People change. Cultures change. Humanity is constantly evolving, developing, and adapting. When cultural relativism is implemented, then the ability to evolve and adapt is encouraged because the definitions of ethical and moral “right” and “wrong” can change as people change. Cultural relativism eliminates the rigidity that societies have in place regarding ethics, conduct, and reasoning.
It also means that there are no actual definitions that are in place for a society. Cultural relativism promotes an individualistic perspective which governs how a person acts, thinks, and responds. Each person can set their own moralistic codes which they follow.
There are additional cultural relativism advantages and disadvantages to consider when looking at this theory. Here are some of the key points to consider.
What are the Advantages of Cultural Relativism?
1. It is a system which promotes cooperation.
For the most part, humanity is strong because of the differences we all have. Every individual has a different perspective that is based on their upbringing, experiences, and personal thoughts. By embracing the many differences we have, the cooperation creates the potential for a stronger society. Each individual definition of success allows us to pursue stronger bonds with one another and potentially achieve more because there are no limitations from a group level and what can or cannot be accomplished.
2. It creates a society where equality is possible.
In any society, people rise by climbing on top of other people. It is a socially acceptable way of creating discrimination. We see this today in the wage gap that women face, the educational opportunities that minority groups face, and the violence we see because of political oppression. Cultural relativism allows the individual to define their moral code without defining the moral code of others. Each person is separate in such a society. That separation creates equality because each person can set their own definition of success.
3. People can pursue a genuine interest.
In the modern society, people are funneled toward certain career options because of their circumstances. If you can’t afford to go to college, then you pursue a vocational career or some sort of entrepreneurship instead of a career that requires a graduate degree. If you can’t afford to buy a house, you go rent an apartment. In cultural relativism, you get to pursue your own interests without restriction. You set the definitions of what you can have and what you cannot have. When implemented successfully, each person would get to focus on their strengths instead of their weaknesses.
4. Respect is encouraged in a system of cultural relativism.
People come from different cultures. They have different ideas. They pursue different definitions of success. Because such a system promotes the individual’s definition instead of a group definition, a society can evolve because there is a natural level of respect built into the process. Each person is naturally given the right to pursue life through their own specific perspective and then learn from their experiences in a way that works best for them.
5. It preserves human cultures.
Humanity is a very diverse set of thoughts, traditions, ideas, and practices. Many times, the traditions of humanity are set aside so that a group set of standards can be appeased. Native and First Nations tribes in North America did this by signing treaties which would help them to preserve some lands, but limit their rights by being subject to a new governmental authority. They were forced to trade some of their culture. Under the theory of cultural relativism, such a trade would not be necessary. It wouldn’t even be a consideration.
6. Cultural relativism creates a society without judgment.
We are so trained to judge others in today’s world that we don’t even give it a second thought. Looking at someone and saying, “Glad that isn’t me,” is a judgment. Under the theory of cultural relativism, judgment goes away. The only person that judges you is yourself. People who might disagree with you are able to set their own codes and standards for their own individualistic bubble. Instead of worrying about others, you only worry about yourself.
7. Moral relativism can be excluded from cultural relativism.
Each culture can be treated as an individual under the theory of cultural relativism. This means the moral codes of a culture can be defined and an expectation implemented that people follow it. Although other cultures may not setup such a restriction, and others might say such a restriction isn’t a true form of cultural relativism, people in such a system can do what makes the most sense for them. You’re focusing on the customs of a culture, not the morality that is imposed upon those customs.
8. We can create personal moral codes based on societal standards with ease.
To determine if a decision would be “right” or “wrong,” cultural relativism allows individuals to consult with the standards of their society or culture. It is a simple test to determine the course that a person should take in such a circumstance. By consulting with the moral code of the culture, one question must be asked: does the action conform to the cultural moral code? If it does, then the action is permitted. Although this process can allow for disturbing results, most cultures are based on inclusion instead of exclusion. It is only in structures where apartheid, segregation, or purging where disturbing outcomes are typically present.
9. It stops cultural conditioning.
People tend to adapt their attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs to the people they are with on a regular basis. This is cultural conditioning and it prevents people from having an individualistic perspective. Cultural relativism stops this.
What Are the Disadvantages of Cultural Relativism?
1. It creates a system that is fueled by personal bias.
Every society has a certain natural bias to it because of how humanity operates. People tend to prefer to be with others who have similar thoughts and feelings, so they segregate themselves into neighborhoods, communities, and social groups that share specific perspectives. When people are given the power to define their own moral code, then they will do so based on their own personal bias. There is no longer a group perspective. People follow their own code at the expense of others.
2. It would create chaos.
People who can follow their own moral code because there is no “wrong” or “right” would be allowed to pursue any life they preferred under the theory of cultural relativism. If you’re upset with your neighbor, then you can kill that person without consequence if your moral code allows for murder. Instead of purchasing something, you could steal it if you see stealing as “right” to do. There is no real way to protect people in such a society, so each person becomes responsible to protect themselves. It creates a system that is Darwinian in practicality, where only the strongest can survive.
3. It is an idea that is based on the perfection of humanity.
Many people strive to do good every day. Most want to see everyone have the chance to pursue happiness in some way. That is why the idea of cultural relativism often seems to be inviting. The only problem is that people are not perfect. We can be forgetful. We can lie. We can become aggressive when a driver cuts you off while driving and puts your family at risk. Without a group moral code in place to govern decisions, anything could happen when we experience these moments of imperfection.
4. It could promote a lack of diversity.
Cultural relativism promotes an individualistic point of view, so although it seems to promote diversity, it actually removes it from a society. Cultural relativism would allow slavery to return to the US South. It would allow men to exclude women from voting once again. It would stop employers from paying someone a fair wage – or even paying them a wage at all. The only standards that are in place are those which are set by the individual involved, which means everyone is pursuing their own position of strength. We cannot create diversity when the emphasis of a society is individualistic gain that can come at the expense of others.
5. It draws people away from one another.
Although cultural relativism can promote people coming together to share their strengths, it can also encourage people to draw apart from one another. C.S. Lewis, in his description of Hell from The Screwtape Letters, envisions a place where people are constantly going away from each other to avoid the demons that each person has. Because each person is uncertain of what codes and standards another is following, the natural inclination for self-preservation causes people to draw away. You might develop a close-knit community at first, but as Lewis describes, each demon causes people to back away from one another instead of coming closer.
6. It could limit moral progress.
When we look at the idea of moral progress, we think of becoming more inclusionary instead of exclusionary. This inclusion is reflected in the laws and customs of the culture. The current debate on the transgender bathroom laws in North Carolina and Texas is a good example of this. In cultural relativism, everyone would be able to use their bathroom of choice OR a culture could state that everyone must use a specific bathroom without exception and there would be complete agreement in either choice. Within the society, either choice would be seen as moral progress, but in reality, it could hold people back.
7. It could limit humanity’s progress.
We often think of the concept of cultural relativism as progression, but it isn’t necessarily that way. When you remove the ability to judge one standard from another, then the comparative process of placing a current society or culture against a past one is removed as well. No definition of success can be implemented because each is successful in its own way. We might consider the ability for women to vote as the “right” thing to do today, but in past societies, not allowing women to vote was also “right” from a cultural standpoint. Because both are “right,” there’s no way to judge progress.
8. Cultural relativism can turn perceptions into truths.
It’s a dark night and it is warm outside. An African-American teen is walking down an alley wearing a hoodie and the hood is up. His hands are jammed into his pockets and there is a bulge in one of them. In this scenario, some people may automatically assume that the teen is up to “no good.” The bulge might even be a weapon under that assumption. In the world of cultural relativism, that bias becomes a truth that can be acted upon. It doesn’t matter if the bulge is a gun or a package of Skittles. The decision to act becomes a righteous one because of the individual truth that the culture allowed through the bias it perpetrates.
The cultural relativism advantages and disadvantages which are discussed are based on the theoretical implementation of such a system. Originally proposed by Franz Boas in 1887, it is an idea that has never been implemented on a large scale. Moral standards make sense in a person’s culture. By creating individualized cultures, on singular or larger scales, it does become easier to keep and embrace the traditions that humanity has developed over the millennia.