Subscribing to Cultural Relativism: Pros and Cons

Subscribing to Cultural Relativism: Pros and Cons
© 2010 by Jensen DG. Mañebog
CULTURAL RELATIVISM, a theory in Ethics which claims that there is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another, correspondingly concludes that it is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt, it preaches, an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.
          Philosophy professor at University of Alabama at Birmingham James Rachels (1941-2003), in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy(3rd Edition, USA: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1999) identifies two lessons we should learn from Cultural Relativism, even if we ultimately reject it.
1.It warns us against assuming that all our preferences are based on some absolute rational standard.
          Many of our practices are merely peculiar to our society. (Cultural Relativism however errs in inferring that, because some practices are only cultural products, all must be.)
2.It somehow teaches us to keep an open mind, thereby being more open to discovering truth.
          By stressing that our moral views can reflect the prejudices of our society, the theory makes us understand that our feelings arenot necessarily perceptions of the truth—they may be nothing more that the results of cultural conditioning.
          If we took Cultural Relativism seriously, however, we would be necessitated to accept the following corollaries enumerated by Rachels:
1. We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.
           Suppose a society waged war on its neighbors for the purpose of taking slaves, as in the movie Apocalypto by Mel Gibson. Or suppose a society was violently anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim) and its leaders set out to destroy the Jews (or the Muslims). Cultural Relativism bans us from saying that any of these practices was wrong. Absurd enough therefore, slavery, anti-Semitism (or anti-Muslim), and the like are immune from criticism under the theory.
2. We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society.
          Cultural Relativism suggests a simplistic test for determining what is right and what is wrong—one just needs to ask whether the action is in accordance with the code of his society.
Suppose in 1975, Rachels exemplifies, a resident of South Africa was wondering whether his country’s policy of apartheid—a rigidly racist system—was morally correct. All he has to do is ask whether this policy conformed to his society’s moral code. If it did, then it would have been moral. This implication is “disturbing … Cultural Relativism would not only forbid us from criticizing the codes of other societies; it would stop us from criticizing our own.”
3. The idea of moral progress is called into doubt.
          Rachels mentions of the place of women in society throughout most of history which was “narrowly circumscribed”—they could not own property; they could not vote or hold political office; and generally they were under the almost absolute control of their husbands. Recently much of this has changed, and most people think of it as progress.
          But in Cultural Relativism, we cannot legitimately think of this as progress—there is no standard by which we judge the new ways as better or “progressive”. If the old ways were in accordance with the social standards of their time, then the theory would say it is a mistake to judge them by the standards of a different time. The same principle applies to “social reform.” Jose P. Rizal and Martin Luther King, Jr. who have sought to change their societies may not be necessarily regarded as ‘reformers’ in Cultural Relativism.

          Cultural Relativism may be an attractive theory for it teaches us, in a way, to avoid arrogance and keep an open minds. But as Rachels concludes, “we can accept these points without going on to accept the whole theory.” © 2013 by Jensen DG. Mañebog

Check the author's online Ethics Book:

 From Socrates to Mill: An Analysis of Prominent Ethical Theories


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“Subscribing to Cultural Relativism: Pros and Cons (Notes in Ethics)” @
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