Critical Thinking Note 17: Cultural Relativism


Here are three very different theses, each of which I have heard on one occasion or another referred to as Cultural Relativism:

  1. What is considered good or bad is relative to culture.
  2. What is good or bad is relative to culture.
  3. We should suspend judgment about what is good or bad when trying to understand diverse cultures.

(1) we might aptly call “Descriptive Cultural Relativism”. (1) is no doubt true, even though the ethical differences among cultures are liable to be exaggerated in various ways. Different culturally laden views about what is right or wrong can often be understood on deeper analysis as different ways of expressing the same underlying moral values. So for instance, polygamy might be endorsed in a culture where males in the prime of life suffer high mortality as a means of providing for the vulnerable while charity serves the same end adequately in other cultural contexts. Also, apparent differences in the moral codes of various groups are often on closer analysis revealed to be differences in non-moral beliefs. Those who differ on the morality of abortion, for instance, usually differ on the metaphysics of the person but not so much the ethics of killing persons. But substantive differences on ethical matters do exist between various cultures. So (1) is probably true. But (1) doesn’t make what is right or wrong a matter of any cultures say so and leaves open the possibility that morality isn’t a matter of anyone’s say so and that a culture can get morality wrong.

(2) is an expression of “Moral Cultural Relativism.” This view makes good and bad relative to culture. Culture is deemed infallible in ethical matters on this view. On this view, whatever is deemed right in a culture is what is right relative to that culture. As soon as the very nature of right and wrong is taken to be relative to the culture, other group or even the individual, no possibility of normative evaluation of the practices of said party remains possible. Rightness relative to the culture, group or individual is guaranteed up front as a matter of tradition or some group or person’s say so or decision. “Who gets to decide” is a relevant question here. But the notion that right and wrong isn’t something we just get to decide but rather something we have to figure out is off the table. And it is taken off the table without argument on this sort of relativistic view. When we take right and wrong to be simply a matter of tradition, say so, decision or whim, no room for inquiry remains beyond the figuring out what the relevant authority dictates. On this view, the holocaust was right relative to Nazi Germany and any feelings others have to the contrary aren’t even about what is right relative to Nazi Germany. They are just about what is right relative to some other group, and as such, they have no bearing at all on what Nazi Germany should or shouldn’t have done. This view, to put it mildly, is a problematic view about the nature of morality.

(3) might best be termed “Methodological Cultural Relativism.” (3) is not a claim about culture or about morality, it’s just good advice when our aim is to understand a culture. Analysis aimed at understanding something, whether it is an argument, an ethical principle, a culture or an electronics schematic is not itself an evaluative activity. But it is an essential pre-cursor to any evaluation that aims to be at least relatively unbiased. We simply aren’t in a position to fairly evaluate things we don’t understand. But the methodological advice offered by 3 begs no questions against critical evaluation of ethical views that might be part of a culture’s traditions or embodied in its values. Methodological Cultural Relativism poses no obstacle to critical thinking in ethics. What is more, critical thinking in ethics and other areas of philosophy requires subject matter appropriate analogues of MCR. Any argument, principle or theory must be adequately understood before we can hope to do a competent job at evaluating it and goal of understanding something is not the same as that of evaluation.

Now consider 4b in the Big 5 offered by the Cultural Diversity GE Workgroup:

4b.      Ex. Within the frame work of cultural relativism, no culture should be viewed as better than any other and no cultural trait should be viewed as wrong, just different.

The basic problem with this claim is that it is entirely unclear which of 1-3 above it is intended to endorse. Of course different disciplines have their own special jargon. But that isn’t the problem here. We introduce discipline specific language when it aids clarity and specificity in ways that everyday English can’t. No jargon in 4b is serving this purpose. To the contrary, 4b is unclear and ambiguous in ways that are highly problematic for other disciplines.

Something close to (2), a version of moral relativism, has become the standard issue view about morality in this society. It is the dominant culture in the US and for reasons that are only tangentially related to cultural diversity. Moral relativism is much more the product of consumerism and represents the commoditization of values. It is also ultimately nihilistic. I hardly blame social scientists or cultural studies faculty or scholars for this. But the failure to be clear about the differences between 1-3 results in students hearing things like 4b as an endorsement of moral relativism. Undoing the damage is difficult work. Philosophers, who do teach critical thinking about ethical matters, need allies in social science that appreciate the differences between 1-3, and underscore these differences with students. A strong basis for that alliance should be a broad recognition that moral relativism is no friend to cultural diversity. Moral relativism endorses whatever moral code dominates relative to the groups morality is seen as relative to, whether or not that moral code is tolerant of diversity or respectful of our shared humanity.

Russ Payne

February 10, 2016

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