In the recent half-century, conventional sociology, anthropology and eventually moral philosophy have been subject to attack from the doctrine of cultural relativism, a doctrine that reasonably enough states that an individual’s actions and beliefs must be interpreted and viewed with respect to the culture of which he or she is a part, and that furthermore, our conceptions of morality and right action are only elements of our own culture. From this definition, it logically follows that these conceptions are simply inapplicable to other cultures and morality is subjective to the societies that create it. The doctrine offered a fresh, open-minded alternative to the rigid criticisms of “primitive” cultures that had dominated much sociological work before it. And although the doctrine certainly demonstrates progress beyond the intolerance of previous centuries, it is far from an adequate moral principle. While the doctrine does provide us with an advantageously humble, dispassionate, nonjudgmental perspective, it cannot withstand the weight of careful logical investigation and extension, and ultimately buckles under the pressure of rationality. The theory falls victim to three increasingly more devastating criticisms.
First, although many would have us believe the differences between cultures are those of moral value, more often than not they are differences only in perception. For instance, it is not morally wrong, in some cultures, to eat a cow because it is a cow; it is morally wrong to eat a cow because the cow is believed to be a reincarnation of a former human. The moral values—do not eat other innocent humans—are consistent with our own moral values. The members of that culture simply perceive the cow to be a reincarnation of one of their relatives. This seems to suggest that many or even all of the differences between cultures are not, in fact, subjective differences in moral value, but rather objective differences in traditions, religious beliefs, or scientific conclusions.
Second, and more importantly cultural relativism draws conclusions about what is from what people believe. It does not follow logically that just because there are differences in opinion about what is right, that there can be no objective answer to what in fact is. Moreover, if we apply this dynamic to science it demonstrates the problems with the theoretical conclusions cultural relativism draws from its assumptions. Consider the following example: imagine that one society believes that the chemical formula for water is C¬6H¬12¬O¬6¬, while another society believes that it is H¬2¬O. It does not logically follow that because of this difference in beliefs we can never tell what the chemical formula for water is or that the chemical formula for water changes from society to society. The chemical formula IS H¬2¬O, and the reason that it is has absolutely nothing to do with what human societies believe.
Finally, and most importantly, cultural relativism, when logically accepted, has drastic implications for our perception of morality and potentially poses violent and substantial contradictions in conception. If morality is completely an element of our beliefs and those of our society’s and there is no objective right or wrong standard by which to judge the aforementioned beliefs, then it logically follows that morality must be entirely subjective. And if morality is entirely subjective, it logically follows that we can never hold any society or individual’s conception of morality above any other society or individual’s conception of morality. And if so, we would never be able to condemn the actions or the moral values of any other society. For example, persecution of the Jews was a moral tenet in Nazi German society, and if we have no objective standard by which to judge moral tenets then their actions cannot be criticized. In fact, as soon as we deem anything about our society’s moral code superior to anything about the Nazi’s moral code, which I trust we all do, we admit to at least SOME form of objective standard by which to judge cultures and the theory collapses on itself.
The logical extension of cultural relativism also leads to contradictions in conception. If morality is completely an element of our beliefs and our society’s then there is no objective right or wrong standard. And if so, then it logically follows that societies could have just as easily adopted any moral value system as easily as any other—even if the value system they chose was self-defeating. For instance, a society could attach moral value to lying and attach absolutely no value to truth-telling. This would render communication absolutely impossible, because there would be no incentive to believe any members of the society and there would be no incentive for those members to offer truthful information. Without communication, as I am sure we can imagine, society’s very existence is utterly impossible. This pattern can be repeated over and over again with any of the moral values necessary to have a society. (i.e. attaching at least some value to human life, attaching at least some value to child-rearing, attaching at least some value to promise-keeping)
As you can see, cultural relativism goes wrong just about everywhere a sociological or philosophical theory can go wrong. It draws on faulty assumptions, (differences in perception not in value); the conclusions it does draw do not follow logically from those faulty assumptions; (conclusions on what is based on what people believe) and finally, when put into practice, even ignoring the apparent theoretical problems, the theory falls on its face due to impossibly demanding implications for the study of morality and the human experience.
Mistakenly, many who study cultural relativism argue that it is the only real way to account for and adjust our own biases and those of our society. However, cultural relativism has had a monopoly on open-mindedness about as long as the French have had a monopoly on Shakespearean literature or military victories or the British have had on fine wine or dental hygiene. The answers to our moral questions rest in reason, rationality, and logical introspection, and adopting these traits is the true way to overcome our prejudices—the answer to human irrationality is human rationality. The cultural relativist takes one look at morality, throws up his or her hands in dismay and confusion over the nuances of ethics, and concludes that we will never be able to overcome our biases. If this seems like a cop-out to you, you are probably right. As Denzel Washington has famously said, “This shit is chess, not checkers.” The complexity of ethical issues should lead us to equally complex answers, not moronically simple ones.