Cultural relativism is descriptively true but normatively false What does this mean?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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If the term "normative" is to be seen as "prescriptive" or something having to do with a sense of the practical, then there is much in way of truth in the statement.  The idea of cultural relativism means that all cultures are considered relative, and individuals cannot pas or make judgments upon them.  Descriptively or abstractly, this sounds wonderful.  The crimes in the past that have been made in valuing one culture over another have been horrific, so to establish a position whereby all cultures are the same and no one can pass judgments is something that sounds extremely laudable.  Yet, the practical application of this philosophy is both impossible and not desirable.  On one level, the philosophy is normatively false on a theoretical level because in saying that judgments should not be made, and then asserting that all cultures are equally relevant and relative, one has made a judgment.  In making the culture of Hitler and the culture of Mother Teresa the same, one has made a judgment.  Hence, the idea of not making a judgment to say that all cultures are the same is actually making a judgment.  On a practical level, it is nearly impossible to presume that all cultures are a reflection of individual tastes and presuppositions and then ask individuals to assume a position of transcendence to not pass judgments.  The fact of the matter is that there are cultural elements that must be criticized and towards which dissent must be spoken.  The culture that embraces human trafficking or the abuse of women is something that has to be criticized.  The globalized nature of the world has created some distinct cultural practices as being considered unacceptable.  In this, cultural relativism is seen as normatively false from a practical point of view.

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