Cultural Relativism vs. The Minimum Conception of Morality

by Kevin McLeod

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Cultural relativism is the thesis that a person's culture strongly influences her modes of perception and thought.” Noted American philosopher James Rachels is credited with defining the minimum conception of morality this way: “Morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one's conduct by reason -- that is, to do what there are the best reasons for doing -- while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual who will be affected by what one does."

Cultural Relativism

This viewpoint claims that from birth forward, the language, behaviors and culture we acquire shape our views of right and wrong. This accounts for differences in morality among cultures. For example, some cultures accept the slaughter and consumption of certain animals. Others condemn the practice while eating different animals. Cultures establish their own standards of morality through tradition, religion and practical experience. Moral thought about military practices will likely differ between a nation that has been repeatedly invaded and one that has never experienced invasion.

Minimum Conception of Morality

The minimum conception is an attempt to discern the core of morality independent of culture. This presumes an objective standard for morality exists. Rachels' answer echos the precepts of utilitarianism, as expressed by Jeremy Bentham in "A Fragment on Government,": “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” -- the greatest happiness principle. This view has been criticized for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it's not always clear which course of action will result in the greatest happiness. Long-term happiness sometimes requires short-term pain, so happiness can vary with time.

Relative Adaption

Differences in cultural definitions of morality point to what Renato Rosaldo terms “the plasticity of human nature.” In other words, humans adapt to the environment, and moral values are part of this adaption. Dominance hierarchies, common to many cultures, frequently lead to exploitation as the interests of a dominant group become privileged over others. Moral systems can be devised to reinforce this condition, a useful adaption for groups seeking to maintain power. In a dominance hierarchy, morality is imposed from the top down.

Workable Solutions

Utilitarianism attempts to govern conflicts between self-interest and common interests for optimal happiness of the greatest number, which can conflict with dominance hierarchies. Noted American author Robert Heinlein has posited that “Any government will work if authority and responsibility are equal and coordinate. This does not insure 'good' government; it simply insures that it will work.” That humanity can and does function under widely disparate moral and governmental systems attests to its adaptability. The incorporation of reason into moral systems continues as a work in progress.

About the Author

Kevin McLeod has written about culture, technology, social change, employment and the deaf community since 1985. He has worked with high school students, psychiatric patients and editors, all fine sources of chaos and drama.

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