Cultural Relativism

Cultural Relativism :

Since the beginning of rational thought, philosophers have searched for the true meaning of morality. Many theorists have attempted to answer this question with reasoning, in an attempt to find a universal set of rules, or a way to distinguish right from wrong. Some theorists believe that this question is best answered by a single moral standard, while others debate if there can be a single solution. Cultural Relativism explores the idea that there can be no one moral standard that applies to everyone at any given time. The Kantian theory, on the other hand, states that a universal sense of duty would most benefit humankind. I believe that the Cultural Relativist theory takes into consideration the different cultures that make up the population as a whole. The idea of universal truth in ethics is a myth. The customs of different societies are all that exist. These customs cannot be correct or incorrect for that implies there is an independent standard of right and wrong by which they may be judged. In today's global community people are interacting more and we are now discovering, more than ever, how diverse cultures and people really are. For these reasons the Cultural Relativist theory best defines what morality is and where it came from.

Today all over the world people are communicating in ways never before imagined. Cultural Relativism believes that one set of morals will not adequately adapt to the individuality of all the cultures and subcultures in the world. What this means is that there is no one moral law that fits every situation at every time. There will always be exceptions to the rules. Cultural Relativism leaves the creation of moral and ethical standards to the community. The community then makes moral judgments based on its specific culture, history and individuality. For these reasons Cultural Relativism helps the community, by letting the community set its own moral standards, rather than impose a set of morals, as the absolutists would suggest. Imposing a set of universal morals would not be able to compensate for all the different cultural differences that exist today. If a universal moral law were to be created, what criteria would be considered? Would one use each community’s religion, customs, laws, educational standards or culture? It would be impossible to take into consideration all of the different factors unique to each community when creating a universal moral truth. That is why Cultural Relativism is the best solution for moral standards. Each community considers all their own factors of culture, religion, education, etc. and then creates their own set of morals based on their needs.

There are many different situations in everyday life that call upon our moral judgment. With all of the people in the world and all of the different situations who are to say that there is one set standard that we should follow on the societal level, as well as the individual? Cultural Relativism, challenges the ordinary belief in the universality of moral truth. It says, in effect, that there is no such thing as universal truth in ethics; there are only the various cultural and personal codes and nothing more. Moreover, our own code has no special status. It is merely one among many. One clear example of this is illustrated in the treatment of women in some countries, against the way they are treated in the United States. In the United States women are privileged with the same rights as men, therefore creating, by law, an equal society.

However in some Middle Eastern countries women are not allowed to show their faces in public, own land, or may be forced to be just one wife to a man with many wives. The questions philosophers ask in this situation are, "Which one of these cultures is morally correct in their treatment of women?" According to absolutists there would be one universal solution. And, in this case, there is clearly no such solution. If you were to support the United States' treatment of women, you would have to go against many of the Middle Eastern beliefs and moral standards. Another way of looking at it would be from the woman's perspective. In the United States the woman is given freedom and the ability to choose, whereas in the Middle Eastern culture she has no rights. Is that culture morally correct for the woman? There are just too many variables to take into consideration when trying to make moral decisions for all cultures to follow. If we were to use a set standard we would have to judge people and their culture. And who is to say that one culture and its people are right and that the other is wrong? In ancient Egypt people were allowed to marry their brothers and sisters. In most of today's cultures that is morally and ethically wrong.

The reasoning behind this change in marriage styles results from scientific research. Scientists have found that over time inbreeding causes a higher rate of birth defects among the offspring. This fact has influenced many of the developed cultures to outlaw inbreeding. Does this mean that the Egyptians were morally wrong because they did not have the scientific knowledge about inbreeding that we have today? Utilitarian would have us believe yes. They would state that the only moral way to have acted would be to not inbreed due to the fact that it causes harm, thus unhappiness, to the offspring. If this is true, how are we sure that we are not morally wrong in what we do, if in five or ten years into the future science discovers that what we consider morally right now is harming us physically? This is where the beauty of Relativism comes into focus. Relativism would say that neither culture is right or wrong. Relativism would state that each culture would decide, on an individual basis, what it would consider morally and ethically right. Our modern society is full of diversity among cultures. There are no set rules and morals that we can follow because of that very fact. People are different and to judge them by any other standards than their own is morally and ethically wrong in itself.

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 particular to our society and our own personal preference and it is easy to lose sight of that fact. These are the reasons that I believe that Relativism best answers the question, is there a set standard of morals and ethics for all to live by or does each community, culture and individual create its own?

Now that I have touched on more of a Cultural Relativistic view, I would now like to apply the same theory to an individual. I believe individuals have the same kind of freedom to design their moral truths in a way that suits them, separate from their community. Thus, just because a society sets a standard of morals, there is nothing prohibiting an individual from straying from that standard, besides the society capabilities of enforcing those moral truths. Assume for a moment there is a community that enforces all of its moral truths with the death penalty. When one is deciding to go against those truths or not, he would only have to calculate the risk of getting caught. Thus, the old saying "you can do whatever you want, as long as you can get away with it", would be accurate.

A common point that is brought up against Relativism, when applied to the individual, is the point that according to Relativism it is wrong to say that one moral truth is right or wrong, because each culture and individual are allowed to make up their own truths. Then how can a society punish a person for not following their moral standards? I would reply as follows. Moralities differ in each society, serving a functional purpose that is unique to the factors that comprise the area. The differences of all aspects of life are considered when morals are being produced. Society values are developed in order to ensure prosperity, stability and harmony; when the values are threatened, so is the good of the society. In order to maintain social balance, all members are forced to conform to these values. Those who choose to disobey societal maxims are banished or ostracized from the community. Social codes benefit the individual; too, they are not constructed simply for the benefit of the society as a whole. The reckless behavior of the nonconformist could be dangerous to an individual's wellbeing. Thus, these morals are for the good of all. However, if a member of the society can break these moral codes and do so successfully, there is nothing in one's personal moral code itself wrong with doing so, except the society instilled guilt that is learned and taught through the generations. And that is exactly it, because morals are created by the community, and there are no universal truths, then if you have enough people not following the moral truths of their community, then the morals for that community will change accordingly. That is what Cultural relativism is based on, the community being able to change their set of morals, how else would that happen if it does not start from the individual level.

From the examples shown in this paper, Cultural and Individual Relativism clearly is the more logical choice as the theory that best provides a workable solution to the question of what controls ethics and morality. While absolutists try to prove that there is one single set of moral rules that can be used as a guideline in the validation of moral and ethical standards for the cultures and individuals of the world.

The Utilitarians are trying to create a greater happiness for all involved in the community. And the Kantians are looking for their universal sense of duty. However they all can be questioned with this single statement, "if anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations of the world the set of beliefs which he thought brought the most good and happiness, he would inevitably, after careful considerations of their relative merits, choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best."

And this discredits the possibility that one such person can come up with a set of morals, or a true way to calculate those morals, because in fact everyone is biased to his or her own moral beliefs. Absolutism is obviously not a feasible solution due to the fact that the cultures of the world are too radically diverse to ever be able to be classified under one set of moral and ethical guidelines. I believe the Utilitarian idea of maximizing the good of the whole is also not feasible, on account of everyone not agreeing on what makes them the most happy. The Kantinisen sense of duty is discredited in the same way, on account of everyone's sense of duty being different. Although there will never be a moral or ethical theory that clearly includes all cultures as morally right, the Relativist theory is by far the most sensible solution offered to us at this time.

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