Cultural relativism

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  • Right and wrong are relative to the customs of one’s society.

  • Cultural Relativism is more of public opinion as opposed to one’s own private opinion. It determines what is right and wrong in society.

  • Cultural relativists believe that moral rightness and wrongness vary from place to place and that there are no absolute or universal moral standards that could apply to all persons at all times.

-Because there are no universal moral standards, the moral values of one culture cannot be judged to be any better or worse than those of any other culture.

-Example: While it is wrong in our culture for men to beat their wives, according to a cultural relativist it is wrong ONLY because it goes against cultural norms.

Example from “Herodotus”

Others of the Indians, dwelling to the East of these, are pastoral and eat raw flesh: these are called Padaians, and they practice the following customs:—whenever any of their tribe falls ill, whether it be a woman or a man, if a man then the men who are his nearest associates put him to death, saying that he is wasting away with the disease and his flesh is being spoilt for them: and meanwhile he denies stoutly and says that he is not ill, but they do not agree with him; and after they have killed him they feast upon his flesh: but if it be a woman who falls ill, the women who are her greatest intimates do to her in the same manner as the men do in the other case. For in fact even if a man has come to old age they slay him and feast upon him; but very few of them come to be reckoned as old, for they kill everyone who falls into sickness, before he reaches old age (Book 3).

  • Cultural relativism encourages blind conformity (behavior in accordance with socially accepted standards) to cultural norms rather than rational thinking of moral issues.

-We cannot assume that simply because the majority holds a certain value that it is desirable or ok to do.

-Example: If you are a Democrat, you vote for the Democrat candidate for president simply because he is a Democrat.

Questions to Think Consider:

  1. If you had to choose between saving a family member or 5 strangers, who would you save? As a utilitarian, who should you save and why?

  2. The term doublethink is used to describe when people simultaneously hold 2 contradictory views and believe both to be true. Some people jump back and forth between their different beliefs depending on what is more important at that particular time. For instance: Some students may argue that morality is a private choice when it comes to something they are doing, such as binge drinking or cheating on a test or using hate speech. At the same time, they may be morally critical of teachers who break these norms by suing sexist or racist language in class or playing favorites in grading. Author George Orwell predicted that doublethink would become more and more prevalent as people lost the ability to think critically. Do you agree with Orwell? How have you used doublethink in your life (are there times in your life when you feel strongly about a certain belief but then go against it later on—contradictory beliefs?)

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