Cultural Standards Are All That We Have

Essay, Research Paper

Cultural Standards Are All That We Have

Our world is a melting pot of different cultures, each one unique in its own respect. Who we are, and what we generally believe to be true or right is a product of what our society values. Because our way of living is what we were raised to believe as right , it is often hard to except the fact that others live differently. In reality, different cultures have different moral codes. The belief in the objectivity and universality of moral truth is an unachievable ideal standard, and holds no practical value.

It is irrefutable that some values vary from culture to culture. As one travels the world, they will inevitably see diverging moral standards in many areas, such as wearing clothes, funerary practices, and abortion. For example, in Mainland China abortion is recognized as an important tool to help curb population growth. In the Republic of Ireland, on the other hand, abortions are not readily available, even when the life of the mother is at risk. (Internet ) Obviously, ethics vary in different societies, and it would be na ve not to acknowledge this. Beliefs of different societies cannot be said to be correct or incorrect , because those judgments would imply that there is a universal standard of right and wrong. But a universal standard of right and wrong is not only difficult to articulate from an objective standpoint, it is theoretically bankrupt. Any individual who attempts to formulate an objective set of values will always fail, because the prism through which they analyze the world will inevitably be marred by their own experiences and perspectives. Therefore, moral standards are actually cultural standards, and nothing more.

Cultural Relativism posits that there are no universal ethical truths, only various cultural codes. Cultural relativism is a theory about the nature of morality. (489) One proposition of this theory states that, it is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures. (489) This is an important concept because it has a great deal of practical value. The social and political spheres in which we interact everyday are replete with prejudices that can only be challenged and defeated by open minds. Our cultures have trained us to think a certain way, and we must remember to be fair in judging when our beliefs are challenged. On the surface, the social customs of cultures different than ours may seem inherently immoral. However, in most cases these customs can be justified by an examination of their historical context and cultural significance. For example, the Callatians, a tribe of Indians, customarily eat the bodies of their dead fathers. (488) According to our cultural standards, this act would be fundamentally immoral. Because we were raised to believe that burying the dead, or cremating them is the only right thing to do, we would view this act on behalf of the Callatians as morally wrong. However, to the Callatians eating the flesh of the dead is considered to be an act of respect for the dead, while burying or cremating the dead is seen as dishonorable. (493) Our condemnation of the Callatians funerary customs, or their rejection of ours, can be attributed to the fact that different cultures yield different moral codes. It is important to keep an open mind when dealing with other cultures, because we can never be confident that our own socially determined values are in accordance with theirs.

All individual moral standards derive from cultural standards. Individual standards are actually a product of cultural conditioning, and do not usually diverge from what a person has been trained by their society to believe. From birth until death a person is engulfed in society, constantly subjected to endless amounts of cultural propaganda. This cultural propaganda comes in the forms of advertisements, schooling, and religion. One cannot read a newspaper, or watch television without seeing countless advertisements that endorse ideals that are indigenous to our society. Schools in America instill many ideas in the youth of our nation, and build a foundation for their individual beliefs. Because of this, many Americans individual moral standards are based on the same basic beliefs. If you were to approach an American, and asked him, Do you believe in freedom of speech, in most cases he would enthusiastically answer, yes without hesitation. However, if you asked the same question to someone from communist China, they may have a different opinion. Because people are raised to believe certain ideas, in most cases their individual ethical codes conform to those of the society that they were raised in.

Religion also plays a significant role in shaping a person s beliefs. Religious beliefs are sewn into the threads of a society, and they continually help mold a person s moral standards. Religious morals are usually the first set of morals that a person is formally taught. In a society with religious beliefs such as our own, the Ten Commandments serve as general guidelines as to how to lead your life. According to these religious beliefs, to break one of these commandments is to act immorally. On the most basic level, it provides an answer to the rhetorical question of what is moral and what is not. In other societies where different religions prevail, different moral codes spawn different individual standards. For example, in India, Hinduism forbids one to eat a cow; it is considered a sacred animal. They believe that the souls of humans inhibit the bodies these animals, and to eat a cow would be the same as eating that person. (Encyclopedia) A Catholic person on the other hand, would have no problem eating the meat from a cow. This shows how religion plays a rather large role in shaping a person s individual morals. Just as religions vary, individual moral codes vary as well.

Many philosophers reject the ideas expressed by the theory of Cultural Relativism. In Elements of Moral Philosophy James Rachels attacks cultural relativism with an arsenal of arguments. Rachels contends that if Cultural Relativism were taken seriously, then there would be serious implications that would follow. For example, if we were to take this theory seriously, then we could not condemn a society for being violently Anti-Semitic. (490) I feel this is a shortcoming in Rachel s argument. Although the Nazi s Holocaust campaign may seem intrinsically evil and immoral, by the Nazi s reasoning it was completely the opposite. The Nazis actually believed that the Jews were a parasitic people, and thought them to be vermin. The Nazis thought that they were doing the best possible thing for humanity by destroying the Jews. Because they thought the Jews to be detrimental to society, this justified the means by which they were eliminating them. Although I do not agree with this view, the Nazis did. By this logic, who is to judge whether or not it was an immoral action. There is no objective truth in morality, right and wrong are only matters of opinion.

Rachels goes on to say that if Cultural Relativism were to be taken seriously, then the idea of moral progress is called into doubt. He says that, To say we have made progress implies a judgment that present-day society is better, and that is just the sort of transcultural judgment that, according to Cultural Relativism, is impermissible. (491) I do not agree with this. I feel that moral progress is an inevitable part of life, and cannot be avoided. As societies become more technologically advanced, there may be an unavoidable change in the moral standards of that society. For example, hundreds of years ago, most cultures believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and that our planet was the center of the universe. This primitive, ethnocentric moral standard is what people perceived to be the truth. However, as these societies became more advanced, they were able to obtain evidence that the Earth actually revolves around the Sun. This change in thought can be considered moral progress, because societies that have adopted this idea began to question their place in the universe. Contrary to previous beliefs, many societies that have acknowledged the sun as the center of our solar system no longer believe that the entire universe revolves around human existence. This radical change in thinking represented a transformation in moral standards, and it in no way violated the theory of Cultural Relativism.

Rachels continues to claim that a universal set of values exists, which are necessary for a society to survive. These values include caring for infants, telling the truth, and prohibiting murder. He says that because these values are universal, the theory of Cultural Relativism is invalid. (492) I do admit that these values may be common throughout various cultures, but only because the survival of a society is dependant on them. These values are inert characteristics of human nature. Because all humans have self-interest, they will always do what is necessary to survive. The fact that these characteristics of humans are common throughout various cultures does not mean that the theory of Cultural Relativism does not work. Would Rachels contend that the value of eating food in order to live debunks this theory? The values of eating food, drinking water, and even breathing to live, are in the same category of caring for infants in order to ensure the survival of a society. These values are not universal moral standards, but are actually biological traits that are universal to the entire human species. Therefore, the theory of Cultural Relativism is not violated by Rachels s premise.

In The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant advocates the existence of universal laws. Kant stresses that the sole feature that gives an action moral worth is not the outcome that is achieved by the action, but the motive that is behind the action. (Internet) Kant calls this duty the Categorical Imperative, and he gives a formula that will determine whether or not an action is moral. The Categorical Imperative states, “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”(563) In other words, Kant feels that an action is only moral if you can will it upon the entire world, make it a universal law, and still have society function. I feel that a major shortcoming in Kant s Categorical Imperative is that different perspectives on a moral issue can yield different results with his formula. For example, if one is faced with a situation where they must lie in order to save a life, should they lie? According to the Categorical Imperative, if one were to make lying a universal law, then we would live in a contradictory world. If we lived in a contradictory world, then society could not function, thus lying is immoral. However, when put up to the same test, not saving a life would be immoral as well. Kant s answer to this predicament would be to make an exception for this case. Instead testing lying under the categorical imperative, one would have to test lying in order to save a life. By allowing exceptions like this, one could find an exception for anything. Depending upon which way you look at an issue, you can almost always justify an action, and make it an exception to Kant s rule. Because different angles on an issue produce different results with Kant s formula, universal laws cannot exist at all. The idea of Categorical Imperatives, or universal duties is an unachievable ideal standard.

After analyzing many different viewpoints, I have come to conclude that universal moral standards do not exist because it is impossible for everybody everywhere to believe in common ideas; the world s cultures are far too diverse for this. Furthermore, to say that universal moral standards exist would imply that these moral standards transcend human existence, and apply to any rational creatures that exist anywhere in the universe. Although we do not know of any creatures to exist beyond the boundaries of earth, I think that it would be arrogant to say that any human moral standards would apply to these beings as well. In my opinion, the beliefs of different societies, or extra terrestrial beings, cannot be said to be correct or incorrect because this would imply that an objective ethical truth exists. In reality, only the various cultural moral codes are in existence, and therefore all moral standards are actually cultural standards. A search for a universal ethical truth would be a fruitless never-ending roundabout of arguments between different people and different cultures.


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