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Cultural Relativism: Is Truth Defined By Our Culture Or Our Culture By Truth?

1655 words - 7 pages

In his article "Cultural relativism and cultural values", Melville Herkovits defines the principle of cultural relativism as "judgments are based on experience, and experience is interpreted by each individual in terms of his own enculturation" (26). This is the basic premise of cultural relativism, that beliefs, values, and morals are all based on one's culture. Therefore, since morality is based on society and different societies have different views of right and wrong, there can be no moral absolutes. Since there are no absolutes, under this view of cultural relativism all moral views determined by one's culture are deemed true whether they conflict or not.Upon first glance, relativism ...view middle of the document...

He also states different religious traditions of different cultures such as African societies that incorporate possession of an individual by a god to be the supreme religious experience. An exert from his book Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, Louis P. Pojman describes an Eskimo culture that, "allow their elderly to die by starvation," (33).These are all strong examples, but do they actually support the idea that these cultures have different moral values? In the examples given by Herskovits about religious traditions being different this is true, there are various religious practices in various cultures that have dissimilar habits. These however are religious practices and not moral concepts. One church chooses to worship their god using a full orchestra and robed choir, while another chooses to simply have a piano and a singer. Do these churches have different moral principles, or are they merely choosing different expressions of worship? With Pojman's example of the practice of a harsh euthanasia by the Eskimos, he goes further to explain that it is not the moral principle that causes the Eskimos to leave their elderly to starve, but the harsh environment. In the harsh environment of the arctic it is not considered a "good" action, but a necessary utilitarian one in order for the survival of the whole tribe. Were the tribes to live in a tropical or temperate environment where food is not so scarce this brand of euthanasia would not be practiced.If we also look closer into the example given in the beginning of this paper we can see that the immorality of eating beef is not based on moral principles, but different beliefs. The example of a Hindu culture, being outraged at the Western practice of eating cow meat is based on the religious belief that dead relatives are reincarnated into animals such as cows. Now this is not a belief held by other Western religions, therefore the consumption of beef is freely practiced. However, what the two cultures do share is that it is immoral to eat relatives. As we can see, the two cultures have the same underlying moral principles; they simply differ on their beliefs. This can also be seen in the polygamous society of the Dahomeans. Although they may have a contradictory practice of marriage than those in Western culture they still hold on to the moral principle that it is wrong to have sexual relations with someone other than your spouse. Even though, they may differ on a Western concept of marriage the underlying principle of the sanctity of marriage is still held along with the need of a family structure.Another problem with cultural relativism is that it throws out the idea that there are moral absolutes. It holds that what is morally right and wrong is dependent on and determined by one's own culture. This is, in a sense, a utilitarian view of morality not being fixed, but a changing concept. In utilitarianism right and wrong is based on what will give the greatest amount of pleasure and the least...

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