Taking cultural relativism seriously

Students always seem to breathe a sigh of relief when we move away from moral absolutism. They bridle at what they see as the limitations on human freedom suggested by Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law. Kant at this early stage of the course is still a delight yet to come, but the likelihood of “Duty” becoming a popular motivating guide for acceptable behaviour, seems remote.

Relativism – now there is something classes respond to an identify with. Western society seems to have fallen in love with an inclusive approach to morality. Emancipation of women, equality of the sexes, the removal of taboos such as homosexuality and women drinking alone in pubs. Freedom of speech, freedom to criticise the government without fear of retribution and freedom from the church and those dreadful wedding vows.

Students will vote for relativism every time. “It’s fine because everyone does it.”The geatest happiness for the greatest…etc.”  Nevertheless the word “everyone” always worries me.

Textbooks are keen to document the fashionable truths of cultural relativism.
The criticisms of cultural relativism are listed but rarely is any meat put on the bones. “Some societies practise polygamy, others monogamy. Some have arranged marriages.” Now we can look at the details.

Shafilea Ahmed was a young girl living in Warrington.

Shafilea Ahmed

She was murdered by her parents because she refused to accept an arranged marriage. The parents believed that her refusal to accept the marriage back in Pakistan would bring dishonour on the family. Shafilea was murdered by her father because she refused to submit her sexuality to his law. The mother was also party to the act by egging her husband on to finish the girl off. At the same time she stuffed a plastic bag into Shafilea’s mouth.

As a parent I find such acts profoundly upsetting and disturbing.

Relativists need not only to recognise that different societies have different moral codes, but would also say we “cannot make judgements about the conduct of other societies.”

I find this case a compelling criticism of relativism and one that could be cited in an essay. Honour killing might, in certain circumstances, be something that affects a family in Pakistan.

Ultimately the question has to be asked is something right simply because one group or race or people believe that it is right.

Relativists would have to say “yes”        You?

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