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Cultural Relativism Vs Moral Objectivism

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Cultural relativism is a view in normative ethics that asserts that the morality of one’s actions is relative to their culture. If one’s action is considered morally right by their culture, then their action is right, and the vice-versa applies for wrong actions. It follows that there are no universal values, and that all moral codes held by cultures are equally correct. In this essay, I will be arguing against moral relativism, while presenting the case for objectivism, the view that there are moral facts discoverable through reason.

I will first argue that the argument on which cultural relativism is built upon is invalid. The foundation of moral relativism consists of two parts, the diversity thesis and the dependency thesis. The diversity thesis states that a wide variety of moral codes exist across different cultures, and the dependency thesis states that an individual’s moral values are determined by their culture of upbringing. From these two premises comes the conclusion that ‘(morality is) a convenient term for socially approved habits’. Cultural relativism states that there are therefore no universal moral values that are correct for all humans and across all time, and that all cultural moral codes are equally correct. I am willing to concede that the diversity thesis is true. On the surface, cultures across the world greatly differ in their moral codes. Infanticide, particularly of girls, was accepted in Inuit culture, while such a practice would be considered unacceptable in contemporary Western societies of the time. Similarly, it is to an extent true that one’s moral values are determined by their environment and therefore their culture. However, moral relativism makes a jump between a diversity in moral values and to an inexistence of universal moral values. A diversity in thinking does not imply the total lack of truth. In science, for example, there often exists multiple hypotheses for phenomena, but that does not imply a lack of truth which can be found. Nor does it mean that all the hypotheses offered are equally correct. The argument that cultural relativism uses to support itself if therefore invalid as its premises do not force the reader to accept the conclusion.

Secondly, I would argue that the ‘diversity thesis’ in cultural relativism is overstated. On the surface, objectivism appears to be false as there is a blatant lack of universal moral values. My response to this is that while there are universal moral values, they are expressed in different between cultures, resulting in what appears to be a diversity of moral codes. Take for example the abortion debate. While opposing sides disagree over the morality of legalizing abortion, both tend to agree on the idea it is wrong to kill an innocent human being. As a result, a significant amount of debate occurs over whether a fetus or embryo is a human being. Differing moral attitudes towards an issue often have the same underlying moral principles. It is through the expression of these moral principles, with factors such as geography and society taken into account, that results in different views. Moral relativism overstates the diversity of moral values by taking their differing expressions at face value.

In addition to my previous point, I would go further to argue the case of moral objectivism; that there are indeed universal moral values derived through reason, unlike what cultural relativism suggests. I will be following part of Pojman’s criteria that universal moral principles are integral to the functioning of society, and that moral values should promote human flourishing. In order for society to function, there must be several expectations created through moral values. The example I will use to demonstrate is the moral principle of truth-telling. Truth itself is implicit within the use of language as communication. When one speaks to another, there is the expectation that their choice of words and meaning is correct. Even when one lies, there exists the mutual expectation that the one’s words are what they mean. For example, if Tom were to lie about not doing his homework, his statement that ‘I did do my homework’ must be perceived as meaning what it means in the first place for it to be a lie. Without the expectation of truth-telling, a society would quickly cease to function as confusion would ensure over communication. Truth-telling, therefore, is a universal moral principle, as any society without such a principle would cease to function. In addition to this, anthropologists have also noted significant common ground in shared moral values across all cultures, including prohibitions against incest, distinctions for murder and mutual obligations between parents and children. Tolerating incest would lead to significant genetic defects, allowing murder would lead to chaos and death and a relationship between parents and children is essential for the survival of the next generation. All of these moral values have logical origins pertaining to the functioning of a society. In addition to this, moral values should also promote the human flourishing of those affected by it. Moral values in themselves are meant to encourage ‘goodness’, and I will assert the human flourishing is inherently a good thing. It is right that humans have the opportunity to be happy, fulfilled and free. As such, moral values should also promote human flourishing. Standards for moral values exist; namely the functioning of society and the promotion of human flourishing, and their logical nature ensures that they can be found across all functioning human societies.

A response to universal moral values may involve the idea that some societies or cultures do not have these moral values, even though they should logically arise. Therefore, these moral values are not universal. Take for example the Ik people of Northern Uganda, who in the 1960s were documented to be extremely individualistic. Parental bonds with children did not exist, and theft and lying were widespread. The moral objectivist can respond to such exceptions in two ways. Firstly, it can be argued that Ik society is morally degenerate as it lacks the proper moral values required for its functioning. Should such moral values continue to be neglected, then society will cease to function in the long-term. Indeed, as moral objectivism would suggest, the Ik have not always been so individualistic. Turnbull, who observed the Ik people, suggested that severe famine, resulting from two consecutive drought years, had brought about this extreme individualism.[1] A counter-argument to this would be that the Ik’s individualism is the only thing that enables their society to function, during the extreme famine conditions faced by them. Even if one concedes that extreme individualism was the only way for Ik society to function, it can still be argued that such a society is still degenerate in that there can be little, if no human flourishing in such an environment of instability, greed and mistrust. Moral objectivism can provide an adequate response for such exceptions.



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