Essay: Morality and Culture

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¶ … culture and morality. In other words it deals with the question: Is morality relative to culture? Proponents of so called "cultural relativism," sometimes also called "moral relativism" or "ethical relativism" argue that different cultures obtain varying moral codes. "If there is no transcendent moral or ethical standard, then often culture arguably seems to become the ethical norm for determining whether an action is right or wrong" (see Anderson: 1). Culture and cultural dimensions are considered the collective horizon representing a specific social reality. American anthropologist and cultural relativist Ruth Benedict in Patterns of Culture (1934) said: "Morality differs in every society and is a convenient term for socially approved habits" (as cited by Kehl: 2). The paper will show that the doctrine of "cultural relativism" - though it has some strong arguments - is a concept which eventually is not convincing because of its many shortcomings. It will show that the theory cannot be lived out consistently. The strongest discrepancy between the concept and reality is that there are universal moral standards that can exist even if some practices and beliefs vary from one culture to another.

Culture comes from the Latin word 'cultura' meaning a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an entity, such as an organization or a group. Some authors define culture as follows: "Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiment in artefacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other, as conditioning elements of future action" (as cited by Prawda: 1). I would like to use the term "culture" in a very broad sense to represent the totality of the social environment into which a human being is born and in which he/she lives.

Cultural relativism is the theory that holds that morality is relative to the norms of one's culture. That is, whether an action is right or wrong depends on the moral norms of the society in which it is practiced. Cultural relativism is the view that all ethical truth is relative to a specific culture. Whatever a cultural group approves is considered right within that culture. Conversely, whatever a cultural group condemns is wrong (Relativism: 2). The key to cultural relativism is that right and wrong can only be judged relative to a specified society (Anderson: 1). There is no ultimate standard of right and wrong by which to judge culture. This view has some valid arguments but also many weaknesses.

As American anthropologist and cultural relativist Ruth Benedict illustrates in Patterns of Culture (1934), diversity is evident even on those matters of morality where we would expect to agree: "We might suppose that in the matter of taking life all peoples would agree on condemnation. On the contrary, in the matter of homicide, it may be held that one kills by custom his two children, or that a husband has a right of life and death over his wife or that it is the duty of the child to kill his parents before they are old. It may be the case that those are killed who steal fowl, or who cut their upper teeth first, or who are born on Wednesday. Among some peoples, a person suffers torment at having caused an accidental death, among others; it is a matter of no consequence. Suicide may also be a light matter, the recourse of anyone who has suffered some slight rebuff, an act that constantly occurs in a tribe. It may be the highest and noblest act a wise man can perform. The very tale of it, on the other hand, may be a matter for incredulous mirth, and the act itself, impossible to conceive as human possibility. Or it may be a crime punishable by law, or regarded as a sin against the gods" (pp.45-46) (as cited by Velasquez, Andre, Shanks and Meyer: 1f.).

"Other anthropologists point to a range of practices considered morally acceptable in some societies but condemned in others, including infanticide, genocide, polygamy, racism, sexism, and torture. Such differences may lead to the question whether there are any universal moral principles or whether morality is merely a matter of "cultural taste" (as cited by Velasquez, Andre, Shanks, and Meyer: 2). Differences in moral practices across cultures raise an important issue in ethics -- the concept of "cultural relativism" sometimes also called "ethical relativism" or "moral 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" (as cited by Velasquez, Andre, Shanks and Meyer: 2).

"A very famous proponent of cultural relativism was John Dewey, often considered the father of American education. He taught that moral standards were like language and therefore the result of custom. Language evolved over time and eventually became organized by a set of principles known as gramma . But language also changes over time to adapt to the changing circumstances of its culture. Likewise, Dewey said, ethics were also the product of an evolutionary process. There are no fixed ethical norms. These are merely the result of particular cultures attempting to organize a set of moral principles" (as cited by Anderson: 1). But these principles can also change over time to adapt to the changing circumstances of the culture (Anderson: 1). "This would also mean that different forms of morality evolved in different communities. Thus, there are no universal ethical principles. What may be right in one culture would be wrong in another culture, and vice versa" (Anderson ibid).

Although it is hard for us in the modern world to imagine, a primitive culture might value genocide, treachery, deception, even torture. While we may not like these traits, a true follower of cultural relativism could not say these are wrong since they are merely the product of cultural adaptation (Anderson ibid).

According to Charles Edwin Harris Jr., author of Applying Moral Theories, "Relativists do not deny moral truth exists, but they believe that moral truth is relative to a culture, class, individual or set of principles." In other words, Harris is saying that ethical relativists believe that some form of moral truths do exist, but they are determined by the individual or a group of people (as cited by Johnson: 1).

An example that cultural relativism might be a valid theory would be the Yanomamo Indians, a culture from the South American Amazon basin, where aggression is advocated. "Nearly half of the male population has killed someone within a lifetime, and husbands brutally "punish" their wives for the smallest "infractions," using such methods as jabbing them with sharp sticks or burning them with glowing coals. In short, hurting other human beings is rewarded and considered normal in this culture. Because this is all they have known and all they have been taught" (Knickerbocker: 2), this behavior is understandable but it certainly cannot be called morally right (see Knickerbocker: 2).

Another example would be "to salute someone with the sign of victory in the United States is a compliment. In Europe, however, this symbol means the same as the middle finger. if, while in Europe, knowing good and well what it meant, you gave someone the flying "v," you would be violating a moral code. Even if the individual deserved it, it is still defaming to the other person. Anytime that you know what you are doing when doing something harmful, selfish, or vindictive but do it anyway, the action is wrong, regardless of the circumstances" (Knickerbocker: 2f.).

or take the case of a two-year-old boy who accidentally gets hold of a loaded gun and fatally shoots his sister in the head. This boy has not been immoral. However, his innocence -- as Knickerbocker (3) points out "is quite a separate matter from the aspect of murder, which is clearly wrong. Just because we excuse him does not mean that murder is a subjective concept and that we will in turn excuse someone old enough to know better. In the same way, just because a savage group of natives do terrible things to each other and their actions are understandable -- that is quite a separate matter altogether from the aspect of morality; it is their immorality that is relative to their culture."

Cultural philosophies change over time as social societies evolve and grow. The social behavior that establishes what is moral in a society is unique to its moral codes. Some… [END OF PREVIEW]

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