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‘Discussing cultural relativism with cultural relativists is like playing tennis with some guy who says, “your ace is just a social construct.” ’
– Mark Steyn
In an increasingly politically sensitive world, often we find ourselves judging other people, cultures and walks of life but then instantly asking, are we justified in doing that? Accordingly, there is a branch of ethics which is dedicated to questions of a similar nature. We are consistently judging the moral practices of others, whether it be women’s rights in the Middle East or issues of free speech in North Korea. However, do we have the right to judge these cultures? Is it not the cultural conditions that deem these practises appropriate, and relevant? Who are we to criticise another culture, by standards and principles which we have set, but similarly not always adhered to?
Cultural relativism is a theory which aims to mediate these cultural-ethical qualms. Cultural relativism suggests that moral truths or standards do not pertain across all cultures, but rather, that they are relative. Cultural relativism offers, that each culture has their own set of moral standards which determine what is right or wrong. Accordingly, we are not justified in judging other cultures because each culture has a different moral code. However, I struggle to accept the cultural relativist perspective, because frankly, I find it does not answer enough, or give any objective standard of morality for me to live by. If I have not lost you yet, I wish to show you how cultural relativism is an unconvincing excuse for why moral facts exist in some cultures and cease to exist in others.
I am going to demonstrate to you in the next few hundred words, how, whilst cultural relativism seems to raise important ideas about judgement and sensitivity, it evades making any concrete conclusions about ethical standards. I myself, identify as a moral absolutist. I support that a culture-independent standard of morality exists in the universe – particularly one which protects the welfare and autonomy of beings. To prove to you why you should perhaps consider a moral absolutist attitude towards ethics, if you could even care to, I will lay bare the weaknesses of cultural relativism, and then offer you my own ideas.
The Tolerance Argument is the first argument for cultural relativism, which makes the following claims about moral facts:
It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures, including with respect to morality. Instead, we should practise tolerance of other cultures.
The “rightness” and “wrongness” of particular actions vary from culture to culture
Essentially, the Tolerance Argument is founded in a desire to bring about tolerance in the world, which does not judge, but rather tolerates other cultural ethical practices.
Yet such an obsessive desire to spread tolerance is an inherent weakness within cultural relativism. Where the Tolerance Argument offers that it arrogant for anyone to judge another culture, it rejects any right for people to make a claim about morality. The purpose of moral judgments IS to be critical. However, the tolerance argument supposes that we cannot cast these judgments on other cultures, creating a tension between the essence of ethics and cultural relativism. Take the contemporary issue of FGM. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is practised in some parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The respective cultures often enforce it upon adolescent females, for the purpose of fulfilling religious beliefs, preserving virginity or enhancing male sexual pleasure. It is frequently performed without consent.
The cultural relativist would respond accordingly.
It is arrogant for me to judge another culture. Therefore, it is arrogant for me to judge the practice of FGM. Whilst it would be considered wrong in my culture, it is right in their culture, and therefore I tolerate it.
The Tolerance Argument disregards moral violations of human autonomy, instead offering merely that our cultural differences cause our conflictual attitudes towards acts such as FGM. This seems implausible to me, whereby its blatant denial of human rights violates some form of higher moral order. Cultural relativism’s denial of our ability to make a moral judgement about FGM supposes that we should allow for acts of grave injustice to be accepted, which to me, seems outrageous. Furthermore, the Tolerance Argument offers that we should be respectful of cultures that are themselves, intolerant. An example of this is the punishment of stoning of homosexual people in Brunei. Whilst 2019 media reports suggested a consensus agreed that such a law was blatantly immoral, the cultural relativist must, by default, embrace a tolerance for such a culture. This creates an immediate contradiction, as an argument which is founded in the tolerance of other cultures simultaneously condones intolerant cultural behaviour. A society which vehemently supports cultural relativism in the name of tolerance loses the capacity to form any judgment at all, opposing itself to the sheer function of metaethics.
Another argument which is in favour of cultural relativism is the Cultural Code Setting (CCS) Argument, as follows:
P1. The moral code of a society prescribes what is right within that society.
P2. Society A prescribes that action X is right.
(C): Action X is morally right, at least within Society A.
The CCS Argument suggests that what is right within a society is simply contingent on norms. Yet, by assuming that a culture guides its own morality, we create implications for how a society can welcome moral reform. Social progress implies that old moral standards would need to be replaced with a new set of moral standards. However, CCS makes it unclear as to what standard a society should judge something as better by, if the societies themselves are the arbiters of what is good or bad. If Society X does not have any standard of morality to judge their actions by, other than the one they have formed, it seems difficult to understand how they will ever overwrite their constructions of the good. The social outlier is an example of someone who might not conform to society, and would, by the logic of the CSS argument, be morally wrong. The individual case would struggle to challenge moral facts within society, since only the society can determine moral goodness. However, when we practically apply philosophy to the real world, we can observe that cultures are not monoliths. Take Martin Luther King Jr., whose ideals of racial consciousness and desire to end segregation were seen as revolutionary and non-conformist. Since the ideals of the society are correct according to CSS, which would have supported segregation and the degradation of African Americans, it would have been impossible for Martin Luther King Jr. to prove his controversial ideals to be morally correct. A society which is dependent on itself to prescribe goodness seems inherently tunnel visioned. Cultural relativism, by the logic of the CCS argument, restricts moral progress in its cyclical self-dependence.
In grappling with cultural relativism, I found that my understanding of morality is one that believes in higher levels of authority – that which is called moral absolutism. After reflecting on various cultural ethical variances, I concluded that there are objective moral standards which apply to all cultures. These standards protect the autonomy and welfare of beings. Where there may seem to be a variation of moral duties between cultures, there is instead merely a variation in moral beliefs.
A philosopher by the name of Martha Nussbaum wrote prolifically on the issue of FGM and dealt with cultural relativism in her endeavour to produce a standard of moral goodness. However, where the cultural relativist permits FGM, she supports it is inherently wrong. Instead, she offers that we must insist on the universal importance of protecting spheres of choice and freedom of people so that they can pursue their own existence. Like Nussbaum, I support moral universals in-so-far as they protect the autonomy and welfare of human beings. Whilst we may observe that a whole culture supports a belief, which give it an illusion of justification, Nussbaum offers that if the “voices” within a culture were empowered with more agency, they might respond differently to the prescribed moral beliefs. I feel similarly in that whilst the universe allows for different cultures to feel differently towards different issues, there ultimately is, or ought to be, one standard of goodness to defer to whether or not we are aware of it.
We can see an objective existence of moral facts in daily life, around the world. For example, lying, murder and stealing are frequently condemned in social upbringings. Surely this alludes to some form of greater binding moral duties for all society. If these absolute truths did not exist, nothing would be able to explain why there are moral duties which bind all cultures, other than coincidence.
Some would still say that my attempt to produce a list of appropriate moral behaviour demotes and shames some facets of cultural life. However, I would respond that I only wish to do so in-so-far that such a list would protect inalienable human welfare and autonomy. Even so, I am faced with my own objections. Where would my theory make space for other beings, like animals? Vegetarianism in Hindi culture, or Japanese whaling? My theory offers, that there is a correct answer to the consumption of meat or the hunting of wildlife, even though it is clearly the cultural setting which fosters these attitudes. Though I want moral absolutism to dominate metaethics, a part of me sympathises with the cultural relativist, who understands that morality has to have some degree of subjectivity.
The transcendence of moral ideals across cultures is puzzling for philosophers. I maintain that a set of universal moral duties exist which constitute the best understanding of cultural variance in morality. Whilst there may not be an answer to every moral dilemma, I still support that, out there, there are objective moral standards which transcend all cultures in the name of protecting the autonomy and welfare of beings. These standards should be universally pursued as the good.