The Cultural Differences Argument: An analysis
© 2010 byJensen DG. Mañebog
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ONLINE SYLLABUS AND LECTURES IN ETHICS
IN ETHICS, the theory called Cultural Relativism, which claims that there is no objective universal truth in morality, puts forward an argument which Philosophy professor at University of Alabama at Birmingham James Rachels (1941-2003) named as the Cultural Differences Argument:
Different cultures have different moral codes.
Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
Using the cases frequently mentioned by anthropologists, Rachels, in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy(3rd Edition, USA: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1999) outlines the cultural relativists’ mode of thinking as follows:
The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callatians believed it was right to eat the dead.
Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.
The Eskimos see nothing wrong with infanticide, whereas Filipinos believe infanticide is immoral.
Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.
The Cultural Differences Argument may appear to be persuasive but is nonetheless logically unsound. Why? Because the conclusion does not follow from the premise—that is, even if the premise is true, the conclusion still might be false. Notice that the premise concerns what people believe but the conclusion assumes what really is the case.
To this form of reasoning, we could submit the following counter-argument (based also on the example used by Rachels):
People in some societies (e.g. primitive tribes) believe the earth is flat, whereas Europeans hold that the Earth is (roughly) spherical.
Therefore, there is no “objective truth” in geography. Belief in the shape of the earth is only a matter of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
Clearly, just because various societies disagree on something does not mean that there is no objective truth in the matter. Some societies might simply be wrong in their beliefs. Hence, the Cultural Differences Argument errs in drawing a sweeping conclusion about a subject from the mere fact that people disagree about it. In Ethics, cultural relativism fails because it argues “from facts about the differences betweencultural outlooks to a conclusion about the status of morality.”
There is Less Disagreement than It Seems
Cultural Relativism capitalizes on the observation that cultures differ dramatically in their views of right and wrong. But just how much do they differ?
Rachels takes the case of a culture in which people believe it is wrong to eat cows. Such a society would appear to have values very different from our own. But upon learning that its people for instance believe that after death the souls of humans dwell in the bodies of animals—so that a cow may be someone’s grandmother—it becomes clear that their values are not really different from ours. The difference lies in belief systems, not in values. As Rachels puts it, “we agree that we shouldn’t eat Grandma; we simply disagree about whether the cow is (or could be) Grandma.”
There are many factors, Rachels further explains, which work together to produce the customs of a society. Aside from society’s values, there are religious beliefs, factual beliefs, the physical circumstances in which people must live, and others. Since the difference in customs may be because of some other aspect of social life, then it’s wrong to conclude that there is a disagreement about values just because customs differ. Thus there may be less disagreement about values than there appears to be.
The case of the Eskimos and Callatians
The Eskimos, who often kill perfectly normal infants (especially girls), appear to possess a significantly different values from ours. But, as Rachels elucidates, it is not that Eskimos have less affection for their children or less respect for human life. An Eskimo family will always protect its babies if conditions permit. But they live in a harsh environment where food is in short supply that “life is hard, and the margin of safety small.”
As in many “primitive” societies, Eskimo mothers nurse their infants over a long period of time, breastfeeding them for four years or longer. Unable to farm, Eskimos must move about in search of food and infants must be carried. A mother can carry only one baby in her parka as she travels and goes about her outdoor work. So even in the best of times there are limits to the number of infants that a mother can sustain.
Infant girls are more readily disposed of because of the following reasons:
1) The males are the primary food providers—they are the hunters—and it is obviously important to maintain a sufficient number of food providers.
2) The hunters suffer a high casualty rate—the adult men who die prematurely far outnumber the women who die early. Thus if male and female infants survived in equal numbers, the female adult population, would greatly outnumber the male adult population.
In Eskimos very special case, therefore, infanticide, as Rachels concludes, is a recognition that drastic measures are sometimes needed to ensure the family’s survival.
Take note, too, that killing the baby is not the first option considered. As Rachels reports, adoption is common and killing is only the last resort. “There is a need to emphasize this in order to show that the raw data of the anthropologists can be misleading; it can make the differences in values between cultures appear greater than they are. The Eskimos’ values are not all that different from our values.”
Essentially the same can be said of the funerary practice of the Callatians. Indeed, “eating our fathers” is an appalling idea to many of us. But as Rachels explains, performing such practice could be understood as a sign of respect. “It could be taken as a symbolic act that says: we wish this person’s spirit to dwell within us.” On that standpoint, any other funerary practice is either inappropriate or contemptuous. Again, what Callatians do to their dead loved ones does not necessarily indicate a difference in values for respecting the dead is generally shared by many cultures.
All Cultures Have Some Values in Common
Going back to the point that Eskimos are as well protective of their children, Rachels submits the following sound argument:
Human infants are helpless and cannot survive if they are not given extensive care for a period of years.
Therefore, if a group did not care for its young, the young would not survive, and the older members of the group would not be replaced. After a while the group would die out.
Therefore, any cultural group that continues to exist must care for its young. Infants that are not cared for must be the exception rather than the rule.
The same form of argument could be used to reasonably show that other values must generally shared by many cultures. Placing value on truth telling, for instance, is indispensable in the existence of a society, for without it there would be no reason to pay attention to what anyone says or communicate with anyone. And because complex societies cannot exist without communication among their members, the very existence of these societies proves that there is a presumption in favor of truthfulness in those cultures. The very few situations in which it is thought to be permissible to lie are more of “exceptions to the rule.”
Rachels also mentions of the case of valuing or respecting life which necessitates the prohibition on murder. In a society where no one thought there was anything wrong with killing other at will, everyone would have to be constantly on guard. Avoiding people would become a mechanism for survival and large-scale societies would therefore be improbable. “People might band together in smaller groups with others that they could trust not to harm them. But notice what this means: They would be forming smaller societies that did acknowledge a rule against murder.”
The “general theoretical point” here, Rachels concludes, is that “there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist. Cultures may differ in what they regard as legitimate exceptions to the rules, but this disagreement exists against a background of agreement on the larger issues.” Therefore, “it is a mistake to overestimate the amount of difference between cultures.” In fact, not every moral rule can vary from society to society. This flies in the face of Cultural Relativism.
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University of Kansas, Spring 2004
Philosophy 160: Introduction to Ethics
Cultural relativism writing assignment and sample papers
Below is a writing assignment on cultural relativism, followed by two sample papers responding to the assignment. Comments on each of the two papers are also provided below. You do not have to write a paper on this topic yourself; the first writing assignment of the course will come a bit later, on a different topic. The purpose of this document is, simply, to help you to start thinking about what is involved in writing a good philosophy paper, by having you examine two papers written on a topic with which you have recently become familiar.
Here, then, is a writing assignment on cultural relativism:
“You will have noticed that the author of our book, James Rachels, is not very sympathetic to cultural relativism. Partly because of this, your assignment is to write a paper of not more than five pages in which you (1) explain the meaning of cultural relativism, (2) explain one of Rachels’s objections to it, and (3) offer the most effective response to that objection (that is, defense of cultural relativism against Rachels’s objection) that you can think of.”
The two sample papers that follow are quite different from one another. The first is only of acceptable quality, and thus would get a C. The second is of outstanding quality, and thus would get an A.
First read the paper called “Cultural Relativism,” keeping the foregoing assignment in mind. After reading the paper, review it in conjunction with the following comments on specific aspects of the paper, which help to explain why it would get a C:
- The paper’s title is bad; it should be more descriptive.
- Just in the first two paragraphs, the author sends some confusing signals about what his position is. At the end of the first paragraph (lines 15–17), the author implies that he’ll be defending cultural relativism against Rachels’s objection; but at the end of the second paragraph (lines 42–43), he says that cultural relativism is illogical. Although these two positions are not quite contradictory, they are sufficiently contrary to be very puzzling to a reader.
- The paragraph on p. 3 (lines 51–66) is not relevant to the author’s argument. If the author is trying (as suggested by his first paragraph) to attack Rachels’s objection to the cultural differences argument, then other objections that Rachels offers (which seem to be the main concern of the paragraph on p. 3) are irrelevant. The assignment says to deal with one of Rachels’s objections, not mention all of them.
- The paragraph going from p. 3 to p. 4 (lines 67–79) has some pretty good ideas in it, and it goes some distance towards refuting Rachels’s analogy between morality and geography. It should be developed more fully, though. (You should read this paragraph especially closely; we’ll be spending some time on it in class.)
- The paragraph that is entirely on p. 4 (lines 80–89)—like the paragraph that is entirely on p. 3, which I criticized above—is not relevant to the author’s argument. The fact that cultural relativism may or may not provide important insights does not bear on the soundness of Rachels’s analogy between morality and geography.
- On the whole, then, the author makes some promising moves towards attacking Rachels’s analogy between morality and religion (see especially point 4, above), but the author covers that topic too quickly. Instead of dealing with that topic in sufficient depth, the author devotes space to irrelevant aspects of the chapter, apparently thinking that he should go for breadth rather than depth. But the author would have been much better off devoting more space to the the insight that bears on Rachels’s objection to the cultural differences argument, and less space to other aspects of cultural relativism.
- The author’s writing also needs work: many of the sentences are awkward or unclear.
- In order of most serious to least serious, then, the three deficiencies of the paper are (a) devoting too little space to the author’s reply to Rachels’s objection to the cultural differences argument and too much space to irrelevant aspects of cultural relativism, (b) confusing the reader about the purpose of the paper, as explained in point 2, above, and (c) awkwardness and lack of clarity in the writing. These, as I said, are serious enough to make the paper deserve a C.
After you have examined the first paper in conjunction with the foregoing comments, read the paper called “The Cultural Differences Argument and Geography: Is This a Relevant Comparison?” After reading the paper, consider the following points, which help to explain why it would get an A:
- In the first two pages the author does a nice job of clearly summarizing cultural relativism, the cultural differences argument, and Rachels’s objection to this argument. This leaves the author plenty of space for a thorough critique of Rachels’s objection.
- The critique the author presents, from the top of p. 3 to the middle of p. 4 (lines 47–83), is very well done. The author takes one point—the claim that geography is not comparable to morality—a develops it in great depth. Note that the author’s point here is similar to the insight found in the paragraph that goes from p. 3 to p. 4 of the first sample paper. But here, the author develops it fully, instead of gesturing at it so briefly, as the author of the previous paper did. And the author of the second paper doesn’t waste space on irrelevant issues, as the first author did.
- Starting at the middle of p. 4 (line 84), the author anticipates a response that Rachels might offer, and she replies to this response. This is a good idea in principle—to try to figure out what someone you’re arguing against might say, and then refute that possible objection. In this paper, what the author says she anticipates that Rachels might say in response is reasonably clear, but her response (in the next-to-last paragraph of the paper) is not very clear. This could use some work.
- There are a few problems with the clarity of the author’s writing, but nothing major.
- On the whole, then, the author did well to develop her main point (that geography is not analogous to morality) in such depth. The lack of clarity in the next-to-last paragraph (noted above, in item 11) would result in a small deduction, as would the occasional lack of clarity in other parts of the writing, but the paper would still get an A, based on the depth in which its main point is developed.