What lessons can be learned from cultural relativism, according to James Rachels?

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According to James Rachels,

Cultural Relativism, as it has been called, challenges our ordinary belief in the objectivity and universality of moral truth. It says, in effect, that there is no such thing as universal truth in ethics; there are only the various cultural codes, and nothing more. Moreover, our own code has no special status; it is merely one among many.

Rachels is a critic of Cultural Relativism (CR). He points out that if CR were true, Americans, living by our different moral codes, could not rationally criticize widely accepted cultural practices such as slavery, anti-Semitism, genital mutilation, racism, denying women the right to vote, or discrimination against LGBT people. According to CR, the rightness or wrongness of such cultural codes can only be judged relative to the codes or norms of the culture in which such practices are embedded: there is no coherent or meaningful transcultural perspective that would justify a claim that such practices are objectively wrong. Sure, we Americans can be disgusted and express our disapproval of such practices, but there would be no fact of the matter as to which are transculturally right or wrong, or better or worse. It’s like suggesting that just because Jim thinks vanilla ice cream is far superior to chocolate, whereas Jane thinks the reverse, that there is some deep fact of the matter that makes one right and the other wrong—there just isn’t. Rachels points out that CR implies moral progress is an incoherent concept. According to CR, slavery was right by eighteenth-century cultural standards, but it’s wrong by twenty-first–century standards, and it’s meaningless to suggest that our standards are somehow objectively better than theirs.

Rachel points out that the reasons often given in support of CR are often shallow or confused or commit a logical fallacy. For example, it’s true that two cultures can vehemently disagree about the rightness and wrongness of, say, genital mutilation, and that typically nothing critics can possibly say will persuade defenders of the practice that it is wrong. However, as a general rule, entrenched disagreements over matters of belief do not logically imply there is no fact of the matter and no objective right or wrong on the issue. For example, a whole society of creationists may be deeply committed to the belief that Darwin’s theory of evolution is false, and there may be absolutely nothing one can say or show them that would convince them otherwise, but such entrenched disagreement doesn’t logically imply that there is no objective fact of the matter one way or the other. Nor does such entrenched disagreement logically imply that one side isn’t being irrational in light of the available evidence.

Rachels takes the position that there are in fact rational standards by which we can judge and reasonably conclude that the practices of society/culture A are better than those of society/culture B:

Here, then, is the standard that might most reasonably be used in thinking about [genital mutilation]: We may ask whether the practice promotes or hinders the welfare of the people whose lives are affected by it. And, as a corollary, we may ask if there is an alternative set of social arrangements that would do a better job of promoting their welfare. If so, we may conclude that the existing practice is deficient.

Rachels goes on to argue that many moral norms (e.g., norms against lying and murder) have a transcultural universal justification.

While incorrect as a matter of ethics, Rachels does say that there is an underlying set of truths that motivate CR views and attitudes:

  1. There are in fact disagreements in matters of taste, preference, etiquette, and custom that, unlike slavery, in fact don’t reflect some deeper underlying fact of the matter (e.g., attitudes toward nudity). So, some cultural disagreements are culturally relative and fit the CR model. But one can’t infer from the fact that some practices are CR in that sense that all societal practices are entirely relative like that.

  2. Some cultural disagreements concern surface cultural values but don’t reflect underlying deeper values shared in common.

  3. Some cultural disagreements reflect different beliefs on factual matters which can in principle be settled.

  4. And while some cultural practices may be unreasonable and wrong, there may be good reasons to practice tolerance and not to interfere with another culture.
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Rachels's main point about cultural relativism is that there are many aspects within it that are commendable, but this does not mean that we "have to accept the whole theory."  Rachels concludes one element that can be learned from cultural relativism is that many actions, beliefs, and behaviors are culturally relative.  Rachels cites the examples of Herodotus' retelling of the Callatians who eat their dead.  Rachels' point is that outside of our own cultural repugnance at such a practice, it is relative because their practice communicates the same love and respect that we display in our own culture when we honor those who have died.  When Rachels says, "What of it," in expressing the supposed cultural disdain for eating the dead, he means it as a lesson that can be learned from cultural relativism.  Namely, this lesson stresses that our own cultural frame of reference is the dominant idea that guides our thinking, as Rachels cites from Herodotus: 

For if anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations of the world the set of  beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after  careful consideration of their relative merits, choose that of his  own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be  the best.

This becomes one of the basic lessons that can be learned from cultural relativism. Our own prejudices and predispositions are intrinsic to our being.  We must recognize this when we examine and assess other cultural practices and beliefs.  Rachels is not saying that this means complete validation of the theory, but it does bear importance in how we judge and what we believe to be valid.

The other lesson that Rachels suggests can be learned from cultural relativism is to keep tolerance and understanding in our thoughts.  As we understand our own cultural points of reference which dominate our individual paradigms, Rachels suggest that a lesson of cultural relativism is our own thoughts might change over time or through the experience of seeing our beliefs challenged. Rachels believes that the need to "keep an open mind" is a lesson from cultural relativism.  What our own society considers abhorrent and repugnant might become socially acceptable over time or might change through our interactions with others.  Rachels uses the example of homosexuality as evidence of the need to "keep an open mind."  Rachels feels that this becomes another valuable lesson out of cultural relativism, allowing us to "accept without going on to accept the whole theory."

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