Are Ethics Relative to Culture?

by Eleanor McKenzie
Ethical relativists argue that one culture can't judge another culture's morals.

Ethical relativists argue that one culture can't judge another culture's morals.

Ethical or cultural relativism is a philosophical theory about the nature of morality. Fundamentally, relativists argue that no universal moral rules exist, and that all morality needs to be understood from the perspective of what the culture considers acceptable. They also suggest that every culture's moral system is equally valid because there is no universal standard about what is good or bad.

Cultural Differences

Cultures differ widely in terms of moral practices, even on ethical issues where you might expect universal agreement. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who has written extensively on the topic in her book "Patterns of Culture," gives the example of homicide. She points out that in some cultures a husband has rights over his wife's life and death, or that a child has a duty to kill his parents before they get old. Similarly, some cultures condemn suicide, while in others regard it as noble (ref. 1) These types of moral differences raise a question about whether or not any universal ethical principles exist, and underpin the arguments for ethical relativism.

Ethical Relativism

Ethical relativism's main premise is that morality is relative to cultural norms. An ethical norm is something that the majority of people in a culture consider acceptable behavior. So, whether an action is considered right or wrong depends on the society you live in. Ethical relativists don't believe in the existence of universal moral standards, i.e. morals followed by all people throughout history. Ethical relativism is not a popular theory among ethicists because it provides no structure to resolve moral disputes between countries.

Ethical Relativism - Problems

Ethical relativists argue that you can't judge the morals of other cultures. This is quite different to taking a cultural perspective of another country's ethical norms, and understanding how and why such rules are acceptable even your norms disagree. The non-judgmental approach of relativists presents a problem -- it's impossible to evaluate the ethics of any action. If you take cultural relativism to its logical conclusion, for example, you say that cannibalism is wrong. (ref. 1 and 3)

Agreement on Moral Principles

Another potential flaw in the ethical relativist argument is that cultures might agree on a broad principle, but differ in how they act on it. For example, many cultures value caring for parents. However, one culture may advocate killing parents before they become infirm, so that they are healthy in the afterlife. Another culture demands that widowed parents live with their children. Some cultural norms are relative, such as dress codes and sexual morality; however, cultures often agree on issues such as slavery or torture

About the Author

Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.

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