Ethical Relativism and Cultural Relativism

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In explaining Cultural Relativism, it is useful to compare and contrast it with Ethical Relativism. Cultural Relativism is a theory about morality focused on the concept that matters of custom and ethics are not universal in nature but rather are culture specific. Each culture evolves its own unique moral code, separate and apart from any other. Ethical Relativism is also a theory of morality with a view of ethics similarly engaged in understanding how morality comes to be culturally defined. However, the formulation is quite different in that from a wide range of human habits, individual opinions drive the culture toward distinguishing normal “good” habits from abnormal “bad” habits. The takeaway is that both theories share the guiding principle that morality is bounded by culture or society.

Implicit in the basic formulations for both theories, the moral code of a culture is neither superior nor inferior to any another. The codes of individual cultures are just different and there is no standard or basis upon which to perform any type of comparison. Therefore, under both theories, the lack of standards across cultures implies that attempts to judge relative correctness or incorrectness between them cannot be justified.

For Cultural Relativism, it is perfectly normal that something one culture sees as moral, another may see as immoral. There is no connection between them so they are never in conflict relative to their moral beliefs. However, within the context of Ethical Relativism there’s a significant difference. Normally, two cultures will possess varying proportions of the same normal and abnormal habits yet from a cross-cultural standpoint, what is abnormal in one culture can be seen as properly normal in an...

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...mplication would be significant in that it would give rise to judgment of morality outside and independent of culture. One example would be the active practice of anti-Semitism directed at the destruction of Jewish peoples. Could such a practice ever be construed as an opinion or even routine cultural custom? By any stretch it would be hard to imagine anything less than universal condemnation of killing for no other reason than genocide. This objection is strong, perhaps opening an avenue of attack toward Cultural Relativism on the basis of some type of universal morality. It is impossible to conceive of an arbiter to judge such a class of morality. Even though the example is strongly suggestive, that’s not the same as proving with certainty that there are sufficient grounds to say that it should be okay to consider any custom of another culture as inferior.