“Morality differs in every society, and it is a convenient term of socially approved habits.” Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (1934)
Human morals and morality have been pondered for hundreds of years by some of the most enlightened people in human existence. Morals are defined by the culture in which you are born. People’s way of life, their cultural customs, and social norms differ greatly across the earth. People’s morals are different in every society because cultures are all something that have evolved over time; changing with each generation within a society. After thousands of years of existence and hundreds of evolved languages, cultures have evolved different value systems or moral codes for living and communicating; all of which are referred to as morality.
As human’s we strive for perfection for something better then what we’ve got currently. It is amusing how we as humans strive for something non-existent, unknown and completely foreign to us. In achieving this foreign desire we are required to compare and contrast differences. When we look at the various societies evolving around the globe we look at the value system of the peoples, their cultures and means of supporting life. We judge their values against our own set of moral values and pass judgement on whether or not it is right to act in that way. Standards, like standards of conduct, are the inventions of man and are therefore all subjective and “culture-bound.” (Reason at Work p. 38) As described by the theory of Cultural Relativism, “different societies have different moral codes and there is no objective standard by which to judge one society’s code to be morally superior to another” (Reason at Work p.36, 1996 ). A person’s opinion on the subject of whether or not an act is morally right or wrong is entirely subjective and could never be objective.
We as humans can distinguish between cruel acts and kind acts, helpful and harmful, but we can not objectively distinguish whether such and action is right or wrong. A society’s views, and thus their values, are unique and part of their culture code. This is how Cultural Relativism maintains that “there is no such thing as a universal truth in ethics; there are only the various culture codes and nothing more.” This leaves us humans in a precarious situation, everyone’s values are subjective and no one has objective values. The moral codes of two societies can thus be a complete contradiction and still be an “acceptable habit,” in the respective society. The Greeks and the Callatians varied differently in the means of disposing the dead. The Greeks believed it was proper to bury the dead, while the Callatians believed that it was customary to eat the dead. Neither society is right or wrong, they just follow different cultural codes. So our existence on earth is not that as one single society of people, rather as unique groups of morally evolving people who are raised to be cultured and different.
Immanuel Kant argues on the topic of Morality that people have ultimate worth and are intrinsically valuable. Not simply just because we live, but rather because we people are the “ultimate source” of our morality. Kant goes on to state his fundamental law of conduct, “one should will to do an act only if one would will that that type of behavior be a law of human conduct.” (Reason At Work, p.78 1996) This statement is generalized by the Categorical Imperative that states: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Reason At Work, p.78 1996) In laments terms, act as though the principles of your actions applied to the entire society. It is this technique that Kant uses to decipher which morals would logistically work in a society. So lets take the case of a murderer, someone with morals then the general public. A murderer believes that taking another’s life to obtain their possessions and physically valuables is the correct way to live life. Furthermore he explains that he is being unjustly tried on account of different moral truths. The Categorical Imperative would quickly solve this situation. If everyone acted and willed that everyone’s actions be directed towards stealing and killing for valuables and that was the proper way of living, the society would be a short lived one. A society of principle killers could not even exist and here is why: I need food so I go to the supermarket, to get my food I kill the store clerk and steal the food. However as I arrived at the car a gentleman approached me, pulled out a gun, and fired a bullet at me. As I lay on the ground I saw the man take my coat off me and walk away. In a society where killing of others is a valued moral trait, killers would kill by their nature until there was no more to kill leaving the humans of that society extinct.
This society was obviously based on a principle that would not allow for a prosperous society. When run through the scenario, if a moral leads to the downfall of the society, one knows that such morality can not exist as a law within a society. So the Categorical Imperative helps us to define exactly what morals are morals and which ones would be possible to support human cultural existence.
It is important to take notice of how Cultural Relativism and the Categorical Imperative work hand in hand in helping to give some definition and understanding of Morality. Cultural Relativism is an awareness that people share in understanding morality, transculturally. While the Categorical Imperative defines exactly what morality is not and leaves the mind’s imagination to ponder the rest.