ate the corpse of their fathers. The Greeks, on the other hand, performed cremation as they considered the funeral pyre as the natural and appropriate means to dispose of the deceased. The king, the record says, summoned some Greeks who happened to be present at his court one day and asked them what they would take to eat the bodies of their dead fathers. As expected, they were stunned so much so that they responded that no amount of wealth could persuade them to do such an act. The king then called in some Callatians, and while the Greeks were also there asked them what they would take to burn their fathers’ cadaver. The Callatians were shocked and answered Darius not even to mention such an outrageous thing.
            To further explain the claim of moral relativists, James Rachels (1941-2003), who was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, reported in his book (1999, p.21) the case of the Eskimos, a remote and inaccessible people, numbering only about 25,000 who live in small, isolated settlements scattered mostly along the northern fringes of North America and Greenland.
            Eskimo customs include that their men often had more than one wife, and they would share their wives with visitors, lending them for the night as a part of hospitality. Furthermore, a dominant male might demand and obtain regular sexual access to other men’s wives within a community. The women, however, were free to break these arrangements simply by leaving their husbands and taking up with new partners—free, that is, so long as their former husbands preferred not to make trouble.
            We would notice also, as Rachels did too, that Eskimos seemed to have less regard for human life because infanticide, for instance, was common. Knud Rasmussen, one of the most famous early explorers, was said to report that he met one woman who had borne 20 children but had killed 10 of them at birth. He observed that female babies were especially liable to be exterminated, and this was allowed simply at the parent’s discretion, with no social stigma attached to it. Old people also who became too weak to be a factor in the family, were left out in the snow to die.
            These may be upsetting revelations for us who are not Eskimos. When we hear of such things, we tend immediately to categorize those other peoples as “backward” or “primitive.” But to anthropologists and sociologists, these are not at all surprising for enlightened observers like them have been accustomed to the idea that conceptions of right and wrong differ from culture to culture. To them, to assume that our ideas of right and wrong will be exactly shared by all peoples at all times is to be nothing less than naïve.
Culture-bound ethical standard
To many thinkers, this observation—“Different cultures have different moral codes”—has seemed to be the key to understanding morality. The idea of universal truth in ethics, they say, is a myth. The customs of different societies are all that exist. These customs cannot be said to be “correct” or “incorrect”, for that implies we have an independent standard of right and wrong by which they may be judged. But it is alleged that there is no such independent standard and that every standard is culture-bound. The great pioneering sociologist William Graham Sumner, in his book Folkways, expresses the view in this manner:
            “The right way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been handed down. The tradition is its own warrant. It is not held subject to verification by experience. The notion of right is in the folkways. It is not outside of them, of independent origin, and brought to test them. In the folkways, whatever is, is right. This is because they are traditional, and therefore contain in themselves the authority of the ancestral ghosts. When we come to the folkways we are at the end of our analysis.” (1906, p. 28)
This basic idea, explains James Rachels, is actually a compound of several different thoughts. So let’s distinguish the following claims by Cultural Relativists as enumerated by Rachels:
1. Different societies have different moral codes.
2. There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another.
3. The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.
4. There is no “universal truth” in ethics; that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.
5. 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, at least within that society.
6. It is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.
            Although it may seem that these six propositions go naturally together, we will see that they are independent of one another—some of them might be false even if others are true.
The Cultural Differences Argument
We need to notice that there is a certain form of argument at the heart of Cultural Relativism. The strategy used by cultural relativists is “to argue from facts about the differences between cultural outlooks to a conclusion about the status of morality” (Rachels, p.23). Thus we are invited to accept this reasoning:
(1)   The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callatians believed it was right to eat the dead.
(2)   Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.
Or, alternatively:
(1)   The Eskimos see nothing wrong with infanticide, whereas Filipinos believe infanticide is immoral.
(2)   Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.
            Clearly, these arguments are variations of one fundamental idea. They are both special cases of a more general argument, which says:
(1)   Different cultures have different moral codes.
(2)   Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
            Rachels calls this the Cultural Differences Argument which to many is persuasive but nonetheless is logically unsound. 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. The conclusion, however, concerns or assumes what really is the case.
            Take again the example of the Greeks and Callatians. The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead; the Callatians believed it was right. Does it follow, from the mere fact that they disagreed, that there is no objective truth in the matter? It does not—for it could be that the practice was objectively right and that one or the other of them was simply mistaken.
            To make the point clearer, let us consider a different matter. In some societies, people believe the earth is flat. In other societies, such as our own, people believe the Earth is (roughly) spherical. Does it follow, from the mere fact that people disagree, that there is no “objective truth” in geography? Of course not. Some societies might simply be wrong in their beliefs. There is no reason to think that if the world is round then everyone must know it. Similarly, there is no reason to think that if there is moral truth then everyone must know it. “The fundamental mistake in the Cultural Differences Argument is that it attempts to derive a substantive conclusion about a subject from the mere fact that people disagree about it.”
But Why Is There Less Disagreement Than It Seems?
Cultural Relativism’s “charm” as a theory basically comes from the observation that cultures differ dramatically in their views of right and wrong. But just how much do they differ? When we examine what seems to be a dramatic difference, we find that the cultures do not differ nearly as much as it appears.
            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, especially when we see that there isn’t enough food in this culture. But does it? Suppose its people believe that after death the souls of humans dwell in the bodies of animals, especially cows, so that a cow may be someone’s grandmother. So, are their values different from ours? The difference lies elsewhere—in our belief systems, not in our values. “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 merely because customs differ. Thus there may be less disagreement about values than there appears to be.
            Rachels then explains the case of the Eskimos who often kill perfectly normal infants, especially girls. There appears to be a great difference as regards values here, since in many societies, someone who killed his or her baby will be incarcerated. Nonetheless, 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. A fundamental postulate of Eskimo thought is, “Life is hard, and the margin of safety small.” A family may want to nourish its babies but be unable to do so.
            The following description of Eskimos’ life further explains why they do resort to infanticide: 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, first, the males are the primary food providers—they are the hunters—and it is obviously important to maintain a sufficient number of food providers. Second, 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. Examining the available statistics, one writer concluded that “were it not for female infanticide… there would be approximately one-and-a-half times as many females in the average Eskimo local group as there are food-producing males.”
            Among the Eskimos therefore, as Rachels concludes, infanticide does not signal a fundamentally different attitude toward children. Instead, it is a recognition that drastic measures are sometimes needed to ensure the family’s survival. And even then, 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.
How All Cultures Have Some Values in Common
To further prove that Eskimos are protective of their children too, Rachels submits the following sound argument:
(1)   Human infants are helpless and cannot survive if they are not given extensive care for a period of years.
(2)   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.
(3)   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.
            Similar reasoning shows that other values must be more or less universal, that is, generally shared by various cultures. For instance, it’s extremely hard to imagine of a society which places no value at all on truth telling. When one person spoke to another, there would be no presumption at all that he was telling the truth for he could just as easily be speaking falsely. Within that society, there would be no reason to pay attention to what anyone says. (I ask you what time it is, and you say “Four o’clock.” But there is no presumption that you are speaking truly; you could just as easily have said the first thing that came into your head. So I have no reason to pay attention to your answer; in fact, there was no point in my asking you in the first place.) Communication would then be extremely difficult, if not impossible. And because complex societies cannot exist without communication among their members, society would become impossible. It follows then that in any complex society, there must be a presumption in favor of truthfulness. The very few situations in which it is thought to be permissible to lie are therefore “mere exceptions to the rule.”
            Rachels also mentions of the case of valuing or respecting life which necessitates the prohibition on murder. In such a society where people were free to kill other people at will, and no one thought there was anything wrong with it, no one could feel secure and everyone would have to be constantly on guard. Avoiding people as much as possible would become a mechanism for survival and this would inevitably result in individuals trying to become “isolated.” Thus, large-scale societies would 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 prohibition on murder, then, is a necessary feature of all societies.
            The “general theoretical point” here 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.
Judging a Cultural Practice to Be Undesirable
The New York Times, in series of articles (mainly by Celia W. Dugger), covered the case of a girl named Fauziya Kassindja who arrived at Newark International Airport in 1996 and asked for asylum. This 17-year old girl had fled her native country of Togo, a small West African nation, to escape what people there call “excision.”
            Excision is a permanently disfiguring procedure that is sometimes called “female circumcision,” although it bears little resemblance to the Jewish ritual. More commonly, at least in Western newspapers, it is referred to as “genital mutilation.” According to the World Health Organization, the practice is widespread in 26 African nations, and two million girls each year are “excised.” In some instances, excision is part of an elaborate tribal ritual, performed in small traditional villages, and girls look forward to it because it signals their acceptance into the adult world. In other instances, the practice is carried out by families living in cities on young women who desperately resist.
            Fauziya Kassindja was the youngest of five daughters in a devout Muslim family. Her father, who owned a successful trucking business, was opposed to excision, and was able to defy the tradition because of his wealth. His first four daughters were married without being mutilated. But when Fauziya was 16, he suddenly died. When Fauziya’s marriage was arranged, preparations to have her excised were also done. Fauziya was terrified, and her mother and oldest sister helped her to escape. Her mother, left without resources, eventually had to formally apologize and submit to the authority of the patriarch she had offended.
            Meanwhile, in America, Fauziya was imprisoned for two years while the authorities decided what to do with her. She was finally granted asylum, but not before she became the center of controversy about how foreigners should regard the cultural practices of other peoples. A series of articles in the New York Times encouraged the idea that excision is a barbaric practice that should be condemned. Other observes were reluctant to be so judgmental—live and let live, they said; after all, our practices probably seem just as strange to them.
            Suppose we are inclined to say that excision is bad. Would we merely be applying the standards of our own culture? If Cultural Relativism is correct, that is all we can do, for there is no culture-neutral moral standard to which we may appeal. Is this true?
Is There a Culture-Neutral Standard of Right and Wrong?
Rachels answers that there is, of course, a lot which can be said against the practice of excision. Excision is painful and it results in the permanent loss of sexual pleasure. Its short-term effects include hemorrhage, tetanus, and septicemia. Sometimes the woman dies. Long-term effects include chronic infection, scars that hinder walking, and continuing pain.
            It is difficult to say why, it has become a widespread social practice. “Excision has no obvious social benefits. Unlike Eskimo infanticide, it is not necessary for the group’ survival. Nor is it a matter of religion.”
            A number of reasons are given in its defense though. Women who are incapable of sexual pleasure are said to be less likely to be promiscuous; thus there will be fewer unwanted pregnancies in unmarried women. Moreover, wives for whom sex is only a duty are less likely to be unfaithful to their husbands; and because they will not be thinking about sex, they will be more attentive to the needs of their husbands and children. Husbands, for their part, are said to enjoy sex more with wives who have been excised. (The women’s own lack of enjoyment is said to be unimportant.) Men will not want unexcised women, as they are unclean and immature. And above all, it has been done since antiquity, and we may not change the ancient ways, it is argued.
            Notice that the reasons submitted attempt to justify excision by showing that excision is beneficial—men, women, and their families are all said to be better off when women are excised. Thus, it’s just proper to approach the argument, and excision itself, by asking which is true: Is excision, on the whole, helpful or harmful?
            Here, then, is the standard that might most reasonably be used in thinking about excision: We may ask whether the practice promotes or hinders the welfare of the people whose lives are affected by it. And, as a corollary, we may ask if there is an alternative set of social arrangements that would do a better job of promoting their welfare. If so, we may conclude that the existing practice is deficient.
            Take note that this looks like just a sample of “independent moral standard” that Cultural Relativism says cannot exist. It is a “standard that may be brought to bear in judging the practices of any culture, at any time, including our own.”
Why Thoughtful People May Nevertheless Be Reluctant to Criticize Other Cultures
Rachel claims that although they are personally horrified by excision, many thoughtful people are reluctant to say it is wrong, for at least three reasons.
            First, there is an understandable nervousness about “interfering in the social customs of other peoples.” Europeans and their cultural descendents in America have a shabby history of destroying native cultures. Recoiling from this record, some people refuse to make any negative judgments about other cultures, especially cultures that resemble those that have been wronged in the past. We should notice, however, that there is a difference between (a) judging a cultural practice to be morally deficient and (b) thinking that we should announce the fact, conduct a campaign, apply diplomatic pressure, or send in the army to do something about it. The first is just a matter of trying to see the world clearly, from a moral point of view. The second is another matter altogether. Sometimes it may be right to “do something about it,” but often it will not be.
            Second, people feel that they should be tolerant of other cultures. Tolerance is, no doubt, a virtue—a tolerant person is willing to live in peaceful cooperation with those who see things differently. But there is nothing in the nature of tolerance that requires you to say that all beliefs, all religions, and all social practices are equally admirable. On the contrary, if you do not think that some were better than others, there would be nothing for you to tolerate.
            Finally, people may be reluctant to judge because they do not want to express contempt for the society being criticized. But again, “to condemn a particular practice is not to say that the culture is on the whole contemptible or that it is generally inferior to any other culture, including one’s own.” It could have many admirable features.
What Can Be Learned from Cultural Relativism
Rachels identifies two lessons we should learn from this theory, even if we ultimately reject it.
            1. Cultural Relativism warns us, quite rightly, about the danger of assuming that all our preferences are based on some absolute rational standard. They are not. Many (but not all) of our practices are merely peculiar to our society, and it is easy to lose sight of that fact. In reminding us of it, the theory does a service.
            Cultural Relativism begins with the valuable insight that many of our practices are like this: they are only cultural products. Then it goes wrong by inferring that, because some practices are like this, all must be.
            2. The second lesson has to do with keeping an open mind. In the course of growing up, each of us has acquired some strong feelings: We have learned to think of some types of conduct as acceptable, and others we have learned to reject. Cultural Relativism, by stressing that our moral views can reflect the prejudices of our society, provides an antidote for this kind of dogmatism. We can come to understand that our feelings are not necessarily perceptions of the truth—they may be nothing more that the results of cultural conditioning. Thus when we hear it suggested that some element of our social code is not really the best, and we find ourselves instinctively resisting the suggestion, we might stop and remember this. Then we may be more open to discovering the truth, whatever that might be.
Though it has serious shortcomings, cultural relativism, as Rachels explains, is an attractive theory because it is based on a genuine insight that many of the practices and attitudes we think so natural are really only cultural products. Keeping this in mind is important if we want to avoid arrogance and keep an open minds. “These are important points, not to be taken lightly. But we can accept these points without going on to accept the whole theory.” ... continure reading
© 2010 to present by Jensen DG. Mañebog

The contributor is a book author, college professor, and a professorial lecturer in the graduate school of a state university in Metro Manila.


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1. What are the negative consequences in taking Cultural Relativism seriously?
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How to cite this article:
“Cultural Relativism: A challenge in Ethics.” @
Some of the references cited:
Benedict, Ruth (1946), Patterns of Culture (New York: Pelican)
Sumner, William Graham (1906), Folkways  (Boston: Ginn and Company)

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