Cultural relativism is the view that all ethical truth is relative to a specifi ed culture. According to cultural relativism, it is never true to say simply that a certain kind of behaviour is right or wrong; rather, it can only ever be true that a certain kind of behaviour is right or wrong relative to a specifi ed society.
The cultural relativist might thus be happy to endorse the statement that it is morally wrong to deny women equality in the work place in modern America, but would not endorse the statement that it is morally wrong to deny women equality in the work place. The latter statement implies the existence of an objective ethical standard of the kind that cultural relativism rejects. There are societies, the cultural relativist would say, where for historical and cultural reasons it is acceptable that women are limited in their freedom.
The strength of cultural relativism is that it allows us to hold fast to our moral intuitions without having to be judgmental about other societies that don’t share those intuitions. If we reject cultural relativism, then we face a diffi culty: if we are to be consistent about our moral beliefs, then it seems that we ought to condemn those past societies that have not conformed to our moral code and perhaps even seek to impose our moral code on those present societies that do not already accept it. This, though, smacks of imperialism.
Cultural relativism allows us to evade this diffi culty. On cultural relativism, our moral code applies only to our own society, so there is no pressure on us to hold others to our moral standards at all. On cultural relativism, we can say quite consistently that equality in the work place is a moral necessity in our society but is inappropriate elsewhere around the globe. In an age where tolerance is increasingly being seen as the most important virtue of all, this can seem to be an attractive position.
This strength of cultural relativism, however, is also its weakness. Cultural relativism excuses us from judging the moral status of other cultures in cases where that seems inappropriate, but it also renders us powerless to judge the moral status of other cultures in cases where that seems necessary. Faced with a culture that deems slavery morally acceptable, it seems appropriate to judge that society to be morally inferior to our own. Faced with a culture that deems ethnic cleansing morally acceptable, it seems appropriate to condemn that society as morally abhorrent.
In order to make such judgments as these, however, we need to be able to invoke an ethical standard that is not culturally relative. In order to make a cross- cultural moral comparison, we need a cross- cultural moral standard, which is precisely the kind of moral standard that cultural relativism claims does not exist.
19. Which of the following is stated to be the case with cultural relativism?
(a) Exceptions are provided where an underlying moral principle is breached
(b) Objective standards are fundamentally pointless
(c) What has happened in the past is irrelevant
(d) There is no purpose in recognising moral standards
(e) It allows for the holding of consistent moral principles
(b) INCORRECT. Cultural relativism does not imply that objective standards are
invalid as it allows people to follow such standards by justifying the resulting
It is said that cultural relativism allows us to avoid judging what
has happened in the past, which is in no way the same as saying that the past
Would someone please explain why (b) and (c) are wrong? Doesn't (b) contradict the bolded in paragraph 2 from the top? Where does the passage state the grey?
Source: p 81, Mastering the National Admissions Test for Law, Mark Shepherd