Cultural relativism: A Challenge to the Possibility of Ethics
Consider the Eskimos. They are a remote and inaccessible people. Numbering only about 25,000, they live in small, isolated settlements scattered mostly along the northern fringes of North America and Greenland. Until the beginning of this century, the outside world knew little about them. Then explorers began to bring back strange tales. Eskimo customs turned out to be very different from our own. The men often had more than one wife, and they would share their wives with guests, lending them for the night as a sign of hospitality.
Moreover, within a community, a dom-inant male might demand -- and get --regular sexual access to other men's wives. The women, however, were free to break these arrangements simply by leaving their husbands and taking up with new partners--free, that is, so long as their former husbands chose not to make trouble. All in all, the Eskimo practice was a volatile scheme that bore little resemblance to what we call marriage.
But it was not only their marriage and sexual practices that were different. The Eskimos also seemed to have less regard for human life. Infanticide, for example, was common. . . . Female babies, he found, were especially liable to be destroyed, and this was permitted simply at the parents' discretion, with no social stigma attached to it. Old people also, when they became too feeble to contribute to the family, were left out in the snow to die. So there seemed to be, in this society, remarkably little respect for life. (James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986)u
A more contemporary example : For eighteen months Del Monte Corporation tried to buy a 55,000-acre banana plantation in Guatemala, but the government refused to allow the sale. Del Monte officials made inquiries and asked for meetings, but nothing happened. Then they hired a "business consultant" for $500,000. The "consultant" was a wealthy busi- nessman who frequently contributed to political parties in Guatemala. The businessman feared that disclosure of this relationship with a large U.S. company would diminish his influence in Guatemala and perhaps even provoke left-wing threats against his life.
So he demanded and received company assurances of anonymity. To further pro- tect him, Del Monte paid him outside Guatemala. It charged his fee to general and administrative expenses on the books of several Panamanian shipping subsidia- ries. His fee was entirely dependent on his ability to get the Guatemalan government to allow the sale of the plantation. Sudden- ly the Guatemalan government reversed it- self and permitted the sale. Now Del Mon- te owns the profitable ban-ana plantation, for which it paid $20.5 million, and the "business consultant" is considerably richer.
□ Cultural Relativism Defined. Ethical relativism is the theory which claims that, because diff-erent societies have different ethi-cal beliefs, there is no rational way of determining whether an action is morally right or wrong other than by asking whether the people of this or that society be-lieve it is morally right or wrong.
Ethical relativism is the view that there are no ethical standards that are absolutely true and that apply or should be applied to the com-panies and people of all societies. Instead, relativism holds, some-thing is right for the people or companies in one particular socie-ty if it accords with their moral standards, and wrong for them if it violates their moral standards. Manuel G. Velasquez, Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998), 22
<ul><li>■ What ethical relativism comes down to. </li></ul><ul><li>Different cultures have different moral codes/ beliefs. What is considered right within one group may be utterly abhor-rent to the members of another group. THEREFORE: What is moral is relative to a particular culture. </li></ul><ul><li>It would be naive and mythical to think that there is universal truth in ethics. There are no standards of morality that cut across cultures. Every standard is culture-bound. </li></ul>
■ Challenge posed by ethical relativism The person who encounters societies with many different moral standards will be advised by the theory of ethical relativism that in one’s moral reasoning one should always follow the moral standards prevalent in whatever society one finds oneself. After all, since moral standards differ and since there are no other criteria of right and wrong, the best one can do is to follow the old adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
■ How do we respond to this challenge? At the very heart of relativism as a moral theory are the following contentions - Diversity Thesis Relativity Thesis Toleration Thesis
Diversity Thesis : People do in fact disagree in their moral beliefs. Cultures exhibit vastly dif-ferent attitudes toward adultery, premarital sex, property ownership, violence, etc. Even the same moral tradition varies over time. Objection: W hile there is variation in moral beliefs between cultures, much of the apparent diversity in moral beliefs can be traced to differences in circumstances and in non-moral beliefs that are not directly related to questions of morality. Thus, appearances to the contrary, the difference may not be a genuine moral difference. The difference may be - difference in non-moral beliefs or difference based on circumstances.
Objection : But the fact that moral beliefs differ may only show that some beliefs – or perhaps all of them – are false. From the fact that different people have different moral beliefs about some issue, it does not follow logically that there is no objective truth about the issue nor that all beliefs about that issue are equal-ly acceptable. When two people or two groups have different beliefs, at most all that follows is that at least one of them is wrong. Relativity Thesis: Simply stated, the thesis says that the rightness or wrongness of moral beliefs can be determined only in relation to the culture or moral tradition of the individuals who hold them.
Objection: But if a principle of toleration is not a part of the moral beliefs of another culture, the members of that culture have no moral obligation to practice tolerance toward us, even if we believe in toleration. Toleration Thesis : Relativists say that we should adopt a tolerant at-titude towards other individuals or social groups that hold different mo-ral beliefs. “Toleration” presumably means refraining from using force to impose the moral beliefs of one's own culture on other cultures.
Further Arguments against Relativism: ■ There must be certain moral standards that the members of any society must accept if that society is to survive and if its members are to interact with each other effectively. Thus, all societies have norms against injuring or killing other members of the society, norms about using language truthfully when communicating with members of one’s society, and norms against taking the personal goods of other members of one’s society.
■ Performative Contradiction Just in case the conclusion of cultural relativism is true, i.e., that there is no universal truth in morality, by implication, it also claims that there can be no universal truth at all. This conclusion must be made self-referentially. Therefore, there is no reason why we should take cultural relativism's conclusion seriously, since it qualifies as an assertion of a universal truth.
■ The most telling criticisms against the theory of ethical relativism are those that point to the incoherent consequences of the theory. If the theory of ethical relativism were true, then it would make no sense - - to criticize the practices of other societies so long as they conformed to their own standards; - to criticize any of the moral standards or practices accepted by our own society. The theory of ethical relativism implies that whatever the majority in our society believes about morality is automatically correct.
■ Conclusion So “when in Rome, do as the Romans do?” One clearly should observe local etiquette and other such customs in countries other than one’s own. To this extent, when in Rome one should indeed do as the Romans do. In other words - We can and should draw the line between local practices and customs that are morally indifferent - such as which side of the road you drive on in a country - and others that are immoral or that we clearly perceive to be immoral, such as engaging in slavery.
No individual . . . can ethically justify engaging in practices the individual . . . believes are immoral or unethical. A person of integrity . . . not only has principles but lives by them . . . – Richard T. de George, Business Ethics , 4 th edition, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995.