Cultural Relativism

Relativism is the philosophical belief that all opinions and views on morality are equally true to the believer and none should be considered false because all truth is subjective (or relative). Cultural Relativism takes it a step further by claiming all self-contained societies with differing beliefs should be respected, and those systems of beliefs are true to them and should not be questioned by other cultures. After all, we’re only entitled to our own opinion and no one else’s. Cultural Relativists assert that the moral code of a society determines what is right within that group of people so to ask what is True depends on the culture asking. This means that no objective truths exist for these codes to be judged by; no one morality holds all people at all times. This means it is arrogant to deem our personal culture’s code as superior or truer than any others as all are equal. Tolerance is a strong principle of Cultural Relativism and understanding of bizarre beliefs (compared to ours) is strongly promoted to all peoples.

This belief is commonly agreed with because the tolerance flag it waves; people don’t want to question the beliefs of someone else for fear of being questioned themselves. To attempt to command another’s beliefs has become a human rights violation. The question of marriage has been puzzled over for centuries, constantly changing to fit the standards of certain societies. In America, we are allowed to meet, date, and marry anyone we please as long as they concede to it all. In India, certain parents arrange marriages for their children so that the perfect environment of financial stability is created for future generations. Americans would interpret this view on marriage as rigid and constricting, removing love from the institution. Actual practicing Indians, however, see it as logical and accept whomever their parents choose for them (there are plenty of exceptions of course). Inversely Indians would look at Americans’ flagrant treatment of marriage as unceremonious and impractical. Despite these differences, America and India accept these contrasting practices and allow the other to continue them, showcasing a relativistic view on marriage.

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We all want harmony, so the acceptance of all beliefs is necessary to achieve that, but conflict occurs when a custom practice in one society happens to be a crime in another. Female circumcision is traditional among the Maasai tribe in Africa, as well as many others, and many outside cultures would call it mutilation and sexual oppression. Cultural Relativism protects that belief and puts obstacles in the path of those fighting against this archaic tradition. It becomes difficult to turn to one’s own philosophy for truth and yet still accept an opposing belief. Although tempting on the surface, general Relativism is a paradox, claiming that no opinions dominate any others yet assuring its own validity; there are absolutely no absolute truths says the relativist. If an Indian woman were to defy her parent’s choice for her husband, it would be going against the beliefs of society and therefore against true morality. In her culture she’s being immoral, but to Americans this defiance is rational, justified, and even encouraged. This brings up the problem of Cultural Relativism: if they disagree, who is right? By the tenets of the philosophy itself, no one is; they both should just agree to disagree and walk away. This can’t be done in every case (look at World War II), so unconditional tolerance becomes too difficult to muster, and Relativism loses its appeal.

No matter what problems you find with it, Cultural Relativism’s vocation of tolerance is still important, but the blind acceptance of all belief systems as individually true and the denial of a universal truth cause serious flaws for moral philosophy. On the surface, Cultural Relativism appears to be a final call for global harmony through cultural understanding, but it digs up so many questions that find weaknesses in its simple structure. Its altruistic and humanistic approach to ethics may be on the right track, but is just another voice among the thousands of others spouting “ moral truth.” It attempts to label this cacophony as harmony, but we know better.

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