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Cultural Relativism

The thesis of meta-ethical cultural relativism is the philosophical viewpoint that there are no absolute moral truths, only truths relative to the cultural context in which they exist. From this it is therefore presumed that what one society considers to be morally right, another society may consider to be morally wrong, therefore, moral right's and wrongs are only relative to a particular society. Thus cultural relativism implies that what is 'good' is what is 'socially approved' in a given culture. Two arguments in favour of cultural relativism are the 'Cultural Differences argument' and the 'Argument from the virtue of tolerance', the following essay will look at and evaluate both of these arguments.

The cultural differences argument goes like this; 'Different cultures have different moral codes, thus there is no one correct set of moral claims, only those that conform to the major set of beliefs within the given culture'.
Firstly I am going to look at James Rachel's (in 'The Elements of Moral Philosophy', Ch.2) analysis of this argument, and secondly I would lie to give my assessment of the argument.

Rachel's argues that this argument is not logical, as the conclusion does not follow from the factual premise. The premise makes an assertion about differences in moral beliefs. The conclusion makes an assertion about the nature of moral facts or truths. In general, he argues, one cannot assume anything about what is or is not true about the world, from premises about beliefs about the world. A culture may believe that the earth is flat, but believing so doesn't make it so (nor does belief that the earth is round make it so). Nor does disagreement over the shape of the earth imply that there is no definite shape. This criticism is not presuming that the premise on which the cultural differences argument is based on is false, rather that the truth of the premise cannot guarantee the truth of the conclusion.

Rachel's claim that physical facts are independent of beliefs about those facts is not justified. We never have access to the physical world apart from, or independent of, some scientific or conceptual framework. There is no "view from nowhere" which we can use to determine whether our judgements about the world are true or not. Moral facts are similar. In both cases the truth or falsity of a claim can only be evaluated against the background of some conceptual framework or another. It is in this respect I believe that Rachel's argument can be criticised.

I would like to add a personal criticism to the cultural differences argument. The argument presumes that a moral action within a given society is correct as long as the society condones the act. I believe that this presumption is faulted given that, as history has often shown us, certain societies have been forced, or manipulated into, condoning and carrying out certain acts on behalf of the authorities within the society. The most common example of this would be Hitler's powerful influence over Germany during World War two that led the country to brutal monstrosities such as the Holocaust. A possible solution to this problem, I believe, would be to add a simple remark to the argument; 'Different cultures have different moral codes, thus there is no one set of correct moral codes, only those that conform to the major set of beliefs within the given culture, given that the beliefs are not forced upon the given culture'.

The argument from the virtue of tolerance is the next argument in favour of cultural relativism that I am going to look at. The argument states that: 'meta-ethical cultural relativism promotes tolerance of different cultural moral beliefs, thus we should accept this viewpoint, as it is the only meta-ethical position that promotes tolerance of cultural differences in moral beliefs.' This argument lies on the assumption that because it is the only meta-ethical position that promotes tolerance one should thus follow it. I believe that this assumption is flawed in that a person should not follow something just because it has one favourable aspect that is not offered elsewhere. Take for example if a scientific theory offered a solution to an unsolved problem that had not been attempted before, but lay on a scientifically impossible assumption, one would obviously not accept this theory in explaining the phenomenon. I believe this is the same for the argument from the virtue of tolerance, as one should not accept the argument just on the merit that it is the only in its field to promote tolerance.

The thesis of meta-ethical cultural relativism, in my view, is neither right nor wrong, just flawed. I believe that certain moral beliefs within different cultures are justified due to the context in which they are in. I also believe though, that absolute moral truths do exist, and cannot be judged right or wrong because of the context in which they are in. In general I believe that a society should exist in such a way that promotes the existence of that society, and exists in such a way that is beneficial for the well being of its members. I believe that certain cultures can be judged right or wrong if they act in such a way that does not uphold its existence, but on the other hand I believe that we must respect the cultures of others even where some beliefs do not live up to our standards of 'right' and 'wrong'.

Cultural relativism is a concept for much debate, my essay has looked at two arguments on the affirmative, namely the argument from the virtue of tolerance and the cultural differences argument. Although the arguments are insufficient to prove cultural relativism as a fundamental philosophical truth, they do provide reasons for many people to consider themselves 'cultural relativists', and thus give the concept a great deal of merit in meta-ethical philosophical studies.

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