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klara

cultural relativism

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hi..started writing this essay on cultural relativism but not sure whether everything looks good..will appreciate any feedback..many thanks

Cultural relativism is the idea that different cultures have different moral codes. What one group might accept as morally correct might be abhorrent to another and vice versa To this end, author James Rachels explains that a “universal truth in ethics...is a myth” and this is because morals and ethics are entirely culturally based. In order to deem one system “right” or “wrong” there would need to be an “independent standard...by which they may be judged” but no such system can exist without taking on some cultural bias. One advantage to cultural relativism could be a more open-minded attitude to cultures that differ from our own. If it was generally understood that no one culture’s ethical code was correct, only different, it might help bridge longstanding disagreements between different peoples.
There are however, a few exceptions to this. If one group believes that the sun revolves around the earth, that does not inherently make it true. There is scientific evidence that the earth actually revolves around the sun. That being said, just because something might be true does not necessarily mean everyone needs to know about it or accept it. On that same vein, there are definitely some drawbacks to cultural relativism. The Eskimos for example, did not believe that infanticide was morally wrong. In their culture, keeping a manageable population was very important. That’s not to say that Eskimos just murdered babies left and right. Eskimo mothers could only look after one baby every four years so if she had more, that was an issue.  Adopting out babies to infertile tribe members was always the first resort but being a nomadic people with few resources, infanticide was the only way that the tribe as a whole could survive. Even so, many in Western cultures would see this as morally evil.
Rachels goes on to explain more problems with taking cultural relativism seriously. The first would be that no one would be able to criticize or claim to be superior to another culture. While this might seem like an advantage in acceptance and diplomacy, in reality this would mean that no one could criticize practices such as genocide or slavery. In addition, cultural relativism dictates that morality comes from a culture’s views at the time. Most people believe that society can be improved in some way, but in a world where cultural relativism is law, criticizing your own society would be forbidden.
Further on in the article, Rachels mentions that different customs do not equate to different values, When it comes to lying, there is no culture on earth that holds no value in telling the truth. We know this because if everyone lied all the time, communication would be extremely difficult, if not impossible and communication is an essential part of any society. Taking this point a little further, murder could never be an accepted form of ethics in a society. If everyone was free to murder whom they liked at any time, no one could feel secure. People would avoid contact with others as much as possible and thus, once again society would collapse.
To conclude, cultural relativism has merit in theory, but not necessarily in practice. It is invaluable to understand that just because another society does something that differs from your own, doesn’t mean that they are wrong. However, it is also important to recognize that a line has to be drawn when it comes to acts such as racism, mass murder, and slavery. Additionally, as Rachels points out, humans in general have a very similar set of values despite coming from sometimes vastly different cultural backgrounds. While the execution of those values might differ, there exists a set of morals shared by every society today that without which, humanity as a whole would cease to exist.

References:

  1. Abdul-Jabbar, K. (2015) Cornrows and Cultural Appropriation: The Truth About Racial Identity Theft. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4011171/cornrows-and-cultural-appropriation-the-truth-about-racial-identity-theft/
  2. Cultural Identity. JetWriters. Retrieved from http://jetwriters.com/cultural-identity-essay/
  3. On Relativism – Cultural and Ethical. ELON. Retrieved from http://facstaff.elon.edu/sullivan/rachels-relativism.htm
  4. Rachels, J. The Challenge of Cultural Relativism. Retrieved from http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwphl/Graham2010/Rachels.pdf
  5. Morris, W. (2015) The Year We Obsessed Over Identity. NY Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/11/magazine/the-year-we-obsessed-over-identity.html?_r=0

 

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I'll read it later today, but just wanted to comment on just the first sentence: " Cultural relativism is the idea that different cultures have different moral codes. ".

Don't you think a moral code is one aspect of a culture? If so, the different cultures do have different moral codes. That's just a fact. The question still remain: are they just as good because it's all subjective? or, are there some universal truths?

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klara,

Welcome to the forum.

Could you tell me what the distinctions are between cultural relativism and moral relativism? As you describe cultural relativism, the two appear to be indistinguishable. I've seen many discussions on this forum taking up a variety of moral conundrums, but of course, the standard of morality is based on Objectivist ethics, usually. If you are familiar with Objectivism, then you know that morality is based on objective reality. Subjective beliefs are common and are an important part of traditions in many cultures, but the common element is that the code of morality is based on subjectivity in one form or another. Usually, traditional beliefs hold that morality is revealed through divine revelation or, often in more modern societies, opinion by dominant majority.

It is true that geographic conditions determine special needs of isolated societies, and may necessitate brutality, even infanticide, or other savage means of survival. But we are living in a modern age of industrialization; one-child policies and public dismemberment of criminals are not necessary for civilization. Rational self-interest and an objective sense of justice could one day influence remote global cultures, which are predominantly influenced by their past. Eskimos may create improvements in living conditions, and allow for families to plan for however many children they can support based on their abilities and access to resources, rather than tradition. Traditions are quaint, and the traditions that make us happy should be preserved for that purpose. But if the tradition is one in which violence and force are unnecessary, such traditions must be relegated to the past, to be studied in history, but not practiced as an institution. Slavery in the English colonies of North America was born out of necessity; abolishing that peculiar institution proved to be extremely difficult, because Southern slave-owners believed they had a natural, even a God-given right to own another man, woman, or child, to buy and sell, and in some cases abuse at their discretion. If one lived in the antebellum South, cultural relativism would dictate that slavery was acceptable. By definition of Objectivist ethics, slavery in any form is a most heinous crime. In matters of morality, the ideal code of human behavior is based on objectivity, definitely not traditions.

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Klara,

The type of Relativism, of which you write did not just spring into existence out of thin air.  It's modern form (often found among academics) is derived (knowingly or unknowingly) from Marx's ideas regarding class struggle (Capital vs. Labor) and is tied into his pseudo-scientific, Hegelian Historical Determinism - in which a clash (dialectic) between classes had, throughout history, led to different epochs (Primitive Man, Slavery, Feudal, Capitalism) and would inevitably and deterministically led to Socialism and then Communism.  It has since morphed into the "relativism" of which you have identified, and which is widely accepted by many people.

It assumes (again, knowingly or unknowingly) determinism and a lack of free will, along the lines of, "The ideas of individuals do not shape society, but the opposite - society shapes the ideas of individual's."  One's relationship to one's culture is entirely Subjective, per this line of reasoning.

This is of course, rejected by Objectivism.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.   - Marx, Preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859).

 

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17 hours ago, klara said:

hi..started writing this essay on cultural relativism but not sure whether everything looks good..will appreciate any feedback..many thanks

Welcome to OO, klara.

In the opening paragraph you paraphrase using citations from James Rachels. (Your references are not indicated in your essay, I only looked over your essay.)

17 hours ago, klara said:

To this end, author James Rachels explains that a “universal truth in ethics...is a myth” and this is because morals and ethics are entirely culturally based. In order to deem one system “right” or “wrong” there would need to be an “independent standard...by which they may be judged” but no such system can exist without taking on some cultural bias.

In the closing paragraph is this all attributed to Rachels as well?

17 hours ago, klara said:

Additionally, as Rachels points out, humans in general have a very similar set of values despite coming from sometimes vastly different cultural backgrounds. While the execution of those values might differ, there exists a set of morals shared by every society today that without which, humanity as a whole would cease to exist.

From the first paragraph is gleaned,  “universal truth in ethics...is a myth”.

The can be extracted from the last paragraph, "there exists a set of morals shared by every society"

If both of these are directly attributable to Rachels, (again, I did not read the links provided in the references) "a set of morals shared by every society" is just another way to say a "universal truths in ethics [exist]".

As Detective Columbo might say, "I have a problem here. On one hand, universal truths in ethics exist. On the other hand, universal truths in ethics are a myth. Either they exist or they are a myth. Can you see my problem here?"

 

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