Is morality relative? Ruth Benedict and James Rachels have opposing views on this conroversial question. Benedict, a foremost American anthropologist who taught at Columbia University (Pojman 370) believes that morality is relative to one’s culture and that one’s behavior which is deemed moral or immoral is dependent upon cultural norms. Her argument is as such:
1. Different cultures have radically different moral codes
2. There are no objective moral principles i.e. all moral principles are culturally relative
Rachels, a professor at the University of Alabama (Pojman 375) disagrees with Benedict and believes that morality is not relative. Furthermore he holds Benedicts Cultural differences argument to be invalid.
One who sides with Bendedict would also agree with a quote from her book Patterns of
Culture that morality differs in every society and is a convenient term for socially approved habits. This quote seems logical, simply stated it means cultures approve of rituals and beliefs that the entire society shares. Society defines what is moral at a certain point in time. Morality is adaptive and can shange over time, however it is still dependent upon its culture to decide whether it is accepted or not accepted. For example, in the early twentieth century, pre-marital sex was considered a huge sin and looked down upon with disgrace. A person’s entire character was jeopordized if they had participated in pre-marital sex. Today however, although pre-marital sex is not considered virtuous, society does not cast aside those who have sex before marriage. It is considered normal as a matter of fact to have several partners before marriage, that is , if you even decide to get married (another topic that has lost importance over time).
Certain cultural norms may change over time, however using the same example (pre-marital) some cultures are just radically different. For instance, some African tribes are known to sew a woman’s vagina closed when she is young to prevent her from being able to have intercourse before she is married.; If she is not sytill sewn shut on her wedding night, she is cast out and considered a filthy whore.
To our culture, this seem entirely too drastic, but to those tribes, this is a ritual that has been practiced throughout their history and is considered a rite of passage when a girl reaches puberty.
Benedicts also gives an example to further prove her point that morality and or normality is culturally relative. She gives the example of a man in a Melanesian society who was referred to as silly and simple and definitely crfazy because he liked to share and to help people and do nice things for them. In the United States , these are virtuous qualities. If you are stingy and not helpful you are looked down upon, but in this contrasting society, to share and be helpful is so disgraceful that one is ridiculed for possessing thaose traits or even condemned for them.
One who believes that morality is relative could give further example of traits that are despised in one culture but admired in a different culture. History and evolution provide codes of what is accepted in a culture, things such as sorcery, homosexuality, polygamy, male dominance, euthanasia, these things are completely dependant upon its society to define its morality.
One who opposes the Cultural Differences Argument would believe that morality is not relative and is shared throughout all cultures. He/she would agree with Rachels, stating that the Cultural Differences Argument is invalid becasuse premis number one, which states that different cultures have radically different moral codes is wrong because the differences are not radical, and there are universal truths. One could point out that all societies have an inate tendency to care for their young and other young in general, or that murder is not accepted in any culture.
One could also argue that using the prusit of truth as an example will show that morality is not relative. Instead, universal morality exists, but not all cultres are aware of it. Rachels gives the example that some societies believe thayt the earth is flat, however we bleieve that the earth is round. Rachels uses this to show that the underlying fact is simply that they disagree. He further states there is no reason to thing that if the world is round everyone must know it. Similarly , there is no reason to thing that if there is moral truth everyone must know it.