Ruth benedict defending Cultural Relativism



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RUTH BENEDICT Defending Cultural Relativism

Ruth Benedict, an influential American anthropologist who lived from 1887 to 1948, specialized in the study of native American cultures.

Benedict claimed that what is considered "normal" varies greatly be­tween societies. For example, trances and homosexuality, while consid­ered "abnormal" in many cultures, are tolerated and have important social functions in some other cultures. What a culture considers "nor­mal" is encouraged to continue; in time, it becomes a cultural "good."

Benedict claims that ethics is relative to culture and that "morally good" is synonymous with "socially approved." As you read the selection, ask yourself how plausible you find this view. How would you think about racism or other ethical issues if you followed it? Does Benedict herself completely endorse this relativism?

Abnormality in a culture

Social anthropology has become a study of the varieties and common elements of cultural environment and the consequences of these in human behavior. In the higher cultures the standardization of custom and belief has given a false sense of the inevitability of the particular forms that gained currency, and we need to turn to a wider survey to check the conclusions we hastily base upon this near-universality of familiar customs. Modern civiliza­tion, from this point of view, becomes not a necessary pinnacle of human achievement but one entry in a long series of possible adjustments.

These adjustments, whether in mannerisms like ways of showing anger, orjoy, or grief, or in human drives like sex, prove to be far more variable than

experience in any one culture would suggest. In certain fields, such as religion

or marriage, these wide limits of variability are well known and can be fairly

scribed. In others it is not yet possible to give a generalized account.

One problem relates to the normal-abnormal categories. How far are such

categories culturally determined, or how far can we with assurance regard them as absolute?

One of the most striking facts is the ease with which our abnormals func-

tion in other cultures. It does not matter what kind of "abnormality" we



choose for illustration - those which indicate extreme instability, or those like sadism or delusions of grandeur or of persecution - there are well-described cultures in which these abnormals function at ease and with honor, and apparently without danger or difficulty to the society.

The Kwakiutl people

An extreme example is that of the North Pacific Coast of North America. The civilization of the Kwakiutl, at the time when it was first recorded in the last decades of the nineteenth century, was one of the most vigorous in North America. It was built up on an ample economic supply of goods, the fish which furnished their food staple being practically inexhaustible and obtain­able with comparatively small labor, and the wood which furnished the material for their houses, their furnishings, and their arts being always procurable. They lived in coastal villages that compared favorably in size with those of any other American Indians and they kept up communication by means of sea-going canoes.

It was one of the most vigorous and zestful of the aboriginal cultures of North America, with complex crafts and ceremonials, and elaborate and striking arts. It certainly had none of the earmarks of a sick civilization. The tribes of the Northwest Coast had wealth in our terms. That is, they had not only a surplus of economic goods, but they made a game of the manipulation of wealth.

The details of this manipulation of wealth are in many ways a parody on our own economic arrangements, but it is with the motivations that were recognized in this contest that we are concerned. The drives were those which in our own culture we should call megalomaniac. There was an uncensored self-glorification and ridicule of the opponent that it is hard to equal in other cultures.

All of existence was seen in terms of insult. Not only derogatory acts per­formed by a neighbor or an enemy, but all untoward events, like a ducking when one's canoe overturned, were insults. All threatened one's ego security, and the first thought was how to get even, how to wipe out the insult. Until he had resolved upon a course of action by which to save his face after any misfortune, an Indian of the Northwest Coast retired with his face to the wall and neither ate nor spoke. He rose from it to follow out some course which according to the traditional rules should reinstate him in his own eyes and those of the community: to distribute property enough to wipe out the stain, or to go head-hunting in order that somebody else should be made to mourn. His activities in neither case were specific responses to the bereavement he had just passed through, but were elaborately directed toward getting even. If he had not the money to distribute and did not succeed in killing someone to

humiliate another, he might take his own life. He had staked everything, in his view of life, upon a certain picture of the self, and, when the bubble of his self-esteem was pricked, he had no interest, no occupation to fall back on, and the collapse of his inflated ego left him prostrate.

Behavior honored upon the Northwest Coast is one which is recognized as abnormal in our civilization, and yet it is sufficiently close to the attitudes of our own culture to be intelligible to us. The megalomaniac paranoid trend is

definite danger in our society. It is encouraged by some of our major preoccupations, and it confronts us with a choice of two possible attitudes. One is to brand it as abnormal and reprehensible, and is the attitude we have chosen in our civilization. The other is to make it an essential attribute of ideal man, and this is the solution in the culture of the Northwest Coast.

Normality is defined by culture

Normality is culturally defined. An adult shaped to the drives and standards of these cultures, if he were transported into our civilization, would fall into our categories of abnormality. In his own culture, he is the pillar of society, the end result of socially inculcated mores.

No one civilization can utilize in its mores the whole potential range of human behavior. Just as there are great numbers of possible phonetic articulations, and the possibility of language depends on a selection and standardization of a few of these, so the possibility of organized behavior of every sort, from the fashions of local dress and houses to a people's ethics and religion, depends upon a similar selection among the possible behavior traits. In the field of economic obligations or sex taboos this selection is as nonrational and subconscious a process as it is in the field of phonetics. It is a process which goes on in the group for long periods of time and is historically conditioned by accidents of isolation or of contact of peoples.

Most organizations of personality that seem to us abnormal have been used by civilizations in the foundations of their institutional life. Conversely the most valued traits of our normal individuals have been looked on in differently organized cultures as aberrant. Normality, in short, within a very wide range, is culturally defined.

Normality and the good

is a point that has been made more often in relation to ethics. We do not any longer make the mistake of deriving the morality of our own locality and decade directly from the inevitable constitution of human nature. We do not elevate it to the dignity of a first principle. We recognize that morality differs

in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits. Mankind has always preferred to say, "It is a morally good," rather than "It is habitual," and the fact of this preference is matter enough for a critical science of ethics. But historically the two phrases are synonymous.

The concept of the normal is a variant of the concept of the good. It is that which society has approved. A normal action is one which falls well within the limits of expected behavior for a particular society.

On the Northwest Coast the person who finds it difficult to read life in terms of an insult contest will be the person upon whom fall all the difficul­ties of the culturally unprovided for. The person who does not find it easy to humiliate a neighbor, who is genial and loving, may find some unstandard-ized way of achieving satisfactions, but not in the major patterned responses that his culture requires of him.

The vast majority of the individuals in any group are shaped to the fashion of that culture. In other words, most individuals are plastic to the molding force of the society into which they are born. In a society that values trance, as in India, they will have supernormal experience. In a society that institu­tionalizes homosexuality, they will be homosexual. In a society that sets the gathering of possessions as the chief human objective, they will amass property. The deviants, whatever the type of behavior the culture has institutionalized, will remain few in number. The majority of mankind quite readily take any shape that is presented to them.

A hint of a non-relativist perspective

Western civilization allows and culturally honors gratifications of the ego which according to any absolute category would be regarded as abnormal. The portrayal of unbridled and arrogant egoists as family men, as officers of the law, and in business has been a favorite topic of novelists, and they are familiar in every community. Such individuals are probably mentally warped to a greater degree than many inmates of our institutions.

Our picture of our own civilization is no longer in terms of a changeless and divinely derived set of categorical imperatives. In this matter of mental ailments, we must face the fact that even our normality is man-made. Just as we have been handicapped in dealing with ethical problems so long as we held to an absolute definition of morality, so too in dealing with the prob­lems of abnormality we are handicapped so long as we identify our local normalities with the universal sanities. No society has yet achieved self-conscious and critical analysis of its own normalities and attempted ration­ally to deal with its own social process. But the fact that it is unachieved is not therefore proof of its impossibility. It is a faint indication of how momen­tous it could be in human society.

Understanding abnormal human behavior in any absolute sense independ­ent of cultural factors is still far in the future. The study of the neuroses and psychoses of our civilization give much information about the stresses of Western civilization, but no final picture of inevitable human behavior. Any conclusions about such behavior must await the collection by trained observers of psychiatric data from other cultures. Since no adequate work of the kind has been done at the present time, it is impossible to say what core of definition of abnormality may be found valid from the comparative material. It is as it is in ethics: all our local conventions of moral behavior and of immoral are without absolute validity, and yet it is quite possible that a modicum of what is considered right and what wrong could be disentan­gled that is shared by the whole human race.

Did Benedict follow her own theory?

After defining "good" as "socially approved," what will Benedict do when she sees that racial discrimination is "socially approved"? Will she conclude that it is "good" - and come to favor it? Surprisingly, in this passage written ten years later, she saw racial discrimination as both socially approved and as bad (like a sickness).

As Americans of the 1940's we have important resources which we can use to reduce race prejudice. We shall be more successful the more realistically we use them and the less we hope for miracles. However much we hesitate to acknowledge it, race prejudice is deeply entrenched in our routine life and probably, measured by any objective standards, only South Africa goes further in segregation, discrimination, and humiliation. We do not seem, in the eyes of other nations, to be good exemplars of democratic equality. Our race prejudice is the great enemy within our gates. Our whole country is very sick.

Apparently against her own views, Benedict claimed that things that are socially approved, like racial discrimination, can still be bad (in some non-relative sense). In this next passage, she draws on her expertise as an anthropologist to argue against racist attitudes.

As an anthropologist, I know the studies on the superiority and inferiority of racial groups. No scientific study gives any basis for thinking that all the wealthy people, the intelligent people, the imaginative people, are segregated in one race or born in certain countries and not in others. If you could choose

the top third of the human race for their physical stamina, their brains and

their decent human qualities, all races of the world would be represented in this top group.

We are always more complicated than we need to be when we explain race prejudice. We justify race prejudice by referring over and over to the poverty illiteracy, and shiftlessness of the people we segregate - the bad effects of making anybody a second-class citizen. Why not try the experiment of offering every opportunity freely to all Americans, with no ifs and buts? We know from experience that people from every racial group in America and from every country of origin respond to education, become healthy when they have good food and good medical care, and can learn to perform the tasks our civilization offers.

When we succumb to race prejudice we don't see the "man from outside" as a person in his own right, with eyes, ears, hands like ours. We classify him like a piece of merchandise by outward signs of color or face or gestures or language. We don't judge him on his personal merits. The cure for race prejudice is as simple as that: to treat people on their merits, without refer­ence to any label of race or religion or country of origin. There would he one effect: race prejudice would die of malnutrition.

America needs the help of all her citizens to ensure human dignity to all Americans.

Study questions



  1. What motivates Benedict to study, in particular, cultures that are not "higher" cultures?

  2. Which accepted practices of the Kwakiutl would be considered abnormal in most Western cultures?

  3. What parallels does Benedict draw between social practices and lan­guage?

  4. What problem does she raise regarding the "objectivity" of any observer of culture?

  5. Does Benedict see the fact of cultural diversity as itself establishing that "good" means "socially approved"?

  6. Explain the paragraph that mentions the possibility of universal values. Some think that Benedict here violates her own view. Do you agree?

  7. When Benedict saw that racial discrimination was "socially approved," did she conclude that it was therefore good?

  8. On what grounds does Benedict criticize claims asserting the superiority or inferiority of any race?

For further study

The main selection has excerpts, which are sometimes simplified in their wording, from Ruth Benedict's "Anthropology and the abnormal" in the Journal of General Psychology 10 (1934): 59-82. This essay is also in An Anthropolo­gist at Work: Writings of Ruth Benedict, edited by Margaret Mead (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959); the selections about racism are from pages 367-8 and 359-60. See also her study of Japanese culture, entitled The Chrysanthe­mum and the Sword (New York: World Publishing, 1967). For recent mono­graphs on her work, see Hilary Lapsley, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999); Judith Modell, Ruth Benedict: Patterns of a Life (Philadelphia: University of Pennsyl­vania Press, 1983); and Margaret Caffrey, Ruth Benedict: Stranger in this Land (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989). For a recent defense of ethical relativism, see Richard Rorty, "Postmodernist bourgeois liberalism," in his Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pages 197-202. Harry Gensler's Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 1998) discusses cultural relativism in Chapter 1.

Related readings in this anthology include Hertzler and Kohlberg (social scientists who defend trans-cultural norms); Gensler and Tokmenko, Lewis, and Nagel (who attack cultural relativism); Ayer and Mackie (who attack the objec­tivity of ethics); and Hare, King, and Singer (who criticize racial discrimination).

HARRY J. GENSLER and MARY GRACE TOKMENKO

Against Cultural Relativism

Harry J. Gensler is an editor of this book and Mary Grace Tokmenko was one of his students. Together they wrote this fictional piece on cultural relativism. The core of this view is the claim that "good" means what is "socially approved" in a given culture. The article tries to show that this view has unacceptable consequences.

As you read the selection, ask yourself if you find cultural relativism ini­tially plausible. How strong do you find the objections to this view?

A defense of cultural relativism

Hi, my name is Vera. I'm a student at Camford University, near my home in Liverpool. I recently got back from a term abroad in South Africa. My younger sister Relativa was especially happy to see me and asked if I'd like to proof-read an essay she was writing for school. I agreed and retreated to a back room to read her paper.

My sister's essay defended cultural relativism (CR), which says that moral judgments merely describe social conventions. She expressed CR's central claim in a definition:

"Good" means what is "socially approved" in a given culture.

If I say "Racism isn't good," I'm saying it isn't socially approved in my culture. Each society has its own values. Things are good or bad, not objec­tively, but only relative to the values of a given society.

I read Relativa's essay a couple of times, trying to get clear on what she was claiming and why. She rested her case on (a) the diversity of values between cultures and (b) the impossibility of resolving moral disputes between cultures.

Regarding diversity, Relativa recounted that she had been brought up to believe that morality is about objective facts. Just as snow is white, so also

fanticide is wrong. But she gave this up when she learned how cultures disagree about morality. I highlighted these words in her paper:

Our values come from our upbringing. Mom and Dad teach us that it's wrong to kill infants, and society later reinforces this teaching. These values become part of us. So we see "Infanticide is wrong" as an objective fact. But later we learn about other cul­tures. We discover that the norms we were taught are the norms of our own society; other societies have different ones. Just as so­cieties create different styles of food and clothing, so too they cre­ate different moral codes. Morality is a cultural construct. In some societies, like ancient Rome, killing infants was perfectly ac­ceptable.

From this diversity of values, Relativa concluded that values are relative to culture:

Right and wrong are relative. Think of it this way: a thing cannot be "below" absolutely; it's always below something else. The same story goes for values; something isn't "wrong" absolutely, but only "wrong in" this or that society. Infanticide might be wrong in one society but right in another. So when / call infanti­cide "wrong," this just means that my society disapproves of it.

So a value judgment always has an implicit reference to a given society. Now some dispute this and claim there's an objective truth about the morality of infanticide. Relativa rejected this, since she thought there was no neutral standpoint for resolving moral disputes between cultures:

The myth of objectivity says that things can be good or bad "ab­solutely" - not relative to this or that culture. But how can we know what is good or bad absolutely? How can we argue about infanticide or other things without just presupposing the stan­dards of our own society? People who speak of good or bad ab­solutely are absolutizing the norms of their own society. They take the norms they were taught to be objective facts.

Relativa then talked about tolerance:

As I've come to accept cultural relativism, I've become more toler­ant of other cultures. I've given up the attitude that "we're right and they're wrong." I've come to realize that the other side isn't "wrong" in its values; it's just "different." We have to see others

from their point of view; if we criticize them, we're just imposing the standards of our own society. We cultural relativists are more tolerant.

She ended by saying that those who believe in the "myth of objectivity" need to study anthropology or perhaps "live for a time in another culture." That last point struck home, since I had just spent several months immersed in another culture; and yet I did not believe in cultural relativism.

I was impressed with my sister's essay. Little Relativa was starting to struggle with important issues. I had similarly found cultural relativism attractive a few years earlier; but I came to see problems with the view when I focused on it more clearly.

Problems with cultural relativism

When Relativa asked how I liked her essay, I smiled and said: "You're addressing important issues; but let me ask you a few questions. First, do you ever disagree with your society about values?" Relativa answered, "Not much; like everyone else, I'm a child of my culture." I pushed her further, "But even children can rebel. Don't we all at times disagree with group norms? If everyone else approved of getting drunk and driving off a cliff, would you have to agree?" Relativa paused a few moments while the idea sank in; then she responded:

Okay, I see your point. If "good" means "socially approved," then 1 can't disagree with my society about values. If I saw that something was socially approved, I'd have to say it was good. I couldn't think for myself and disagree. I'd have to be a conformist about values - even if I saw that my society's values were based on ignorance.

I asked, "Don't you think it's important to think for yourself about values?" She said, "Yes, of course; but I see that cultural relativism prevents this."

I then told her about South Africa, which until recently had legally enforced race segregation, an "apartheid" policy that mistreated blacks. A cultural relativist living there years ago would have to see apartheid as good, since it was socially approved. But even then a minority disagreed. At this point, Relativa broke in:

I see the problem here. With CR, "good" by definition is what the majority approves; so minority views (like those opposing apart­heid) are always wrong. But then how can we change the values of

society - if we can't disagree with the majority? Sometimes social values need to change, as in South Africa. But with CR we can't express disagreement with accepted values without contradicting ourselves. So CR would stifle social change.

As 1 nodded in agreement, I reflected how intolerant CR is toward minority

views.


Relativa's face turned to puzzlement as yet another problem came to her mind. She asked me in a halting way:

But how on earth could people who had been brought up to be­lieve one thing (like the acceptability of apartheid) come to think something else - something that went against the teaching of their society? What could possibly bring them to do this?

1 told her that there may be moral ideas common to all cultures that would lead people to criticize apartheid - ideas like the golden rule, "Treat others as you want to be treated." Perhaps people, after imagining themselves in the place of their victims, saw that they were treating others as they were themselves unwilling to be treated in the same circumstances. I asked Relativa if the golden rule was widely held throughout the world. She replied:

Yes, I learned in anthropology that most cultures accept the golden rule. Now that I think about it, 1 guess I've over­emphasized how cultures differ. While there are disagreements over details, most cultures are in broad agreement on most aspects of morality. This is natural, since cultures couldn't survive unless they had some rules (and somewhat similar ones) about things like killing, stealing, and lying.

I added that, even if societies disagreed widely about morality, that wouldn't show that there was no truth of the matter. Cultures disagree widely about anthropology or religion or even physics. Yet there still may be correct and incorrect ideas on these subjects. So, despite the disagreements, there still may be some truth of the matter about whether it's right to treat people badly because of their race.

Attractions of cultural relativism

asked Relativa why she and others find CR so attractive. She responded:

I guess I liked cultural relativism because (1) it promotes toler­ance, (2) it gives clear guidelines (you just follow what your soci­ety says), and (3) it seems to be the view of sophisticated social scientists.

1 suggested that we go through these ideas one by one.

First, I asked Relativa whether CR could promote intolerance and ridicule toward others (whether in our own culture or in another). She replied:

Yes, if such intolerance were socially approved. If society favored imprisoning people or burning them at the stake for their beliefs, then these forms of intolerance would have to be good. Now that I see this, it troubles me.

1 added, "If we value tolerance, then maybe we need a better basis for it than CR."

Next I turned to the "clear guidelines" idea. I asked Relativa what group she considered to be "her society." Since she was puzzled about how to respond, I told her that I belong to various groups with different values. At Camford, for example, I'm part of the dressage team; I enjoy the horseback competition, but the group is very elitist and constantly looks down on people who are poor or of other races. But I'm also part of the Service Club, which respects and tries to help poor people of any race. If I defined my personal values by what each of those groups approved of, I'd be in conflict. Relativa broke in:

Okay, I see the problem. According to CR, when I say that some­thing is "good" I mean that it's "socially approved in my group." But which group is "my group"? I'm part of many groups with conflicting values. Suppose that my family and my religious group disapprove of racism, while my friends and my neighbors approve. What would CR tell me to believe?

"That's the point," I said. "CR would give us clear guidelines only if we belonged to just one society; but we don't - instead, we belong to various overlapping societies."

Since Relativa saw CR as "the view of sophisticated social scientists," I told her that many important social scientists oppose CR. The famous psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, for example, claimed that people of all cultures go through the same stages of moral thinking. CR represents a relatively low stage in which we simply conform to society. At more ad­vanced stages, we reject CR; we become critical of accepted norms and think for ourselves about moral issues. Kohlberg's view suggests that there's more

to moral thinking than just absorbing the values of our culture; there's also a critical level where we start to think for ourselves and perhaps disagree with what society taught us.

Learning from other cultures

We were both enjoying the conversation; at long last, the two of us were discussing something serious in a constructive way. Yet little sister was becoming tired from my questioning. So, to put the discussion more on my shoulders, Relativa asked me to talk about my experiences in South Africa and how these might shed light on cultural relativism. I, in turn, was eager to share my experiences with my sister.

So 1 talked about my experiences. 1 recounted how I passed the Study Abroad office at Camford one day and spied a poster about a college in Cape Town. For the rest of the day, all I could think about was how great it would be to get away for a term and immerse myself in another culture. What a great learning experience! When I returned the next day, I discovered that the college in Cape Town had an internship program in social work, which was my area. I was very happy about this, since it would help me in my future work to understand how another culture dealt with social problems.

After I arrived in Cape Town several months later, I wasn't sure that I had made the right choice. I felt uncomfortable in this new culture and longed to be back home. I had trouble, for example, adjusting to how casual and unstructured things were; I was used to a very structured life at Camford, where I loved to type out a weekly schedule for myself. Eventually, though, I opened myself up to the Cape Town lifestyle and began to enjoy it.

The greatest part of my experience was getting to know my host family, which consisted of a doctor and his wife, and two wonderful children. The family helped me learn about the food and music and other customs of South Africa. And the daughter let me use her computer to keep in touch with my friends back home by e-mail, which helped me not to feel so isolated.

I had long discussions about values with the doctor, who was very intelli­gent and had studied in Britain and America. We often compared life in Britain with life in South Africa. He was critical, for example, of how older people were treated in Britain, so often being isolated from younger folks. He preferred the common South African practice, whereby grandparents lived with the family and helped raise the children; he thought this was better for everyone. I wasn't sure this would work as well in Britain, but his comments made me think. Now when 1 consider social problems in my own country, I try to learn from how other cultures deal with the same problems.

Since my host family was colored, we often talked about race relations. I was especially interested in what life was like under the old apartheid system;

the wife told me how painful it was to live under a system that made her children feel that they weren't as good as white people. Of course, we both condemned the old practice of apartheid and welcomed the changes. But the doctor emphasized that people still had a long way to go, and that subtle forms of racism still exist in South Africa - as well as in Britain and America.

When I discussed values with intelligent and open-minded people in South Africa, I found that we tended to agree more than disagree. This was so even when we were discussing defects in my society or in their society. Seldom was there a conflict between "British values" (values that nearly all British accept) and "South African values" (values that nearly all South Africans accept). The one exception was when the English cricket team played South Africa; only then did we line up neatly on opposite sides.

One big problem with cultural relativism is that it divides people. CR simplistically sees each group as having its own unified system of values. So "we" (as in "we British") have our values, and "they" (as in "those South Africans") have theirs. This "we versus they" mentality may have worked reasonably well when cultures were isolated from each other. But we live in a shrinking world where technology tears down fences between cultures; think of transcontinental flights, global news agencies, multinational corporations, and the Internet. Today we need ways to mediate disputes between societies and to establish some common norms. Since CR helps very little with such problems, it gives a poor basis for life in the twenty-first century.

Cultural relativism also limits our ability to learn from other cultures. CR says "Our culture's norms are okay, and so are yours." But our culture's norms might not be okay. Our norms might have biases and blind spots that we won't recognize unless we dialogue with others. Societies, since they deal in differing ways with the same life problems, can learn much from each other. Our growth demands that we experience other ways of thinking and acting - and that we be open to change how we do things on the basis of this experience.

CR says that whatever is socially approved must thereby be good. So if it's socially approved to value money above all else, then this must be good. And if it's socially approved to put Jews in concentration camps, then this too must be good. To live as a cultural relativist is to live as an uncritical con­formist. But cultural relativism is an error: "good" doesn't mean "socially approved." What is socially approved may sometimes be very bad.

Study questions



  1. Explain the cultural relativist's view about the meaning of "good" and its relativity to culture.

  1. What reasons does Relativa give for holding cultural relativism?

  1. How would Vera respond to these reasons for holding cultural relativism? What is her main objection to cultural relativism?

  2. In what ways would cultural relativism promote or not promote tolerance for other moral beliefs?

  3. Explain the subgroup problem.

  4. Do all social scientists support cultural relativism?

  5. Why does Vera think that cultural relativism divides people?

  6. How does Vera think that we can learn from other cultures? How would cultural relativism limit our ability to do this?

For further study

This selection is from "Are Values Relative to Culture?" which appeared in the Scottish journal Dialogue 14 (April 2000): 3-6. Be careful of terminology if you do outside reading; what is here called "cultural relativism" is sometimes called "ethical relativism." To sort out the different types of "relativism" in ethics, see Richard Brandt's "Ethical Relativism" in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy (edited by Paul Edwards, London and New York: Macmillan and the Free Press, 1967). For a defense of cultural relativism by a prominent anthropologist, see William Sumner's longer Folkways (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1911). Harry Gensler's Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 1998) discusses cultural relativism in Chapter 1; this essay is in part derived from ideas in that chapter.



Related readings in this anthology include Benedict (who defends cultural relativism); Ayer and Mackie (who attack the objectivity of ethics); Lewis, Kohlberg, and Nagel (who attack cultural relativism and defend the objectivity of ethics); Hertzler and Ricoeur (who discuss the golden rule); and Hare, King, and Singer (who criticize racial segregation).





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