Relativism Between Societies Essay

1338 words - 5 pages

The meta-ethical theory of relativism claims that there is no universal moral standard that can be used to evaluate the practices and beliefs of other cultures. For the relativist, 'true' only means 'true for my culture', while at the same time, what someone in another culture deems as true, regardless of the contrast, can be equally so (Williams 1976: 34). This means that the criterion for what is deemed acceptable for a given society, is reflective of the views of the prevailing culture. I disagree with this meta-ethical view. At first glance, the theory of relativism might appear as one of respect and tolerance, however, after closer analysis it leads to sharp division between different societies (Midgley 1993: 175), which in an increasingly integrated and globalised world, cannot really hold. A relativist division between cultures can only be managed if we don blinkers and ignore situations that through sound understanding are proven to be wrong. There are claims that are better than others, and if a moral claim is based on incorrect understanding, it should be challenged and shown to be problematic (Dawkins 2004: 17-22).

Relativism isn't inherently focused on consequences. It is a theory that stems from the fact of vast variation in ethical views that are found across humanity (Wong 1993: 443), which proponents of the theory have seen this fact as a source of strength for relativism. Furthermore, it has been claimed that from this, because different groups hold different moral claims, they should do so, because such divergence shows that there are no universal standards that regulate what is correct (Furrow 2005: 35). For the relativist, moral judgement is to be relegated to within one's own culture. Judgements outside of this sphere don't hold, as whatever we judge to be good or bad is only relative to one's own society, and irrational outside of it. Judgements within one's culture, however, are limited to that of holding society to the claims already established, and are not compatible with outright challenge to established values. Although relativism might appear as a theory of 'anything goes', this is not strictly the case. Within a society, moral codes may be very strict and demanding, and we should be careful not to confuse this with there not being any grounds for us to assess that the claims of other cultures are wrong.

There are several objections to relativism. Here I will consider two problems, which I see as highly troublesome for the theory. Firstly, the idea that actions in different cultures are equally right and beyond judgement by non-members of that culture. This is problematic. Just because there are different opinions on what is right does not necessarily mean that some opinions are not wrong, that some aren't better than others, or even objectively true (Furrow 2005: 36). Being a relativist would see one become a non-intervener in matters outside of one's own culture, regardless of how hideous an event would be...

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