CHAPTER 3

CULTURAL RELATIVISM:  DOES EACH CULTURE INVENT ITS OWN MORALITY?

 

In 1987 a beautiful 18-year-old named Roop Kanwar put on her finest dress and led about 500 villagers of Deorala, India, to the cremation site.  Her husband had died suddenly from appendicitis, after only eight months of marriage.  His body, wrapped in a white shroud with only his face showing, was placed onto the logs of a funeral pyre by his family.  Brahman priests looked on, offering prayers.  Kanwar then climbed onto the pyre next to her husband’s body, laying his head onto her lap.  She signalled a child--the brother of Kanwar’s husband—who lit the pyre, and Kanwar was burned to death, in keeping with the ancient regional custom called suttee.  She is now regarded as a saint and a goddess.

            Suttee has been the subject of violent controversy in India for well over a century.  When the British ruled India, they were horrified at the practice, but when they attempted to ban it people rioted.  As a result, many British argued that it should be tolerated.  Who were they to interfere with the customs and religious practices of others?  No British person would encourage widows to burn themselves to death; measured by British standards, suttee was wrong.  But was it right for the British to impose their views on the Indians?  Didn’t Indian customs determine what was right for Indians?  In the end, however, this relativist argument did not prevail.  In the mid-nineteenth century the British banned suttee, and it has remained illegal ever since.  Nonetheless, it is still respected in many parts of India. 

When it happened in Deorala, 37 villagers were charged with burning Kanwar against her will.  After ten years they were cleared of the charges (the verdict has been appealed), but it is still not entirely clear whether Kanwar participated in the ceremony voluntarily or not.  Some say that her in-laws bullied her into it and dulled her senses with opium.  One villager replied “She was not forced.  It is not a suttee if it is forced.  When the fire was lit, she just sat there. . . .  She seemed to feel no pain.  When the gods want something, they can do anything.”  Another villager claimed that she tried to get off the pyre three times and was pushed back into the flames by the crowd.[1]

Are outsiders ever justified in criticizing the cultural practices of others?  Many of us think there is a single true morality, one true standard of the right, and perhaps one true standard of the good as well, that applies both across cultures and within them, and can be called upon to settle ethical disputes locally and globally.  This position is called universalism.  (Sometimes it is called absolutism, a term we will define in Chapter 9.)  As universalists we may suggest that it is wrong for anyone--including the villagers of Deorala--to urge or force grieving widows to burn themselves to death, and we may suspect that in practice suttee is not fully voluntary.  And our moral objections to suttee might prompt us to ban it.  But they might not; as we will see later, a universalist may condemn a practice and still tolerate it.  Besides, universalism is not committed to the claim that the single true moral standard is so developed and specific that it can be used to settle all possible disputes among people.  It might be rather abstract, and too indefinite to solve all of the problems people might face.  In theory, it might not apply to suttee.

Ethical relativists question the traditional universalist view.  They say that no set of moral standards is universally binding--no single moral framework can be called upon to settle disputes within nations and across the world.  Instead, moral judgments and accepted moral standards are fundamentally different across cultures or individuals, and what a given person should do must be assessed relative to her (individual or cultural) standards.  So if we think our condemnation of suttee is based on the one true morality, we are mistaken.  It is based on a standard we accept, but our standard is only one of many.

Different forms of ethical relativism are possible; we will describe some of the options.  Then we will discuss a form of ethical relativism that enjoys wide support, especially in popular culture.  It is called cultural relativism, and it says that my actions can be accurately judged only relative to my own cultural standards, and not by applying those of someone else’s culture.

 

ALTERNATIVES TO UNIVERSALISM

We can begin by describing some of the alternatives to universalism, and locating relativism with respect to these.  This will help us to understand exactly what relativism says, and how it is related to the universalist perspective it opposes.

There are two ways to deny the universalist view that there is one and only one true morality.  One is to say that there is more than one true morality.  This thesis can be labeled pluralism.  The other is to say there is no true morality, which is a position called nihilism. 

The most familiar nihilists are people who suggest that moral judgments such as “killing innocent people is wrong” are used to express the speaker’s emotional reactions, not to make assertions.  On this emotivist view of moral judgments, we treat the purported assertions in the first column below as we would the sentences in the second column:

It is wrong to kill innocent people.         Boo, killing innocent people!  Hiss!

Love is good.                                       Yay, love!  Hot doggie!

Harming your friends is bad.                  Harming your friends!  Ouch!

The sentences in the second column function only to express emotions about certain things.  Since they do not say that anything is the case, they cannot be true (or false).  If moral judgments merely function to express emotions, they, too, are incapable of being true.  This emotivist view of moral judgments is one version of a theory called subjectivism, which we discussed in the preceding chapter.  Subjectivism says that moral judgments are merely expressions of emotion or reports about people’s attitudes.

Emotivists can defend a view that might be classified as a form of ethical relativism.  The view is that moral judgments are expressions of emotional reactions that vary across persons, groups, and time.  However, emotivist relativism is not the only form of ethical relativism.  Some ethical relativists are pluralists, and, unlike emotivists and other nihilists, pluralists think that moral judgments are in some sense true. 

Pluralists called individual relativists are inclined to think that each person has her own true morality.  They say that the standards a person accepts determine what she should do, and these vary substantially from person to person.  Other pluralists called cultural relativists maintain that moralities follow cultural lines:  each person’s culture


supplies the standards that determine what he should do, and these differ fundamentally across cultures.  Here is a chart showing the various possibilities we have discussed:

Universalism:                       Nihilism:                               Pluralism:

There is one and                  There is no true                    There is more than one true

only one true                        morality.                 morality.

morality.

 

Emotivist relativism:           Individual relativism:                          Cultural relativism:

Moral judgments are           The standards a person                      Each person’s

expressions of                      accepts determine what                      culture’s standards

emotional reactions             she should do, and these                   determine what he

that vary across                   vary across persons.                           should do, and these

groups.                                                                                                  vary across cultures.

 

We will focus our attention on cultural relativism, the most widely accepted form.

 

THE CASE FOR CULTURAL RELATIVISM

Cultural relativism seems to have two main sources of support.  First, there seems to be a powerful argument for it based on cultural diversity.  Second, its implications seem attractive, especially its implications concerning toleration for the practices of other cultures. 

            The term ‘cultural diversity’ can mean more than one thing, but supporters of relativism use it primarily to suggest that moral judgments and practices vary substantially from culture to culture.  For this suggestion one can find many sources.  For example, philosophers such as Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and relativist anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) and William Graham Summer (1840-1910) mention many practices that are favored in some societies yet condemned in others.  Cannibalism, male prostitution, parricide, infanticide, and killing the elderly are some of the examples they cite.   On the strength of this diversity, they conclude that people in different cultures accept standards that are taken seriously by members of that culture only, and these standards are authoritative only in that culture.  Sumner describes his own position as follows:

The folkways are the “right” ways to satisfy all interests, because they are traditional, and exist in fact.  . . .The “right” way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been handed down.  The tradition is its own warrant.  It is not held subject to verification by experience.  The notion of right is in the folkways.  . . .Therefore rights can never be “natural” or “God-given,” or absolute in any sense.  The morality of a group at a time is the sum of the taboos and prescriptions in the folkways by which right conduct is defined.[2]

Many people seem willing to use observations about diversity in an argument in favor of cultural relativism.  Here is one form the argument might take:

1.      Moral judgments vary along cultural lines (they are similar within cultures but fundamentally different across cultures).

2.      So accepted moral standards vary fundamentally along cultural lines, and each individual’s culture’s standards dictate what that individual should do.

We might call this the argument from diversity. 

Cultural relativism is also defended on the grounds that it encourages us to acknowledge our own fallibility as judges of other cultures, and to tolerate practices in other lands.  Many of us know individuals who are quick to condemn ways of life that are different from their own.  These judgmental people seem to think their own culture provides the final word for how everyone ought to act, and may even want to forcibly impose the ways of their culture on others.  But cultural relativism seems incompatible with this narrow-minded view.  Relativism denies that any one person’s culture’s standards determine what people in other cultures should do.  Hence it seems to provide a strong basis for condemning intolerance.

            Does the argument from diversity justify the acceptance of cultural relativism?  Are relativism’s consequences as appealing as its proponents think?  Let us discuss each of these questions. 

 

ASSESSING THE ARGUMENT FROM DIVERSITY

One thing we must notice about the argument from diversity is that its conclusion consists of two separate claims, not one.  It says that

(2a) Accepted moral standards vary fundamentally from one culture to another, and

(2b) Each individual’s culture’s standards dictate what that individual should do.

Both of these claims are integral parts of the view called cultural relativism, so both must be defended.[3]  Relativists will need to explain how the clustering of moral judgments referred to by premise 1 supports (2a) and (2b).  This will be difficult, for several reasons.

1.         Beliefs are problematic as support for facts.  The relativist seems to think that each person’s cultural standards determine what he should do (as (2b) says) simply because there is a diversity of moral opinions (as 1 says).  But isn’t this like arguing that the facts about God are different from one culture to another on the grounds that different cultures embrace different religious views?  Imagine saying that when members of theistic cultures ask ‘Does God exist?’ the answer is ‘yes,’ but when members of atheistic cultures ask the same question, the answer is ‘no’!  Can a group of people make anything they like true simply by believing it is so?

2.         Descriptive claims are problematic as support for normative claims.  Notice that while premise 1 is a descriptive claim, (2b) is a normative claim, and as the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) pointed out in his Treatise, no set of merely descriptive claims entails a normative claim; ‘value’ statements do not follow from ‘factual’ statements; ‘ought’ statements do not follow from ‘is’ statements.[4] 

3.         There is good reason to believe that all cultures share certain fundamental values, which would mean that (2a) is false.  As many commentators have suggested,[5] endorsing certain fundamental values is probably necessary for the existence of any continuing society.  For example, unless people valued having and caring for children, their society eventually would cease to exist, and their way of life would not survive to the next generation.  Hence it is no surprise to see that every culture places a high value on the institution of the family.  Of course, the value of families must not be exaggerated, either; it is critically important to balance the value of child rearing against other concerns, such as the grave problems created by overpopulation. 

Other values must play a role in a functioning society.  For example, a society could not function if it did not condemn most forms of homicide.  If people settled their disputes by killing their antagonists, the population would quickly dwindle to a vanishing point.  And social cooperation would collapse if people freely lied and deceived each other whenever they thought it expedient to do so.  Promises could not be made, because no one would expect them to be kept, and communication would be impeded because no one could rely on the spoken word of another.

4.         Even if moral judgments vary greatly across cultures, it is still entirely possible that all cultures accept the same fundamental moral standards, which makes it difficult to see that the argument from diversity provides much support for (2a).  But wait:  if all cultures accept the same basic moral standards, how could they possibly end up making very different moral judgments?  Actually, several things could bring this about.

Moral Complexity.  One possibility is that many judgments are inaccurate.  Moral issues can be extremely complicated, so that any judgment is precarious.  In Chapter 1, for example, we saw how complicated judgments about withdrawing medical treatment can be.  Our best judgments may be only approximations to the truth, and it would not be surprising if people in different cultures accept different approximations. 

Varying Circumstances.  The circumstances in which groups of people find themselves differ, and a standard might have to be implemented differently depending on the circumstances.  A philosopher named David Wong describes an example of this sort.[6]  Suppose that everyone in two societies accepts the general principle that women and men should have lifelong relationships with each other.  But in one society there are far more women than men or vice versa, while in another there are roughly equal numbers of each.  Polygamy might well be considered acceptable in the first society, and not in the second. 

Differing Beliefs (Versus Differing Values).  People have different beliefs about things other than matters of right and wrong or good and bad, and these differences in opinion about value-independent facts could lead people who share the same fundamental moral standards to make very different judgments about what is right and good. 

This last cause of diversity in moral judgments is probably the most significant of the three.  To see how profoundly our beliefs can affect our value judgments, consider the fact that during the Middle Ages inquisitors felt it necessary to torture people in horrible and often fatal ways.  Nowadays we accept the principle that it is wrong to harm innocent people, so we would condemn these acts of torture.  But what accounts for our disagreement with the inquisitors?  Did the inquisitors think that harming the innocent was all right?  That is unlikely.  They thought that satanic powers were at work on the earth, luring people away from salvation and into eternal torment.  Using the threat of torture, the inquisitors hoped to compel people to practice the proper form of Christianity and thus avoid damnation.  They thought they were helping people, not harming them, and the reason they thought so was because they believed a claim about value-neutral facts, namely, that torturing people is an effective way to save them from eternal torment.  People in the modern era doubt this claim, and that is why we view the inquisition with such horror.

Differences in belief rather than moral standards might also account for the fact that Westerners condemn suttee while many people in India do not.  In modern Western cultures we consider it wrong to encourage self-immolation.  If asked for justification, we would probably cite the principle that it is wrong to urge or force people to harm themselves, especially when they are not harming anyone else, and say that the widow is throwing her life away in a pointless and extraordinarily painful way.  We might even raise the suspicion that suttee is a way to get rid of widows, who, by tradition, must be taken care of by their in-laws.  But traditional Hindus have often recommended and praised suttee.  Does that mean that they reject the principle that it is wrong to urge or force people to harm themselves?  It seems far more likely that the Indians considered suttee beneficial to the widow since she becomes a goddess.

Consider the conservative religious justification behind suttee.  Women are said to have so much energy that they cannot control it themselves and must submit to the direction of men or run amok (I’m not making this up!)  Women are said to be like power plants generating energy; when a man’s wife dies, he loses his power plant and needs to find a replacement.  But when a woman’s husband dies, she is wild, uncontrollable and dangerous; she should kill herself to avoid harming others.  As one ancient document states: 

After the death of her husband, [a widow] is especially dangerous and must shave her head, cake it with mud, sleep on a bed of stones. . . .  If a widow is chaste and young, she is so infected with magic power that she must take her own life.[7] 

These opinions about unbridled feminine power are not moral judgments.  They are beliefs about non-moral facts.  Because modern Westerners are not likely to share the beliefs, they condemn suttee.

 

            What we have said so far is that cultural relativists must overcome some powerful obstacles if they are to explain to us why they think their argument from diversity supports relativism.[8]  The argument is full of holes.  Yet it is perhaps the chief source of support for relativism. 

Still, people gravitate to relativism for another reason:  they find its consequences attractive.  Should they?

 

CONSEQUENCES OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM

As it turns out, the consequences of cultural relativism are disappointing.  Consider a few reasons why this is so. 

1.         Cultural relativism cannot adjudicate cross-cultural disputes.  Imagine that a group of people we can call protectors are in a dispute with another group we can call whalers.  The protectors want to save the whales, but the whalers take the attitude expressed by a Japanese fisherman in a recent New York Times interview:  “ I don’t think of whales as especially smart. . . .They’re just like ordinary fish.   We feel that they’re just a big present from the sea.”[9]  The Japanese have taken whales for 2,000 years, and continue to do so on the pretext that it is a form of scientific research.  However, this research ends up on dinner tables in Japanese homes.  Scientists using DNA sampling proved that many fish markets in Japan sell meat from endangered species of whales (for about $300 per pound).[10]  Of course, the dispute over whaling is a complex matter, and there is a great deal of disagreement within Japan and other countries concerning what should be done.  Instead of exploring it in its complexity, however, we will create a hypothetical case involving the fanciful protectors and whalers, and approach it as the relativist might:  by assuming that the moral standards of the whalers’ culture are distinct from those of the protectors’ culture.  For simplicity, let us also suppose that the former standards unequivocally endorse killing whales until there are no more, while the latter prescribe saving whales (especially endangered species).  Hence applying the two standards places the whalers and protectors in a deadlock.  What should be done? 

If we turn to cultural relativism to resolve the dispute, it turns its back on us.  It says that for the protectors to defend the whales is ‘right for them’ because by the standards of their culture they must preserve endangered species.  However, cultural relativism also says that for the whalers to kill the endangered whales is ‘right for them’.  But if the protectors do what relativism endorses as ‘right for them,’ the whalers cannot do what it endorses as ‘right for them.’  The relativist is encouraging the two groups to pursue incompatible courses of action.  What kind of resolution is that?  The relativist concept of the right does not play the role most of us expect from the concept of the right:  we want it to enable us to adjudicate disputes using reason rather than force.  If cultural relativism were correct, then the concept of the right could not play this role.[11]

2.         Cultural relativism does not discourage intolerance.  At first glance it might seem possible for relativists to avoid recommending incompatible courses of action and exacerbating cross-cultural disputes.  Some people think that cultural relativism supports a principle of tolerance, such as the following:  when the cultural standards of others lead people to behave differently than we do, we should not interfere (or at least we should try to accommodate their ways).  And if the protectors apply this principle, they will conclude that while they may do various things to help the whales, such as fishing for other things, they must not block the whalers. 

However, there is a problem.  Whatever its merits, the principle of tolerance is a moral principle, and the relativist’s credo is that no moral requirements are universally binding.  People are bound only by their own cultural standards, and these are said to vary so greatly that no substantive moral principles are endorsed by all cultures.  Presumably, then, the relativist would say that for members of many cultures the principle of tolerance is not binding.  Relativists cannot call on the principle to solve the conflict between the whalers and protectors since that principle might be rejected by the cultural standards of either or both.

Can’t the relativist reject intolerance without defending a principle of tolerance?  If so, then perhaps the relativist could resolve cross-cultural disputes after all, by telling members of each culture not to interfere with the actions of others.  But how would relativists go about criticizing intolerance?  Well, they might try the suggestion that different peoples never have grounds for interfering with each other’s culture-based practices.  For example, isn’t it obvious—relativists might ask—that the protectors could justify stopping the whalers only if it were wrong for the whalers to kill whales?  But the hunts are not ‘wrong for the whalers’, so the protectors cannot justify blocking them. 

This attempt to rescue relativism will not work, either.  It assumed that the only ground for stopping the fishermen is that their hunts are ‘wrong for them.’  But this assumption is false.  As relativists, the protectors could justify interference on the grounds that it is required by their cultural standards:  by those standards, we have assumed, they must (it is ‘right for them’ to) protect the whales, and since the only way they can protect whales is by stopping the whaling, they are justified in doing so.  This reasoning does not assume that fishing is ‘wrong for the whalers’; rather, it appeals to the fact that halting the whaling is necessary if the protectors are to accomplish something that is ‘right for them.’  Certainly most of us would find it odd to say that it can be ‘right for me’ to stop you from doing something that (I acknowledge) is ‘not wrong for you,’ but that is because most of us are not cultural relativists!  We assume that one framework adjudicates morality for all disputants so that the very same requirements are binding on everyone, thus precluding the possibility that what is right for one of us clashes with what is right for another.  Contrary to popular belief, interference with other cultures is entirely consistent with relativism.

3.         Cultural relativism bars all criticism of other cultures.  According to relativism, it makes no sense to criticize people for doing things that are sanctioned by the standards of their cultures. In fact, we must endorse what they do, at least in a qualified way, by saying that their actions are ‘right for them.’  In requiring this form of mutual endorsement, relativists seem to encourage toleration, but, as we have seen, that impression is misleading, since relativism requires each of us to act strictly in accordance with our own cultural standards, which encourages intolerant peoples to remain intolerant. 

While relativism does not encourage tolerance, it does force us to be nonjudgmental; isn’t that a good thing?  At first blush it might seem so.  But it is one thing to be broadminded about the peccadilloes of others, and another to refrain from condemning horrifying practices that take place in other lands. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they murdered Jews, Gypsies and others in the name of fascist principles, and many of us in the rest of the world condemned what they did:  were we simply overlooking (or disputing) the fact that, after all, Nazis were a unified cultural group?  Should we perhaps have qualified our condemnation, and said that what they did was ‘right for them,’ even though it would not have been ‘right for us?’  We want to say that what the Nazis did was wrong--period.  But this condemnation makes no sense if cultural relativism is true, given that these actions were sanctioned by the cultural standards of the Nazis.  If we are cultural relativists, the most we can say is that for us, the enemies of fascism, racial killing is wrong, and for us, it was right to fight the Nazis.  But we must admit that it was right for the fascists to kill the Jews. 

4.         Cultural relativism implies that outside of shared cultures nothing is right or wrong.  If relativism is true, it follows that our cultural standards even determine whether there is a moral truth for us.  If the people in a group failed to share cultural standards, nothing would be morally binding for them.  They would exist in a state of moral anarchy.  Killing, stealing, torture—such actions would be neither right nor wrong, and it would be impossible to argue that people should refrain from any form of behavior, no matter how brutal. 

5.         Cultural relativism implies that morality is arbitrary.  The relativist says that our cultural standards are decisive for us regardless of their origins.  So, no matter why the members of a group adopt their standards—for convenience or money or under the threat of force or because they loathe other cultural groups or for the sake of novelty or for no reason whatever—those standards determine what is ‘right for them.’  Also, members of a cultural group can change what is ‘right for them’ by replacing their moral standards at any time and for any reason whatever.  The result would never be standards that are morally superior to the old standards, however; according to relativism, it makes no sense to assess the standards themselves.  So when Indians discouraged suttee and when Americans abandoned slavery, the result was not moral progress. Once a culture ceases to tolerate slavery, it is simply different, not better.  Changing cultural standards changes what is ‘right for future generations,’ without altering what was ‘right for past generations.’ 

 

We have said enough to show that cultural relativism has seriously worrisome consequences.  When we put this consideration together with the fact that large trucks can be driven through the holes in the argument from diversity, we find little reason to accept cultural relativism.

 

TOLERATION

Let’s turn to a different matter.  Many people think we should tolerate the practices and principles of other cultures.  Some even go a step further, and extol the importance of multiculturalism, by which we carve room within our society for practicing members of different cultures to live side by side.  We have already said that cultural relativists themselves are in no position to defend toleration.  But weren’t they correct when they said that we should respect other cultures?  If we give up relativism, can’t we at least salvage the principle of toleration?  And if so, how should we understand it?

Certainly toleration is important; however, we ought not accept all cultural practices uncritically, let alone endorse all culture-based practices, no matter how heinous.  The form of toleration we should embrace is guarded:  it allows for the fact that many practices are intolerable no matter how thorough their cultural backing.  Consider fascists who justify their conduct by citing cultural traditions.  Consider the people in African cultures who yearly force two million girls to undergo a form of genital mutilation involving the removal of the clitoris.  And recall Kanwar, whose culture glorifies the immolation of widows.  Resolving not to do these things ourselves is good, but we want to condemn them no matter who does them.  Here we reject cultural relativism, which would force us to be supportive of offensive behavior, at least in a qualified way:  if urging grief-stricken widows to burn themselves to death is traditional for certain people, then we must agree that it is right for them—so says the cultural relativist.  But we do not agree.  

Fortunately, we can recognize the importance of measured toleration if we are universalists.  Toleration is a good idea for several reasons. 

1.         People are fallible.  Merely believing that a practice is wrong does not make it so.  I and my society are fallible, so I must give careful consideration to the possibility that my moral judgments are in error before I condemn the practices of other cultures.  Upon reflection I may realize that I am entirely unable to back my condemnation with sound justification, in which case I am in no position whatever to justify interfering with others who engage in the practice.  I may also come to see that it is my own culture that needs criticizing.

2.         Different cultural practices might be morally optional.  It is entirely possible that superficially incompatible cultural practices are morally permissible.  A trivial example is the British practice of driving on the left side of the road and the American practice of driving on the right:  either is entirely acceptable.  Another example involves the rituals motivated by different religious faiths.  An entire group might eschew modern technology, as the Amish do.  Their way of life is permissible, but it can be very difficult for the Amish to interact with groups who help themselves to technology.  Many cultural practices are acceptable even if incompatible with comparable practices in other cultures; here, toleration is in order. 

3.         Interference would cause more harm than good.  Even when we conclude that another culture’s practice is wrong, it can be a good idea to tolerate it simply because stopping it requires impermissible means, or because it will do more harm than good.  Whaling might be a case in point.  Japan and a few other countries continue to allow fishermen to kill whales, and there is a good chance that these magnificent mammals will become extinct.  But even if most people in the United States agreed that the hunting should be ended, it is by no means clear that there is a course of action available to us that would be both effective and permissible.  It would be absurd to threaten Japan with war, for example.  About all we can do is to attempt to persuade the Japanese to desist, and sign international treaties to preserve the whale population.  But we have already done these things.  There is an international ban on whaling, and Japan is a signatory.  Sometimes the only reasonable measures available to us are not good enough.

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

1.                  Bernard Williams discusses a view he calls “vulgar relativism” which consists of three propositions:  that ‘right’ means. . .’right for a given society’; that ‘right for a given society’ is to be understood in a functionalist sense [i.e., in terms of what helps the society to function]; and that (therefore) it is wrong for people in one society to condemn, interfere with, etc., the values of another society.  He goes on to say that “the view is clearly inconsistent since it makes a claim in its third proposition, about what is right and wrong in one’s dealings with other societies, which uses a nonrelative sense of ‘right’ not allowed for in the first proposition.”[12]  Does cultural relativism as we have defined it succumb to a similar objection?

2.                  In the Theaetetus Plato said that the argument from diversity seems to presuppose that whenever several people disagree, each opinion has some sort of truth to it.  But maybe most of the disputants have no expertise in the area and are simply wrong.  Surely, Plato suggests, we should set their opinions aside and listen to the experts (179b).  Is he correct?

3.                  In footnote 8, the claim is made that the argument from diversity does not support cultural relativism if the speaker-centered analysis of moral languages is correct.  Is this claim correct?  Why or why not?

4.                  The fact that the speaker-centered analysis does not support the version of cultural relativism we discussed does not entail that this analysis is false.  But if we accept the speaker-centered analysis, we will have to adopt a version saying that each speaker’s cultural standards dictate what relative to the speaker is good and right for an agent, and these standards vary from culture to culture.  Should we accept the speaker-centered view and the new version of relativism?

5.                  Critically evaluate the following argument:  each individual makes moral assessments using, or ‘relative to,’ standards which that individual accepts.  But these standards vary from individual to individual.  Therefore, individual relativism is true:  that is, the standards that determine the moral truth for a person are the standards which that person accepts.

6.                  Some ethical relativists say that it is wrong to judge others whose values are very different from ours, and it is wrong to make them conform to our values.  Can the ethical relativist justify this claim?  (Is it a universalist claim?)  How? Is it true?  Why or why not?

7.                  Notice that relativism could be applied to some moral standards and not others.  For example, we could say that a single set of standards for assessing the right is universally binding, but no single set of standards for assessing the good is requisite.  Contrast relativism as applied to (a) standards for assessing the right as well as standards for assessing the good; (b) standards for assessing the right only; (c) standards for assessing the good only.  Which form of relativism is most plausible?  Why?

 

FURTHER READINGS

Benedict, Ruth.  Patterns of Culture.  New York:  Pelican, 1946.

Brandt, Richard.  “Ethical Relativism.” In Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1967, pp. 75-78.

-----.  Ethical Theory.  Chapters 5, 6, 11.  Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1959.

Harman, Gilbert and Thomson, Judith J.  Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity.  Cambridge, MA:  Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1996.

Krausz, Michael, and Meiland, Jack, eds.  Relativism:  Cognitive and Moral.  Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.

Montaigne, Michel de.  “Of Custom, and not Easily Changing an Accepted Law.”  In Complete essays.  Frame, Donald, trans.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1973.

Nagel, Thomas.  The Last Word.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997.

Plato.  Theaetetus.  Hamilton, Edith, and Cairns, Huntington, trans.  Collected Dialogues of Plato.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1961).

Rorty, Richard.  “Solidarity or Objectivity?”  In Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 21-45.

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[1]William Dalrymple, “The Survival of Suttee,” in World Press Review 44 (1997) 16-17.

[2]Folkways (New York:  The New American Library, 1906), p. 41.

[3]In fact, each, individually, is compatible with universalism.  Most universalists are probably inclined to deny (2a), but they could accept (2a) so long as they denied (2b):  none of the standards actually accepted by existing cultures (or only one) may determine the moral truth.  And universalists could accept (2b) so long as they rejected (2a):  perhaps at a fundamental level all cultures do in fact accept the standards that define the one true morality.

[4]The relativist’s argument is not only invalid, it is awkward for a further reason:  if people across the world agree on anything, it is that cultural relativism is false!  Does any culture in the world say that each person’s cultural standards determine what that person should do?  I know of none, and the vast majority of cultures are committed to universalism.  (Of course, the mere fact that relativism is widely rejected does not show it is false, either.)

[5]See, for example, Richard Brandt’s seminal article “Ethical Relativism,” in Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1967), pp. 75-78, and Aberle, D. F., et al., “The Functional Prerequisites of a Society,” in Ethics 60 (1950) 100-111.

[6]In “Relativism,” Singer, Peter, ed., A Companion to Ethics (Cambridge, MA:  Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1993), p. 445.

[7]Quoted by Dorothy Stein in “Burning Widows, Burning Brides:  The Perils of Daughterhood in India,” in Pacific Affairs 61 (1988) 465-85, p. 468.

[8]One way to fill in the argument from diversity is to understand it as an inference to the best explanation:  it is meant to explain judgment clustering, relying on the claim that accepted moral standards vary along cultural lines, together with an analysis of the meaning of moral assertions.  Accordingly, the argument might look like this:

1.        Moral judgments vary along cultural lines. 

2.        The best explanation is twofold: 

(a)     accepted moral standards vary along cultural lines, and

(b)     to claim that an agent should perform an action is to say that the action meets the agent’s cultural standards.

3.        So (a) and (b) are true (since as a joint hypothesis they are the best explanation of 1).

4.        So cultural relativism is true (this follows from 3):  each agent’s cultural standards dictate what is good and right for that individual, and these standards vary from culture to culture.

However, there are plenty of problems with this new argument.  First, (2b) equates “_____ is right for a given person” with a descriptive claim, namely, “_____ meets that person’s cultural standards.”  How can a normative claim be equivalent to a descriptive claim?  The second problem is more complex.  According to (2b), when a speaker judges an agent, the speaker applies the standards of that agent’s culture, not the standards of the speaker’s culture.  Instead, why not say that the speaker’s standards are applied?  That is:

(2c)  The claim that an item is good or right for an agent means that the item meets the standards of the speaker’s culture.

For convenience, (2c) might be called the speaker-centered analysis of moral language, to contrast it with (2b), which might be called the agent-centered analysis. 

Isn’t the speaker-centered analysis better?  When we evaluate the actions of people in unfamiliar cultures, it seems unlikely that we judge relative to foreign standards rather than our own.  Moreover, the speaker-centered analysis together with (2a) would explain judgment clustering at least as well as the agent-centered analysis together with (2a).

But if the speaker-centered analysis is correct, cultural relativism as we have defined it is false.  Recall the dispute between the whalers and the protectors.  According to the cultural relativist, the whalers and the protectors must both say that killing whales is right for the fishermen, for both apply the agent’s (the whalers’) cultural standards.  The speaker-centered account, on the other hand, gives us the following perplexing result:  relative to the protectors it is wrong for the fishermen to kill the whales, even though relative to the whalers it is right for the fishermen to kill the whales.  Speaker-centered relativists not only judge their own actions by their cultural standards, they also judge the actions of everyone else by these same speaker-centered standards.  What is right for an agent is not dictated by that agent’s cultural standards.  Instead, it depends on the standards of the person judging.

[9]Nicholas Kristof, “Japan’s Whalers Start to Take On a Hunted Look,” in The New York Times, June 24, 1996.

[10]Natalie Angier, “DNA Tests Find Meat of Endangered Whales for Sale in Japan,” in The New York Times, September 13, 1994.

[11]The problem is even worse for the individual relativist.  At least cultural relativism would provide a basis for settling disputes among people who share a culture.  But individual relativism says that the standards we accept determine the moral truth for us, and these standards vary even within a culture.

[12]In Morality:  An Introduction to Ethics (New York:  Harper and Row, 1972), pp. 20-21.