The Reasons for Attraction of Cultural Relativism

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Cultural relativism maintains that moral standards are relative to culture, much like the diverse norms of etiquette one can see across different cultures. According to this view, the very fact that something is accepted by the majority in a society makes it morally correct. I disagree with this stance as I believe moral standards are above culture, society and both individual and group opinions. While there are certainly a number of things that are subject to change across cultures, moral standards are not one of them; they are universal, as can be seen through existing accepted values and views..????? OR several examples OR application may differ but the principles remain intact.. which i will prove through several examples of moral progress, and objective wrongs one can recognize non matter their geographical location. This being said, cultural relativism is an attractive theory for several reasons. First, this theory does not require us to define a set of objective moral standards, as they do not exist according to this view. Secondly, this view is regarded by many as the only way to avoid being a moral imperialist, that is, projecting one’s own standards on the culture of others. However, in this essay, I will not only identify flaws in the above arguments that favour cultural relativism, but also present further counter-arguments proving this theory invalid.

One of the main reasons cultural relativism remains so attractive to many people is that it does not require us to define a set of objective moral standards and therefore avoids the disagreement that arises when individual opinions clash. This is appealing because many people do not want to consider the existence of objective standards as this leads to many questions that we cannot necessarily answer. Such questions may include, “how do we know what these objective values are?” and “where do they come from?”. These questions only lead to further questions regarding complex issues such as the nature of morality and the existence of supreme beings. A flaw in the above argument is that it assumes the existence of a homogenous culture. In reality, it is highly unlikely that all members in a society will agree on everything. Envision Canada as one large culture or society. Within Canada, the population holds widely different views on several moral issues such as abortion and animal rights. This is true even if we narrow our scope to Ontario, Hamilton, or even McMaster University. Cultural relativism provides no account for what to do with the amount of different views within societies, besides everyone adhering to the majority.

Harry Gensler discusses another issue with this argument and cultural relativism as a whole - defining the boundaries separating cultures (pg. 203). Many people identify with many different cultures simultaneously. These cultures could be geographical, religion-based, value-based, and more. If cultural relativism were correct, and what was morally right was subject to culture, what would happen if you belonged to multiple different cultures and their opinions differ? What would happen if the culture of Canada as a whole approves of something but the smaller culture of McMaster University does not? Which standards and opinions are morally correct to follow? A cultural relativist cannot provide a sufficient response to this flaw.

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Despite what this argument in favour of cultural relativism may suggest, defining objective values is not as difficult as one might originally assume. If we stop and think about it, we all already have some level agreement about some moral rights and wrongs, which remain intact across many cultures. These include certain rights that should be upheld regardless of what cultures say - such as the right to liberty, security, etc?. No religion, country, or culture can take these away. For example, several United Nations conventions, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out standards that nations agree to adhere to regardless of what is considered moral within their particular culture. Since cultural relativists reject this and maintain that there are no objective moral standards, the issue of judging and declaring moral progress arises, as discussed by Harry Gensler. Cultural relativists acknowledge changes in moral views and practices but reject the notion of improvement.

However, looking back at the way the treatment of minorities has improved throughout history, we should be able to acknowledge that we are working (OR moving) towards a more morally correct world. For example, consider slavery in the 19th century. It was legal, acceptable and many would have claimed it was part of their culture and their economy. According to cultural relativism, slavery was morally right because it was accepted by the majority at that point in time. Another example of moral progress and the problems with the acceptance of cultural relativism is residential schools. For over 150 years, many Canadians approved of the horrific, isolating practices towards indigenous children in these schools. They were abused, starved, and stripped of their heritage. Cultural relativists would claim that these practices were morally correct simply because they were accepted by the majority of the population at the time. In both these examples, most of us can agree these practices were never morally correct, regardless of the opinions of the majority. There is still progress to be made with equality today, but cultural relativists would declare that the way we are now is the way we ought to be. This discourages questioning, protesting, and activism against injustice - because all of these acts are declared “immoral” as they go against the majority’s opinion. Essentially, cultural relativism fosters conformity and compliance (page 203).

Another reason people remain drawn to cultural relativism is that it is viewed as an accepting, tolerant and open-minded theory towards the beliefs and practices of other cultures. This aspect of the theory emphasizes the importance of avoiding both moral imperialism and the assumption that one culture’s values are superior to another’s. However, there are several flaws in this argument and problems that would arise if this theory is accepted. To begin, this argument assumes that these values of acceptance and tolerance are in fact valued. As discussed by Gensler, if we accepted cultural relativism, and lived in a society where the majority did not view tolerance as something that was morally correct, then being tolerant would be unnecessary - unethical, even (pg 202). The fact that this argument states these values as being universally important undermines the theory itself - that morals and values are subjective to culture.

On the surface, the absence of judgement and criticism of things we do not understand sounds like a good thing - as stated above, it is important to be accepting and tolerant of cultural differences. However, problems arise if there is no way to govern the actions of individuals, or criticize the values or practices in other societies. Cultural relativists maintain that as long as the majority of people in a given society approve of something (and it really could be anything) it is automatically morally right. Since the majority of Nazi Germany approved of what was happening with the segregation of Jewish people, cultural relativists maintain it was morally correct. By going against the prevailing majority opinions - say, questioning the genocide - you would be acting unethically or morally wrong. For this reason, it seems like we are missing something. It seems as though there is, or has to be, some prevailing standards that can prevent issues such as the tyranny of the majority present in Germany at that time. Looking at practices in other cultures critically does not mean moral imperialism, but rather acknowledges that there are differences between cultures in practices and beliefs and emphasizes the importance of understanding them. In order to strive towards the discovery of objective moral standards, it is essential that we are commit to finding and defining these through objective criticism of all practices, in all places. Observing and working with different cultures allows us to “see the errors and blind spots in our own values” (pg 204).

Being here in Canada, if cultural relativism was accepted, we would be unable to say that child labour practices in other countries are unethical. I personally reject that and propose a consideration similar to the one discussed by Gensler. It is important to look at the practices in other societies and think critically about them as well as your own. Determining objective standards requires constant questioning and discussion. In this example, no matter what the circumstances, the beliefs, or the culture - underpaying and overworking children in unsafe environments is morally wrong. These are violations of basic human rights - which are applied universally. Cultural relativism gives no account for why these things are wrong so long as they are accepted. (is this needed?)

While cultural relativists make several convincing arguments, it is apparent that these arguments along with theory itself are flawed, as outlined in my essay. Accepting cultural relativism would mean that we cannot declare or even aim for moral progress, and we cannot criticize the values and practices of other societies. It is also evident that we already have an idea of objective moral values that are unchanging no matter what anyones opinion is. The level to which we adhere to and apply these principles are the only things subject to variation across cultures. For these reasons, moral values cannot be subject to the opinions of the majority, but are instead objective and exist regardless of what anyone thinks.

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