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Relativism: The Tangible Theory
Since the beginning of rational thought, philosophers have searched for
the true meaning of morality. Many theorists have attempted to answer this question with
reasoning, in an attempt to find a universal set of rules, or a way to distinguish right
from wrong. Some theorists believe that this question is best answered by a single moral
standard, while others debate if there can be a single solution. Cultural Relativism
explores the idea that there can be no one moral standard that applies to everyone at any
given time. The Kantian theory, on the other hand, states that a universal sense of duty,
would most benefit humankind. I believe that the Cultural Relativist theory takes into
consideration the different cultures that make up the population as a whole. The idea of
universal truth in ethics, is a myth. The customs of different societies are all that
exist. These customs can not be ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ for that implies there
is an independent standard of right and wrong by which they may be judged. In today’s
global community people are interacting more and we are now discovering, more then ever,
how diverse cultures and people really are. For these reasons the Cultural Relativist
theory best defines what morality is, and where it came from.
Today all over the world people are communicating in ways never before
imagined. Cultural Relativism believes that one set of morals will not adequately adapt to
the individuality of all the cultures and subcultures in the world. What this means is
that there is no one moral law that fits every situation at every time. There will always
be exceptions to the rules. Cultural Relativism leaves the creation of moral and ethical
standards to the community. The community then makes moral judgments based on its specific
culture, history, and individuality. For these reasons Cultural Relativism helps the
community, by letting the community set its own moral standards, rather than impose a set
of morals, as the absolutists would suggest. Imposing a set of universal morals would not
be able to compensate for all the different cultural differences that exist today. If a
universal moral law were to be created, what criteria would be considered? Would one use
each communities’s religion, customs, laws, educational standards, or culture? It would be
impossible to take into consideration all of the different factors unique to each
community when creating a universal moral truth. That is why Cultural Relativism is the
best solution for moral standards, each community considers all their own factors of
culture, religion, education, etc. and then create their own set of morals based on their
There are many different situations in everyday life that call upon our
With all of the people in the world and all of the different situations, who is to say
that there is one set standard that we should follow on the societal level, as well as the
individual? Cultural Relativism, challenges the ordinary belief in the universality of
moral truth. It says, in effect, that there is no such thing as universal truth in ethics;
there are only the various cultural and personal codes, and nothing more. Moreover, our
own code has no special status; it is merely one among many. One clear example of this is
illustrated in the treatment of women in some countries, against the way they are treated
in the United States. In the United States women are privileged with the same rights as
men, therefore creating, by law, an equal society. However in some Middle Eastern
countries women are not allowed to show their faces in public, own land, or may be forced
to be just one wife to a man with many wives. The questions philosophers ask in this
situation is, "Which one of these cultures is morally correct in their treatment of
women?" According to absolutists there would be one universal solution. And, in this
case, there is clearly no such solution. If you were to support the United States’
treatment of women, you would have to go against many of the Middle Eastern beliefs and
moral standards. Another way of looking at it would be from the woman’s perspective. In
the United States the woman is given freedom and the ability to choose, whereas in the
Middle Eastern culture she has no rights. Is that culture morally correct for the woman?
There are just too many variables to take into consideration when trying to make moral
decisions for all cultures to follow. If we were to use a set standard we would have to
judge people and their culture. And who is to say that one culture and its people are
right, and that the other is wrong? In ancient Egypt people were allowed to marry their
brothers and sisters. In most of today’s cultures that is morally and ethically wrong.
The reasoning behind this change in marriage styles results from
scientific research. Scientists have found that over time inbreeding causes a higher rate
of birth defects among the offspring. This fact has influenced many of the
‘developed’ cultures to outlaw inbreeding. Does this mean that the Egyptians were
morally wrong because they did not have the scientific knowledge about inbreeding that we
have today? utilitarians would have us believe yes. They would state that the only moral
way to have acted, would be to not inbreed due to the fact that it causes harm, thus
unhappiness, to the offspring. If this is true, how are we sure that we are not morally
wrong in what we do, if in five or ten years into the future science discovers that what
we consider morally right now is harming us physically? This is where the beauty of
Relativism comes into focus. Relativism would say that neither culture is right, or wrong.
Relativism would state that each culture would decide, on an individual basis, what it
would consider morally and ethically right. Our modern society is full of diversity among
cultures. There are no set rules and morals that we can follow because of that very fact.
People are different, and to judge them by any other standards than their own is morally
and ethically wrong in itself. Relativism warns us, quite rightly, about the danger of
assuming that all our preferences are based on some absolute rational standard. They are
not. Many (but not all) of our practices are merely particular to our society and our own
personal preference, and it is easy to lose sight of that fact. These are the reasons that
I believe that Relativism best answers the question, is there a set standard of morals and
ethics for all to live by, or does each community, culture and individual create its own?
Now that I have touched on more of a Cultural Relativistic view, I
would now like to apply the same theory to an individual. I believe individuals have the
same kind of freedom to design their moral truths in a way that suits them, separate from
their community. Thus, just because a society sets a standard of morals, there is nothing
prohibiting an individual from straying from that standard, besides the society
capabilities of enforcing those moral truths. Assume for a moment there is a community,
that enforces all of its moral truths with the death penalty. When one is deciding to go
against those truths, or not, he would only have to calculate the risk of getting caught.
Thus, the old saying "you can do what ever you want, as long as you can get away with
it", would be accurate.
A common point that is brought up against Relativism, when applied to
the individual, is the point that according to Relativism it is wrong to say that one
moral truth is right or wrong, because each culture and individual are allowed to make up
their own truths. Then how can a society punish a person for not following their moral
standards? I would reply as follows. Moralities differ in each society, serving a
functional purpose that is unique to the factors that comprise the area. The differences
of all aspects of life are considered when morals are being produced. Society values are
developed in order to ensure prosperity, stability and harmony; when the values are
threatened, so is the good of the society. In order to maintain social balance, all
members are forced to conform to these values. Those who choose to disobey societal maxims
are banished or ostracized from the community. Social codes benefit the individual, too,
they are not constructed simply for the benefit of the society as a whole. The reckless
behavior of the nonconformist could be dangerous to an individual’s well being. Thus,
these morals, are for the good of all. However, if a member of the society can break these
moral codes and do so successfully, there is nothing in one’s personal moral code itself
wrong with doing so, except the society instilled guilt that is learned and taught through
the generations. And that is exactly it, because morals are created by the community, and
there are no universal truths, then if you have enough people not following the moral
truths of their community, then the morals for that community will change accordingly.
That is what Cultural relativism is based on, the community being able to change their set
of morals, how else would that happen if it does not start from the individual level.
From the examples shown in this paper, Cultural and Individual
Relativism clearly is the more logical choice as the theory that best provides a workable
solution to the question of what controls ethics and morality. While absolutists try to
prove that there is one single set of moral rules that can be used as a guideline in the
validation of moral and ethical standards for the cultures and individuals of the world.
The Utilitarians are trying to create a greater happiness for all involved in the
community. And the Kantians are looking for their universal sense of duty. However they
all can be questioned with this single statement, "if anyone, no matter who, were
given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations of the world the set of
beliefs which he thought brought the most good and happiness, he would inevitably, after
careful considerations of their relative merits, choose that of his own country. Everyone
without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in,
to be the best." And this discredits the possibility that one such person can come up
with a set of morals, or a true way to calculate those morals, because in fact everyone is
biased to his or her own moral beliefs. Absolutism is obviously not a feasible solution
due to the fact that the cultures of the world are too radically diverse to ever be able
to be classified under one set of moral and ethical guidelines. I believe the Utilitarian
idea of maximizing the good of the whole is also not feasible, on account of everyone not
agreeing on what makes them the most happy. The Kantinisen sense of duty is discredited in
the same way, on account of everyone’s sense of duty being different. Although there will
never be a moral or ethical theory that clearly includes all cultures as morally right,
the Relativist theory is by far the most sensible solution offered to us at this time.
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