Cultural relativism is the objective analysis of other cultures, that is, understanding a culture’s beliefs and practices from that culture’s point of view. It is the view that all beliefs, customs, and ethics are relative to the individual within his own social context. Right and wrong are culture-specific, and thus what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another. There is no universal standard of immorality thus, nobody has a right to judge another society’s customs. A person who believes in cultural relativism understands that all cultures are of equal value and no one culture is inferior to any other (Lakatos, 2018). However, authoritarian regimes sometimes misuse cultural relativism by opposing the beliefs in the objectivity of moral truth.
Case Study 1
There can be no common framework for judging right from wrong with cultural relativism. This is because the only standards against which society’s beliefs can be judged are its own. According to the Inuit culture, the elderly were stabbed or left to freeze on ice flows such that they die slowly. This was right, according to the Inuits. However, a culturally relative Inuit can still view the US culture with regard to the elderly as right. They will view it from a US point of view, that is, not leaving the elderly to die by ensuring they are tube-fed and even given medications to prolong their lives. Even though these deaths may appear to be happening slowly and in an agonizing way, the Inuit is expected to look at it from a US perspective. Personally, I would judge the two cultural beliefs indifferently since both of them are right depending on their beliefs. It’s so difficult to convince someone that what they believe in is wrong because they have believed it to be right their entire lives. Respect for varied opinions is what matters most. It will be arrogant to assume that our culture is the right one, especially when making decisions. We, therefore, need to consider different cultural perspectives and leave room for adjustments when it comes to decision-making. For instance, a US native will view the Inuit as a murderer when they stab their elderly or leave them freezing, whereas an Inuit feels obligated to do so since it’s what they believe in. On the other hand, an Inuit could be wondering why the elderly people are left to “suffer” in the US. It is all relative.
Case Study 2
The case study for ethics in war supports that everything is relative to our cultural beliefs. For some people like Private Doss, killing is wrong, and you don’t have to kill to be in war. His culture dictates that it’s morally wrong to bring human life to an end. That’s why he prefers risking his life to save others rather than kill. For other societies, killing in war may not be much of a big deal because their cultural beliefs dictate that you have to kill during the war. Therefore, killing during war is neither right nor wrong. It all depends on one’s cultural beliefs and perspectives. You cannot judge someone who killed in war or someone who didn’t kill because each acted according to their personal and cultural view. You can only conclude that an individual acted wrongly if their behavior opposes what their culture believes in.
Case Study 3
Lawrence Franks may not be judged as guilty of murder since he had promised his wife suffering from dementia that he would never put her in a nursing home. His wife could also have agreed not to be put in a nursing home. According to Lawrence, his wife would rather die than be taken to a nursing home; thus, he acted according to his beliefs by killing his wife to fulfill his promise. The issue is relatively looked at, a different person may view it as wrong, but that’s just according to his/her personal view. Cultural relativism does not give us room for personal opinions; whatever the affected party feels is right is what we also take as right, that is, understanding it from their point of view. For Lawrence Franks, it is right because that’s what he believes in. He did not want to go against their family beliefs because neither he nor his wife wanted to be moved to a care home. Therefore, he chose the inevitable prospect of murdering her instead when he couldn’t cope with a situation any longer.
Case Study 4
Feeding wild animals can be right or wrong depending on different cultures and what they believe. The Chinese have a tradition passed down to its generations whereby families prepare a special dinner comprising of delicacies such as bat and freshly boiled dog, hedgehogs, and peacocks and wild rabbits and snakes, deer; crocodiles as well. According to them, it connects them to their ancestors. For a person from a different culture, such could be taboo. However, we treat both cases separately, and thus it is right for both depending on what their society believes in. In China, eating wild animals is considered a symbol of wealth because they are rarer and more expensive. On top of that, it’s a belief in traditional Chinese medicine that it can boost the immune system in other countries; wild animals will not be kept for consumption. Cultural relativism compels us to accept that it’s right to feed on wild animals with regard to Chinese people because that’s what their cultural beliefs and perspectives dictate.
In conclusion, cultural relativism is very powerful but, most of the time, invisible to those whom it influences. It has called moral progress into doubt since we are free to decide whether actions are right or wrong by just consulting the standards of our society. It does not allow us to say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to others. The better part of cultural relativism is that it promotes tolerance and recognizes differences but does not judge them by some measures outside the culture in question.
Lakatos, I. (2018). Thoughts on universalism versus cultural relativism, with special attention to women’s rights. Pecs J. Int’l & Eur. L., 6.