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Such differences may lead us to question whether there are any universal moral principles or whether morality is merely a matter of "cultural taste" (Velasquez, Andre, Shanks and Meyer: 1).
If there is no transcendent ethical or moral standard, then cultural relativists argue that culture becomes the ethical norm for determining whether an action is right or wrong. This ethical system is known as cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the view that all ethical truth is relative to a specific culture. Whatever a cultural group approves is considered right within that culture. Conversely, whatever a cultural group condemns is wrong (Relativism: 2).
The key to the doctrine of "cultural relativism" is that right and wrong can only be judged relative to a specified society. There is no ultimate standard of right and wrong by which to judge culture. Proponents of cultural relativism believe this cultural diversity proves that culture alone is responsible for our morality. There is no soul or spirit or mind or conscience. Moral relativists say that what we perceive as moral convictions or conscience are the byproducts of culture (Anderson: 2).
Some of the main arguments for ethical relativism are the following: Actions or morals that are right for one person are not always right for another person. This argument is a form of subjectivism. A famous proponent of this view was John Dewey, often considered the father of American education. He taught that moral standards were like language and therefore the result of custom. Language evolved over time and eventually became organized by a set of principles known as grammar. But language also changes over time to adapt to the changing circumstances of its culture. Likewise, Dewey argued, ethics were also the product of an evolutionary process. There are no fixed ethical norms (as cited by Anderson: 1). These are merely the result of particular cultures attempting to organize a set of moral principles. But these principles can also change over time to adapt to the changing circumstances of the culture. This would also mean that different forms of morality evolved in different communities. Thus, there would be no universal ethical principles. What may be right in one culture would be wrong in another culture, and vice versa (as cited by Anderson: 1). Together with Velasquez, Andre, Shanks and Meyer that for example "the practice of slavery in pre-Civil War U.S. society or the practice of apartheid in South Africa was wrong despite the beliefs of those societies. The treatment of Jews in Nazi society was morally reprehensible regardless of the beliefs of Nazi society" (2). It is certainly true that a primitive culture might value genocide, treachery, deception, even torture. While we may not like these traits in modern enlightened societies, a true follower of cultural relativism could not say these are wrong since they are merely the product of cultural adaptation (Anderson: 1). Another author gives this example:"She is gay, and I am straight so morals are relative." In this example there is a difference in behavior and beliefs of two persons. But having a different view of what is right or wrong to an individual does not negate that there are objective moral standards of what is right or wrong. Disagreement over moral principles does not deliver a strong enough foundation for ethical/moral relativism (Johnson: 1).
A prominent figure who expanded on Dewey's ideas was William Graham Sumner of Yale University. He believed that what our conscience tells us depends solely upon our social group. The moral values we hold are not part of our moral nature. They are part of our training and upbringing (Anderson: 2). Sumner argued in his book, Folkways: "World philosophy, life policy, right, rights, and morality are all products of the folkways" (as cited by Anderson: 2).
In other words, what we perceive as conscience is merely the product of culture upon our minds through childhood training and cultural influence. There are no universal ethical principles, merely different cultural conditioning (Anderson: 2).
Sumner studied all sorts of societies (primitive and advanced), and was able to document numerous examples of cultural relativism. Although many cultures promoted the idea, for example, that a man could have many wives, Sumner discovered that in Tibet a woman was encouraged to have many husbands. He also described how some Eskimo tribes allowed deformed babies to die by being exposed to the elements. In the Fiji Islands, aged parents were killed (Anderson: 2). Sumner believed that this diversity of moral values clearly demonstrated that culture is the sole determinant of our ethical standards. In essence, culture determines what is right and wrong. And different cultures come to different ethical conclusions (Anderson: 2).
The strength of cultural relativism is that it allows us to withhold moral judgments about the social practices of another culture. In fact, proponents of cultural relativism would say that cultural diversity proves that culture alone is responsible for our morality. There is no soul or spirit or mind or conscience. Cultural relativists believe that there are no universal moral principles in societies. What we perceive as convictions or conscience are the byproducts of culture (Anderson: 2).
In my opinion, cultural perspective can certainly help us understand why certain actions are considered right or wrong by a particular culture. For example, an ancient society might have considered dyeing one's hair green to be a punishable offense. Most modern societies would find that strange, if not oppressive. Yet, good cultural perspective might tell us more. If we were to find out that green hair was a sign of a prostitute, we would understand that it wasn't the hair color itself, but the prostitution that was truly considered "wrong" (Cultural Relativism: All Truth is Local: 1). Our awareness that people in different cultural systems can have different perspectives of the world emphasizes the importance of looking beyond our own culture's frontiers and studying other cultural groups in order to identify universal procedures of moral behavior (see Bundy: 1). But the strengths of understanding socio-cultures differences, in my opinion, is also a major weakness. Cultural relativism excuses us from judging moral practices of societies (see Anderson: 2). There is no ultimate standard of good or evil, so every judgment about right and wrong is a product of society. Therefore, any opinion on morality or ethics is subject to the cultural perspective of each person. Ultimately, this would mean that no moral or ethical system can be considered the "best," or "worst," and no particular moral or ethical position can actually be considered "right" or "wrong" (Cultural Relativism: All Truth is Local: 1). In my opinion, Eckensberger is very right when he argues that" morality is one of the control systems of culture and it is a unique one" (25).
The contradiction of cultural relativism becomes apparent when looking at it from a logical view. The basic premise of the concept is that "truth is relative" (Cultural Relativism: All Truth is Local: 1). Rather than simply saying, "we need to understand the morals of other cultures," it says, "we cannot judge the morals of other cultures," regardless of the reasons for their actions. There is no longer any perspective, and it becomes literally impossible to argue that anything a culture does is right or wrong. Holding to strict cultural relativism, it is not possible to say that human sacrifice is "wrong," or that respect for the elderly is "right." After all, those are products of the culture. This takes any talk of morality right over the cliff, and into meaningless gibberish (Cultural Relativism: All Truth is Local: 1). Saying that some morals are "better," even if they are not "the best," still implies that some ultimate standard that's being used to make the judgment (Cultural Relativism: All Truth is Local: 2).
Coetzee, Louw and Jooste take a more moderate view towards the rightness of the theory of ethical relativism by pointing out that "Cross-cultural studies & #8230;.. indicate that differences in cultural norms are associated with different expectations for behavior, attitudes, and emotional expression. These culturally variant expectations will emphasize different aspects of morality. As a result, perceptions of morality, as well as the development of morality, tend to differ between cultures and ethnic groups. Therefore it is not inconceivable that the perceptions of morality between Zulu and Tswana [school] learners for instance may vary" (4).
Most ethicists reject the theory of ethical relativism. Some claim that while the moral practices of societies may differ, the fundamental moral principles underlying these practices do not. For example, in some societies, killing one's parents after they reached a certain age was common practice, stemming from the belief that people were better off in the afterlife if they entered it while still physically active and vigorous. While such a practice would be condemned in our society, we would agree with these societies on the…[continue]
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