It is hard to think that the Cambodian genocide happened in the last half-century. It is even harder to think that the Rwandan genocide happened less than two decades ago. It is hard to fathom this because, despite all the technological and intellectual advances made, mass acts of injustice against humans are still occurring.
This is why discussions about morality and justice are relevant now more than ever. With the European Renaissance period began a surge of human interconnectivity, moving from improvements in marine technology to machines that can now traverse the globe in less than three days. Couple that with the desire to explore and the vastly less virtuous desire to conquer and exploit others and we have a global network that falls far from a pleasant intercultural get-together.
So not only have human beings not reached some enlightened moral plane through centuries of intellectual pursuits, but they have also become more interconnected giving rise to more opportunities for cultural and ideological clashes. If there were ever a time for a discussion on morality and culture, that time would be now. And it is.
In the wake of numerous wars, the world is left with the conundrum ‘What is ethical?’ Situations vary and the ethics of people in those situations vary as well. This has caused the development of two sides; one maintaining that there is no absolute truth or right and each person’s morals and beliefs must be respected, the other that there is a moral truth, one that should be respected and upheld. The first view emerged from a desire to treat other cultural and moral views respectfully as a counterweight to the often racist and Eurocentric views of the 20thcentury. Unfortunately, this has morphed into an ‘anything goes’ ideology, which is at odds to serving justice.
This paper maintains that moral relativity is an enemy of justice and cannot serve as a template with which to build a moral structure to govern inter-human relations, regardless of the scale on which justice is sought.
The definition of relativism can be hard to pin down, and in philosophy can have varying meanings. For the purpose of this paper, the most relevant definition is the metaethical one. Metaethical Moral Relativism purports that morality is not absolute or universal, but rather is relative to the culture within which it is being practiced. While modern moral relativism is due largely to ideologies arising in the 20thcentury, relativism goes back to ancient Greek thought. In ancient Greek philosophy, it was acknowledged that there were a diversity of moralities, but instead of thinking that there were many truths, they believed that none of the diverse moral positions were true in and of themselves. This is considered a position of moral skepticism. This rolled over into Western philosophy and continued until the 20thcentury when intellectuals moved from simply skepticism to taking positions on moral relativity.
The concept of cultural relativism came from Anthropology in the early 1900s. A professor at Colombia University, Franz Boaz, challenged the then prevalent concept that Western society was superior to the cultures it studied. Boaz argued that the criteria used by the Western world to determine ‘civilization’ might not be the only ones there are and that Western ideas of civilization are affected by Western society’s own emotional, subjective bias. Two of his students, Ruth Benedict and Melville Herskovitz, continued these ideas, and the modern description of metaethical moral relativity that we know is a formulation of Herskovitz’s. In the context of observing, evaluating and documenting cultures that are different from one’s own, he maintains that judgments made are relative to the culture from which the judgment is made. Considering that at the time, ‘civilization’ was measured by very Eurocentric
standards, Herskovitz’s ideology assigned value to cultures that were vastly different from Western cultures. Thus it encouraged viewing members of other cultures and ethnicities (non-Western ones) as equal.
Thus, initially in the world of Anthropology, morality was inextricably tied to tolerance. Considered as a prescriptive instead of descriptive theory, the knowledge that there were different moralities in different cultures motivated relativists to espouse tolerance for the different moral constructs. Because of this, moral relativists are often rebuffed with the idea that critiquing someone’s lack of tolerance is an intolerant act in and of itself. Renteln maintains that contrary to popular belief, tolerance is not a foundation of moral relativism and that the relativist can indeed offer moral critique. Holding a relativist view means that one recognizes that different cultural and moral systems exist. To believe in relativism, one need not be tolerant, nor objective (i.e. be unbiased about which moral system is best).
Objectivity rather comes from an Anthropological desire to be scientific when conducting ethnographies. The more objective a report, the more scientific it is, thus in expressing their research, anthropologists desire to be as objective as possible. Because of relativism’s close ties to Anthropology, objectivism has been touted as a feature of relativism. Renteln’s position is that while objectivism is a useful partner to relativism for the anthropologist, it is not an indispensable feature of relativism. Not only that but when relativists claim that tolerance and objectivity are foundational to subscribing to relativism, they change relativism from a descriptive theory to a prescriptive theory.
Relativism as an ideology, however, is based on enculturation. Enculturation refers to unconsciously learning the standards of one’s culture. Enculturation leads to firm moral judgments, because one’s moral standards are not seen a merely cultural, but rather as objective principles. Because one has unconsciously acquired certain moral principles, such principles are seen as unspoken truths, rather than culturally relative. Once the impact of enculturation on moral judgments is recognized however, that knowledge becomes a motivating factor for persons to view moralities from other cultures as just as valid as their own. This is different from simply encouraging tolerance, as considering enculturation necessitates critical engagement with one’s own morals and the morals of the society they are considering.
This equal validity does not mean that relativists cannot decry certain actions. Moral challenges can be made in three ways, according to Renteln: (i) when the act is contrary to the moral standards of that country or group, (ii)when the act is contrary to not only an internal societal standard, but also a universal standard and (iii)when the act is in accordance with the local societal standard, but different from the standards of the moral critic. This is based on the relativistic concept that morality is local, and can at times be universal (i.e. where similar principles are held across global societies). While this may seem like self-contradiction (‘relativists don’t believe in absolutes’), universality is distinguishable from absolutism.
Universality refers to principles across cultures that are the same or similar. Universal values are not objective, but relative to societies in a particular period. She contrasts this with absolutes, for instance, the concept of natural law, which contains objective principles that stem from nature. Absolutes are timeless, so morality does not change with time. She argues that universality offers a better model because it is better able to serve the members of whichever societies it applies to at that time. This goes against the concept that values should remain unchanged. This is also a rebuttal to absolutist arguments about morality derived from universality. Some absolutists argue that morality derived from a consensus of societies, or from universalism might contribute moral principles that are inhumane. Renteln argues that since universalism is not mutually exclusive with change, if cross-culture universals are discovered that are inhumane, then there is always the opportunity to change these moral concepts. Absolutes, on the other hand, cannot accommodate newly emergent societal needs.
While she does not hold those universal ideals exist for a fact, she acknowledges that they are a possibility, and highly probable ones at that. Her argument for universality is also helped by the concept that morality across different cultures is more similar than people tend to think. Morality may have different expressions, but the principles behind the judgments are very similar.
Surprisingly, that is a view that is common to both absolutists and relativists. C.S. Lewis in the appendix of The Abolition of Man compiled ways in which various cultures have similar ethical beliefs. While many of the cultures are European, there are non-European cultures that display similarity with the non-European ones. While it may be nearly impossible to compare all cultures, both relativists and absolutists agree that certain values are cross-cultural, such as an abhorrence of murder and stealing, and valuing justice and respect. But that may be as similar as their ideas get.
In his book Mere Christianity, Lewis challenges the reader with the dilemma of morality. We all have the desire for a moral standard, he proposes, and live by both spoken and unspoken rules of morality. At the same time, however, none of us is able to live up to the standards we all seek to live by. He uses this as an argument to support man’s need of morality. Relativism does involve morality but in a different way. Relativity dismisses the idea that there is one correct morality, hence removing the authority of a God-figure and the need for an authoritative God-figure to regulate morality. On the other hand, Lewis uses the argument about our inherent desire for morality as an argument for God.
Often in discussions of morality, this question of deity comes up. This is because many, if not all, religious systems purport values to guide the lives of its adherents. A supreme being is seen as having a role in the creation of amorality. Thus one could say that in the discussion of morality, absolute, divine and timeless principles are often pitted against universal, time-bound, human-determined principles. Renteln’s argues that time-bound morality is better able to meet the needs of the society which it governs. While this may be true, it then means that no meaningful moral assessments can be made of societies that are not in the same time-periods as the one attempting to make the moral judgment. That is, events that occurred in non-contemporary time periods must be judged on a completely different moral basis. Not only that, but it negates the heart of morality as espoused by Lewis.
He argues that our desire and basis for morality come from a source outside of ourselves. Humanity does not settle for laws that can be easily satisfied, instead, it chooses laws that are hard to keep, and that is often broken. An argument can also be made along these lines about our desire for justice. If we simply wanted to experience justice, and morality could truly belong to time, then we could adjust our concepts and ideas of justice to something far more attainable, but we do not. In that sense, Renteln’s argument about the relationship between enculturation and morality begins to break down. While some beliefs that are a part of certain societal moral constructs are due to enculturation (such as the use of one’s right hand for eating and one’s left hand for use after urination and defecation in some African cultures at one point in time), there are others that relativists would consider universal, such as the injustice of rape.
Certain moral ideals are more negotiable than others, which points to a possible demarcation between what can be considered as moral and amoral. There are certain actions that are looked upon more disdainfully than others. Whether this is conceptualized on a scale or as a binary, there is a difference between the severity of what are considered crimes in different cultures. I would like to argue that this points to a difference between moral principles and their practical manifestation. Principles are timeless, whereas the manifestation of these principles is specific to the time and place in which they are being practiced. Often rules of morality exist that are mere off-shoots of rules made to ensure compliance with certain moral principles.
That still leaves the question of who gets to decide what is moral and what is immoral. Renteln’s relativistic argument maintains that morality should be left to respective cultures, and can still be subject to critique from members of other cultures and/or societies. In the typical relativistic model, tolerance is an important part of the construction of morality, which is a pitfall for relativists who cling to the importance of tolerance. Espousing a sweeping concept of tolerance makes it hard to critique what relativists see as wrong, and is inherently contradictory when they reprove others for intolerance. While they can accuse others of wrongdoing, there is no objective basis against which to lean for validation of their accusations.
Renteln maintains that the basis for justice would come from the morality of a culture or society, an international body, or member or group from another culture or society. Absolutists often argue that there is no basis for the enforcement of such morality since it does not pack the weight of being universally agreed upon, but as Renteln argues, there are ways of ensuring one’s moral codes are respected and followed. In the case of international justice, we see that happen with embargoes on countries that refuse to comply with the moral standards of more powerful countries.
This is only an example of how influential power is in all of this. On a very basic level, cultural norms are highly affected by power (Sikka 2012). Often times, many aspects of culture are determined by those who are most powerful within that culture or society. It then follows that the morality of that culture or society would be heavily influenced by those in power if morality was solely left to human devising. In that sense, justice would not be served because it would lean on the side of those in power. On a larger scale, in the global dispensation on justice, the only people to have a say in morality, and to actually achieve some outcome from justice processes would be the ones that actually had the power to ensure that their moral views were respected and upheld.
In some cases, this works, but because humans are imperfect, this often goes horribly awry. On a local scale, it means curtailed justice for those, not in power, who are often the poor, marginalized and oppressed, the ones that need justice the most. On a global scale, it means the withholding of justice from weaker countries and societies, often oppressing them more than they are already being oppressed. The concept behind learning about enculturation as a combative ideology to the maltreatment of other societies and cultures is that knowledge will make a difference. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.
As was mentioned in the introduction, in the last decade there have been crimes stemming from cherished ethnocentric ideals. One such horror was the Rwandan genocide. It was only possible through the separation of the people into Hutus and Tutsis; an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. Once that was done, ethnocentric ideals were promoted, in that one group was better than the other, so much so that the Tutsis were branded as ‘cockroaches’ fit and worthy to be destroyed. It is clear that intellectual advancements do not necessarily map onto moral improvement.
At the same time, a form of tolerance is still very relevant and necessary in our interactions within the global community. In a world with a myriad of cultures, the ability to appreciate amoral cultural beliefs that are not your own is indispensable to peaceable inter-cultural relationships. But without absolute morality, there is nothing of which to be tolerant.
From a Biblical absolutist worldview, morality hinges upon the reality that there is a God that prescribes amorality. In both relativistic and absolutist concepts of morality, some power has to be depended upon as the arbiter of justice and morality. With moral relativity, it either depends on who is the most ‘tolerant’ or whoever wields the most power or influence. With Biblical absolutism, it is dependent on a God that makes timeless moral prescriptions. The very nature of the concept of God as all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present gives the concept of divine morality credence. Unfortunately, relativistic morality is presided over by imperfect human beings. And while divine morality is often dispensed by human means, which often materializes in less than perfect ways, that does not preclude the validity of divine morality.
Relativism offers a solution to a myriad of moralities. Historically, the analysis of other cultures and societies has been rife with Ethnocentrism and biased value judgments, and in an effort to alleviate this, the theory of cultural relativism was formulated. As it evolved, anthropologists drafted ideals of tolerance and objectivity to make less prejudiced assessments, but those began to be touted as foundational to the theory of relativity. More foundational to relativity, however, is considering enculturation. Enculturation is immensely helpful to the relativist by helping them critically engage with their own morality and the morality of others. On the downside, relativism does not grapple with the issue of who ultimately determines what morality looks like. Even when left to a local formulation of morality, power plays a huge role in the concept of morality that emerges as triumphant. In a theistic absolutist construct of morality, a divine being prescribes morality. This concept goes hand in hand with C.S. Lewis’ observation that human beings believe in and live by moral principles that they cannot live up to, yet doggedly believe in. In both constructs, power plays a role, the difference is that one power is local and familiar, and the other is strange and supernatural.
Beckwith, Francis J., and Gregory Koukl. Relativism. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.
Dundes Renteln, Alison. “Relativism and the Search for Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 90 (1988): 56-72
Lewis, Clive S. Mere Christianity. San Fransisco: Harper Collins, 2001.
Lewis, Clive S. The Abolition of Man. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001
Sikka, Sonia. “Moral Relativism and the Concept of Culture.” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory 59 (2012): 50-69
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Moral Relativism.” Last substantive revision April 20, 2015. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/