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It’s Not All Relative: Rethinking Cultural Relativism

It’s Not All Relative: Rethinking Cultural Relativism
The claim that everything is relative could be disputable...Photo by Unsplash

In alliance with the concept of nihilism (that condemned notions of absolute truth and meaning as ideologically suspicious), relativism became the overriding cultural artifact of 20th century Western society. Relativism fundamentally states that truth or value have only relative significance or meaning and vary from one culture to the next. It is an extension of Nietzche's "perspectivism" which stated that "You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist". Much of the twentieth century philosophical, cultural and political debates have been centered on the validity and consequences of the notion of relativism. Divided into several groups, while one asserts on the logical plausibility of the concept in the modern world, the other group vehemently criticizes relativism as both a moral cowardice and a politically treacherous idea.

Relativism is the notion that there are no pre-given truths or knowledge that exist, beyond the influences of historic time and culture. “Descriptive relativism” is of the view that for the same “Property F” various standards and values are associated with it depending on the places, people, cultures, or times it inhabits. In other words there exists a plurality of standards associated with the same property. Philosophical relativism on the other hand states that there is no single universally valid standard of Fness for all places, people, cultures, or times. Normative relativism asserts that the validity of values differs according to societies and hence one culture based upon its norms should not judge another culture. Over the years relativism has come under heavy attack from the skeptics. First, the critics points out that the relativistic point of view is ultimately self-contradictory. Second, that relativist tolerance can only be taken by someone who does not have any moral convictions. Third, that it is skepticism that prevents one from believing a certain F.

In the essay, “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism”, James Rachels critiques the notions of relativism and criticizes its political and social implications in society.  “Cultural Relativism”, he writes, “challenges our ordinary belief in the objectivity and universality of moral truth”. Universal standards are determined by cultural codes, and each one is one among many. Cultural Relativism is a theory about the nature of morality. It states the Nietzschean notion that there is no fixed or pre given morality. It is determined by the social and cultural codes of an existing society in a particular historic time. The notions of right or wrong are asserted to be culture specific merely on the basis of opinion. If a culture like the Callatians finds it right to eat their dead, it is morally right since their culture sanctifies it. The Greeks on the other hand are appalled by such actions. They too are right from their own cultural perspective. The argument here is that there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture. Rachels argues this point to be false as it does not hold substance in a logical argument. “In order to determine whether the conclusion is true, we need arguments in its support. Cultural Relativism proposes this argument, but unfortunately the argument turns out to be fallacious.”

James Rachels argues that there are much less assumed differences amongst various cultures. He states that the differences are not in the values but in the belief systems. For instance a society will not eat cow if they believe that the souls of their dead ones inhabit in the cow. Other matters like the physical environment a cultural group inhabits are also equally important. If the Eskimos are not much reluctant to kill their infants, it is because of the harsh weather conditions they live in and not because they don’t value life.

Rachels’ argument focuses on the consequences of cultural relativism in society. The first, he writes, is that we could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own. This can be a dangerous perspective as it justifies the political passiveness against and justification of anti-Semite brutality of the Nazi regime or the racial apartheid of Africa in the relativist equation. The second is we could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society. This again is problematic as it simply legitimizes certain injustices happening in one’s society because it simply does and is part of that society. The racial segregation laws in America can be an instance. The third is that the idea of moral progress is called into doubt. History is a progression of events. A progressive view of past events shows that as time passes societies change and amend their ways in the ways they see and respond to certain things. The irrationality of today was the rationality of yesterday. But according to relativism, there is no absolute truth or moral or political correctness. Everything is a matter of relative perspective shaped by our society. The success of workers movements or women empowerment does not hold substance here.  “To say that we have made progress implies a judgment that present-day society is better, and that is just the sort of transcultural judgment that, according to Cultural Relativism, is impermissible.” Any ideas of social or cultural reform in the relativist point of view are without significance.

James Rachels argues that there are much less assumed differences amongst various cultures. He states that the differences are not in the values but in the belief systems. For instance a society will not eat cow if they believe that the souls of their dead ones inhabit in the cow. Other matters like the physical environment a cultural group inhabits are also equally important. If the Eskimos are not much reluctant to kill their infants, it is because of the harsh weather conditions they live in and not because they don’t value life. Rachels maintains that there are certain values that surpasses beyond any cultural boundaries or constructions. He argues that at times thoughtful people are reluctant to act against an instance of human rights violation in a particular culture because of various reasons that is however not due to their view of cultural relativism. They are reluctant to interfere in another culture or society as outsiders.

We are living at a time when constructive criticism about any culture, religion or people is often attacked as being culturally insensitive which has deeper political implications. What should lie between adamant claims of cultural relativism and universalism is the need for unhindered social progress.

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