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What exactly is ‘cultural relativism’ in metaethics?

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    Cultural relativism is a view in metaethics regarding the moral codes of different cultures and provides an initially appealing way in which to incorporate all cultures values into the world without offending or discriminating towards anyone. However, this theory has a number of significant problems that seem to make it un unsuitable theory for the way the world operates. In this essay I will explain what cultural relativism is in metaethics, and then go on to look at the criticisms of the theory and attempt to offer a reply to each one.

    I will also address the issue of cultural tolerance and its place in cultural relativism. Finally reaching a conclusion that cultural relativism provides valuable lessons regarding our perceptions of morals and keeping an open mind, however the theory itself is lacking and seems untrue of moral truth. In order to understand what cultural relativism actually is in the discipline of metaethics, one must understand what metaethics is itself. Metaethics theorises about normative ethical questions which focus on what is morally correct and how we should act.

    Metaethical theory, therefore, is “concerned with the nature of moral concepts and judgments” . Cultural relativism is one of a number of prominent theories within metaethics and deals with the idea that “moral utterances are truth-apt ” and that the truth of each statement or social assertion is decided upon by the traditions, practices and beliefs held by a society. To further understand this concept consider this; the statement that ‘rape is not wrong’ would be true if a majority of a community significantly approved of rape, which can be examined empirically.Relativism seems to conflict with the practices of the Western society and its overall promotion of the right and wrong ways people are to act.

    However this should not grounds for dismissal, we could simply be wrong in our efforts to assert the ‘right’ values on other cultures and in believing ourselves to be superior to say Iraq in the case of the United States we may be merely highlighting our arrogance. I will continue by assessing whether cultural relativism is true by dealing with some key criticisms of the theory.The basic premise, around which cultural relativism is based, is the observation that ‘different cultures have different moral codes’, for example Eskimos who often practice infanticide, a widely condemned practice in Western cultures. The cultural differences argument leads on to cultural relativism asserts that there is no universal, all-encompassing moral code by which to judge the superiority of a culture’s moral code against that of another culture.

    As moral truth is subjective, according to cultural relativism, it would be, states Rachels , “[M]ere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples.We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures. ” The idea of cultural relativism at first seems appealing; all cultures respect the others rights to have different moral codes and the world works in harmony tolerating each others ways. However, as we will see there are a number of weaknesses in the cultural relativist stand which need to be addressed, and advantages and disadvantages that need to be assessed, in order to ascertain whether cultural relativism is true.

    One of these weaknesses concerns the validity of the cultural differences argument that underlies cultural relativism.Rachels points out that the premise concerning what people believe does not logically follow onto the conclusion given in the argument; the fact that different cultures have differing moral codes does not logically lead to the idea that there is no objective moral truth. She argues that “the mere fact that people disagree ” does not lead us to conclude there is no objective truth in other disciplines such as geography, such as differing beliefs about the shape of the earth, therefore “there is no reason to think that if there is moral truth everyone will know about it “.The argument questions the nature of the cultural relativism, however a reply to that may simply be that morals, unlike the earth, are not tangible and consequently how can a universal moral code exist like a physical piece of matter? It can’t and thus there is no objective moral standard.

    The ability to judge social customs more morally superior or inferior to each other is also not possible with cultural relativism.This is perhaps one of the clearest implications of the theory, yet the practice of condemnation and criticism of different cultures morals has been, and still is, highly prevalent among societies. “We would be also be stopped from criticizing other, less benign practices” states Rachels, for example we would not be able to criticise the practice of child labour in a society or an extremist anti-theistic society waging war on a highly Muslim society. Would a failure to denounce these practices seem progressive? No, according to Rachels.

    Once again however, is this ground for dismissal of the theory? Hardly. As Herodotus points out: [I]f anyone …was given the opportunity of choosing [from all the societies] the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably choose…his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs… to be the best. Just because our moral practices differ from those we wish to condemn, and our upbringing in a particular culture leads us to prejudice against those codes that differ from our own, it cannot surely make our own morals correct.

    Undoubtable those committing the ‘wrongdoings’ believe that their own practices are far more enlightened than the cultures who criticise them, thus it would be ridiculous to suggest that one could objectively compare a culture against her own and call one superior. Moral advancement as a society would also not exist if cultural relativism is true. Perceived social progress throughout history, such as the increased rights of women in Western cultures as well as the abolition of slavery, have all been considered morally good social advancements although this is a highly Western influenced perspective.According to Rachels : To say we have made progress implies a judgement that the present-day society is [better off than the previously], and that is just the sort of transcultural judgement that, according to Cultural Relativism, is impermissible.

    She believes that it “makes sense” to think that the changes are actual moral advancements, while still conceding that there are further changes and reforms that need to be made.Is it fair to assume that moral changes such as those aforementioned constituted moral progress just because it ‘makes sense’? Perhaps the changes are merely seen as advancements to satisfy the human want for greater, better things. Dewey argues that these changes are simply adaptations to changing circumstances and conditions experienced by different cultures. Morals evolve over time to suit different cultures’ situations and as such there is no universal moral standard by which any code can be deemed superior.

    For example in a society that is overpopulated to the point of starvation or one in which food is extremely hard to obtain, infanticide may be morally accepted, while a stable society with an abundance of food may condemn infanticide. Which society is better? Each society would believe that their own moral code was the most correct, superior to the other and far more logical, though through some level of empathy it is clear that if the two cultures switched conditions, their practices would certainly change over time according to their morals, though it would be difficult to call the change moral advancement.Cultural relativism also seems to suggest that one could determine whether an action was morally correct or not, simply by consulting the moral code of one’s society . Though if, for example, a person was living in Germany in the time of Hitler’s dictatorship, say 1940, and he was wondering if the Holocaust was morally correct, he would find that according to the culture he lived in, that it was in fact correct.

    The implications of this are, according to Rachels, that we would not only be unable to criticise the moral code other societies, we would be restricted from criticising our own moral code. She believes that “few of us think that our society’s code is perfect; we can think of ways it might be improved,” but our inability to criticise our own society’s moral code restricts us from doing progressing and ultimately we would be forced to accept a sub-standard code.This argument is based on the assumption that most people in the society know what will make the moral code better and improved, yet this assumption is wildly unfounded. Even the assumption were true, the improvement suggested could merely be a moral code that is changed so as to better suit the conditions that the society lives under , rather than a code that is clearly better in every way than the previous code.

    If something is better suited, though, surely it is more advanced than it previously was.Hence the notion that morals change to meet new pressures rather than advance is wrong since the conditions change comes before a reform in a moral code, and the new morals are better suited to the new conditions than the old ones faced with the same conditions, thus they have advanced, become better. If moral advancement over time can occur by a single culture then there must be ground for trans-cultural moral criticisms and judgment. The notion of tolerance in cultural relativism also highlights a deficiency in the theory.

    Most cultural relativists support the attitude of cultural tolerance – if we cannot assess a culture by an objective universal standard we should tolerate them . However, what if a majority of a culture was to criticise another culture? The relativist would have to say that it is morally right for that culture to criticise other cultures. Yet this contradicts the cultural relativist stand, that all cultures should be tolerant of others, and not criticise each other. This contradiction highlights a large flaw in the cultural relativist position.

    What if everyone in a particular culture believed it was morally right to wage war on other cultures that didn’t have the same moral code? The cultural relativist would be in a large dilemma and it is a difficult problem to overcome. Moral disputes between cultures are meant to be ignored and tolerated under cultural relativism. Though, it seems somewhat unrealistic to tolerate clearly repressive or morally inappropriate acts committed by some cultures, such as genital mutilation. Perhaps moral conflict could achieve a better, more suitable outcome.

    Why is it so, that cultures should not be open to criticism, simply because there is no all encompassing universal moral code? Criticism is surely part of the moral evolutionary process, for criticism is simply another condition that cultures should have to adapt their respective moral codes to criticism and may provide a better moral solution to an internal cultural quandary than merely letting a culture change in ignorance of others views. Cultural relativism seems unlikely to be true, as it contains too many flaws to fit legitimately into cultural practices.Thus there must be a universal moral code, for at least some practices. As Rachels suggests the idea that infants need to be protected in order for any culture to thrive, leads to a moral code that values infants.

    Yet what if the conditions changed and humans could be cloned as adults into adults? It would be unlikely then that the society would place as mush value on infants and before and as such their moral code would change. Either the universal standard has changed or there was none to begin with.Cultural relativism holds key lessons in keeping our mind open to the idea that our own practices may simply be different but not superior in moral qualities than other cultures, though the core of the theory it is flawed, and when applied to the real world it cultural relativism comes seeming out of place and incoherent. Cultural relativism appears too inconsistent and contradictory at times to be wholly true of moral truth, but it does prove attractive compared to the notion that an entire universal, objective, all-encompassing moral code exists.

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    What exactly is ‘cultural relativism’ in metaethics?. (2018, Jun 05). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/what-exactly-is-cultural-relativism-in-metaethics/

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