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Pitfalls of Relativism

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Pitfalls of Relativism

The year was 1943. Hundreds of Jewish people were being

marched into the gas chambers in accordance with Adolf Hitler's

orders. In the two years that followed, millions of Jews were killed

and only a fraction survived the painful ordeals at the Nazi German

prison camps. However, all of the chaos ended as World War II came to

a close: the American and British soldiers had won and Hitler's Third

Reich was no more. A certain ethical position would state that the

anti-sematic Nazi German culture was neither right nor wrong in its

actions. In fact, it is this view of the cultural relativist that

assumes all actions considered right in a culture to be good for that

culture alone. Moreover, the relativist claims that these actions

cannot be judged according to their ethical correctness because there

is no absolute standard by which they could be compared. In the above

case, this position would not allow for the American and British

soldiers to interfere with the Nazis; the relativist would claim that

the Allies were wrong in fighting the Germans due to a cultural

disagreement. In truth, it is the relativist position which has both

negative logical and practical consequences, and negligible benefits.

The first logical consequence of relativism is that the

believer must contradict himself in order to uphold his belief. The

view states that all ethics are relative while putting forth the idea

that no absolute standard of rightness exists. If this is the case,

then what is cultural relativism relative to? From a purely logical

point of view, this idea is absurd, for in assuming that something is

relative one must first have some absolute by which it is judged. Let

the reader consider this example to reinforce the point. A young woman

is five feet tall, and her older friend is six feet tall. The younger

female considers herself short because she looks at her friend and

sees that she is taller than her. It would be illogical to say that

the first woman is short if she were the only female in existence; if

this were the case then there would not be anyone for her to be

relative to in height. However, this logical fallacy is what the

relativist assumes by stating that there is no standard of rightness

for relativity. Quite simply, the cultural relativist is stating that

he is relative to an absolute which he considers non-existent.

One other logical error that the relativist makes lies in his

"Cultural Differences Argument.1" The premise of this argument is that

"different cultures have different moral codes." The conclusion that

the relativist derives is that "there is no objective 'truth' in

morality, [and therefore] right and wrong are only matters of opinion

[that] vary from culture to culture.2" The main logical problem with

this argument is that the stated conclusion does not necessarily need

to be the case if the premise is given. The premise states what

different people believe to be true, and the conclusion jumps to the

assumption that this belief must necessarily be the case. Let the

reader consider this instance, which closely follows the form of the

above given argument. Assume that there is a society that believes

that sunning as much as possible in the nude can only benefit a

person. Due to scientific study, it has been experimentally shown that

overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer.

Being in the American culture, people know this to be true and

therefore would disagree with sunning too often. According to the

relativist, since the two cultures disagree concerning the practice of

sunning there is no objective truth about it. However, this is a

faulty conclusion because empirical evidence shows that the first

culture would be wrong in its beliefs. In truth, one cannot "derive a

substantive conclusion about a subject (morally) from the mere fact

that people disagree about it.3"

Having discussed the logical consequences of relativism, it is

necessary to expound upon the effects of its practice. The first of

these repercussions is that the culture determines what is

functionally right and wrong. This means that the individual has no

say in the matter, and if there is a conflict between the two, the

individual's ethical belief is not given any consideration. Of course,

in theory this does not seem to create an enormous problem; but let

the reader consider this instance of racial segregation in the early

1900s. In this case, southern blacks were kept from attending white

schools, and, sometimes, they were barred from an education entirely.

In the southern culture, this practice was considered normal and

right; the whites believed that blacks were ignorant slaves that did

not deserve such things as proper schooling. The cultural relativist

would state that this southern white culture was right in segregating

the blacks. This is completely false. In fact, there were many

intelligent blacks (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, etc.), who, if

they had been given the chance, could have contributed their ideas to

the white school children. Because of this, it would have been

functionally right to have included such black students in the white

schools. Thus, just because a culture deems an action right, it does

not mean that the action is functionally correct for that culture.

Moreover, the "relative" beliefs of certain cultures have not

only caused dysfunctionality for that culture alone; but, also,

cultural beliefs and actions have caused devastation on a much larger

scale. An example that comes to mind is the quest to gain back the

Holy Land, Jerusalem. In this case, thousands of Muslims were killed

because the Christians believed that Jerusalem was sacred ground. The

relativist might say that each culture was doing what was right; but

when such chaos is the final outcome, relativism seems much less


The second consequence of practicing cultural relativism is

that it is impossible to judge the actions of any culture as to their<...

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Keywords: problems of moral relativism

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