The consequences of cultural relativism

Ana asked:

Explain the consequences of adopting cultural relativism?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Generally, it is fair to say that persons do not ‘adopt’ cultural relativism: instead they have it thrust upon them. To explain, the culture that a person inhabits, sets norms and standards, that inculcate a person. This may become a ‘mindset’ that a person is either unwilling or unable to reject. This affects many obvious aspects of life such as the clothes persons feel comfortable wearing or the food they prefer: however, it should be appreciated that the process sinks deep into a person’s psyche reaching areas that one may not be aware are affected.

From a philosopher’s viewpoint, this may have a major consequence which will now be explained. Firstly, for those philosophers that find cultural relativism to be a hindrance affecting good judgement, it causes problems when assessing whether persons from other cultures have behaved rightly or wrongly. Generally, one’s own inculcated variant of cultural relativism would be expected to encourage criticism of other cultures; with more criticism generated the further a culture is distanced from your own. For example, cows are sacred to Hindus but (most) westerners enjoy eating beef: hence, the Hindu would be expected to find western culinary practices reprehensible. Ideally, the good philosopher should be able to dispense with their own cultural relativism when judging others. This process, and its pros and cons, is described in more detail by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy; where one chapter is entitled ‘The challenge of Cultural Relativism’ (1993 (New York: McGraw-Hill), pp. 15-29).

That said, rather than ‘adopting’ cultural relativism, its quotient existing in society could be increased if it was considered to be beneficial for that society. For instance, Aristotle wished for persons to behave virtuously, where virtue may be defined as ‘a trait of character, manifested in habitual action, that is good for a person to have’ (Rachels 1993: 163); furthermore, it may be argued that greater society should benefit from encouraging such individualistic traits as their combined action would contribute to maintaining cohesive communities (Rachels 1993: 169-170). To achieve this Aristotle recommended a common education shared by all, which would be  ‘the business of the state’  and encourage solidarity amongst citizens (Aristotle 1999. Politics: pp. 180-1

For many there would be a trade-off: one may reinforce one’s community’s values but have less understanding of the values of other societies. With this knowledge some may be tempted to deliberately promote the interests of their own societies at the expense of others. Possibly, it may be argued that this has already happened in the western world before the Second World War, where unscrupulous governments achieved a greater measure of cultural relevance in their societies by appropriating the education systems and media; in turn this was used to vilify other peoples. For the moment, Western societies have opted to foster more understanding of other societies.

In concluding, the consequences of encouraging cultural relativism can be summarised quite succinctly here: the reinforcement of cultural relativism may forge cohesive cultures, which may initially seem to be benign, but this may be accompanied by discouraging the understanding of other cultures.


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