I was asked to write a quick paper on this prompt: " Outline, in your own words, the argument against cultural relativism. Define the theory, outline the possible ramifications of cultural relativism."
This is my response:
On Cultural Relativism
The primary tenets of cultural relativism is that there is no such thing as a universal moral standard. Right and wrong, under this theory, are solely culturally-defined phenomena and any study at arriving at a singular principle for each will ultimately end in failure.
The positions of social relativism are deeply flawed, due to the fact that it places the role of moral epistemology solely upon the shoulders of a majority: societal consensus. One need not make great examination of the position to destroy it, but merely to think of one simple example.
The application of consensus-as-reality that cultural relativism establishes is applied solely to cultures- an overarching group with shared values. One need ask whether this distinction is arbitrary or not- why only one culture? One way to test principles is to apply them to specific, concrete situations, as well as expand and contract their scope.
Reducing the scope from culture to sub-culture immediately shows there is an issue: if 'culture' is to be defined as community or association of individuals that share the same values, we might do well to identify the criminal underworld as a 'crime culture'- certainly the criminal underworld cooperates, trades, and helps each other, many of the functions found inside mainstream culture. It is obvious that the criminal underworld shares a different set of values than, for example, mainstream American culture: a disregard for private property and the safety of others as well as a disregard for the rule of law. There is police, in mainstream American 'culture', specifically to target the violations of the criminal 'culture.'
By the tenets of cultural relativism, this is wrong. It is wrong for mainstream culture to judge the actions of the criminal culture. Since right and wrong are not absolutes but merely socially-agreed upon terms, the concepts of right and wrong of the criminal elements -and their actions based on those- cannot possibly be judged by mainstream America. By cultural relativism's judgment, we would have to abandon all attempts at law enforcement. One can immediately see the issue here: by relinquishing the ability to judge the actions of individuals and other sub-cultures, mainstream American culture and those who reside in it essentially become helpless prey to the values and mores of the criminal sub-culture, paralyzed to act because cultural relativism puts forth the standard that judgment, specifically moral judgment, is wrong. Cultural Relativism, therefore, paralyzes the individual and makes him unable to act as would-be predators prepare to tear him apart.
The inversion of scope also yields similar results: on a global scale, if we go solely by what 'consensus' there exists between the different cultures, one is not likely to find much that helps, either: What is forbidden in one land is encouraged in another, what is penalized in North Korea is free practice in North America. It is clear, then, that cultural relativism cannot possibly be a viable principle: it only works when it is defined arbitrarily within boundaries where it can operate- such as one culture interaction with another, but not all cultures interacting with all cultures, as there is no such thing as global consensus on any principle whatsoever. Unfettered from its artificial boundaries, cultural relativism would cause paralysis regardless of whether the focus is on a global, cultural or sub-cultural scope.
Philosophers such as James Rachels point to the inability to identify customs as inferior or superior, beneficial or deleterious, within this principle. The classic example of female genital mutilation in Islamic societies is an excellent example of how something may be 'socially acceptable' in one particular culture- but consensus does not make it right, as any rational individual who values his or her own life would point out. Cultural relativism destroys the possibility of this position, which is Rachel's primary objection. Furthermore, such point of view would make social progress impossible: at one point slavery was 'socially acceptable' in the United States, and then racial segregation, sodomy laws, etcetera. At each point of time there were changes by groups of individuals that overthrew these barbaric practices. But by cultural relativism, those actions were wrong: Societal consensus defined those actions as 'wrong', and until there is general societal consensus, any attempt to rock the culture (so to speak) is improper.
Cultural Relativism, then, not only produces individual paralysis to the individual when taking its tenets seriously-- it will also produce cultural paralysis as well. One need only look at the reaction of most individuals to the death of tyrant and dictator Kim Jong Il. The man was an indisputable tyrant, but the tightly controlled brainwashed society he controlled saw him as different- due to generations of doblegation. They were forced into a societal norm, and thusly, that became what they accepted- victims of their own cultural relativism. Nevertheless Il's actions throughout the decades have been decidedly monstrous, regardless of the 'social perception' within the boundaries of North Korea. This philosophy, then, not only causes paralysis, but it also makes it impossible to hold any objective values- it aims at the disintegration of criteria.
It could be said that Kim Jong Il's example is especially poignant because it demonstrates the ultimate outcome of accepting societal convention as untouchable: social conventions are never monolithic, they are in a state of constant flux. Treating them as monolithic means that any change whatsoever in social perception immediately becomes part of the true and accepted belief (both in our own culture and in neighboring cultures)- with no right to be challenged from within or without. Kim Jong Il's subjects were the ultimate victims of this worldview, as are any who live within a totalitarian state- whether it be now, or in Soviet Russia, or World War II Germany. Cultural Relativism is nothing more than a concept that suspends judgment, and as rational beings humans require the ability to use their judgment to determine what is beneficial or harmful to them. In the words of philosopher Ayn Rand, "There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims." (Ayn Rand, "How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society," The Virtue of Selfishness.)