Cultural Relativism

How can you determine whether a tradition is good or bad? Usually, we turn to what we see around us to determine whether something is good or bad. 

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    We reject infidelity and hate crimes and look up to robbers. However, not all cultures share these beliefs. Some share open relationships and offer human sacrifices to gods of many names. So then, who is doing the right thing if they accept those customs for others but not for us?

    This piece talks about one determinant factor for your concept of morality: culture. Next, you will learn how your cultural environment has shaped you and your moral beliefs. Finally, through the discussions throughout history about plurality and relativism, we hope you stop and formulate conclusions on what is truly the greater good for all.

    Cultural relativism definition

    To define cultural relativism, you must understand two terms relevant to the topic. Firstly, culture is a subject that you can interpret from many perspectives. For this reason, most concepts are criticised for being too ambiguous or too broad.

    Another essential term to understand is relativism. It goes hand in hand with culture, as the latter could be considered a value that conditions man and his surroundings.

    Relativism argues that things like morality, truth, and knowledge are not set in stone. Instead, it believes they are determined by the context, such as culture and history. They are relative; they only make sense when examined in context.

    Now we understand what culture and release are, what is a cultural relativism definition? Well, one such condition that could change perception regarding morality is, of course, culture. What is considered morally good can differ between cultures. For this reason, a group of philosophers have become proponents of cultural relativism.

    Cultural relativism is the thought or belief that morality should be viewed within the person's cultural context.

    In short, cultural relativism evaluates a moral rule in the context of culture. There are two main perspectives to consider on this topic. Most proponents of cultural relativism argue for the absence of an independent framework to evaluate a system of virtues, making culture an objective measure of character. On the other hand, this also denies the existence of absolute morality, as every act can be defended under the excuse of cultural differences.

    "Judgements are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation" 1

    Implications of cultural relativism

    Now that you understand cultural relativism, we'll discuss this approach's arguments from supporters and critics.

    Benefits of cultural relativism

    Proponents of cultural relativism have remained constant in the core belief raised by the father of cultural relativism, Franz Boas: That perspectives and values vary according to cultural and social background. The primary benefit of cultural relativism comes in the knowledge that different cultures have different rules across all periods, so this approach lets them stand on equal ground when studying morality.

    Cultural Relativism Black and white photo of Franz Boas StudySmarterFig. 1, Franz Boas

    Franz Boas was a German-American Anthropologist. He had ample experience studying Native American practices and languages. While working on scientific magazines and publishing books, he also showed significant influence as a teacher, mentoring students of any race or sex. Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Hurston, Ella Deloria, and Melville Herskovits were among his pupils.3

    Cultural relativism proposes a way to resolve disagreements without universal criteria for morality. It calls for tolerance and acceptance toward cultures foreign to our own. It also helps us to avoid 'othering' cultures that we aren't familiar with.

    Criticisms of cultural relativism

    While many proponents give strong arguments as to why it is a sound theory for evaluating worldviews, there is no shortage of criticisms of cultural relativism. Firstly, many anthropologists argue that death and birth rituals are constant throughout all cultures. It denies any impact biology has on the behaviour of men. Other criticisms stand on the complex nature of culture, as it isn't a stable measure as it constantly evolves and changes.

    However, the biggest objection against cultural relativism is that it denies the existence of a single objective network over which you can evaluate morality and customs. Suppose there is no objective framework, and everything can be justified behind the argument of culture. How can one determine if something is morally good or morally wrong?

    Social beliefs instilled in the citizens of Nazi Germany led many to believe that the holocaust was just and necessary. The rest of the world disagrees.

    If there is no objective measure of morality, then everything is game if your culture allows acts like these. This would mean that cannibalism, ritualistic human sacrifices, infidelities, and other behaviours you may consider immoral due to western culture, are always excused and correct if their culture allows it.

    Culturalitivism relativism and human rights

    With debates over cultural relativism and human rights, you may think that cultural relativism could oppose the notion of establishing rights that apply to everyone due to cultural differences. In reality, only oppressive states invoked culture as justification. Most states respected cultural boundaries in the wake of globalisation. Therefore, each nation is tasked to create a culture and protect it.

    The UN describes human rights as inherent privileges, regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, nationality, religion, language, etc. When discussing Human Rights in most states, this is what they allude to, as they represent the Universal Declaration of Human Rights4.

    However, let's raise this issue: As mentioned in the criticisms of cultural relativism, this approach can excuse any behaviour. Suppose a state limits its citizens' access to human rights. Should the international community condemn these actions or let them continue as they obey cultural beliefs? Cases like Cuba or China merit these questions, as the treatment of their citizens violates human rights.

    This drove the American Anthropology Association to publish a Universal Declaration of Human Rights statement. They argued that Human Rights must be evaluated in the context of the individual and their environment.

    Examples of cultural relativism

    To illustrate the concept of cultural relativism and how anything can be morally good if justified by culture, here are two concrete examples of customs that western society might frown upon but are perfectly normal in the context of their own culture.

    In Brazil, a small tribe called the Wari lives in the Amazon rainforest. Their culture is based on establishing small societies organised around a set of brothers, each married to a group of sisters. The men live together in a house until they marry. They base their home placement upon proper lands to grow corn, their primary food source. They are famous for performing a ritual for their close relatives after death. After the tribe has displayed the deceased's body, their organs are removed, roasting the rest; family members and friends then eat their former relative's flesh.

    This tradition comes from the belief that, by consuming the flesh, the deceased's soul would pass on to the body of the relatives, which it can only achieve if consumed. The family's grief would diminish through this ritual, as the person's soul would live on. You may find it strange, but in this culture, it is viewed as an act of compassion and love for those who are grieving.

    Another excellent example of cultural relativism is by introducing yourself to the Yupik. They mainly reside in the Arctic regions between Siberia and Alaska. Due to the harsh climate, they are few and live far away from each other, establishing themselves in places where they can hunt. Their diet consists mainly of meat, as growing crops is difficult. Their main concern comes from food insecurity and isolation.

    Cultural Relativism Inuit Tribe (Yupik) family cultural relativism examples StudySmarterFig. 2, Inuit (Yupik) Family

    Yupik's marriage practices are very different from those you are probably familiar with. It involves several steps, such as the man working for their future wife's family to earn her hand, offering their future in-laws a game from hunts, and presenting equipment. Occasionally, the husband would share their wives with very esteemed guests. However, suppose wives were mistreated by their spouses. In that case, they could break their marriage by leaving their stuff outside and denying them entrance. Though because of Christian missionaries, many practices have been revised.2

    Cultural relativism - Key takeaways

    • Cultural relativism is the view that morality is not universal. Instead, it corresponds to a cultural context or society. This can be seen when we compare the customs of specific communities to the ones you are more familiar with, common in western culture.
    • Cultural relativism presents a way to evaluate morality objectively while proposing more tolerance and acceptance for other cultures.
    • The main criticism of cultural relativism is that it comes at the cost of losing a universal truth for assessing moral character. Every custom can be justified as morally good if the culture allows it.
    • The debate over cultural relativism reignites in the context of universal human rights, as the absence of a universal truth will make Human Rights impossible to apply globally.

    References

    1. G. Kliger, The Critical Bite of Cultural Relativism, 2019.
    2. S. Andrews & J. Creed. Authentic Alaska: voices of its native writers. 1998.
    3. J. Fernandez, International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences: Anthropology of Cultural Relativism, 2015.
    4. Adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, The International Bill of Human Rights, resolution 217 A of 10 December 1948.
    5. Fig. 1, Franz Boas. Canadian Museum of History. PD: https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/tresors/barbeau/mb0588be.html
    6. Fig. 2, Inuit Kleidung, by Ansgar Walk https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Inuit-Kleidung_1.jpg is licensed by CC-BY-2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/deed.en
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Relativism

    What is cultural relativism in global politics?

    Cultural relativism matters in the context of human rights. Suppose values are defined by local culture rather than universal ideology. In that case, Human Rights are incomplete if you don't account for cultures that are not western-based.

    Why is cultural relativism important in politics?

    Because it helps to evaluate the morality of specific actions where there is no universal measure of ethics.

    What is an example of cultural relativism?

    The Wari tribe of Brazil consumes the flesh of their dead close relatives, a practice that in western culture is frowned upon but constitutes an act of solidarity for them.

    Why is cultural relativism important?

    Because it allows for a broader perspective on the people's values, it puts you in their context and helps you understand their beliefs.

    What is good cultural relativism?

    Good cultural relativism is the one that maintains its core principle but complements it with behaviours associated with biology and anthropology.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who was the first to pen the term cultural relativism properly?

    Which of the following is NOT true regarding justifications of cultural relativism?

    Which of the following countries cite cultural relativism to justify authoritarianism?

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