Reflect on Ruth Benedict's idea on ethics in the context of cultural relativism.

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

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Benedict makes the argument that in the context of ethics and moral conduct, individuals are bound by "consequences that are obviously local and cultural."  To a great extent, Benedict's point on ethics in the context of cultural relativism is that individuals are not able to look past the condition in which they live.  It is for this reason that she sees it as nearly impossible to forge any sort of larger, absolutist notions of the good. One of her initial examples of this is the treatment of homosexuality, as seen with the Greeks:  

Wherever homosexuality has been given an honorable place in any society, those  to whom it is congenial have filled adequately the honorable roles society assigns  to them. Plato's Republic is, of course, the most convincing statement of such a reading of homosexuality. It is presented as one of the major means to the good life, and it was generally so regarded in Greece at that time.

Such a vision of homosexuality was perceived as an absolute in Greek society.  In the modern setting, an almost equally absolutist notion that does not see homosexuality in the same way is evident.  

For Benedict, the changing dynamic of homosexuality suggests the relativistic notions of morals and ethical conduct.  What is perceived as absolute in one setting is bound by the temporal notion of the good, something that could very well change in another time period.  Benedict makes the argument that this has become accepted over time:  " We recognize that morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits."  Benedict suggest that ethical conduct and moral judgment is dependent on " the fashion of that culture."  This becomes one of her most basic claims regarding relativism.

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