Pitfalls Of Relativism

.. 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.

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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.



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