• April 25th, 2016

Essay, Philosophy

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“Cultural relativism” is the descriptive claim that different cultures and peoples have different ideas about what is moral and what is not. This is an empirical observation, and is not really debatable: different cultures do, in fact, have different moral codes.

“Moral relativism,” by contrast, is the normative claim that all different moral codes are equally valid: there is no way to determine which moral codes or standards are better than others, so we just accept all of them as equally valid. Many people think this is the way to achieve tolerance, but often fail to consider its implications. Moral relativism would also mean that there is no way to criticize a culture that encourages violence against women, unfair treatment of the poor, or racism, for example. Even the most seemingly horrible behavior would be immune from criticism, because we would have no reasons for criticizing it – because that is what a particular culture believes, it's right for them, and that's the end of the story.

What do you think? Can we endorse moral relativism? If not, then we need to figure out some way to come up with a universal standard of morality that can be applied to all people and cultures – but that is very hard to do. So, which option is best? Should we adopt moral relativism – and thereby give up our ability to critique cultures and people who seem to do very immoral things – or, can we come up with some standard of morality that can be applied to all people and cultures (and, if so, what might that look like)?

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