Pitfalls of Relativism The year was 1943. Hundreds of Jewish people were being marched into the gas chambers in accordance with Adolf Hitler’s orders. In the two years that followed, millions of Jews were killed and only a fraction survived the painful ordeals at the Nazi German prison camps. However, all of the chaos ended as World War II came to a close: the American and British soldiers had won and Hitler’s Third Reich was no more. A certain ethical position would state that the anti-sematic Nazi German culture was neither right nor wrong in its actions. In fact, it is this view of the cultural relativist that assumes all actions considered right in a culture to be good for that culture alone. Moreover, the relativist claims that these actions cannot be judged according to their ethical correctness because there is no absolute ezdard by which they could be compared.
In the above case, this position would not allow for the American and British soldiers to interfere with the Nazis; the relativist would claim that the Allies were wrong in fighting the Germans due to a cultural disagreement. In truth, it is the relativist position which has both negative logical and practical consequences, and negligible benefits. The first logical consequence of relativism is that the believer must contradict himself in order to uphold his belief. The view states that all ethics are relative while putting forth the idea that no absolute ezdard of rightness exists. If this is the case, then what is cultural relativism relative to? From a purely logical point of view, this idea is absurd, for in assuming that something is relative one must first have some absolute by which it is judged.
Let the reader consider this example to reinforce the point. A young woman is five feet tall, and her older friend is six feet tall. The younger female considers herself short because she looks at her friend and sees that she is taller than her. It would be illogical to say that the first woman is short if she were the only female in existence; if this were the case then there would not be anyone for her to be relative to in height. However, this logical fallacy is what the relativist assumes by stating that there is no ezdard of rightness for relativity.
Quite simply, the cultural relativist is stating that he is relative to an absolute which he considers non-existent. One other logical error that the relativist makes lies in his “Cultural Differences Argument.1” The premise of this argument is that “different cultures have different moral codes.” The conclusion that the relativist derives is that “there is no objective ‘truth’ in morality, [and therefore] right and wrong are only matters of opinion [that] vary from culture to culture.2” The main logical problem with this argument is that the stated conclusion does not necessarily need to be the case if the premise is given. The premise states what different people believe to be true, and the conclusion jumps to the assumption that this belief must necessarily be the case. Let the reader consider this inezce, which closely follows the form of the above given argument. Assume that there is a society that believes that sunning as much as possible in the nude can only benefit a person.
Due to scientific study, it has been experimentally shown that overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer. Being in the American culture, people know this to be true and therefore would disagree with sunning too often. According to the relativist, since the two cultures disagree concerning the practice of sunning there is no objective truth about it. However, this is a faulty conclusion because empirical evidence shows that the first culture would be wrong in its beliefs. In truth, one cannot “derive a subeztive conclusion about a subject (morally) from the mere fact that people disagree about it.3” Having discussed the logical consequences of relativism, it is necessary to expound upon the effects of its practice. The first of these repercussions is that the culture determines what is functionally right and wrong. This means that the individual has no say in the matter, and if there is a conflict between the two, the individual’s ethical belief is not given any consideration. Of course, in theory this does not seem to create an enormous problem; but let the reader consider this inezce of racial segregation in the early 1900s.
In this case, southern blacks were kept from attending white schools, and, sometimes, they were barred from an education entirely. In the southern culture, this practice was considered normal and right; the whites believed that blacks were ignorant slaves that did not deserve such things as proper schooling. The cultural relativist would state that this southern white culture was right in segregating the blacks. This is completely false. In fact, there were many intelligent blacks (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, etc.), who, if they had been given the chance, could have contributed their ideas to the white school children. Because of this, it would have been functionally right to have included such black students in the white schools.
Thus, just because a culture deems an action right, it does not mean that the action is functionally correct for that culture. Moreover, the “relative” beliefs of certain cultures have not only caused dysfunctionality for that culture alone; but, also, cultural beliefs and actions have caused devastation on a much larger scale. An example that comes to mind is the quest to gain back the Holy Land, Jerusalem. In this case, thousands of Muslims were killed because the Christians believed that Jerusalem was sacred ground. The relativist might say that each culture was doing what was right; but when such chaos is the final outcome, relativism seems much less practical.
The second consequence of practicing cultural relativism is that it is impossible to judge the actions of any culture as to their morality. In fact, because the relativist believes that what is right is what is functional for a specific culture, there is no room for comparing one culture’s actions to another culture’s. This may seem quite benign to the reader, but under certain circumezces there are negative ramifications. Suppose that one culture practiced infanticide, and another society believed that babies are to be protected from all harm. The relativist would explain that neither culture was more correct in its views; both societies would be doing the functionally right action for their culture alone. However, “the failure to condemn [this] practice does not seem ‘enlightened.4′” Upon casual observation, it seems that infanticide is wrong, and therefore, the culture that practices it is also morally incorrect. Just as one culture could not criticize another society, there cannot be criticism of a culture from within it.
Consider the inezce of a culture that fought others simply to rape and pillage them. The relativist would not allow for and individual in the …