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Enough moral relativism: some cultures are worse than others

Do right and wrong depend on culture, or does morality transcend place and time?

Credit: Brett Jordan via Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • Conventionalism is the idea that right and wrong depend entirely on the cultures and traditions to which we belong. What one culture calls immoral, another accepts as normal.
  • But if we accept this reasoning, we are forced to conclude that any manner of atrocities — from ritual child sacrifice to female genital mutilation — are permissible.
  • Without a universal standard of morality, it is difficult to claim that some behaviors are always wrong.

On August 17, 2021, the Taliban, fresh from their takeover of Afghanistan, released a statement that they would protect the existing rights of Afghan women “within the framework of Islam.” There was no mention of “human rights” or the Western idea of equality. Instead, the Taliban were appealing to a 2500-year-old tradition — the idea of cultural relativity.

The belief that right and wrong and good and bad depend on the culture to which one belongs is popular today. We are loath to say that one culture is better or worse than another, that one way of doing things is “immoral,” or that some traditions are a bit disgusting or weird. Doing so risks being labeled culturally insensitive — or worse. But what do we lose by being willfully blind to vast differences in moral standards between cultures?

You say potato, I say ritual child sacrifice

From where do you get your morals? Your sense of right and wrong? If you are an absolutist, it will presumably come from some kind of universal (possibly religious) moral order. But if you are a relativist, you likely will point to some worldly source, like society, family, or personal conscience.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of relativists: subjectivists and conventionalists.

Subjectivists are those who believe values and morals are made entirely by you as an individual. It finds expression in French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote, “You are free, therefore choose — that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do.”

But it is found also in Frederick Nietzsche’s “perspectivism,” which allows for no facts at all — not least moral facts — but only interpretations from our particular vantage point. When he wrote that “every great philosophy up till now has consisted of… the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography,” he meant to say that whenever we declare this or that to be the case, we are only expressing or projecting our own values.

So, subjectivists will argue that you have your values, and I have mine. I am a vegetarian, and you are a meat eater. You are happy to download movies illegally, and I am not. And that is okay.

Conventionalists, on the other hand, argue that our morals come from the society, culture, or historical norms of our time. They see right and wrong as embedded in the traditions and conventions of our age. And the first clear formulation of this is found in Herodotus.

It’s all Greek to me

Any well traveled person can attest that the more you see of the varied and incongruous behaviors across the world, the more you see your own afresh. But in spite of all these different cultures, we have an incredibly hard time abandoning our own.

As Herodotus wrote in Histories — a sprawling, entertaining, and often hilariously inaccurate account of the peoples and times of the 5th century BCE — if someone were asked “out of all the customs in the world” which they thought were the best, they would almost always “end by preferring their own. So convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others.”

As wild and exciting as a new land might be, we still come back home and tell our friends how strange and weird it was.

To flesh out his point, Herodotus tells a story involving the Persian emperor, Darius. Darius asked his Greek captives if they would accept payment to eat their dead father’s body. The Greeks said they would never, ever do so. The proper funeral rites of Greece demanded corpses to be burned. Darius then sent for his Indian captives, a group of people called the “Callatians”, who he knew did eat their father’s body after death. Would they accept any money to burn their father’s bodies? They were shocked and offended. It was an utter sacrilege, and they refused any money.

His point? What one people thinks is the height of taboo, another will see as normal. We each have the morals that we do simply because we were born in a particular time and place.

Can we declare that another culture is immoral?

The problem with conventionalism, or cultural relativity, is that it is hard to see how we can ever judge another culture’s questionable practices. If we truly believe that “right and wrong are wholly defined by society,” then we are forced to admit that any manner of atrocities — from ritual child sacrifice to the Holocaust — are okay.

If a country has a long and popular tradition of female genital mutilation, then we have no grounds to say that it is wrong. If a culture accepts child marriages or a pre-adolescent age of consent, that is just the way they do things. And, with our opening example, if the Taliban or Afghan Muslim tradition subjugates women and forbids free speech, what grounds do we have to rebuke them?

It seems that there are few ways out of this problem. One way might be to commit to what is called “political realism,” which dates back to another “father of history” in the ancient Greek, Thucydides. This theory maintains that right and wrong, or the idealistic notions of justice and honor, simply do not apply in international relations. When we are dealing with states against states, it is dog-eat-dog or “might makes right” — a form of ethical survival of the fittest, perhaps.

But this is unsatisfactory. If we are to salvage the idea that certain beliefs or practices are morally wrong, reprehensible even, no matter where or when they occur, we likely have to revert to some kind of moral absolutism. This is no easy position to argue, since to do so seems to require some universal or objective ethical yardstick by which to bash others. We need a reply when someone asks, “On what grounds is your way better?” One way, of course, is religion. But if not religion, then what?

It is a thorny issue, but what the Taliban’s wily and manipulative press conference has revealed is that there is a paucity to moral relativism that most find hard to accept. Perhaps Afghanistan has taught us that we are more absolutist than we thought.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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