A Critique Of Cultural Relativism Essay, Research Paper
A critique of cultural relativism
In his article “Cultural relativism and cultural values”, Melville Herkovits defines the principle of cultural relativism as “judgements are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation” (26). This is the basic premise of cultural relativism, that beliefs, values, and morals are all based on one’s culture. Therefore, since morality is based on society and different societies have different views of right and wrong, there can be no moral absolutes. Since there are no absolutes, under this view of cultural relativism all moral views determined by one’s culture are deemed true whether they conflict or not.
Upon first glance, relativism seems like a very appropriate concept of morality in the world. It is clear to see that there are differences of what is acceptable and unacceptable in different societies across the world. Growing up in Western culture I have grown a fondness for meat, especially steak. It is a momentous occasion when I can go out or fix a nice, juicy steak for a meal, the bigger the better. This is not a problem in my culture, save those few health conscience people who say I will die by heart disease, but I don’t consider them part of my society anyway. However, if I were raised in an eastern, Hindu, culture these dietary practices would be considered wrong. My act of eating cow would be considered a moral atrocity.
From examples like these and many others around the world we can see a good case for different cultures having different moral views, but is that really the case? I believe that at a surface level cultural relativism holds some merit, however if we look deeper into the issue we can find a flawed, and inaccurate theory for the way that the world should work.
Some of the biggest arguments given in defense of cultural relativism are the many different practices of different cultures from around the world. Melville J. Herskovits gives examples of a West African culture of Dahomey, which practice polygamy. He also states different religious traditions of different cultures such as African societies that incorporate possession of an individual by a god to be the supreme religious experience. In an exert from his book Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, Louis P. Pojman describes an Eskimo culture that, “allow their elderly to die by starvation,” (33). These are all strong examples, but do they actually support the idea that these cultures have different moral values?
In the examples given by Herskovits about religious traditions being different this is true, there are various religious practices in various cultures that have dissimilar habits. These however are religious practices and not moral concepts. One church chooses to worship their god using a full orchestra and robed choir, while another chooses to simply have a piano and a singer. Do these churches have different moral principles, or are they merely choosing different expressions of worship?
With Pojman’s example of the practice of a harsh euthanasia by the Eskimos, he goes further to explain that it is not the moral principle that causes the Eskimos to leave their elderly to starve, but the harsh environment. In the harsh environment of the arctic it is not considered a “good” action, but a necessary one in order for the survival of the whole tribe. Were the tribes to live in a tropical or temperate environment where food is not so scarce this brand of euthanasia would not be practiced.
If we also look closer into the example given in the beginning of this paper we can see that the immorality of eating beef is not based on moral principles, but different beliefs. The example of a Hindu culture, (taken from a very intelligent professor of mine) being outraged at the Western practice of eating cow meat is based on the religious belief that dead relatives are reincarnated into animals such as cows. Now this is not a belief held by other Western religions, therefore the consumption of beef is freely practiced. However, what the two cultures do share is that it is immoral to eat relatives. As we can see, the two cultures have the same underlying moral principles, they simply differ on their beliefs. This can also be seen in the polygamous society of the Dahomeans. Although they may have a contradictory practice of marriage than those in Western culture they still hold on to the moral principle that it is wrong to have sexual relations with someone other than your spouse. Even though, they may differ on a Western concept of marriage the underlying principle of the sanctity of marriage is still held along with the need of a family structure.
Another problem with cultural relativism is that it throws out the idea that there are moral absolutes. It holds that what is morally right and wrong is dependent on and determined by one’s own culture. This is, in a sense, a utilitarian view of morality not being fixed, but a changing concept. In utilitarianism right and wrong is based on what will give the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain based on the situation. Since this can change from group to group and situation to situation there is no all-encompassing right or wrong action. In the same way cultural relativism claims that there can be no universal laws that must be held over all cultures.
This idea, however seems to be the very thing that cultural relativism is trying to create. For if there is truly to be no universal law of right or wrong and it is all to be determined by separate cultures than it must be acceptable for certain cultures to have universal laws. Otherwise, cultural relativism is doing the very thing it is trying to stop which is the judgment of other cultures.
It is virtually impossible for the cultural relativist to make the claim that there are no moral absolutes and that all morality is to be determined by one’s own culture without willing that his very own claim of relativism be held as universal law. This however, negates the first claim that there is no universal law and then the cultural relativist has no claim at all. In order for the cultural relativist’s argument to have any validity he must withdraw his claim of no moral absolutes. The cultural relativist knows that in doing this he allows the concept of standard moral principles that all societies must adhere to which thus weakens his claims.
Even in it’s objectives cultural relativism is incorrect. When looked upon as a whole, cultural relativism’s main objective is to promote tolerance. Tolerance is the idea that one must be accepting of another person’s beliefs, values, principles even if they stand in conflict of one’s own. The idea of tolerance is a nice one. One of a world without fighting or conflict, however when thought out in its entirety relativism fails to achieve this goal.
If all societies’ beliefs are to be deemed right by cultural relativism, what if a society is bent on taking over other societies? Let’s say that Switzerland is tired of being the neutral, everybody’s friend country. Now they’re hell bent on taking over Europe and the rest of the world eventually. Under cultural relativism this would be no problem because it is what that culture deems as right, but does this promote tolerance? What if a group of Mexican-Americans in Kansas City decided they don’t want to have anything to do with the Japanese-Americans so they bar them from all Mexican-American run businesses? The Mexican-American culture believes this is the right thing to do, but this doesn’t promote acceptance of other cultures it simply fuels more hatred by saying that it’s okay as long as that’s how your culture feels.
As has been pointed out cultural relativism seems correct at first glance, but once it is fully examined and brought to its final conclusion we can see that it is not valid. Many examples given for cultural relativism around the world are simply cases of different practices and preferences of cultures and not morals. Some can even be attributed to a necessity due to the situation, but not because they believe it is morally right and others can be clarified as contrasting beliefs, but not morality.
In conclusion, I believe that cultural relativism is based off of ethnocentrism, which is the main view it tries to eradicate. Who’s to say that cultural relativism is not another Western view to be used to judge cultures that do not have the same practice? If we clearly define cultural relativism we can see that it is another idea that can be used to determine if a culture is good or bad. For if a culture is accepting of all other beliefs than it is following cultural relativism and it is therefore good. However, if a culture believes in only it’s beliefs and no one else’s it does not fit the ideas of relativism and must be determined as bad or an “uncivilized” culture. Cultural relativism in its purest form is well thought out idea for the world, however, by throwing out moral absolutes and determining everyone as right it simply is not a valid concept.