What is cultural relativism?

 cultural  relativism

Question: "What is cultural relativism?"

Cultural Relativism is a philosophy that believes that when it comes to matters of right and wrong, and other values of a moral nature, that there are no absolutes, or any fixed truth, but rather that all is relative. “Good” and “bad” are merely assigned and psycho-emotively attached to beliefs and actions by the culture in which one lives. Good is simply what is socially approved of in that culture by the majority over time and is therefore a matter of social convention. What constitutes something being considered bad, or even evil, is therefore also culturally relative. Therefore no belief or action is inherently good or bad, rather it is either acceptable or taboo within that given culture, and thus we should all therefore learn to be “tolerant”, suspending personal judgment, because the real issue isn’t goodness or badness per se, but simply a matter of difference.

Today’s cultural relativist would say that even though the killing of newborns, or pre-born human children, is still considered to be somewhat bad here, in other cultures it is perfectly acceptable, and is even considered to be good in some, and therefore it is not inherently bad or evil. Therefore we also, allegedly being enlightened, should consider it a matter of personal choice or cultural norm, in the name of tolerance of all views.

Now at first glance to non-Christians and even some Christians alike, this may seem quite reasonable, and perhaps a perfectly good alternative, however there are serious logic flaws in this argument that should be recognized, as well as certain social enigmas that arise, which cause the generalized application of this, outside of it’s use as a scientific tool in Anthropology, to fall apart.

To begin with, whenever a premise is based on the acceptance of a philosophy which declares that there are no absolutes, or that there is no such thing as an inherent truth, it is fundamentally flawed. First off because the statement itself is absolutist in nature, for it says there are “no” absolutes or truth, meaning absolutely none. Therefore this is also not true absolutely, which in turn means that if we accept this premise as if it is true, then we are negating our own position, because at least one absolute or truth would therefore exist. Now it would logically follow that if indeed this one exists, than perhaps others may in fact exist outside of our frame or reference or sphere of knowledge and experience, and the entire premise falls apart. Secondly, if there are no truths, and all is in fact “relative”, morally or otherwise, then this second qualifier is also not true, and at best only relative, because if it is true, then this again proves that at least one absolute or truth exists (that all is relative), and thus “all” is not relative at all, and again the entire argument falls apart.

Consider this notion a step further if you will. If what a society agrees is “good” or acceptable, makes it “good”, and this forms the basis for appropriateness in judgment or tolerance, then why protest or stop an Adolph Hitler? Clearly the majority of German society at the time was clearly in agreement that ridding the “Aryan” gene pool of undesirable elements was a “good” thing (Jewish, African, Slavic, handicapped, and dependent elderly people). So based on this approach we should not judge poor Adolph (a mere product of his culture and learning). But does this really make his heinous atrocities right or good? Should we therefore have just sat back and “tolerated” the man and his actions and beliefs?

Healthy protest, discussion, or business, will be seen as expressed intolerance! Sharing one’s beliefs will be misconstrued as intolerance and even hate. Cross cultural learning, blending, or correction, which has always resulted from within the natural interaction between cultures throughout time, will be undermined. Trying to protest or stop unjust or destructive cultural practices like slavery or cannibalism may even be thwarted. We will eventually all have to get in goosestep with our Culturally Relative overseers or else! Or else what? Or else compliance will be “enforced” either socially, legally, or physically. Therefore the cultural relativist’s euphemism “tolerance” by necessity, in order to make the rule not the exception, and in order to maintain and successfully implement their philosophy, must eventually become “intolerant”, or else their influence falls apart.

Finally, what does one do with the fact that some things are simply universally considered unacceptable or “bad.” Let us say that you go among the most remote indigenous peoples and kill the Chief’s wife or rape his child, do you think “tolerance” is the response you will receive? I think not! Doesn’t every culture or body seek to protect its own survival, integrity, and coherence? Of course it does!

The difficulty for Christians is that this creates a social and legal definition of truth that claims all religious views are equally valid or true. What’s true for you is not necessarily true for someone else. Your truth is your truth and their truth is their truth and they are equally true, even when they apparently negate one another. Well let me tell you this violates another basic law of logic, the law of non-contradictions which states that two premises which negate one another cannot both be true at the same time in the same sense. What are we to do when these differences touch on areas such as the nature or existence of God? Or how one should treat the underprivileged? To believe or say that Jesus is the Son of God will be considered intolerance toward Moslems, and to share Jesus as Messiah with a Jewish person will be called anti-Semitism, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Preaching Jesus as the way of salvation will be considered “hate” and eventually will be criminalized. Therefore as Christians we must be aware of these generalized applications in our school's philosophy and curriculum, and in the changing political arena, and be engaged in constant prayer and involved in action however we can when necessary, and may the Lord's will be done!

Recommended Resource: Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Francis Beckwith.

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