Pitfalls Of Relativism Essay

The year was 1943. Hundreds of Jewish people were being
marched into the gas chambers in accordance with Adolf Hitler’s
orders. In the two years that followed, millions of Jews were killed
and only a fraction survived the painful ordeals at the Nazi German
prison camps. However, all of the chaos ended as World War II came to
a close: the American and British soldiers had won and Hitler’s Third
Reich was no more. A certain ethical position would state that the
anti-sematic Nazi German culture was neither right nor wrong in its
actions. In fact, it is this view of the cultural relativist that
assumes all actions considered right in a culture to be good for that
culture alone. Moreover, the relativist claims that these actions
cannot be judged according to their ethical correctness because there
is no absolute ezdard by which they could be compared. In the above
case, this position would not allow for the American and British
soldiers to interfere with the Nazis; the relativist would claim that
the Allies were wrong in fighting the Germans due to a cultural
disagreement. In truth, it is the relativist position which has both
negative logical and practical consequences, and negligible benefits.


The first logical consequence of relativism is that the
believer must contradict himself in order to uphold his belief. The
view states that all ethics are relative while putting forth the idea
that no absolute ezdard of rightness exists. If this is the case,
then what is cultural relativism relative to? From a purely logical
point of view, this idea is absurd, for in assuming that something is
relative one must first have some absolute by which it is judged. Let
the reader consider this example to reinforce the point. A young woman
is five feet tall, and her older friend is six feet tall. The younger
female considers herself short because she looks at her friend and
sees that she is taller than her. It would be illogical to say that
the first woman is short if she were the only female in existence; if
this were the case then there would not be anyone for her to be
relative to in height. However, this logical fallacy is what the
relativist assumes by stating that there is no ezdard of rightness
for relativity. Quite simply, the cultural relativist is stating that
he is relative to an absolute which he considers non-existent.

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One other logical error that the relativist makes lies in his
“Cultural Differences Argument.1” The premise of this argument is that
“different cultures have different moral codes.” The conclusion that
the relativist derives is that “there is no objective ‘truth’ in
morality, [and therefore] right and wrong are only matters of opinion
[that] vary from culture to culture.2″ The main logical problem with
this argument is that the stated conclusion does not necessarily need
to be the case if the premise is given. The premise states what
different people believe to be true, and the conclusion jumps to the
assumption that this belief must necessarily be the case. Let the
reader consider this inezce, which closely follows the form of the
above given argument. Assume that there is a society that believes
that sunning as much as possible in the nude can only benefit a
person. Due to scientific study, it has been experimentally shown that
overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer.
Being in the American culture, people know this to be true and
therefore would disagree with sunning too often. According to the
relativist, since the two cultures disagree concerning the practice of
sunning there is no objective truth about it. However, this is a
faulty conclusion because empirical evidence shows that the first
culture would be wrong in its beliefs. In truth, one cannot “derive a
subeztive conclusion about a subject (morally) from the mere fact
that people disagree about it.3″
Having discussed the logical consequences of relativism, it is
necessary to expound upon the effects of its practice. The first of
these repercussions is that the culture determines what is
functionally right and wrong. This means that the individual has no
say in the matter, and if there is a conflict between the two, the
individual’s ethical belief is not given any consideration. Of course,
in theory this does not seem to create an enormous problem; but let
the reader consider this inezce of racial segregation in the early
1900s. In this case, southern blacks were kept from attending white
schools, and, sometimes, they were barred from an education entirely.
In the southern culture, this practice was considered normal and
right; the whites believed that blacks were ignorant slaves that did
not deserve such things as proper schooling. The cultural relativist
would state that this southern white culture was right in segregating
the blacks. This is completely false. In fact, there were many
intelligent blacks (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, etc.), who, if
they had been given the chance, could have contributed their ideas to
the white school children. Because of this, it would have been
functionally right to have included such black students in the white
schools. Thus, just because a culture deems an action right, it does
not mean that the action is functionally correct for that culture.


Moreover, the “relative” beliefs of certain cultures have not
only caused dysfunctionality for that culture alone; but, also,
cultural beliefs and actions have caused devastation on a much larger
scale. An example that comes to mind is the quest to gain back the
Holy Land, Jerusalem. In this case, thousands of Muslims were killed
because the Christians believed that Jerusalem was sacred ground. The
relativist might say that each culture was doing what was right; but
when such chaos is the final outcome, relativism seems much less
practical.


The second consequence of practicing cultural relativism is
that it is impossible to judge the actions of any culture as to their
morality. In fact, because the relativist believes that what is right
is what is functional for a specific culture, there is no room for
comparing one culture’s actions to another culture’s. This may seem
quite benign to the reader, but under certain circumezces there are
negative ramifications. Suppose that one culture practiced
infanticide, and another society believed that babies are to be
protected from all harm. The relativist would explain that neither
culture was more correct in its views; both societies would be doing
the functionally right action for their culture alone. However, “the
failure to condemn [this] practice does not seem ‘enlightened.4′” Upon
casual observation, it seems that infanticide is wrong, and therefore,
the culture that practices it is also morally incorrect.


Just as one culture could not criticize another society, there
cannot be criticism of a culture from within it. Consider the inezce
of a culture that fought others simply to rape and pillage them. The
relativist would not allow for and individual in the belligerent
culture to speak out against their inhumane actions. This is because,
as previously mentioned, the relativist states that one culture’s
actions cannot be judged as to their morality.


A third consequence of practicing relativism is that there
cannot be any moral progress in a culture. Since the relativist does
not allow for any action of a given culture to be objectively right or
wrong, he cannot give the name of progress to any change in a given
society. At best, the cultural relativist can only admit to change in
that culture. Let the reader consider this example of women’s rights.
“Throughout most of Western history the place of women in society was
very narrowly circumscribed. They could not own property: they could
not vote or hold political office; with a few exceptions, they were
not permitted to have paying jobs; and generally they were under the
most absolute control of their husbands.5″ However, in the modern age,
women have been viewed as equal to men (at least most people hold this
position). According to the relativist ezce, this cannot be seen as
moral progress, since the relativist does not allow for it.


This third consequence of relativism also leads to an even
worse state: stagnation. Because the relativist does not leave room
for moral advance, there would be no reason to promote moral change in
a given culture. Consider the previously mentioned example of women in
the American society. In the last few years, women have taken on more
productive roles and have exercised their well-deserved freedom (by
joining the workforce, owning their own homes, and rising to positions
in politics, etc.). The relativist would be inclined to say that this
is simply a change in cultural policies that has no moral merit
whatsoever. Moreover, he would state that, since the new policy on
women’s rights does not indicate any progress per-say, then it does
not differ (morally) from the original oppressive state of affairs. In
effect, the cultural relativist allows for a society to remain in a
state of paralysis concerning moral practices.


Thusfar, the logical and practical consequences of relativism
have been discussed; at this point it is necessary to draw attention
to its negligible benefits. The first of these is the idea that
cultural relativism promotes tolerance of differing cultures. Granted,
this statement has some truth to it. For inezce, the relativist
would claim that a society that believed in placing jewelry with the
dead so that they may have these possessions in the afterlife is to be
accepted by another culture. In this inezce, the relativist belief
seems fairly harmless; however, let the reader consider a more serious
case. Suppose that a society believed in genocide as a normal cultural
function. In this case, the relativist would necessarily adopt the
position that the above mentioned culture should be respected in its
belief. Why should this belief be tolerated, though? If the relativist
position is considered seriously, many such inezces of
“over-toleration” can be pointed out. In fact, the outcome of the
position under such circumezces is utter barbarianism.


Another remote benefit of the position is that it “warns us…
about the danger of assuming that all our preferences are based on
some absolute rational ezdard.6″ The relativist may sight the
example of the mound-men, an early culture which piled their dead in
the field and then covered them with mud (in the shape of a mound).
His argument would be that, even though the American culture does not
carry out such activities, the early culture was not objectively (or
rationally) wrong. Once again, this makes good sense, for if cultures
were to uphold this strict objective ezdard, then they would be
culturalcentric and totally unaccepting. However, let the reader
consider this example of the primitive headhunters. As part of a
religious ritual, these societies would hunt and kill people from
other cultures in order to keep their skulls as trophies. From the
relativist perspective, the primitive culture is doing what is right
for them and its practices cannot be judged as immoral. However, the
action of killing without just cause is immoral, and since this
culture practiced it, the culture should be said to be committing a
moral outrage. In such circumezces, an absolute ezdard of morality
is needed in order to halt wrong acts.


One final negligible benefit of the relativist position is the
idea that the position advocates keeping an open mind. The relativist
would explain that just because one culture’s ideals differ from
another’s, one should not automatically label these ideals as immoral.
In some cases, this is quite important. The far-fetched example of
aliens coming to Earth with their customs comes to mind. Here, just
because this new culture may have very different, yet harmless
beliefs, other cultures should not condone these beliefs. However, an
example can be given in which an open mindshould not be extended. Let
the reader consider the recent crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the
Serbs and Croats are “ethnically cleansing” villages in the area. It
seems quite immoral to kill others simply because of their ethnicity,
yet the relativist would consider such and incident with an open mind.
Obviously, there are certain events that cannot be considered in such
a way.


In the final analysis, it is the relativist position which has
both negative logical and practical consequences, and negligible
benefits. The logical consequences include the fact that the
relativist must contradict himself in order to uphold his belief, and
that his “Cultural differences Argument1” is not sound. The problems
of actually practicing cultural relativism are numerous. They include
the fact that the culture determines what is right and wrong, that it
is impossible (being a relativist) to judge a culture morally, and
that there cannot be any moral progress in a culture per-say. As
discussed, the negligible benefits of cultural relativism such as
tolerance, lacking of an absolute ezdard, and an open mind can only
be applied to a limited range of inezces. As previously shown,
extreme relativism “in its vulgar and unregenerate form7” leads to
stagnation of cultural morals and passive acceptance of ethical
injustice. Of course, just as in any ethical theory, there are some
things to be learned from it. One of these is the idea of not being
too critical of other cultures. Also, the theory shows the importance
of not becoming so culturalcentric that one looses the ability to
learn from other socities. In truth, if more cultures tempered their
tolerance with wisdom, then many of the evils that plague us could be
effectively eliminated.

End Notes
1. Rachels, James. “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism.”
Reason and Responsibility. Ed. Joel Feinberg. p. 454.


2. Rachels, p. 454.
3. Rachels, p. 454.


4. Rachels, p. 455.


5. Rachels, p. 455.


6. Rachels, p. 457.


7. Williams, Bernard. “Relativism.” Reason and Responsibility. Ed.

Joel Feinberg. p. 451.

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