Cultural Relativism

“First there is cultural relativism or descriptive relativism. This is the descriptive, factual thesis, often expressed by anthropologists, sociologists and historians, that societies do, in fact, have disparate views on basic ethical judgments. A basic ethical disagreement is one that remains when all the factual issues are agreed upon and when two cultures mean the same thing by the same ethical concepts like “right” and “wrong,” but disagree as to what acts are right and wrong. Thus a basic ethical disagreement will be a value difference. Cultural relativism, then, amounts to the thesis that what is considered right and wrong or the way moral principles are weighed relative to each other varies from culture to culture…

Two things should be kept in mind when evaluating cultural relativism. First, it is not a moral thesis at all. It is not a prescriptive statement of morality, but a descriptive, factual statement about morality…it does not follow from cultural relativism that there are no moral absolutes that are true for all people, nor does it follow that these absolutes cannot be known. Different cultures differ over the shape of the earth, but this does not imply that no one is right about the earth’s shape or that no one is rational in believing one’s view about the earth’s shape. The same line of reasoning applies to cultural relativism.

Someone could respond that sometimes the fact that people cannot agree about something shows that there is no real fact of the matter at stake, that is, that no one is right and no one is wrong. On the other hand, from the simple existence of unresolved disagreements about something it still does not follow that no one is right. This further conclusion needs to be argued for, not merely asserted. Moreover, if a case can be made for true moral values, then the presence of disagreements in moral views shows something other than the relative truth value of moral statements – for example, that people often form their moral views for self-serving, sinful reasons. Finally, ethical differences may not be as widespread as many people think. This leads to a second observation…

When due consideration is given to factual clarification, many apparent moral differences turn out to be merely factual, not moral. This lends support to the claim that cultures exhibit widespread agreement regarding basic values; for instance, no culture has valued cowardice in battle. So it may well be that many cultural differences turn out to be factual differences. The Christian doctrine of general revelation and the idea of natural moral law – the notion that there are true, universally binding moral principles knowable by all people and rooted in creation and the way things are made – lead us to suspect at least some widespread agreement about moral values. On the other hand, there do appear to be genuine disputes among cultures about basic ethical judgments. And the biblical doctrine of original sin should lead us to suspect that cultures can become morally twisted and repugnant depending on the degree to which that culture lives and thinks in light of general or special revelation.”

(Moreland & Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 409-410)

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