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American author Mark Twain once stated, “Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.” While they may not appear to be so at first, morals are very questionable grounds, with different viewpoints. Two view of this are cultural relativism and universalism. In this essay, I will be pointing out the flaws of cultural relativism, and why it is philosophically more defensible to be objective towards certain moral values.
Cultural relativism is defined as “the principle that an individual human’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture”.What this means is that all of the morals of a society are relative to that culture, and thus should not be judged. The people in that society are to follow all of the rules presented. According to cultural relativists, it is right for a society to follow the rules and traditions of their ancestors. According to cultural relativists, any action can be right as long as it is acceptable in the culture.
This idea presents three different problems, which I am going to present below. First, those who follow this system are stuck in the mindset that the society in which they live is perfect. You can’t criticize your culture, even if you disagree with an aspect. In America, for example, it is not uncommon for college tuition to cost tens of thousands of dollars, often leaving students in years of debt trying to pay off their education. This contrasts many European countries in which college tuition is either greatly reduced or even free. As an American citizen, I could not criticize this system, as much as I may disagree with it. The only thing that I could do is question if it fits into America’s moral system. If the answer is yes, then I would be forced to believe that yes, such outrageous prices for college tuition are morally acceptable.
With this problem, nobody would not be allowed to question their society. Insead, everyone is forced to blindly follow their system. Such an idea hinders progress. Other societies cannot be looked at for ideas to improve one’s own. The only way that your society can be improved is by having it fit its own ideals even better. No new proposals, no game-changing revolutions. Just the same ideas, reapplied over and over.
The second problem is that you cannot criticize other cultures. The moral code of that specific society determines what is right and what is wrong. It would be wrong for anyone else to tell them what is wrong with their society.
Following the Cultural Relativist mind set, the Allies had no right to step in and intervene in World War II. When Adolf Hitler purged Europe of millions of its Jews, homosexuals, and handicapped individuals, it was his right to do so. What Hitler did fit within his society’s moral codes, thus it was warranted. When such horrendous acts are heard of, it can be hard not to want to criticize them and even intervene, However, as long as the acts are okay within the society, they cannot be criticized.
The third point is that the term “society” is hard to define. What really is a society? Is it a country? A specific group? Can it be made up of only two people? These are the problems that surround such a loosely defined word, which can create parameters that test the bounds of it. As long as it is part of their culture, subcultures can do whatever they like as it is part of their moral codes.
Unfortunately, there are subcultures out there with negative characteristics. An example of this is pedophilia rings, which can be argued to be subcultures in many different . While we know them to be morally wrong, they are acceptable in the eyes of cultural relativists. The deeds they participate in are the ways of that subculture. As pedophilia is not against the rules of the group, they are technically morally acceptable. It is acceptable to harm innocent children, as long as it is not breaking any rules of that group, and its members cannot be punished. It is just that culture’s way. It is hard to define exactly what a culture is. With the proper amount of working, any group can be considered a culture–and their ways have to be accepted.
No matter how silly or outlandish a group may appear to be, as long as it is a subculture it must be acknowledged by all cultural relativist parties. Obviously, this is an outlandish idea as it is a well-known that not all subcultures should be legal, including groups that cause unconsenting harm to others or its members. Such groups should be monitored by the law, not openly accepted.
While there certainly are downsides to cultural relativism, it also has what many will argue as its upsides. If there was not, it certainly would not have a following. Below, I am going to present two of the arguments for cultural relativism.
One of the arguments presented for cultural relativism is that it encourages us to keep an open mind towards other cultures–that we should be accepting towards all cultures, despite their differences. This idea is sound in its core concepts. Yes, it is good to be tolerating of other cultures, even encouraged. There is a lot of diversity in the world, and it would be a shame to not be able to experience it at its fullest. Each and every one of us is a human being, despite our differences. Someone is no less of a person because they wrap their hair in a different way, or any less feeling just because they believe in a different religion.
It is when this idea of cultural tolerance is taken to an extreme, however, that it becomes a problem. It becomes a problem when you believe that everything in a society is just as it should be for them, and that judging them for it makes you ignorant in the process. You do not have to be tolerant of every single aspect in a society. It is through questioning and the recognizing of unsightly practices that cultures are allowed to flourish, It is through recognizing exactly what does not work in other cultures and what beliefs are poisonous that we can change our own society to become even better.
Another one of the arguments presented is that it is not our place to judge another culture’s ways in the first place. What they have been doing has, in many cases, been handed down by their ancestors for generations. If it has worked for their ancestors, then there is no reason to try and change what is already ingrained in their culture. Who am I to try and change their way of life, especially if it is none of my business in the first place? While this is usually the case, there are instances in which what ancestors taught may not be morally right.
Female circumcision is a prime example of this. Performed in northern Africa and southern Arabia, female circumcision is the act of cutting or removing a female’s genitals. This act can lead to a number of negative side effects, including pain, obstructed labor, and even death. This painful tradition should not be continued merely because it has been performed for generations;instead, it should be stopped, as the risks far outweigh the benefits.
The dangers of a certain practice or belief need to be evaluated before being blindly accepted. Having something being passed down by ancestors does not make it ideal for that culture; it just means that it has been going on for longer. Any tradition can still be threatening to the health of others, and that is when intervention needs to occur. This is when universalism is ideal.
Universalism is the belief that there is a small number of moral values that hold true for everyone. They are core values that are beyond the person or culture, but are just genuinely believed to be universally true. These moral values hold true in any situation, and in any culture.
Unlike cultural relativism, universalism does not hold onto the fact that any action in a culture can be morally right if it is accepted by that culture. Instead, it believes that acts are morally wrong if they violate one of the known moral values. These known values include the wrongness of such acts as murder, lying, and stealing–all of which are universal truths held constant across cultures. Universalism is the more morally defensible position as it is far easier to rely on, as presented below.
At some point in your life you’ve probably heard of “the golden rule.” The golden rule states that you should do to others as you would have others do to you. This is a rule stands simple enough on its own in every applicable situation. If you would not want somebody to do something to you, then it is probably safe to say that you should not go about doing it to them. It calls forth a role reversal of seeing something from another person’s point of view.
Say, for example, that at a fast food restaurant, you sit down to eat. As you put your food down, your hand lands in a puddle of ketchup that the previous customer had neglected to clean up. Obviously, you would be fairly upset with this; it wasn’t your mess that you stuck your hand in, it was somebody else’s! It was their fault because they were too careless to clean it up! Taking this scenario to heart, one can think of what they’d do in a similar scenario and, hopefully, clean up their mess. Would somebody else like it if they had to clean up your mess? The golden rule presents a universal code to fall back on by using yourself as a basis of morality.
Another way that universalism can be applied is through the harm principle. The harm principle states that an action is morally unacceptable if it causes harm to another individual. This serves as a good rule of thumb, as it can be applied to every culture; people deserve the right to be free of harm, no matter what society they are living in. Since violence is such an easy to understand concept, the idea that it is not morally okay to harm others. With this in mind, it is easy enough to say that practices such as spousal abuse and murder are not okay, no matter the culture.
With this point, however, one may question if all practices involving harm are morally wrong. The simple answer is no–it depends on the context. If an action is performed with the intent of causing suffering to the other person, then it is morally wrong. With activities such as boxing it is a different case. Seeing as how the main goal is to have your opponent submit, the fighters are not intentionally causing pain to one another with malicious intent. This contrasts such acts as physically abusing your wife, as it is with malicious intent and the harm is intended.
One criticism of universalism is that establishing a set of values that hold true for everyone is impossible. Some people may argue that there are too many differences between people, and that what constitutes as morally right and wrong will never be agreed on. While there certainly are many differences between cultures, these differences are often exaggerated. Differences between cultures does not lie as much in the values as it does in beliefs. It is because of the ways in which these beliefs are exhibited that people believe we are so different.
For instance, in Eskimo culture, it was common for parents to leave their children to die out in the snow. While American culture may frown upon this and readily call it infanticide, the moral value is sound, It is not like the Eskimos enjoy killing their children; instead, they leave them out of necessity–so that the rest of their family can survive in the supply-limited tundra. Just like many other cultures, Eskimos strongly believe in the value of family.
Contrary to the belief of naysayers, there are values that are shared by all cultures, and this is what holds the grounds of universalism. If certain values were not shared, then all cultures would fall apart. No group could flourish if all of its occupants lied nonstop; nothing would get accomplished. Would you feel safe in a society in which there were no rules against randomly murdering someone on the street? Traits such as honesty,and caring for its members are a requirement of a society if it is to flourish, thus they are shared between all cultures.
While there is no agreed upon set of rules for a society to follow, there are different guidelines that try to judge how they should act. In this essay, I have analyzed two of those guidelines: cultural relativism and universalism. Cultural relativism explains that a society should act in a way that suits them, and how it is a part of their culture. This view is wrong in that too many problems arise with it such as the inability to criticize your own or other cultures, hindering progress. The other problem with it is that it is hard to specifically define what constitutes a culture.
I defined universalism as the idea that there are a set of values that hold true in every situation, no matter the culture, This system proves to be the best basis for a set of rules. The golden rule says to treat others as you would want to be treated, and provides a basis for judging what the proper way of treating people is. The harm principle states that actions that intentionally cause harm to other people are not morally acceptable.
Finally, I debunked the criticism of how there are no common values between cultures as we are too different. Contrary to belief, cultures share more values than you would think. All societies strive on basic concepts such as honesty and caringness. Without them, they would fall apart.
All of these ideas come together to provide ideas of morality. When it comes down to it, we are all human beings with our own set of morals that we depend on to get through life. We can only do what we think is right, as Mark Twain said.
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