Class Note: Cultural relativism When we look at the world, however, we see variety of different cultures, each with its own set of rules and moral norms. Anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists who study behavior of people in different cultures have been amazed to discover practices very different from our own, some of them even repulsive and abhorrent to us, accepted as a norm and practiced for centuries. Think about the practice for instance, that allows parents to arrange marriages of their children when they are still underage, of the custom where a widow gets cremated along with her husband, where girls as old as 12 get married to older men, where a man can have more than one wife, where a father can kill a child to defend his family honor, etc. Some of the practices acceptable in our society seem equally abhorrent and immoral to others; think about the decline of the family and the rate of divorce, of premarital sex, adultery, gay adoption etc. Many people in the Islamic countries, for instance, believe American life style is deeply immoral. Faced with vast cultural differences in moral values, some theoreticians have concluded that morality is relative to each culture, and there is no universal right or wrong. Moral rules, they argue, are nothing but the customs and that it is useless and wrong to expect everybody to follow the same moral principles. Such a view is called cultural relativism. According to this theory, if you find practices of another culture repulsive and unjust, you cannot judge them as wrong, because it would imply a moral standard independent of both cultures. The only thing you could say is that such practices are different from what your society adopts, and that if they were practiced here, they would have been considered wrong. Just as ethical subjectivism precludes you from judging other people when their moral norms differ from your own, cultural relativism precludes you from judging other cultures. So, if another culture practices, say, female genital mutilation, as a member of the Western culture you are not allowed to call this practice wrong, nor inhumane. The best you can do is to say that it is different from what we do here, but that it’s obviously right for the culture that practices it. They might have their own reasons that justify this practice, and, being outsiders, we are not eligible to criticize them. According to cultural relativists, whether a practice is right or wrong depends on where and by whom it is practiced. Once established, each custom justifies itself, since it is the only criterion of right and wrong that is valid within the boundaries of the society that practices it. Each culture thus defines moral values for its members, who can either accept them and do the right thing, or not accept them and do the wrong thing. Nobody can criticize his/her own culture, because there is no independent standard of rightness that one could use to measure their culture against it. If cultural relativism was true, all cultural practices would be equally good for their respective members, there would be no right and wrong independent of the accepted customs.Problems with cultural relativism Cultural relativism seems to many a preferable option to the idea of universal moral rules, independent of cultural context. Pointing out that what we ought to do, our moral obligation, implies our ability to do it (“ought” implies “can”, they say), they argue that it is useless to try to impose the same norms on everyone, when it is obvious that such a project is impossible. What is left for us to do, cultural relativists claim, is to accept and tolerate the differences. Such a view became very popular in our country, since America is such a melting pot, that the best way of dealing with the differences is to accept and tolerate them. The question, of course, is: Should there be a limit to what is tolerable? 1) If cultural relativism was right one could not criticize one’s own society’s moral mores. For instance, if you lived in a society in which parents arrange marriage for their children and you happened to be unhappy with their choice, you could not argue with them and defend your right to choose your own partner. You could not appeal to such an idea, because, most probably, you would noty have even heard of it, since all your ideas about morality would have been derived from your parents and your own society. Even if you heard of another culture where people chose their own partners, you would not have been able to judge their practice as better, because in order to make such a comparison, you would have to have an independent moral standard, independent of both cultures, according to which you could measure them both. Without such a universal standard, the only thing we would be able to see is that practices of another culture are different from ours; we would not be able to perceive them as more just. 2) If that was the case, there would have never been any moral progress and abandoning of unjust customs, because customs themselves would define our very concept of justice. But we do feel the sense of pride when we talk about abolishment of slavery, or emancipation of women, implying that our society did undergo a change for the better. If cultural relativism was right, however, each tradition would justify itself, just by virtue of having been practiced for a long time, so there would be no motive or justification for changing it, no social reforms would ever take off the ground, and if they did, they would necessarily fail. If customs defined what is right, no new moral idea could ever be introduced, they would simply be incomprehensible to those whose world view is molded on the existing practice. 3) Analogously, if cultural relativism was right we would not be able to criticize other cultures either.if we saw a culture practicing slavery, infanticide, cannibalism, or some other, for us deeply immoral action, the only thing cultural relativists could say is that such practices are different, that it would be wrong for us to complete this but not that it is wrong for them, or wrong in principle. However, we sometimes have a deep need to say that it is wrong to treat people this way, no matter what justification they might have for their practice, no matter what their tradition is. Traditions can sometimes be wrong, and need to be changed. Such an attitude assumes that all people should follow some basic moral principles, no matter who they are, or where they live. For instance, we believe that precluding women from getting an education, honor killing, or child labor are wrong no matter which culture practices them, and that such practices should be banned. UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, is based on the idea that there are some inalienable human rights that pertain to each person regardless of the society they live in, and that social rules should be modified in accordance with the proclaimed principles.
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