If there is one universal truth to be found in life, it is that people are continually changing. Humanity is continually evolving and adapting to new circumstances. This evolutionary process allows us to develop in ways that our ancestors never thought possible.
Cultural relativism is a process which encourages the individual to define the rightness or wrongness of their ethics and morality on their own circumstances. It gives people an opportunity to change who they are at a core level without suffering consequences because of those actions. It eliminates the rigid rules that societies often create, sometimes unwritten, that require people to think, speak, and act in specific ways.
In the process of cultural relativism removes all definitions from a society. It always promotes an individualistic perspective. Every person must have their own moral code which they choose to follow.
There are specific advantages and disadvantages to review when looking at a society that is based on this concept. These are the critical cultural relativism pros and cons to consider.
List of the Pros of Cultural Relativism
1. Cultural relativism removes the power of societal conditioning.
There is no longer a need to conform to society as an individual when cultural relativism is the driving force. You are no longer required to adapt to the beliefs, thoughts, or attitudes of the groups that surround you. It is up to you to charge your own course through life. This process stops the slow degradation that all societies face when everyone tries to be just like anyone else.
2. Cultural relativism allows for the creation of individual moral codes.
The structures of cultural relativism allow each person to consult with the expectations of their culture or society to determine what they believe is right or wrong. This process creates a simple test which dictates how each individual reacts when they counter specific circumstances. You are always in charge of what you believe is a moral choice. You decide of actions are permitted or disallowed. Although this structure can define morality outside of what would be considered traditional rules, societies create a culture which invites inclusion over structure exclusion in almost every circumstance.
3. Cultural relativism does not rely on moral relativism.
The theory of cultural relativism treats each culture as an individual. The moral codes of each person, along with each expectation, are implemented by those who defined themselves through that individuality. Some cultures may prefer restrictions. Others might prefer full inclusion. It is a process which encourages each person to do what makes the most sense for them to achieve their definition of ethics and morality in each situation.
4. Cultural relativism creates a society which is free from judgment.
One of the primary advantages of cultural relativism is that it completely removes negative judgments from individual interaction. We’ve become so trained as humans to judge others when we see something different that half the time we don’t even think about it. Anytime we push someone down to lift ourselves up, we have judged that person to be inferior to our superiority.
Cultural relativism takes this all the way. Even if someone disagrees with how you define your moral code in the structure, your morality equates to their morality exactly. You both have the opportunity to define the expectations of life that you follow.
5. Cultural relativism preserves human culture.
When you trace the history of humanity through time, you find that societies are diverse in their ideas, traditions, and practices. We often set aside this history because we’re attempting to conform to the expectations that third parties place upon us. This structure does not require anyone to trade any of their culture at any time. You decide, just like everyone else chooses, what is the best course of action to take in every situation.
6. Cultural relativism encourages respect.
Even though there is a focus on individuality within a society that practice is cultural relativism, there is also respect for their diversity. Different ideas and ethnicities are frequently celebrated. This system promotes individual definitions instead of group definitions as an evolutionary process, which allows each person to pursue goals through their own perspective while focusing on their natural strengths. No one is ever forced to conform to a specific set of rules or values as a way to achieve success.
7. Cultural relativism promotes cooperation.
Humanity is strong because we are diverse. Each person offers a different perspective on life that is based on their thoughts, education, and experiences. These differences should not be a foundation for fear. They ought to be the basis of cooperation. We are able to do more as a team then we are as individuals. By combining each unique set of values with individualized moral descriptions, productivity levels quickly rise.
8. Cultural relativism creates a society which is authentically equal.
The traditional society forces people to rise to the top by climbing over other people along the way. You are encouraged to discriminate against anyone if success as your primary goal. Cultural relativism prevents this because it encourages each person to define the path they must follow. There will still be people who choose a skin color preference, or a gender preference, or a sexual orientation preference over others. What you will find with the structure, however, is that the plethora of individual perspectives melts into a society which is able to create great things.
List of the Cons of Cultural Relativism
1. Cultural relativism creates a society that is fueled through personal bias.
People grow up in specific environments where different truths are taught. Some families are incredibly inclusive, while others focus on racial bias. Cultural relativism encourages individuals to form alliances with those who have similar perspectives instead of sharing different outcomes. Community segregation occurs frequently because of the discomfort levels which occur when different definitions are present. People will always follow their own moral codes and ethics at the expense of others in a society with the structure.
2. Cultural relativism only works if humanity is perfect.
Most people would agree that the average person tries to do good things every day. The average individual would like to see everyone have the opportunity to pursue their dreams or goals in some way. It is these concepts which create a temptation to follow the processes is defined by cultural relativism. The issue in doing so is that every person is fallible. Humans lie, cheat, and steal. We can get angry when something doesn’t go our way, and that puts ourselves and our families at risk. There must be a moral code that governs groups in society to create enough checks and balances to deal with these imperfections.
Without this accompanying structure, the moral codes of the individual would reign supreme. That means we would be operating on the idea of perfection while pursuing imperfection.
3. Cultural relativism drives people away from one another.
C.S. Lewis described what environment focused on cultural relativism would be like in his work called “The Screwtape Letters.” Each person what attempt to get as far away as possible from every other individual to escape whatever personal demons they would have. There would be no guarantees in a society like this that you would ever be safe. Someone’s moral code could dictate that you need to die because that will help that person feel better. Although the theory suggests that it would embrace diversity, the reality is that people would isolate themselves as a way to protect their lives.
4. Cultural relativism would create a world of chaos.
The idea that someone could follow their own moral code at any time because there is no concrete definition of right or wrong would create chaos. Anyone could harm any other person at any time. You could take something from the store because you felt like it was the right thing to do. You could disobey any of the laws (assuming there were some enforced) because you felt that they were unjustly applied. Only the strongest would survive this type of situation, which brings it closer to an apocalyptic version of the future instead of something that is realistic.
5. Cultural relativism would promote a lack of diversity.
The only diversity that cultural relativism promotes is the individual perspective. All of the rights that so many of our ancestors fought to have for generations would disappear instantly with this societal format. The only standards that people could follow in this scenario would be the ones that they set for themselves. Each person will then pursue their own position of strength. It is impossible to create a society that is diverse when the emphasis on success is based on selfish accomplishments.
6. Cultural relativism allows opinions and perceptions to become universal truths.
Any theory becomes the truth if cultural relativism is implemented for society. What you think or feel becomes a reality, even if you imagined things. That is the most significant disadvantage of this concept. An opinion instantly becomes fact. Perceptions become real. You could make up a story, included in your personal morality, and there would be nothing that anyone could do to stop you from achieving whatever outcome it is that you wanted.
7. Cultural relativism would limit the progress of humanity.
Some people see the concept of cultural relativism as an evolution of the human experience. The reality of this idea, however, is that it would limit our progress. If you remove judgment from a society completely, then there are no standards to follow. We would no longer have the ability to effectively compare different societies, past or present, to chart away toward the future. There could be no real definition of success for humanity because we would all be operating within an individual culture. Even though each person could see personal progress, there would be billions of people all going in different directions at the same time.
These cultural relativism pros and cons our reflection of the possible outcomes which would occur should this theoretical system be implemented at some point. It is an idea which was initially proposed by Franz Boas in the late 19th century and has never been implemented on a scale that would affect alarm society. If we were to follow this idea, then we would be creating individualized cultures, not group societies, and that would change the world as we know it.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.