Pitfalls Of Relativism Essay Research Paper Pitfalls

Pitfalls Of Relativism- Essay, Research Paper

Pitfalls of Relativism-

The year was 1943. Hundreds of Jewish people were being

marched into the gas chambers in accordance with Adolf Hitler’s

orders. In the two years that followed, millions of Jews were killed

and only a fraction survived the painful ordeals at the Nazi German

prison camps. However, all of the chaos ended as World War II came to

a close: the American and British soldiers had won and Hitler’s Third

Reich was no more. A certain ethical position would state that the

anti-sematic Nazi German culture was neither right nor wrong in its

actions. In fact, it is this view of the cultural relativist that

assumes all actions considered right in a culture to be good for that

culture alone. Moreover, the relativist claims that these actions

cannot be judged according to their ethical correctness because there

is no absolute standard by which they could be compared. In the above

case, this position would not allow for the American and British

soldiers to interfere with the Nazis; the relativist would claim that

the Allies were wrong in fighting the Germans due to a cultural

disagreement. In truth, it is the relativist position which has both

negative logical and practical consequences, and negligible benefits.

The first logical consequence of relativism is that the

believer must contradict himself in order to uphold his belief. The

view states that all ethics are relative while putting forth the idea

that no absolute standard of rightness exists. If this is the case,

then what is cultural relativism relative to? From a purely logical

point of view, this idea is absurd, for in assuming that something is

relative one must first have some absolute by which it is judged. Let

the reader consider this example to reinforce the point. A young woman

is five feet tall, and her older friend is six feet tall. The younger

female considers herself short because she looks at her friend and

sees that she is taller than her. It would be illogical to say that

the first woman is short if she were the only female in existence; if

this were the case then there would not be anyone for her to be

relative to in height. However, this logical fallacy is what the

relativist assumes by stating that there is no standard of rightness

for relativity. Quite simply, the cultural relativist is stating that

he is relative to an absolute which he considers non-existent.

One other logical error that the relativist makes lies in his

“Cultural Differences Argument.1″ The premise of this argument is that

“different cultures have different moral codes.” The conclusion that

the relativist derives is that “there is no objective ‘truth’ in

morality, [and therefore] right and wrong are only matters of opinion

[that] vary from culture to culture.2″ The main logical problem with

this argument is that the stated conclusion does not necessarily need

to be the case if the premise is given. The premise states what

different people believe to be true, and the conclusion jumps to the

assumption that this belief must necessarily be the case. Let the

reader consider this instance, which closely follows the form of the

above given argument. Assume that there is a society that believes

that sunning as much as possible in the nude can only benefit a

person. Due to scientific study, it has been experimentally shown that

overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer.

Being in the American culture, people know this to be true and

therefore would disagree with sunning too often. According to the

relativist, since the two cultures disagree concerning the practice of

sunning there is no objective truth about it. However, this is a

faulty conclusion because empirical evidence shows that the first

culture would be wrong in its beliefs. In truth, one cannot “derive a

substantive conclusion about a subject (morally) from the mere fact

that people disagree about it.3″

Having discussed the logical consequences of relativism, it is

necessary to expound upon the effects of its practice. The first of

these repercussions is that the culture determines what is

functionally right and wrong. This means that the individual has no

say in the matter, and if there is a conflict between the two, the

individual’s ethical belief is not given any consideration. Of course,

in theory this does not seem to create an enormous problem; but let

the reader consider this instance of racial segregation in the early

1900s. In this case, southern blacks were kept from attending white

schools, and, sometimes, they were barred from an education entirely.

In the southern culture, this practice was considered normal and

right; the whites believed that blacks were ignorant slaves that did

not deserve such things as proper schooling. The cultural relativist

would state that this southern white culture was right in segregating

the blacks. This is completely false. In fact, there were many

intelligent blacks (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, etc.), who, if

they had been given the chance, could have contributed their ideas to

the white school children. Because of this, it would have been

functionally right to have included such black students in the white

schools. Thus, just because a culture deems an action right, it does

not mean that the action is functionally correct for that culture.

Moreover, the “relative” beliefs of certain cultures have not

only caused dysfunctionality for that culture alone; but, also,

cultural beliefs and actions have caused devastation on a much larger

scale. An example that comes to mind is the quest to gain back the

Holy Land, Jerusalem. In this case, thousands of Muslims were killed

because the Christians believed that Jerusalem was sacred ground. The

relativist might say that each culture was doing what was right; but

when such chaos is the final outcome, relativism seems much less


The second consequence of practicing cultural relativism is

that it is impossible to judge the actions of any culture as to their

morality. In fact, because the relativist believes that what is right

is what is functional for a specific culture, there is no room for

comparing one culture’s actions to another culture’s. This may seem

quite benign to the reader, but under certain circumstances there are

negative ramifications. Suppose that one culture practiced

infanticide, and another society believed that babies are to be

protected from all harm. The relativist would explain that neither

culture was more correct in its views; both societies would be doing

the functionally right action for their culture alone. However, “the

failure to condemn [this] practice does not seem ‘enlightened.4′” Upon

casual observation, it seems that infanticide is wrong, and therefore,

the culture that practices it is also morally incorrect.

Just as one culture could not criticize another society, there

cannot be criticism of a culture from within it. Consider the instance

of a culture that fought others simply to rape and pillage them. The

relativist would not allow for and individual in the belligerent

culture to speak out against their inhumane actions. This is because,

as previously mentioned, the relativist states that one culture’s

actions cannot be judged as to their morality.

A third consequence of practicing relativism is that there

cannot be any moral progress in a culture. Since the relativist does

not allow for any action of a given culture to be objectively right or

wrong, he cannot give the name of progress to any change in a given

society. At best, the cultural relativist can only admit to change in

that culture. Let the reader consider this example of women’s rights.

“Throughout most of Western history the place of women in society was

very narrowly circumscribed. They could not own property: they could

not vote or hold political office; with a few exceptions, they were

not permitted to have paying jobs; and generally they were under the

most absolute control of their husbands.5″ However, in the modern age,

women have been viewed as equal to men (at least most people hold this

position). According to the relativist stance, this cannot be seen as

moral progress, since the relativist does not allow for it.

This third consequence of relativism also leads to an even

worse state: stagnation. Because the relativist does not leave room

for moral advance, there would be no reason to promote moral change in

a given culture. Consider the previously mentioned example of women in

the American society. In the last few years, women have taken on more

productive roles and have exercised their well-deserved freedom (by

joining the workforce, owning their own homes, and rising to positions

in politics, etc.). The relativist would be inclined to say that this

is simply a change in cultural policies that has no moral merit

whatsoever. Moreover, he would state that, since the new policy on

women’s rights does not indicate any progress per-say, then it does

not differ (morally) from the original oppressive state of affairs. In

effect, the cultural relativist allows for a society to remain in a

state of paralysis concerning moral practices.

Thusfar, the logical and practical consequences of relativism

have been discussed; at this point it is necessary to draw attention

to its negligible benefits. The first of these is the idea that

cultural relativism promotes tolerance of differing cultures. Granted,

this statement has some truth to it. For instance, the relativist

would claim that a society that believed in placing jewelry with the

dead so that they may have these possessions in the afterlife is to be

accepted by another culture. In this instance, the relativist belief

seems fairly harmless; however, let the reader consider a more serious

case. Suppose that a society believed in genocide as a normal cultural

function. In this case, the relativist would necessarily adopt the

position that the above mentioned culture should be respected in its

belief. Why should this belief be tolerated, though? If the relativist

position is considered seriously, many such instances of

“over-toleration” can be pointed out. In fact, the outcome of the

position under such circumstances is utter barbarianism.

Another remote benefit of the position is that it “warns us…

about the danger of assuming that all our preferences are based on

some absolute rational standard.6″ The relativist may sight the

example of the mound-men, an early culture which piled their dead in

the field and then covered them with mud (in the shape of a mound).

His argument would be that, even though the American culture does not

carry out such activities, the early culture was not objectively (or

rationally) wrong. Once again, this makes good sense, for if cultures

were to uphold this strict objective standard, then they would be

culturalcentric and totally unaccepting. However, let the reader

consider this example of the primitive headhunters. As part of a

religious ritual, these societies would hunt and kill people from

other cultures in order to keep their skulls as trophies. From the

relativist perspective, the primitive culture is doing what is right

for them and its practices cannot be judged as immoral. However, the

action of killing without just cause is immoral, and since this

culture practiced it, the culture should be said to be committing a

moral outrage. In such circumstances, an absolute standard of morality

is needed in order to halt wrong acts.

One final negligible benefit of the relativist position is the

idea that the position advocates keeping an open mind. The relativist

would explain that just because one culture’s ideals differ from

another’s, one should not automatically label these ideals as immoral.

In some cases, this is quite important. The far-fetched example of

aliens coming to Earth with their customs comes to mind. Here, just

because this new culture may have very different, yet harmless

beliefs, other cultures should not condone these beliefs. However, an

example can be given in which an open mindshould not be extended. Let

the reader consider the recent crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the

Serbs and Croats are “ethnically cleansing” villages in the area. It

seems quite immoral to kill others simply because of their ethnicity,

yet the relativist would consider such and incident with an open mind.

Obviously, there are certain events that cannot be considered in such

a way.

In the final analysis, it is the relativist position which has

both negative logical and practical consequences, and negligible

benefits. The logical consequences include the fact that the

relativist must contradict himself in order to uphold his belief, and

that his “Cultural differences Argument1″ is not sound. The problems

of actually practicing cultural relativism are numerous. They include

the fact that the culture determines what is right and wrong, that it

is impossible (being a relativist) to judge a culture morally, and

that there cannot be any moral progress in a culture per-say. As

discussed, the negligible benefits of cultural relativism such as

tolerance, lacking of an absolute standard, and an open mind can only

be applied to a limited range of instances. As previously shown,

extreme relativism “in its vulgar and unregenerate form7″ leads to

stagnation of cultural morals and passive acceptance of ethical

injustice. Of course, just as in any ethical theory, there are some

things to be learned from it. One of these is the idea of not being

too critical of other cultures. Also, the theory shows the importance

of not becoming so culturalcentric that one looses the ability to

learn from other socities. In truth, if more cultures tempered their

tolerance with wisdom, then many of the evils that plague us could be

effectively eliminated.

End Notes

1. Rachels, James. “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism.”

Reason and Responsibility. Ed. Joel Feinberg. p. 454.

2. Rachels, p. 454.

3. Rachels, p. 454.

4. Rachels, p. 455.

5. Rachels, p. 455.

6. Rachels, p. 457.

7. Williams, Bernard. “Relativism.” Reason and Responsibility. Ed.

Joel Feinberg. p. 451.



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