Topic 1: Cultural Relativism
Cultural relativism, as defined by Ruth Benedict in her article A Defense of Cultural Relativism, is the theory that human morality is based on the society in which an individual is a part of. The basis of a society?s morality comes from cultural traditions, habits, and what the majority believes to be right and wrong. Benedict uses her anthropological studies to support her ideas concerning cultural relativism. The theory of cultural relativism is criticized and questioned by many; and it is considered one of the weakest arguments pertaining to the basis of morality. Some of these criticisms come from William Shaw in his paper Relativism in Ethics. In his paper, Shaw sets out to prove that Cultural Relativism is not a strong enough theory on which to base the existence of human morality. In this paper I will discuss the ideas of cultural relativism and the problems with them. Whether cultural relativism is a viable basis for morality or not, society must play some roll in determining the way people act and perceive right and wrong.
Cultural relativism as an explanation for the morals of human beings is a logical and convincing idea. According to the theory, people base their individual thoughts, actions and beliefs on the morals of the society in which they are a part. The individual builds their own morality around what society believes is good, bad, right or wrong. Society sets its own morals by choosing a direction in one way or another on a certain belief. This belief is then incorporated into society and becomes the norm. Anything not considered to be moral is tossed aside and considered to be abnormal. This is what the theory of cultural relativism is based on. It is an explanation of why different societies have different ideas concerning morals.
According to Ruth Benedict, the normality of a society is defined by its culture as what is good and abnormality as what is bad. This in turn defines what is socially acceptable and unacceptable in a society. Views as to what is good and what is bad changes from culture to culture. For example, the society in which we live believes it is morally acceptable to eat animals, and we see no harm in that. Another society might believe that the eating of animals is inhumane and thus immoral. The two societies disagree as to what is right or wrong, moral or immoral on the behavior of eating animals, and cultural relativism explains why. The norms of a society are the standards by which to live. Those who live their lives within the moral boundaries of society are accepted and viewed as a good, moral people. Those who do not conform to the norms of society are seen as outcasts and are not accepted by the whole of society. As cultural relativism explains, a person who does not follow the norms of one society may well fit into another society where their views are more socially acceptable.
Ruth Benedict?s argument supporting cultural relativism is a convincing explanation of the morality of individuals. Be it convincing or not, the idea of cultural relativism is a weak view of the basis of morality. Arguments opposed to cultural relativism are set forth by William Shaw in his paper Relativism in Ethics. Shaw concludes with the dismissal of cultural relativism as a valid theory of the explanation of social morals.
Shaw starts out in his paper with the explanation of cultural relativism, much like I have previously, explaining the basis of the theory. He then points out several arguments that question the theory of cultural relativism. The first opposition introduced by Shaw is the question ?What proportion of a society must believe in a certain behavior or idea to make it moral?? In cultural relativism, what is believed to be right or wrong is a standard set by what the majority believes is right or wrong. The minority of a society can never be right unless it can convince the majority to agree with them. Shaw goes on asking what makes up a majority? Is there a set percentage of people that have to agree on something to make it moral or immoral? If that percentage is set high then it will be difficult meeting the criteria of a moral majority. One example Shaw gives has to do with abortion. If 75% of people are needed to make a behavior (in this case abortion) or belief right, what happens if say only 60% of society condone abortion? The majority of society believes that abortion is morally permissible, but it is still wrong because the majority did not reach the criteria of 75%. If the majority of society is overwhelming on an issue then the question becomes less of a problem. In contrast to having a high standard for a majority is setting a low one. If a majority is considered to be 51% of the people then the problem of moral ?flip-flopping?, as Shaw calls it, becomes a problem. One year 51% of people think abortion is good and therefore moral. The next year only 49% of people agree with abortion making it immoral. The issue of abortion in society can and probably will continue to change as time goes on. This is one example of a problem with majority rules in the theory of cultural relativism.
Another question raised by Shaw concerning the relevance of cultural relativism is ?what defines a society?? According to Shaw we are all a part of several different societies. For example, I am a member of the society of the United States, the society of the University of Minnesota, and my own social society consisting of my friends. Each of these individual societies share the majority of the morals that I follow, but they all have several of their own individual moral standards not shared with the others. Which society that I am a part of sets the standards of right and wrong that I am to live up to? The relativist would say that each society that I am a part of is right in its own way, even though I may be getting inconsistent moral ideals from each society.
Shaw concludes that cultural relativism is ?false as a theory of normative ethics?. He states that the questions he set forth are not to refute relativism but to seek answers. Answers a relativist, such as Ruth Benedict, can not give. According to Shaw, relativists maintain that society sets the ideas of what is right and wrong and ?this is the only standard by which an individual?s actions can be judged?. Shaw goes on to contend that not only does a relativist avoid giving a decent reason in support of their theory, cultural relativism does not coincide with our values of morality. A relativist believes that whatever a society considers to be right and moral is right and moral for them. Shaw concludes his article by saying ??it seems clear that a society that applauded random torture of children would be immoral, even if it thought such a practice was right. It would simply be mistaken, and disastrously so.? With this statement, Shaw states his disagreement with ethical relativism.
After reading the two articles I used to write this paper I feel I got a good understanding of the concept of cultural relativism. When I first read Ruth Benedict?s article supporting cultural relativism I was sold. I have always believed that the morals individuals hold are a direct result of the society they are a part of day in and day out. People want to do what is right so that they can play a productive and respectful roll in society. If a person did not abide by the social standards in a society it would be hard to be respected. After reading the second article, this one written by William Shaw, my belief in cultural relativism was in question. Shaw pointed out several key arguments that really made the idea of cultural relativism lose its black and white simplicity that Benedict proposed in her article.
Even though I do not believe that cultural relativism should be accepted as a theory on which to base the way we live; I do believe that society plays some roll in the way we live our lives. Cultural Relativism is too simple of a theory on which to base the entire existence of human morals on. I believe that people for the most part act the way society wants them to act. If people did not follow socially acceptable standards they would not function well in the society. This would be undesirable for both the individual and the society. This is what society is all about and what makes it work. If everyone followed their own ideas of what is moral and immoral society could not function. I believe that morals come from more than one source and no one thing can be given credit for the morals an individual possesses. Society may play a roll in the morality of human beings, but it does not account for all morality as claimed in the theory of cultural relativism.