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What is cultural relativism, and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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You should get different responses to this question.  In the nature of relativism, perhaps this makes sense.  Cultural relativism is the philosophical approach which suggests that it is difficult to make assessments and judgments against other cultures.  This is made out of the premise that we, as individuals, are products of our cultures.  Therefore, what we might find distasteful or inappropriate is a judgment made out of our own culture.  In contrast, what we do and take for granted might be seen by other cultures as bizarre and in bad taste.  There is an article on the "Nacirema" tribe that proves this point beautifully.  In examining cultural relativism, I would examine this.  Relativism argues that not passing judgments against cultures allows for a greater sense of cultural appreciation.  We don't lock other cultures in judgments, but rather are tolerant and accepting of them.

The arguments against relativism abound.  This is not necessarily something that means it is bad, as much as it is more logically infeasible.  For example, if judgments cannot be made about cultures and that "all cultures are accepted," then this, by its very nature, is a judgment.  One has made a judgment by not making a judgment.  Another challenge in the relativist logic is that it prevents anyone from criticizing practices that might actually be in violation of basic premises of human rights.  For instance, are we not to criticize Hitler and the practices of the Nazis because "that's their culture?"  This might be one major challenge intrinsic to cultural relativism


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pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Cultural relativism is the idea that there is nothing that is absolutely good or bad.  According to this idea, each culture defines for itself what is good and bad and all definitions are equally valid.

To me, the major advantage of this is that it acknowledges that our values are often based largely on our culture.  You can see this, for example, with attitudes towards alcohol.

On the other hand, the idea of cultural relativism has a major disadvantage because it does not allow for anything to be called "wrong."  By the ideas of relativism, it could be right, for example, to enslave people if that is something that a culture has always done and which that culture accepts.  Because of this, it is something of an amoral philosophy.

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Cultural relativism is that the rightness and wrongness of actions depends on the culture in which one finds oneself. In other words, culture determines what is right or wrong, rather than rightness or wrongness being determined by natural laws or in some objective manner.

The benefits of this view include that you can excuse any action by simply finding a culture that thinks it's OK.

The burdens are that cultural relativism excuses the worst of actions like slavery simply because a culture deems it permissible. It's also an incoherent view because if the truth of a statement is determined by culture, there is no objective reason to take the claim that the truth or rightness and wrongness of an action is determined by culture. So cultural relativism cannot establish its own principle.