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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

On Ethical Relativism

For nearly its entire existence, cultural relativism has been a monolithic building block of the study of anthropology. According to John Ladd, cultural relativism is a school of thought which believes that, since conceptions of morality differ among different societies, and there are no clearly discernible absolute moral standards that are binding on all men at all times, morality is relative to the society in which a moral agent is considering action.

While different theorists propose different flavours of conventionalist (cultural relativist) arguments, the base argumentation underpinning cultural relativism can broadly be broken down into the following argumentation.

  1. What is considered morally right and wrong varies from society to society. This consequently means that there are no universal moral standards held by all societies.

  2. Whether or not it is right for an individual to act in a certain way depends on or is relative to the society to which he or she belongs.

  3. Therefore, there are no absolute or objective moral standards that apply to all people at all times.

The first premise of the above argument seems to be broadly correct. An ever-expanding body of anthropological research indicates that even the principles that we tend to consider most sacred, such as the valuing of innocent human life, likely have been opposed by some society at some time. Infanticide was a common practice in Ancient Greek and Roman societies, and the colossal figures of Aristotle and Plato would likely have looked towards its practice favourably. It is difficult to quantify to what extent the principle that we often consider intrinsically valuable, such as rights or utility, are simply considered so due to our societal conditioning.

The relativist viewpoint that societal conception of morality strongly influences our behaviour also seems to be broadly accurate. In a 1948 statement denouncing moral absolutism, The American Anthropologist Association (AAA) very plausibly suggested that individual moral beliefs are fundamentally based upon societal values. For the AAA, asking one to detach their conception of morality from a societal conception would be akin to asking them to take out their eyeball to look at the back of it.

However, while it is clear that societal values do influence our moral thought, this effect hardly seems to be absolute. There is significant overlap in base ethical principles in many seemingly disconnected societies. For instance, nearly every society presents a formulation of the rule of reciprocity, such as the Christian Golden Rule ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself’ or the Confucian principle “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you”. This points to a commonality in our moral development. Many societies can look at intuitively valuable first principles, such as the principle of utility, and use them to construct a foundation for their values.

Indeed, the logical structure of moral arguments can generally be evaluated irrespective of societal conceptions of the good, in much the same way that certain strong inductive and deductive truths such as ‘1+1=2’ or ‘I am hungry’ can be considered through rational, formalised thought. It seems that, with sufficient research and consideration, since societies are no longer hermetically sealed, discrete entities, we can consider the first principles of society other than our own. For instance, while the Western philosophical tradition that I was raised in broadly emphasises individual rights and liberties, it is possible, with sufficient study and research, for me to consider and appreciate non-Western values, such as a normative focus on harmony that is often emphasised in many East-Asian systems of thought.

Many proponents of cultural relativism, responding to the atrocity of imperialist and neo-imperialist conception of cultural superiority, argue that we must believe in cultural relativism since it makes one more tolerant. The anthropologist Melville Herskovits laid out the following argument that ethical relativism entails intercultural tolerance:

  1. If morality is relative to its culture, then there is no independent basis for criticizing the morality of any other culture but one’s own.

  2. If there were no independent way of criticizing any other culture, then we ought to be more tolerant of the moralities of other cultures.

  3. Morality is relative to its culture.

  4. Therefore, we ought to be more tolerant of other cultures.

However, this argument for ethical relativism is strongly misguided. It assumes that tolerance will necessarily be encouraged by culture if we cannot independently criticise cultures. However, many cultures, unfortunately, propose prejudice as a matter of value. If one's culture encourages xenophobia, as has unfortunately frequently been the case for many cultures throughout history, obeying the moral conventions of one’s culture may lead to profound intolerance. The principle that we must respect and tolerate other cultures, irrespective of the views of our own, is an absolutist claim.

As Louis Pojman eloquently argues in ‘Ethics, Discovering Right and Wrong’, moral relativism denies us the ability to oppose the most heinous moral tenets of our society. If one is to truly accept cultural relativism, one must accept that, were one to live in a bizarre society that glorifies rape, one must accept rape. To do otherwise would be positively immoral because of one's cultural context. Under a relativist system of morality, the chemical castration of Alan Turing that pushed him to suicide was perfectly moral and justified, due to its conventional adherence to the ethical norms of the time.

Even more bizarrely, relativism would seem to suggest that all moral reformers are wrong in their actions. Reformers for race equality and the abolition of slavery and racial equality in the deep south in the 1800s could be considered pernicious, due to their opposition to the main moral tenets of their society. It is unclear whether any moral progress is even possible under a relativist system of ethics, as to progress morally one must first oppose conventional moral standards, which is seen as wrong under a relativist system of ethics.

Chomsky very feasibly argues that, rather than being rigidly fixed in our current, dogmatic viewpoint, we can progress morally as a society, penetrating deeper into an absolute conception of the good. We can meaningfully say that slavery is wrong, and this does not simply apply to our society. When making proclaiming such a statement, we are proclaiming that slavery was wrong 200 years ago in the American South, and rightfully so.

One last argument, made by B.L. Whorf and W.V. Quine, argues that we must believe in relativism due to differences in language, and the way language affects its speakers’ cognition. We cannot understand many Middle Eastern tenets unless we can understand Arabic. However, this argument is generally weak. There is significant translatability between concepts in different languages. Chomsky notes rightly that language tends to have a universal underlying structure that implies commonality between thought. This consequently means that modes of cognition of ethical statements are generally translatable between languages. It hardly seems to be the case that a Western system of rights is indescribable in Mandarin or Hindi.

Thus, the arguments in favour of cultural relativism are overall extremely weak. Culture is not the all-encompassing separator of thought that many proponents of cultural relativism often portray it to be. Ethical relativism can, when taken to its extreme, lead to absurd conclusions. Before obeying one's society, one must judge whether its ethical tenets are correct, and to do so, one must use an absolute source of authority that is external to one's conventional societal values. Cultural relativism is thus a generally implausible position.


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