✎✎✎ Cultural Relativism

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Cultural Relativism



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What is cultural relativism?

The same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another. For the ethical relativist, there are no universal moral standards -- standards that can be universally applied to all peoples at all times. The only moral standards against which a society's practices can be judged are its own. If ethical relativism is correct, there can be no common framework for resolving moral disputes or for reaching agreement on ethical matters among members of different societies. Most ethicists reject the theory of ethical relativism. Some claim that while the moral practices of societies may differ, the fundamental moral principles underlying these practices do not.

For example, in some societies, killing one's parents after they reached a certain age was common practice, stemming from the belief that people were better off in the afterlife if they entered it while still physically active and vigorous. While such a practice would be condemned in our society, we would agree with these societies on the underlying moral principle -- the duty to care for parents. Societies, then, may differ in their application of fundamental moral principles but agree on the principles. Also, it is argued, it may be the case that some moral beliefs are culturally relative whereas others are not.

Certain practices, such as customs regarding dress and decency, may depend on local custom whereas other practices, such as slavery, torture, or political repression, may be governed by universal moral standards and judged wrong despite the many other differences that exist among cultures. Simply because some practices are relative does not mean that all practices are relative. Other philosophers criticize ethical relativism because of its implications for individual moral beliefs. These philosophers assert that if the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on a society's norms, then it follows that one must obey the norms of one's society and to diverge from those norms is to act immorally. The works of the Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus detail ancient Greek arguments for cultural relativism as part of the tenth of the Ten Modes of Aenesidemus.

According to George E. Marcus and Michael M. Fischer : [6]. The one has been the salvaging of distinct cultural forms of life from a process of apparent global Westernization. With both its romantic appeal and its scientific intentions, anthropology has stood for the refusal to accept this conventional perception of homogenization toward a dominant Western model. Cultural relativism was, in part, a response to Western ethnocentrism.

Franz Boas , originally trained in physics and geography , and heavily influenced by the thought of Kant , Herder , and von Humboldt , argued that one's culture may mediate and thus limit one's perceptions in less obvious ways. Boas understood "culture" to include not only certain tastes in food, art, and music, or beliefs about religion; he assumed a much broader notion of culture, defined as: [7].

This view of culture confronts anthropologists with two problems: first, how to escape the unconscious bonds of one's own culture, which inevitably bias our perceptions of and reactions to the world, and second, how to make sense of an unfamiliar culture. The principle of cultural relativism thus forced anthropologists to develop innovative methods and heuristic strategies. Between World War I and II , cultural relativism was the central tool for American anthropologists in this rejection of Western claims to universality, and salvage of non-Western cultures.

It functioned to transform Boas' epistemology into methodological lessons. This is most obvious in the case of language. Although language is commonly thought of as a means of communication, Boas called attention especially to the idea that it is also a means of categorizing experiences, hypothesizing that the existence of different languages suggests that people categorize, and thus experience, language differently this view was more fully developed in the hypothesis of Linguistic relativity.

Thus, although all people perceive visible radiation the same way, in terms of a continuum of color, people who speak different languages slice up this continuum into discrete colors in different ways. Some languages have no word that corresponds to the English word green. When people who speak such languages are shown a green chip, some identify it using their word for blue , others identify it using their word for yellow. Thus, Boas's student Melville Herskovits summed up the principle of cultural relativism thus: "Judgements are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation. Boas pointed out that scientists grow up and work in a particular culture, and are thus necessarily ethnocentric. He provided an example of this in his article, "On Alternating Sounds" [8] A number of linguists at Boas' time had observed that speakers of some Native-American languages pronounced the same word with different sounds indiscriminately.

They thought that this meant that the languages were unorganized and lacked strict rules for pronunciation, and they took it as evidence that the languages were more primitive than their own. Boas however noted that the variant pronunciations were not an effect of lack of organization of sound patterns, but an effect of the fact that these languages organized sounds differently from English. The languages grouped sounds that were considered distinct in English into a single sound , but also having contrasts that did not exist in English. He then argued the case that Native Americans had been pronouncing the word in question the same way, consistently, and the variation was only perceived by someone whose own language distinguishes those two sounds.

Boas's students drew not only on his engagement with German philosophy. Boas and his students realized that if they were to conduct scientific research in other cultures, they would need to employ methods that would help them escape the limits of their own ethnocentrism. One such method is that of ethnography : basically, they advocated living with people of another culture for an extended period of time, so that they could learn the local language and be enculturated, at least partially, into that culture. In this context, cultural relativism is an attitude that is of fundamental methodological importance, because it calls attention to the importance of the local context in understanding the meaning of particular human beliefs and activities.

Thus, in Virginia Heyer wrote, "Cultural relativity, to phrase it in starkest abstraction, states the relativity of the part to the whole. The part gains its cultural significance by its place in the whole, and cannot retain its integrity in a different situation. Another method was ethnology : to compare and contrast as wide a range of cultures as possible, in a systematic and even-handed manner. In the late nineteenth century, this study occurred primarily through the display of material artifacts in museums.

Curators typically assumed that similar causes produce similar effects; therefore, in order to understand the causes of human action, they grouped similar artifacts together—regardless of provenance. Their aim was to classify artifacts, like biological organisms, according to families, genera, and species. Thus organized museum displays would illustrate the evolution of civilization from its crudest to its most refined forms.

In an article in the journal Science , Boas argued that this approach to cultural evolution ignored one of Charles Darwin 's main contributions to evolutionary theory:. It is only since the development of the evolutional theory that it became clear that the object of study is the individual, not abstractions from the individual under observation. We have to study each ethnological specimen individually in its history and in its medium By regarding a single implement outside of its surroundings, outside of other inventions of the people to whom it belongs, and outside of other phenomena affecting that people and its productions, we cannot understand its meanings Our objection Boas argued that although similar causes produce similar effects, different causes may also produce similar effects.

Against the popular method of drawing analogies in order to reach generalizations, Boas argued in favor of an inductive method. Based on his critique of contemporary museum displays, Boas concluded:. It is my opinion that the main object of ethnological collections should be the dissemination of the fact that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.

Boas's student Alfred Kroeber described the rise of the relativist perspective thus: [12]. Now while some of the interest in so called solial culture science anthropology in its earlier stages was in the exotic and the out-of-the-way, yet even this antiquarian motivation ultimately contributed to a broader result. Anthropologists became aware of the diversity of culture. They began to see the tremendous range of its variations.

From that, they commenced to envisage it as a totality, as no historian of one period or of a single people was likely to do, nor any analyst of his own type of civilization alone. They became aware of culture as a "universe", or vast field in which we of today and our own civilization occupy only one place of many. The result was a widening of a fundamental point of view, a departure from unconscious ethnocentricity toward relativity. This shift from naive self-centeredness in one's own time and spot to a broader view based on objective comparison is somewhat like the change from the original geocentric assumption of astronomy to the Copernican interpretation of the solar system and the subsequent still greater widening to a universe of galaxies.

This conception of culture, and principle of cultural relativism, were for Kroeber and his colleagues the fundamental contribution of anthropology, and what distinguished anthropology from similar disciplines such as sociology and psychology. Ruth Benedict , another of Boas's students, also argued that an appreciation of the importance of culture and the problem of ethnocentrism demands that the scientist adopt cultural relativism as a method. Her book, Patterns of Culture , did much to popularize the term in the United States. In it, she explained that:. The study of custom can be profitable only after certain preliminary propositions have been violently opposed. In the first place any scientific study requires that there be no preferential weighting of one or another items in the series it selects for its consideration.

In all the less controversial fields like the study of cacti or termites or the nature of nebulae, the necessary method of study is to group the relevant material and to take note of all possible variant forms and conditions. In this way we have learned all that we know of the laws of astronomy, or of the habits of the social insects, let us say. It is only in the study of man himself that the major social sciences have substituted the study of one local variation, that of Western civilization. Benedict was adamant that she was not romanticizing so-called primitive societies; she was emphasizing that any understanding of the totality of humanity must be based on as wide and varied a sample of individual cultures as possible. Moreover, it is only by appreciating a culture that is profoundly different from our own, that we can realize the extent to which our own beliefs and activities are culture-bound, rather than natural or universal.

In this context, cultural relativism is a heuristic device of fundamental importance because it calls attention to the importance of variation in any sample that is used to derive generalizations about humanity. Marcus and Fischer's attention to anthropology's refusal to accept Western culture's claims to universality implies that cultural relativism is a tool not only in cultural understanding, but in cultural critique. This points to the second front on which they believe anthropology offers people enlightenment:. The other promise of anthropology, one less fully distinguished and attended to than the first, has been to serve as a form of cultural critique for ourselves.

In using portraits of other cultural patterns to reflect self-critically on our own ways, anthropology disrupts common sense and makes us reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions. The critical function of cultural relativism is widely understood; philosopher John Cook observed that "It is aimed at getting people to admit that although it may seem to them that their moral principles are self-evidently true, and hence seem to be grounds for passing judgement on other peoples, in fact, the self-evidence of these principles is a kind of illusion. Relativism does not mean that one's views are false, but it does mean that it is false to claim that one's views are self-evident. The critical function was indeed one of the ends to which Benedict hoped her own work would meet.

The most famous use of cultural relativism as a means of cultural critique is Margaret Mead 's research of adolescent female sexuality in Samoa. August, Morality or what is considered right or wrong depends on the moral norms of society and can only be judged on its own. An actions that may be morally right in one society many not be considered morally right to another, albeit the practices may be different their fundamental moral principles are the same. This does not imply that all practices are relative. Relativism, like its name indicates, is the general view that truth is relative to the eye of the beholder.

When this idea is limited to a single individual it is referred to as simple relativism. Likewise, it is called postmodern relativism when this idea extends to a larger group of people, institution, or society. In general, the author is skeptical about relativism as a whole claiming that people disagree on almost. Cultural relativism is the theory where there is no objective truth in morality, and moral truths are determined by different cultures. The primary argument used to justify cultural relativism is the cultural differences argument, which claims different cultures have different moral practices and beliefs, therefore, there is no objective truth in morality Newton.

After reading James Rachels The Challenge of Cultural Relativism , I find his criticisms to be persuasive because the argument made for Cultural Relativism is not sound from a logical point of view. You cannot draw a conclusion about what is factual based on what people believe is factual. Benedict used this example. Where Ruth Benedict believed morality is relative, James Rachels disagrees.

The premise argues that different cultures have different moral codes. Cultural relativists argue from facts about different cultural outlooks to the conclusion about the status of morality. Rachels uses the shape of the earth as an example. In some societies, people believe the Earth is flat. In others, people believe it is spherical.

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