The Shortcoming of Cultural Relativism

Like the lever or the wheel, morality is a human invention with a practical purpose. It is a tool that shapes our interpretation of events, and impacts our actions such that they will be consistent with our own interests, or with the interests of a group to which we belong. Thus certain specific formulations of morality must arise through a subjective and local assessment of expediency.

But cultural relativism seems to offer group affiliation as the only tie that could bind human beings within a given moral code. If we are near enough to observe a behavior we deem immoral, are we not sufficiently related by our humanity to deem our moral standards as the ones by which this behavior should be judged?

Morality does not arise solely and completely from cultural affiliation and locality. Rather, some values arise more directly from corporeal necessity. Perhaps this is why existential threats seemingly give rise to moral contradictions. Thou shalt not kill – but even a strict adherent to the Commandments would likely choose to kill rather than be killed.

This is also the reason compassion has the power to transcend cultural boundaries. Indeed the practices we find most objectionable, such as female genital mutilation or widow burning, are precisely the ones that pose an existential threat to individuals. It is dangerous and inaccurate to compare such torturous practices to something so innocuous as varying views on filial piety.

Perhaps the purest and most absolute of moral values is that of equality: the belief that a system of values should apply to and benefit all human beings equally. Because of this ideal, I refuse to believe that female genital mutilation or widow burning are ever right, no matter what the cultural context. But the conditions which give rise to my own idealistic vision of equality must also be relative – indeed the existential threats to me and my society are quite minimal.

None of my claims should be seen as a call to specific action. To assume that we, as a society or as individuals, have the power to re-make a whole culture at will would be pure hubris. But this does not necessarily point to the nonexistence of universal good, rather that our actions must be as pragmatic as our system of beliefs. Too often our “moral” battles are retrograde, retributive, or just plain hypocritical. Often the most effective way to fight a perceived injustice is not to attack the perpetrator head-on, but to take responsibility for those circumstances under which human nature necessarily leads him to commit it.