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Lecture notes by Dan Gaskill. In the last chapter, we examined a variety of arguments in support of different positions on various ethical matters of life and death. In other words, they all assumed that there was objective moral truth.

Now we will consider some challenges to this notion. The first of these is Cultural Relativism. Cultures differ with respect to what is deemed morally acceptable. Rachels illustrates this with the story of the ancient King Darius, the Callations and the Greeks. In America, no legal or moral distinction is made between killing infants, the elderly, or anyone in between all are condemned, of course. But among Eskimos, infanticide is permitted at the discretion of the parents.

Killing of the elderly by abandoning them in the snow has been practiced by Eskimos and the native peoples of northern Greenland. Lending money for interest was considered sinful in medieval Europe, and it is still regarded as such in some parts of the world. In America, male circumcision has been the norm since the late 19 th century, and parents who opt against it are often roundly criticized or condemned; it is quite the opposite in Europe and most of the rest of the world.

Female circumcision, on the other hand, is condemned in America and Europe but widely practiced in many African countries. There is no shortage of such examples. There is no doubt that cultures exhibit differences --often radical differences-- in their ethical stances on food, sex, punishment, political expression, human rights, and matters of life and death.

As Rachels points out, Cultural Relativists have advanced several distinct claims:. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures. The following are examples of the kind of reasoning that convinces people of Cultural Relativism:.

The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callations believed that it was right to eat the dead. Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion that varies from culture to culture. The Eskimos see nothing wrong with infanticide, whereas Americans believe infanticide is immoral.

It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture. More generally, we have:. Different cultures have different moral codes. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture. It is not a sound argument because the conclusion does not follow from the premise in other words, it is not valid. The fact that cultures have differing beliefs about what is moral does not imply that morality is culturally relative. It is easy to see this if we consider an analogous argument:.

Historically, cultures have had a variety of different views about the size, shape and motion of the earth, its relation to celestial bodies, and astronomy generally. The size, shape and motion of the earth e.

Not very convincing, is it? We are inclined to say that many cultures have simply been wrong on various points. The Medieval Europeans believed that the earth was flat, that the planets were perfect spheres moving in perfect circles, and that the earth was stationary. We now reject all of these claims on the basis of well-supported scientific theory.

This is not to say that we have shown Cultural Relativism to be false. The present point is just that the Cultural Differences Argument fails to establish Cultural Relativism.

However, there are some powerful objections to Cultural Relativism that have convinced many people that it is false:. To many people, this may sound like a good result, at first.

But now consider some of the customs that would not be morally inferior, according to Cultural Relativism:. It hardly seems enlightened or morally progressive to hold that none of these practices are wrong, but according to Cultural Relativism, are all morally right so long as they are culturally sanctioned. This implication is problematic for Cultural Relativism in a couple of ways.

First, it seems to imply that the phenomenon of moral deliberation --and moral reasoning generally-- is a complete waste of time. At the very least, the cultural relativist owes us a good explanation of why we have held the mistaken belief that moral deliberation is a good way to decide what we ought to do. Moreover, we can know this just by knowing that they were in the minority and without hearing what they had to say.

By contrast, those figures who maintain the moral status quo --whatever that is-- are automatically deemed right by the lights of Cultural Relativism. We like to think that, at least in some ways, the moral standards of our society have changed for the better. Most would agree, for example, that the criminalization of slavery in America is an improvement over the 18th century.

Each of these objections can be viewed as a reductio ad absurdum against Cultural Relativism. For example:. Larry is a married bachelor reductio assumption. Bachelors are, by definition, unmarried. Thus, Larry is both married and unmarried follows from 1 and 2. But premise 3 is absurd -- it cannot possibly be true. Therefore, Larry is not a married bachelor. In the case of Cultural Relativism, we have:.

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 reductio assumption. It is possible for there to be a society with a moral code that promotes genocide. Therefore, it is possible for there to be a society where genocide is morally right. But genocide could not be morally right relative to any society.

Therefore, Cultural Relativism is false. As an exercise, try to construct the two other reductio ad absurdum arguments on your own.

In particular, we have. This is the central thesis of Cultural Relativism. Now consider. Here we are told how we should react to other cultures. It is not clear exactly what is required of us in being tolerant, but presumably it would require that we not interfere in other cultures for the purposes of imposing our own moral standards on them.

If the tolerance requirement is supposed to be an objective moral truth, then it is incompatible with cultural relativism, for cultural relativism tells us that there are no objective moral truths. So, the Cultural Relativist who wants to support the tolerance requirement must hold that 6 is part of our own moral code, but not necessarily true for other cultures. There are a couple of serious problems with this, however. First, it just seems to be false that the tolerance requirement is part of the moral code of the U.

At this moment, the U. While many Americans have objected to this, the objections have been mostly practical ones the cost in lives and dollars, the potential to make more enemies than friends, and the risk of failure.

Only a tiny minority has complained that it would be immoral to impose democracy on a non-democratic society although many people have noted that it would be extremely difficult. If the tolerance requirement were really part of our moral code, then we would expect this to be the main objection to the current Iraq campaign. Secondly, if it were part of our moral code, then it would actually prohibit us from criticizing other intolerant cultures.

After all, if those other cultures are acting in accordance with their own moral codes, then the tolerance requirement tells us that we must tolerate them, even if their behavior is imperialistic. Ironically, then, the tolerance requirement implies that it is arrogant and inappropriate for us to pass judgment on imperialist cultures of the past, such as the great colonial empires of Europe.

This is exactly the opposite of what the proponent of 6 wants to say, but it is just a logical consequence of Cultural Relativism in conjunction with 6. But first, here is some more terminology:. Not all moral standards are justified.

Is it really true that different cultures have radically different moral codes? We noted earlier that in Eskimo culture, there is no prohibition against infanticide, whereas there is a very strong prohibition in our own culture. This difference can be explained by the very different circumstances in which our respective societies exist.

Eskimos live in extremely harsh conditions where there is little food or other resources to spare. A family may want to nourish its babies but be unable to do so. This apparent justification of infanticide raises the question of how much difference there really is between the moral code of the Eskimos and our own moral beliefs.

Compare the following principles:. This makes it difficult to determine how far apart the two cultures really are on this issue. When Americans say that infanticide is always wrong, is this simply because they are not imagining being in a situation where the infant cannot be cared for?

Likewise, if Eskimos say that infanticide is not immoral, is this because they are not imagining living in a wealthy society where the infant can be cared for? It is possible that the two cultures are closer than they appear, and that both accept something closer to P3 than the other alternatives. Arguably, all cultures must have certain values in common. This is because certain values are necessary for the survival of any society.

For example, any society must value caring for its infants. So, in any society where infanticide is acceptable, it must be the exception to the rule as in P3. If infanticide were the norm, or if the acceptance of infanticide was part of a general disregard for the welfare of children, then the society could not survive.

Similar reasoning suggests that certain moral standards must be more or less universal:. The list above could use quite a bit of clarification and filling out, and probably some revision.


James Rachels: "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism"

Lecture notes by Dan Gaskill. In the last chapter, we examined a variety of arguments in support of different positions on various ethical matters of life and death. In other words, they all assumed that there was objective moral truth. Now we will consider some challenges to this notion.



A prominent ethical theory, cultural relativism, holds that the right or the good is the customary. Further, in that customs often differ from culture to culture, so right and wrong differ, and there is no objective, universally applicable moral law. Moreover, our own code has no special status; it is merely one among many. For instance, writing in , sociologist William Graham Sumner, affirmed: The 'right' way is the way the ancestors used and which has been handed down. The tradition is it own warrant.


Cultural Relativism


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