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Is There Any Real Right or Wrong?

CULTURAL RELATIVISM

Many people think that since we find different moral principles in different cultures, there cannot be objective moral principles binding on all cultures; morality must be culturally relative. This argument, however, begins with a misleading use of data, is logically fallacious, does not allow us to make what we would normally consider to be legitimate moral judgments, and leads to bizarre conclusions.

A closer look at the data shows that moral commonalities among cultures are much more abundant than moral differences. The differences are actually a small minority. We study them in anthropology classes because they are the exception, but in fact the vast majority of moral principles are held in common. Moreover, many of the dissimilarities are merely variations in moral reasoning and application of the common principles. The ethical disparity between cultures is far less than we are led to believe.ii

Second, it doesn't follow logically that just because there are some differences between cultures, transcendent moral principles do not exist. What follows from the fact that culture X says action A is wrong and culture Y says action A is right? Not very much! It does not follow that there is no objective moral truth regarding action A. It may very well be that culture X is correct and culture Y is wrong about action A, or vice versa. Relativity in moral belief does not entail relativity in moral truth. Belief doesn't change truth.iii Not believing in gravity does not change the objective fact, that if you step off the tenth floor balcony, you will fall to the ground. Likewise not believing in a moral law does not render it inoperative or non-existent.

Furthermore, if ethics were culturally relative it would be impossible to evaluate cultures morally. One could not condemn as immoral what another culture approves, even if that is racism, infanticide, ethnic cleansing or wholesale genocide. If cultural relativism is true, the Nuremberg war trials following the Second World War were nothing more than a kangaroo court - a farce. Nazi war criminals defended themselves by claiming that they were just following orders within the framework of their culture and legal system. But Robert Jackson, chief counsel for the U.S. at the trials responded by saying that: there is a "law beyond the law" of any individual nation, permanent values which transcend any particular society.

Furthermore, if ethics were relative to culture, any declaration of universal human rights would be nonsense. You can't have it both ways. If ethics are just relative to culture, there are no universal human rights; and if there are universal human rights, as the United Nations believes, then ethics are not relative to culture.

But, as we have already seen, our reactions and judgments show that we do think that there are moral principles that transcend cultures and justify our condemnation of such occurrences as apartheid, ethnic cleansing and the Nazi atrocities.

The furor over the caning of the American teenager, Michael Fay, by Singaporean authorities in the early nineties is a good example of the fact that people do think morals are transcultural. If ethics were just culturally relative North Americans would have no basis for claiming the caning was just or unjust. Yet both those who support or condemn the Singaporean law, reveal that they think the moral principles at stake are transcultural in nature.

Another problem with cultural relativism is that one seeking to reform society from within would find oneself in a real dilemma. If whatever a culture does is right for that culture, it would be immoral to try to initiate change, no matter how awful the practices are, whether slavery, child labour and abuse, or denial of women's rights. None of this is consistent with our moral sensibilities or practices regarding making moral judgments.

Furthermore, cultural relativism leads to bizarre conclusions. Imagine an island of 100 people. They take a vote on whether murder is right or wrong and the results are a 50/50 split. The next day some of the "murder is right" side kill one of the "murder is wrong" side. Now the count is 50 to 49 in favor of the "murder is right" side, and murder becomes morally acceptable.

Now let's say the "murder is wrong" side slay two of the other group. The vote is now 49 to 48 in favor of the "murder is wrong" proponents. So now murder is wrong even though it was right when they did it, and so on! A view that leads to such absurd conclusions cannot possibly be true.vi

SELF-REFUTING

One final damaging criticism of ethical relativism is that it is self-refuting. Many ethical relativists say or think, "There are no objective morals and you shouldn't act as if there are," or "You ought to be a moral relativist." The moral relativist thinks relativism is universally true, and that everyone else should agree. But if relativism is true, then there are no moral "oughts" that apply to everyone, including that one.

So relativism may be fashionable, but it's not livable. It's self-refuting and leads to bizarre conclusions. Moreover, our reactions and judgments about the mistreatment of others and ourselves betray our real position on morality. We do not act as if morality is relative to individuals or cultures. We act as if there are objective moral principles that are obligatory and binding on all people. The Roman philosopher Cicero succinctly summarizes what we have found: "Only a madman could maintain that the distinction between honourable and dishonourable, between virtue and vice, is only a matter of opinion."

Having acknowledged that objective moral principles exist, the obvious questions arise:
How could such principles exist? Where do they come from? What makes them objective, binding, and obligatory, especially on those who disagree? These are questions about foundations.

CONTINUE: Foundations

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