Philosophy Week 19
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The Elements of Moral Philosophy SIXTH EDITION JAMES RACHELS Sixth Edition by STUART RACHELS M rim Higher Education 5 HIquot Boston Burr Ridge IL Dubuque IA New York San Francisco 39St Louis Bangkok Bogota Caracas Kuala Lumpur Lisbon London Madrid Mexico City Milan Montreal New Delhi Santiago Seoui Singapore Sydney Taipei Toronto CHAPTER 2 The Challenge of Cultural Relativism Morality differs in every society and is a convenient term for soc1ally a roved habits pp RUTH BENEDICT PATTERNS OF CULTURE 1934 21 Different Cultures Have Different Moral Codes Darius a king of ancient Persia was intrigued by the variety of cultures he met in his travels He had found for example that the Callatians who lived in India ate the bodies of then dead fathers The Greeks of course did not do that the Greeks practiced cremation and regarded the funeral pyre as the natural and tting way to dispose of the dead Darius thought that a sophisticated outlook should apprec1ate the differences between cultures One day to teach this lesson he summoned some Greeks who happened to be at his court and asked what it would take for them to eat the bodies of their dead fathers They were shocked as Darius knew they would be and replied that no amount of money could persuade them to do such a thing Then Darius called in some Callatians and whlle the Greeks listened asked them what it would take for them to burn their dead fathers bodies The Callatians were horrified and told Darius not to speak of such things I o This story recounted by Herodotus in his History lllus trates a recurring theme in the literature of soc1al science le ferent cultures have different moral codes What IS thought right within one group may horrify the members of another grOup and vice versa Should we eat the bodies of the dead or burn them If you were a Greek one answer would seem 14 THE CHALLENGE 0F CULTURAL RELATIVISM 15 obviously correct but if you were a Callatian the other answer would seem certain There are many such examples Consider the Eskimos of the early and mid 20th century The Eskimos are the native pe0ple of Alaska northern Canada Greenland and northeast ern Siberia in Asiatic Russia Today none of these groups call themselves Eskimos but the term has historically referred to that scattered Arctic population Prior to the 20th century the outside world knew little about them Then explorers began to bring back strange tales The Eskimos lived in small settlements separated by great distances and their customs turned out to be very different from ours The men often had more than one wife and they would share their wives with guests lending them out for the night as a sign of hospitality Moreover within a community a dominant male might demand and get regular sexual access to other men s wives The women however were free to break these arrangements simply by leaving their husbands and taking up with new partners free that is so long as their former husbands chose not to make too much trouble All in all the Eskimo custom of marriage was a volatile practice that bore little resemblance to our custom But it was not only their marriages and sexual practices that were different The Eskimos also seemed to have less regard for human life Infanticide for example was common Knud Rasmussen an early explorer reported that he met one woman who had borne 20 children but had killed 10 of them at birth Female babies he found were especially likely to be killed and this was permitted at the parents discretion with no social stigma attached Moreover when elderly family members became too feeble they were left out in the snow to die In Eskimo society there seemed to be remarkably little respect for life Most of us would nd these Eskimo customs completely immoral Our own way of living seems so natural and right that we can hardly conceive of living so differently When we hear of such things we tend to categorize the other people as back ward or primitive But to anthropologists the Eskimos did not seem unusual Since the time of Herodotus enlightened observers have known that conceptions of right and wrong dif fer from culture to culture If we assume that our ethical ideas will be shared by all cultures we are merely being naive 16 THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY 22 Cultural Relativism To many people this observation Different cultures have different moral codes seems like the key to understanding morality The idea of universal truth in ethics they say is a myth The customs of different societies are all that exist To say that a custom is correct or incorrect would imply that we can judge that custom by some independent standard of right and wrong But no such standard exists they say every stan dard is culturebound The sociologist William Graham Sum ner writing in 1906 put it like this The right way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been handed down The notion of right is in the folkways It is not outside of them of independent origin and brought to test them In the folkways whatever is is right This is because they are traditional and there fore contain in themselves the authority of the ancestral ghosts When we come to the folkways we are at the end of our analysis This line of thought more than any other has persuaded peo ple to be skeptical about ethics Cultural Relativism as it has been called challenges our belief in the objectivity and univer sality 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 The following claims have all been made by cultural relativists 1 Different societies have different moral codes 2 The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society that is if the moral code of a soci ety says that a certain action is right then that action is right at least within that society 3 There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one society s code as better than another s There are no moral truths that hold for all peeple at all times 4 The moral code of our own society has no special sta tus it is but one among many 5 It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures We should always be tolerant of them THE CHALLENGE OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM 17 These ve propositions may seem to go together but they are independent of one another some may be true while others are false Indeed two of the propositions appear to be incon sistent with each other The second says that right and wrong are determined by the norms of a society the fth says that we should always be tolerant of other cultures But what if the norms of a society favor intolerance For example when the Nazi army invaded Poland on September 1 1939 thus begin ning World War II this was an intolerant action of the rst order But what if it was in line with Nazi ideals A cultural rela tivist it seems cannot criticize the Nazis for being intolerant if all they re doing is following their own moral code Given that cultural relativists take pride in their toler ance it would be ironic if their theory actually supported the intolerance of warlike societies However it need not do that Properly understood Cultural Relativism holds that the norms of a culture reign supreme within the bounds of the culture itself Thus once the German soldiers entered Poland they became bound by the norms of Polish society norms that obviously excluded the mass slaughter of innocent Poles When in Rome the old saying goes do as the Romans do Cultural relativists agree 23 The Cultural Differences Argument Cultural Relativists often employ a certain form of argument They begin with facts about cultures and end up drawing a conclusion about morality Thus they invite us to accept this reasonlng l The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead whereas the Callatians believed it was right to eat the dead 2 Therefore eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong It is merely a matter of opin ion which varies from culture to culture 1 The Eskimos saw nothing wrong with infanticide whereas Americans believe infanticide is immoral 18 THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY 2 Therefore infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong It is merely a matter of opinion which varies from culture to culture Clearly these arguments are variations of one fundamental idea They are both examples of a more general argument which says 1 Different cultures have different moral codes 2 Therefore there is no objective truth in morality Right and wrong are only matters of opinion and opinions vary from culture to culture We may call this the Cultural Differences Argument To many people it is persuasive But is it a good argument is it sound It is not For an argument to be sound its premises must all be true and the conclusion must follow logically from them Here the problem is that the conclusion does not follow from the premise that is even if the premise is true the conclusion might still be false The premise concerns what people believe in some societies people believe one thing in other socie ties people believe something else The conclusion however concerns what really is the case This sort of conclusion does not follow logically from that sort of premise In philosophical ter minology this means that the argument is invalid Consider again the example of the Greeks and Callatians The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead the Calla tians believed it was right Does it follow om the mere fact that they disagreed that there is no objective truth in the matter No it does not follow it could be that the practice was objectively right or wrong and that one of them was simply mistaken To make the point clearer consider a different matter In some societies people believe the earth is at In other socie ties such as our own people believe that the earth is spherical Does it follow from the mere fact that people disagree that there is no objective truth in geography Of course not we would never draw such a conclusion because we realize that the members of some societies might simply be wrong There is no reason to think that if the world is round everyone must know it Similarly there is no reason to think that if there is moral truth everyone must know it The Cultural Differences Argu ment tries to derive a substantive conclusion about a subject from the mere fact that people disagree But this is impossible THE CHALLENGE OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM 19 This point should not be misunderstood We are not say ing that the conclusion of the argument is false Cultural Rela tivism could still be true The point is that the conclusion does not follow from the premise This means that the Cultural Dif ferences Argument is invalid Thus the argument fails 24 What Follows from Cultural Relativism Even if the Cultural Differences Argument is unsound Cul tural Relativism might still be true What would follow if it were true In the passage quoted earlier William Graham Sumner states the essence of Cultural Relativism He says that there is no measure of right and wrong other than the standards of one s society The notion of right is in the folkways It is not outside of them of independent origin and brought to test them In the folkways whatever is is right Suppose we took this seriously What would be some of the consequences 1 We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own This of course is one of the main points stressed by Cultural Relativism We would have to stop condemning other societies merely because they are differ ent So long as we concentrate on certain examples such as the funerary practices of the Greeks and Callatians this atti tude may seem to be enlightened However we would also be barred from criticizing other less benign practices For example the Chinese government has a long history of repressing political dissent within its own borders At any given time thousands of political prisoners in China are doing hard labor and in the Tiananmen Square episode of 1989 Chinese troops slaughtered hundreds if not thousands of peaceful protesters Cultural Relativism would preclude us from saying that the Chinese government s poli cies of oppression are wrong We could not even say that a soci ety that respects free speech is better than Chinese society for that would also imply a universal standard of comparison The failure to condemn these practices does not seem enlightened on the contrary political oppression seems wrong wherever it occurs Nevertheless if we accept Cultural Relativism we have to regard such social practices as immune from criticism 2 We could no longer criticize the code of our own society Cul tural Relativism suggests a simple test for determining what is 20 THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY right and what is wrong All we need to do is ask whether the action is in line with the code of the society in question Sup pose a resident of India wonders whether her country s caste system a system of rigid social hierarchy is morally correct All she has to do is ask whether this system conforms to her society s moral code If it does there is nothing to worry about at least from a moral point of view This implication of Cultural Relativism is disturbing because few of us think that our society s code is perfect we can think of ways in which it might be improved Moreover we can think of ways in which we might learn from other cul tures Yet Cultural Relativism stops us from criticizing our own society s code and it bars us from seeing ways in which other cultures might be better After all if right and wrong are rela tive to culture this must be true for our culture just as it is for other cultures 3 The idea of moral progress is called into doubt We think that at least some social changes are for the better Throughout most of Western history the place of women in society was nar rowly de ned Women could not own property they could not vote or hold political of ce and they were under the almost absolute control of their husbands or fathers Recently much of this has changed and most people think of it as progress But if Cultural Relativism is correct can we legitimately view this as progress Progress means replacing the old ways with new and improved ways But by what standard do we judge the new ways as better If the old ways conformed to the stan dards of their time then Cultural Relativism would not judge them by our standards Sexist 19th century society was a differ ent society from the one we have now To say that we have made progress implies that presentday society is better just the sort of transcultural judgment that Cultural Relativism forbids Our ideas about social reform will also have to be reconsid ered Reformers such as Martin Luther Kingr have sought to change their societies for the better But according to Cultural Relativism there is only one way to improve a society to make it better match its own ideals After all the society s ideals are the standard by which reform is assessed No one however may challenge the ideals themselves for they are by de nition cor rect According to Cultural Relativism then the idea of social reform makes sense only in this limited way i THE CHALLENGE OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM 21 These three consequences of Cultural Relativism have led many thinkers to reject it Slavery they say is wrong wherever it occurs and one s own society can make fundamental moral progress Because Cultural Relativism implies that these judg ments make no sense it cannot be right 25 Why There Is Less Disagreement Than It Seems 39 Cultural Relativism starts by observing that cultures differ dra matically in their views of right and wrong But how much do they really differ It is true that there are differences but it is easy to exaggerate them Often when we examine what seems to be a big difference we find that the cultures differ less than we thought Consider a culture in which people believe it is wrong to eat cows This may even be a poor culture in which there is not enough food still the cows are not to be touched Such a soci ety would appear to have values very different from our own But does it We have not yet asked why these people will not eat cows Suppose they believe that after death the souls of humans inhabit the bodies of animals especially cows so that a cow may be someone s grandmother Shall we say that their values are different from ours No the difference lies elsewhere The dif ference is in our belief systems not in our values We agree that we shouldn t eat Grandma we disagree about whether the cow could be Grandma The point is that many factors work together to produce the customs of a society Not only are the society s values impor tant but so are its religious beliefs its factual beliefs and its physical environment We cannot conclude that because cus toms differ values differ The difference in customs may be due to something else Thus there may be less disagreement about values than there appears39to be Consider again the Eskimos who killed perfectly healthy infants especially girls We do not approve of such things in our society a parent who kills a baby will be locked up Thus there appears to be a great difference in the values of our two cultures But suppose we ask why the Eskimos did this The explanation is not that they lacked respect for human life or 22 THE ELEMENTS OFMORAL PHILOSOPHY did not love their children An Eskimo family would always pro tect its babies if conditions permitted But the Eskimos lived in a harsh environment where food was in short supply To quote an old Eskimo saying Life is hard and the margin of safety small A family may want to nourish its babies but be unable to do so As in many traditional societies Eskimo mothers would nurse their infants over a much longer period than mothers in our culture for four years and perhaps even longer So even in the best of times one mother could sustain very few children Moreover the Eskimos were nomadic unable to farm in the harsh northern climate they had to move about in search of food Infants had to be carried and a mother could carry only one baby in her parka as she traveled and went about her outdoor work Finally the Eskimos lacked birth control so unwanted pregnancies were common Infant girls were more readily disposed of for two reasons First in Eskimo society the males were the primary food pro viders they were the hunters and food was scarce Infant boys were thus better protected Second the hunters suffered a high casualty rate so the men who died prematurely far out numbered the women who died young If male and female infants had survived in equal numbers then the female adult population would have greatly outnumbered the male adult population Examining the available statistics one writer con cluded that were it not for female infanticide there would be approximately oneand a half times as many females in the average Eskimo local group as there are foodproducing males So among the Eskimos infanticide did not signal a fun damentally different attitude toward children Instead it arose from the recognition that drastic measures were needed to ensure the family s survival Even then however killing the baby was not the first option considered Adoption was com mon childless couples were especially happy to take a fertile couple s surplus Killing was the last resort I emphasize this in order to show that the raw data of anthropology can be mis leading it can make the differences in values between cultures appear greater than they are The Eskimos values were not all that different from our own It is only that life forced choices upon them that we do not have to make THE CHALLENGE OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM 23 26 Some Values Are Shared by All Cultures It should not be surprising that the Eskimos were protective of their children How could they not be Babies are helpless and cannot survive without extensive care If a group did not protect 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 This means that any culture that contin ues to emst must care for its young Infants who are not cared for must be the exception rather than the rule Similar reasoning shows that other values must be more or less universal Imagine what it would be like for a society to place no value on truth telling When one person spoke to another there would be no presumption that she was telling the truth for she could just as easily be lying Within that soci ety there would be no reason to pay attention to what anyone says If I want to know what time it is why should I bother ask mg anyone if lying is commonplace Communication would be extremely dif cult if not impossible in such a society And because societies cannot exist without communication among their members society would become impossible It follows that every society must value truthfulness There may of course be Situations in which lying is thought to be okay No matter The society will still value honesty Consider another example Could a society exist in which there was no prohibition against murder What would this be like Suppose people were free to kill one another at will and no one disapproved In such a society no one could feel safe Everyone would have to be constantly on guard and to survive they would have to avoid other people as much as possible This would result in individuals tfying to become self sufficient after all associating with others would be dangerous Society on any large scale would collapse Of course people might band together in smaller groups where they could feel safe But notice what this means They would be forming smaller socie ties that did acknowledge a rule against murder The prohibi tlon against murder then is a necessary feature of society There is a general point here namely that there are some moral rules that all societies must embrace because those rules are nec essmy for society to exist The rules against lying and murder are two examples And in fact we do nd these rules in force in all 24 THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY cultures Cultures may differ in what they regard as legitimate exceptions to the rules but this disagreement exists against a broad background of agreement Therefore it is a mistake to overestimate the amount of difference between cultures Not every moral rule can vary from society to society 27 Judging a Cultural Practice to Be Undesirable In 1996 a 17yearold named F auziya Kassindja arrived at N ew ark International Airport in New Jersey and asked for asylum She had ed her native country of Togo in West Africa to escape what people there call excision Excision is a perma nently dis guring procedure It is sometimes called female circumcision but it bears little resemblance to male circumci sion In the Western media it is often referred to as female genital mutilation According to the World Health Organization excision is practiced in 28 African nations and about 120 million females have been painfully excised Sometimes excision is part of an elaborate tribal ritual performed in small villages and girls look forward to it because it signals their acceptance into the adult world Other times the practice is carried out in cities on young women who desperately resist Fauziya Kassindja was the youngest of five daughters Her father who owned a successful trucking business was opposed to excision and he was able to defy the tradition because of his wealth His first four daughters were married without being mutilated But when Fauziya was 16 he suddenly died She then came under the authority of her aunt who arranged a marriage for her and prepared to have her excised Fauziya was terri ed and her mother and oldest sister helped her escape In America F auziya was imprisoned for nearly 18 months while the authorities decided what to do with her During this time she was subjected to humiliating strip searches denied medical treatment for her asthma and generally treated like a criminal Finally she was granted asylum but not before her case aroused a great controversy The controversy was not about her treatment in America but about how we should regard the cultural practices of other peoples A series of articles in The ww a THE CHALLENGE OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM 25 New York Times encouraged the idea that excision is barbaric and should be condemned Other observers were reluctant to be so judgmental Live and let live they said after all our cul ture probably seems just as strange to other peOples Suppose we are inclined to say that excision is bad Would we merely be imposing the standards of our own culture If Cultural Relativism is correct that is all we can do for there is no cultureindependent moral standard to appeal to But is that true Is There a CultureIndependent Standard of Right and Wrong Excision is bad in many ways Itis painful and results in the permanent loss of sexual pleasure Its shortterm effects can include hemorrhage tetanus and septicemia Sometimes the woman dies Its longterm effects can include chronic infec tion scars that hinder walking and continuing pain Why then has it become a widespread social practice It is not easy to say The practice has no obvious social bene ts Unlike Eskimo infanticide it is not necessary for group survival Nor is it a matter of religion Excision is practiced by groups from various religions including Islam and Christianity Nevertheless a number of reasons are given in its defense Women who are incapable of sexual pleasure are less likely to be promiscuous thus there will be fewer unwanted pregnan cies in unmarried women Moreover wives for whom sex is only a duty are less likely to cheat on their husbands and because they are not thinking about sex they will be more attentive to the needs of their husbands and children Husbands for their part are said to enjoy sex more with wives who have been excised Unexcised womenuthe men feel are unclean and immature It would be easy and perhaps a bit arrogant to ridicule these arguments But notice an important feature of them They try to justify excision by showing that excision is beneficial men women and their families are said to be better off when women are excised Thus we might approach the issue by ask ing whether this is true Is excision on the whole helpful or harmful In fact this is a standard that might reasonably be used in thinking about any social practice Does the practice promote or 26 THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY hinder the welfare of the people re ected by it But this looks like just the sort of independent moral standard that Cultural Relativ ism says cannot exist It is a single standard that may be brought to bear in judging the practices of any culture at any time including our own Of course people will not usually see this principle as being brought in from the outside to judge them because all cultures value human happiness Why Despite All This Thoughtful People May Be Reluctant to Criticize Other Cultures Many people who are horri ed by excision are nevertheless reluctant to condemn it for three reasons First there is an understandable nervousness about interfering in the social customs of other peoples Europeans and their cultural descendants in America have a shameful his tory of destroying native cultures in the name of Christianity and enlightenment Because of this some people refuse to criticize other cultures especially cultures that resemble those that were wronged in the past There is a difference however between a judging a cultural practice to be de cient and b thinking that we should announce that fact apply diplo matic pressure and send in the troops The rst is just a matter of trying to see the world clearly from a moral point of view The second is something else entirely Sometimes it may be right to do something about it but often it will not be Second people may feel rightly enough that they should be tolerant of other cultures Tolerance is no doubt a virtue a tolerant person can live in peace with those who see things differently But nothing about tolerance requires us to say that all beliefs all religions and all social practices are equally admirable On the contrary if we did not think that some things were better than others there would be nothing for us to tolerate Finally people may be reluctant to judge because they do not want to express contempt for the society being criticized But again this is misguided To condemn a particular practice is not to say that the culture on the whole is contemptible or is inferior to any other culture The culture could have many admi rable features In fact we should expect this to be true of most human societies they are mixtures of good and bad practices Excision happens to be one of the bad ones 53 I THE CHALLENGE 39OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM 27 28 Back to the Five Claims Let us now return to the ve tenets of Cultural Relativism that were listed earlier How have they fared in our discussion 1 Different societies have different moral codes This is certainly true although there are some values that all cultures share such asthe value of truth telling the impor tance of caring for the young and the prohibition against murder Also when customs differ the underlying reason will often have more to do with the factual beliefs of the cultures than with their values 2 The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society that is if the moral code of a soci ety says that a certain action is right then that action is right at least within that society Here we must bear in mind the difference between what a soci ety believes about morals and what is really true The moral code of a society is closely tied to what people in that society believe to be right However that code and those people can be in error Earlier we considered the example of excision a bar baric practice endorsed by many societies Consider three more examples all of which involve the mistreatment of women In 2002 an unwed mother in Nigeria was sentenced to be stoned to death for having had sex out of wedlock It is unclear whether Nigerian values on the whole approved of this verdict since it was later overturned by a higher court However it was overturned partly to appease the international community When the Nigerians themselves heard the verdict being read out in the courtroom the crowd shouted out their approval In 2005 a woman from Australia was convicted of trying to smuggle nine pounds of marijuana into Indonesia For that crime she was sentenced to 20 years in prison an excessive punishment Under Indonesian law she might even have received a death sentence 0 In 2007 a woman was gangraped in Saudi Arabia When she complained to the police the police discovered in the course of their investigation that she had recently 28 THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY been alone with a man she was not related to For this crime she was sentenced to ninety lashes When she appealed the conviction this angered the judges and they increased her sentence to 200 lashes plus a six month prison term Eventually the Saudi king pardoned her though he said that he supported the sentence she had received Cultural Relativism holds in effect that societies are morally infallible in other words that the morals of a culture can never be wrong But when we see that societies can and do endorse grave injustices we see that societies like their members can be in need of moral improvement 3 There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one society s code as better than another s There are no moral truths that hold for all people at all times It is difficult to think of ethical principles that hold for all peo ple at all times However if we are to criticize the practice of slavery or stoning or genital mutilation and if such practices are really and truly wrong then we must appeal to principles that are not tethered to one society s peculiar outlook Earlier I suggested one such principle that it always matters whether a practice promotes or hinders the welfare of the people affected by it 4 The moral code of our own society has no special sta tus it is but one among many It is true that the moral code of our society has no special sta tus After all our society has no heavenly halo around its bor ders our values do not have any special standing just because we happen to believe them However to say that the moral code of one s own society is merely one among many seems to deny the possibility that one moral code might be better or worse than some others Whether the moral code of one s own society is merely one among many is in fact an open ques tion That code might be one of the best it might be one of the worst 5 It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures We should always be tolerant of them THE CHALLENGE OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM 29 There is much truth in this but the point is overstated We are often arrogant when we criticize other cultures and toler ance is generally a good thing However we shouldn t tolerate everything Human societies have done terrible things audit is a mark of progress when we can say that those things are in the past 29 What We Can Learn from Cultural Relativism So far in discussing Cultural Relativism I have dwelt mostly on its shortcomings I have said that it rests on an unsound argu ment that it has implausible consequences and that it suggests greater moral disagreement than exists This all adds up to a rather thorough repudiation of the theory Nevertheless you may have the feeling that all this is a little unfair The theory must have something going for it why else has it been so in u ential In fact I think there is something right about Cultural Relativism and there are two lessons we should learn from it First Cultural Relativisrn warns us quite rightly about the danger of assuming that all our preferences are based on some absolute rational standard They are not Many but not all of our practices are merely peculiar to our society and it is easy to lose sight of that fact In reminding us of it the theory does us a service Funerary practices are one example The Callatians according to Herodotus were men who eat their fathers a shocking idea to us at least But eating the esh of the dead 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 Perhaps this is how the Callatians saw it On 1118 way of thinking burying the dead could be seen as an act of rejec tion and burning the corpse as positively scornful Of course we may feel a visceral repugnance at the idea of eating human esh But so what This repugnance may be as the relativists say only a re ection of our own society 39 There are many other matters that we tend to think of 1n terms of right and wrong that are really nothing more than social conventions Consider monogamous marriage Why must we lock ourselves into just one romantic relationship Some people 30 THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY practice polyamory which is having more than one loving part ner with the consent of everyone involved Polyamory includes group marriages such as quads involving four people open relationships networks of interconnecting relationships and so on Some of these arrangements might work better than others but this is not really a matter of morality If four people want to live together and function as a single family with love owing from each to each there is nothing morally wrong with that But most people in our society would be horrified by it Or consider modesty of dress During the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show Justin Timberlake ripped off part ofjanet jackson s costume thus exposing one of her breasts to the audience CBS quickly cut to an aerial view of the stadium but it was too late Half a million viewers complained and the fed eral government ned CBS 550000 In America a publicly exposed breast is considered scandalous In other cultures however such displays are common Objectively speaking the display of a woman s breast is neither right nor wrong Cultural Relativism begins with the valuable insight that many of our practices are like this they are only cultural products Then it goes wrong by inferring that because some practices are like this all of them must be The second lesson has to do with keeping an open mind In the course of growing up each of us has acquired some strong feelings We have learned to think of some types of con duct as acceptable and we have learned to reject others Occa sionally we may nd those feelings challenged For example we may have been taught that homosexuality is immoral and we may feel uncomfortable around gay people and see them as alien and perverted But then someone suggests that this may be prejudice that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality that gay people are just people like anyone else who happen to be attracted to members of the same sex Because we feel so strongly about this we may nd it hard to take this line of rea soning seriously Cultural Relativism provides an antidote for this kind of dogmatism When he tells the story of the Greeks and Calla tians Herodotus adds For if anyone no matter who were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations of the world is 5 g THE CHALLENGE OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM 31 the set of beliefs which he thought best he would inevi tably after careful consideration of their relative merits choose that of his own country Everyone without excep tion believes his own native customs and the religion he was brought up in to be the best Realizing this can help broaden our minds We can see that our feelings are not necessarily perceptions of the truth they may be nothing more than the result of cultural conditioning Thus when we hear it suggested that some element of our social code is not really the best and we nd ourselves resisting the sugges tion we might stop and remember this Then we will be more open to discovering the truth whatever it might be We can understand the appeal of Cultural Relativism then despite its shortcomings It is an attractive theory because it is based on a genuine insight that many of the practices and attitudes we nd natural are really only cultural products Moreover keeping this thought rmly in View is important if we want to avoid arrogance and keep an open mind These are important points not to be taken lightly But we can accept them without accepting the whole theory