Cultural Relativism is the belief that all morality is product of society, so that the correct judgment of what is right and wrong is in accordance with accepted beliefs of a particular society. It denies the existence of moral truths and teaches us to accept the beliefs of others as not wrong, but just different.
It has a positive side, the idea that all cultures are equal is maybe not as widely believed as it should be, but otherwise as a mechanism for making moral decisions is it rather absurd.
Some arguments advanced against Cultural Relativism are:
- Accepting this belief means that it is impossible to disagree with the values of society. History clearly shows us that disagreement is at times warranted.
- Even if it is true that morality is the product of cultural, it does not follow that there are no objective moral truths.
- Cultural relativism denies the existence of subgroups within a society. All people belong to various overlapping groups, some with different behavioral norms. To which group are we expected to look for our morality from?
These briefly dismantle the arguments in favor of Cultural Relativism, but there are two further areas that stand out to me that make this viewpoint objectionable.
First is that it seems to stem heavily from the interests of those in positions of authority, or at least whoever is able to most effectively wield a microphone. In one cognitive study done it was shown that people consistently misjudge the level of risk involved for various diseases or accidents. The authors of the study were able to convincingly demonstrate that people’s assessment of risk levels corresponds heavily to the frequency in which certain diseases or events appear in news media.
Applied to majority viewpoints, it would therefore seems possible for someone who can effectively broadcast a message to distort the perception of what the majority actually believes. Cultural relativism could easily be used to serve the interests of those who most heavily influence channels of information and communication.
Second, while I do believe that all cultures are equal, there is something in these beliefs which still smacks of western cultural superiority. It seems familiar to the moaning of the loss of ‘traditional’ culture in less developed societies. There is nothing inherently wrong in being a subsistence level farmer, but equally there is nothing wrong with that farmer wanting to achieve a higher level of material comfort, even if it means abandoning an ancient and traditional way of life.
It is too bad rich tourists won’t be able to travel and see that way of life, but the choice should not be influenced by anyone wanting to maintain a cultural preserve at the expense of the quality of life of those who must actually live it. Harsher level of existence can be accompanied by the necessity for harsher decisions. Abandoning a child to die from exposure for example. It may be understandable at certain points in history or levels of economic development, but that doesn’t affect its morality.