Saturday, August 15, 2009
Cultural relativism explored further..
Relativism is essentially the idea that morality is not something fixed for all people either by theory or consequences or absolute principles. Instead, morality changes depending on the culture or the individual. Cultural relativism is the idea that the right thing to do is whatever a group of people or society believe is the right thing to do. “When in Rome, do as a Roman,” is a typical cultural relativist proclamation. The individual relativist (sometimes called subjectivism) takes this one step further. He says that morality is nothing more than whatever any particular individual wants to do. The cultural relativist would say that owning slaves is acceptable as long as the entire culture approves of such a practice. Likewise, if the culture rejects slavery, then one should not own slaves. The same is true of religious belief, sexual practice, or even whether something like honesty is virtuous. Every moral dictate is defined by whatever the cultural traditions of the people in the region accept. The individual relativist would say that practices such as slavery, abortion, sexual behavior, etc. are nothing more than individual preferences which cannot be urged on a person from the outside.
The argument for cultural relativism usually goes like this:
1. If there were any firm or universal moral principles, we should expect to see them in every culture we observe.
2. When we look at various cultures, we find absolutely no agreement about anything at all morally.
3. Therefore, there must not be any firm or universal moral principles.
4. Lacking firm or universal moral principles, the right thing to do is to simply obey the instructions of a local culture.
The argument for individual relativism goes one step farther in saying that even a culture does not completely agree about very much, therefore moral truth must simply be a matter of individual opinion. Even things as seemingly absolute as rape or murder or honesty do not interest a real individual relativist. He will observe that certainly a group of people might succeed in inflicting physical punishment on a rapist, but that does not mean that rape is morally wrong. It only means that they were stronger than the rapist, just as the rapist was stronger than his victim. Such strength in no way implies any moral superiority, and ultimately everything moral is simply a matter of taste and strength to pursue that taste. In America today, individual relativism is extremely popular when it comes to questions aside from those behaviors which put other people’s interests at risk. “As long as we do not hurt other people, anything we do is okay.” This position is actually a mixture of ethical theories, but it is probably the closest to individual relativism that most ordinary people ever come.