Examining Cultural Relativism

[This is an essay I wrote on cultural relativism, for one of my introduction to ethics papers, some time back. It’s an incomplete version, I’m still hunting down the original references, and it’s probably not as readable as I would like – the story about how I got pulled in before the paper supervisor to defend it would probably be more interesting. Nevertheless, some of its arguments are still serviceable.]

The diversity of human life and the multiplicity of social groups and cultures presents the ethical theorist with a problem. Can the notion of ahistorical, transcultural moral norms be maintained with the apparent diversity of values between cultures? Does there exist an independent standard to judge the different moral views of cultures? One response to these questions is cultural relativism, which denies that there are moral facts independent of our evaluative stances. This paper will consider the arguments for cultural relativism, whether these arguments successfully undermine belief in the objective status of moral truth, and then briefly survey the opposite position, objectivism, and how the objectivity of moral facts might be convincingly framed.

The Doctrine of Cultural Relativism

Within the conceptual framework of moral theory, cultural relativism advances the doctrine that moral evaluation is grounded in and inseparable from the beliefs, experience, and behavour of a particular culture. It disavows any objective moral principles or that there might be one basic, universal standard of morality that should ultimately guide everyone, in all times and places. Therefore what is good or bad, just or unjust, is relative to the views found in a particular polity or society. Thus, as pioneer anthropologist and proponent of cultural relativism Ruth Benedict argues, what might be the “most valued traits of our normal individuals” within one society may be “looked on in differently organised cultures as aberrant”. Several claims are given to justify this position. These include the argument that cultures and societies disagree widely about morality, the fact that morality is a product of culture, and that there are no clear ways to resolve moral differences and disagreements. Each of these arguments will be treated separately for, if valid, each provide a strong defeater to the objectivist position.

The Argument from Cultural Diversity

The cultural diversity thesis has as its premise the variation in normative beliefs between one societal context to another, from one historical context to another, and even between different groups and classes within complex communities. Citing the abundance of anthropological and sociological findings that show disharmonious cultural outlooks, the relativist argues to a conclusion about the status of morality: that there can be no objective truth in moral judgments. However, under scrutiny, this argument shows serious weaknesses. Even if the initial premise is conceded, the inference is invalid. It is erronous to infer an ontological conclusion about objectively from the variance of subjective convictions. Disagreement does not demonstrate subjectivity. In fact, disagreement about an issue could be quite consistent with one side simply being mistaken.

Another area of weakness for the cultural diversity argument is that its first premise itself is not immune from certain skepticism. It is been argued by some that there is not as much as diversity about fundamental values as anthropologists suppose. Similarities between moral beliefs of diverse cultures have been proposed and many commentators have particularly argued for significant common ground. What the relativist fails to distinguish is the deeper moral axioms and those differences in the surrounding man-made circumstances and physical environment that often facilitate the establishing of variant moral practices. It can be argued that a consensus exists in regard to fundamental moral values because they are inherent in human nature, and that the relativist mistakenly focuses on the diverse ways these values are applied in varying sociological, political and institutional contexts.

The Argument from the Irrational Origin of Moral Beliefs

A second argument for cultural relativism relates to the causal origins of moral beliefs. The process of moral development for each individual, it is argued, is embedded within a cultural milieu and therefore because our moral judgments can be explained via social or other psychological factors, we are therefore unable to attribute an absolute or objective truth-value to such judgments. However this form of argument is deeply problematic and analogous to the genetic fallacy. A fallacy of irrelevance, the genetic fallacy is committed when one confuses questions of the causal origin of someone’s belief in a proposition with questions of what evidence, arguments, or justification there may be for the proposition itself. For example the fact that many people in our society have certain beliefs about cosmology or biology can sometimes be causally explained in terms of cultural factors. But this has nothing to do with the question of whether the propositions concerning biology or cosmology themselves are true and what justification they might have. Certainly the existence of such genetic explanations of why some people have mathematical and scientific beliefs does not show that the propositions themselves are not about objective matters.

But even if there is evidence to show that all our moral judgments are sourced in completely irrational origins, this would at most lead to epistemological skepticism about moral beliefs, not to any conclusions about the relativity of morals. At most it would show that we have trouble at achieving moral knowledge. But this would not rule out that we might occasionally believe what is true –  that we, in fact, might sometimes happen upon true beliefs in moral discourse.

The Argument from the Impossibility of Settling Moral Disputes

Another argument often offered for cultural relativism is the claim surrounding the apparent difficulty of mediating moral disagreements, or even of knowing what would decide them. This provides an argument for cultural relativism because one possible explanation for our difficulty to settle moral disagreements is that they really are beyond settling, and that there is no third level or independent position to judge one moral view over another. The relativist argues that this is because what one ethic subgroup believes about morality is right for them and what another ethic subgroup believes is right for them. This argument however depends on similar assumptions to the cultural diversity thesis and is therefore is susceptible to similar criticisms An additional problem with this argument is also that it exaggerates the difficulty we actually find in settling moral disagreements. Again, there could be other explanations that could be considered for the difficulty we do find. There are many issues that are disputed as equally as ethical concerns yet are nevertheless regarded as having objective answers: questions such as which religion is true, which account of human psychology explains human life, which theory of human society is the most just. The argument also minimizes the fact that moral discourse can, in practice, be warped by distorting factors such as personal interest and social ideology.

Objectivism Revisited

If the central arguments marshaled by cultural relativists fail as defeaters to objectivism – the belief that the truth value of moral statements is essentially independent of subjective stances – we should still be interested in how we might go about framing the objectivist position. It is beyond the aim of this paper to chart a robust defense, instead it will be the intention to merely survey some of the contours of this project and what implications this might have on moral discourse.

Throughout the stream of philosophical history, objectivism has been appealed to through many means. These have generally been thought to be represented by two main varieties, naturalism and non-naturalism. The difference in approaches, primarily, is a difference in attitude about where moral facts are located; whether moral facts are apart of the natural universe or whether they transcend it. Naturalism has concentrated on explaining the place of value and obligation in the world of natural facts as evinced by science. It insists that we can learn about moral value by methods similar to those by which we learn of other natural facts. However, this line of reasoning has not been without criticism, importantly by David Hume and then at the turn of the century by G. E. Moore. The British philosopher, Moore, argued that any attempt to reconcile morality with naturalism was problematic because whatever natural phenomena these theories considered as constituting goodness, the question still remained whether or not such phenomena were intrinsically good. Even if the ethical naturalist can show that altruism is valuable from the supposed fact that altruistic acts promote survival, we are still left with the unjustified assumption that survival is an intrinsic good. So rather than naturalizing value, the naturalist merely relocates it.

Extrapolating moral value from our common human nature, or from the real selfhood of humanity, may seem an intuitive starting point – and especially attractive for the ethical naturalist. For since those who have moral experiences are humans, we might expect moral concepts to correspond to the underlying nature of humanity. Recent examples to revive the objectivity of moral value by drawing on certain biological data and other empirical explanations have taken these “clues about the deeper nature of our wants as they are rooted in natural needs and capacities” to delineate that which is good. But this endeavour is captive to similar difficulties inherent in the naturalist position. One significant problem for the naturalist is the ability to talk about a common human nature when naturalistic science and evolutionary theory undermine both the metaphysical concept of humans as substances with human natures and the biological distinctiveness of our species. More significantly than this is the effort of extrapolating normativity and how things should be from a description of how things are. To do so, we must know something about our ideal function and ultimate purpose. But nature is blind and impersonal, it is morally apathetic, without agenda or teleological orientation. To find a telos in human nature we would need a view from eternity. We can only say that a human being is functioning in an ideal way if that human being has an original purpose, or intended way in which to function. But only if humans were purposefully designed, with an original designer, could we know this. We would need therefore to understand the intention of a designer to reveal and give purpose to human beings. J. L. Mackie, a naturalist philosopher, has conceded: “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them”. So at the very least, to begin to justify an objectivist position and posit a state of ideal human flourishing and proper human functioning that charts a life human beings were meant to live, we need to go beyond the natural universe. At the very least, the notion of obligation and objective value requires a worldview that can encompass more than the physical universe.

A final consideration here concerns the claim that objectivism, if true, engenders and justifies forms of tyranny. It is argued that the objectivist position must be shunned on the basis that an objective moral philosophy can lead to philosophical or political arrogance, where an ideal moral doctrine is forced upon members of an individual society. Cultural relativism should be favoured, it is argued, because it promotes and gives special support to an attitude of toleration for moral codes which diverge from our own. If we accept relativism we will have a higher view of tolerance and not be so quick to engage in foreign adventures that have the ambition of – or at least are justified by the claim – to defend our own moral beliefs. In response it must be said that such a claim is more emotive than helpful, and ultimately self-defeating. It can be agreed that we ought to tolerate and make allowance for the beliefs of other cultures about manners, etiquette, and so on. But the principle of tolerance espoused by cultural relativism goes further than this. It claims that the moral beliefs of other cultures must always be tolerated. This infers that we must tolerate slavery where it is culturally accepted, or apartheid where it is entrenched. Not only is such a practice repugnant, but ultimately conceptually paradoxical to relativism. To accept a principle of transcultural principle of tolerance would contradict the relativist denial of any universally or transculturally authoritative principle. Only the objectivist position can justify a principle of tolerance, and a principle that is sensitive to the different quantities of moral customs that should be tolerated. Similarly, only in objectivism can there be the prescription against such attitudes of arrogance or tyranny.

In conclusion, it has been shown that the central arguments for cultural relativism are inadequate and that objectivism should be explored as a more plausible response to the meta-ethical question concerning the truth-value of moral judgements.


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