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The Challenge of Cultural Relativism James Rachels & Stuart Rachels.

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Presentation on theme: "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism James Rachels & Stuart Rachels."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Challenge of Cultural Relativism James Rachels & Stuart Rachels

2 Cultural Relativism  The idea of universal truth in ethics is a myth.  The customs of different societies are all that exist.  To say that a custom is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ would imply that we can judge that custom by some independent standard of right and wrong, but no such standard exists.

3 Cultural relativists claim the following: 1.Different societies have different moral codes. 2.The moral code of a society determines what is right or wrong within that society. 3.There are no moral truths that hold for all people at all times. 4.The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is but one among many. 5.It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures. We should always be tolerant of them.

4 Consistent claims? ?What if the norms of a society favor intolerance?  Given that cultural relativists take pride in their tolerance, it would be ironic if their theory actually supported the intolerance of warlike societies.  Properly understood, however, cultural relativism holds that the norms of a culture reign supreme within the bounds of the culture itself.

5 The Cultural Differences Argument  Different cultures have different moral codes.  Therefore, there is no objective ‘truth’ in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.

6 The Cultural Differences Argument !This is NOT a sound argument. The conclusion does not follow from the premise.  The premise concerns what people believe, while the conclusion concerns what really is the case.

7 Consider...  In some societies, people believe the Earth is flat. In others, people believe it is spherical.  It does not follow, from the mere fact that people disagree, that there is no ‘objective truth’ in geography.  There is no reason to think that if there is moral truth everyone must know it.

8 What Follows If Cultural Relativism Is True?  We could no longer honestly say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.

9 What Follows If Cultural Relativism Is True?  We could no longer justifiably criticize the code of our own society.

10 What Follows If Cultural Relativism Is True?  The idea of moral progress is called into doubt.

11 Why There Is Less Disagreement Than It Seems  The difference is in our belief systems, not in our values.  We cannot conclude that, because our customs differ, our values differ.  The difference in customs may be due to something else.

12 Consider Eskimo infanticide.  Suppose we ask why the Eskimos did this.  Even in the best of times, a mother could sustain very few children.  As hunters (primary food providers), male children were favored, and hunters suffered a higher casualty rate.  Were it not for female infanticide, there would be approximately one-and-a-half times as many females in the average Eskimo local group as there are food- producing males.  Life forced choices upon them that we do not have to make.

13 Some Values Are Shared by All Cultures  Any culture that continues to exist must care for its young. Infants who are not cared for must be the exception rather than the rule.

14 Some Values Are Shared by All Cultures  Every society must also value truthfulness.

15 Some Values Are Shared by All Cultures  Some prohibition against murder is also a necessary feature of any society if it is to persist.

16 Judging a Cultural Practice to Be Undesirable ?Is There a Culture-Independent Standard of Right and Wrong?  This is a standard that might reasonably be used in thinking about any social practice: ?Does the practice promote or hinder the welfare of the people affected by it?  This looks like just the sort of independent moral standard that cultural relativism says cannot exist. It is a single standard that may be brought to bear in judging the practices of any culture, at any time, including our own.

17 Back to the Five Claims 1.Different societies have different moral codes.  True, but some values are shared by all cultures.

18 Back to the Five Claims 2.The moral code of a society determines what is right or wrong within that society.  This is closely tied to what people believe to be right; however, the code and the people can be in error.

19 Back to the Five Claims 3.There are no moral truths that hold for all people at all times.  In order to criticize other cultures, however, we can appeal to broad principles.

20 Back to the Five Claims 4.The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is but one among many.  True, but one moral code might be better or worse than others.

21 Back to the Five Claims 5.It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures. We should always be tolerant of them.  We shouldn’t tolerate everything. Human societies have done terrible things, and we can acknowledge moral progress.

22 What We Can Learn from Cultural Relativism  Cultural relativism rightly warns us about the danger of assuming that all our preferences are based on some absolute rational standard.  Cultural relativism has us keep an open mind regarding the practices of both our culture and the cultures of other societies.  These are important points, but we can accept them without accepting the whole theory.


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