When it comes to moral issues, there may be several shades of gray, but there are generally defined lines of black and white where certain actions are universally wrong and other actions are universally right. In a society that is focused on cultural relativism, there is no universal right or wrong. People are able to define their own morality to whatever extent suits them best.
These cultural relativism pros and cons show that while there are some advantages in setting moral standards at the individual level, there are some sacrifices that society must make as well.
The Pros of Cultural Relativism
1. It creates learning opportunities that could make humanity stronger.
There’s an old saying that says “iron sharpens iron.” This means that when our differences come together as a people, we are able to become better and stronger as an individual. By allowing people to set their own personal standards at all levels, we can create potentially stronger bonds with one another and achieve more than ever before if we allow our differences to educate one another.
2. It eliminates the concept of separate, but equal.
When there is a majority of people who all have similar principles shared, they tend to create a society that meets their own needs and neglect the needs of all others. We’ve seen that in history with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, through the efforts of women’s suffrage, and even with the same-sex marriage movement. Cultural relativism would remove the need for these movements because instead of being separate, but equal all people would be equal, but separate.
3. It creates a system of niche expertise.
People will focus on the things that they do best when cultural relativism is emphasized. There would no longer be a need to improve points of weakness because one person’s weakness is another person’s strength. Instead of being a “jack of all trades” or to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” society would become about merging the strengths of one another into one cohesive unit.
4. It encourages respect.
Different cultures have different experiences and perspectives to provide humanity. With cultural relativism, these experiences and perspectives contribute to the greater good because it allows everyone to explore each unique perspective in their own way to learn from it.
The Cons of Cultural Relativism
1. There will be actions taken that would be defined by some as “violent,” “unsafe,” or “wrong.”
Because every person is allowed to set their own moral code of conduct, there will be those who choose to commit actions that a majority of people might define as bad. Rape, murder, theft, child abuse… these all would become legally viable actions to take because that person’s personal morality defined them as being good.
2. It is based on a concept that people are perfect.
We might all like to think that we’re perfect, but the truth is we’re all far from it. Even something as simple as forgetting where you put your keys or your wallet shows off this imperfection. The idea of cultural relativism is based on the concept that humanity can be perfect. Maybe one day we will be, but that day is definitely not today.
3. It creates a personal bias.
The goal of cultural relativism is a worthy one. Societies have a certain natural bias to them that forces some people down in order to raise people up. In reality, all cultural relativism really does is shift the responsibility from a group perspective to an individualistic perspective. Promoting a personal set of morals becomes the point of emphasis instead of promotion a group set of morals.
4. It eliminates the idea that reform or change can be a good thing.
Some of the greatest philosophers and teachers that are followed throughout history would all be considered wrong under a system of cultural relativism. There would be no need to change hearts and minds because everyone is held to their own standards. Extend that into the workplace and suddenly dangerous working conditions, low or no pay, and personal slavery all become viable options.
The advantage of cultural relativism is that it teaches individual tolerance. The disadvantages are that it is a theory that is based on the idea that humans ultimately choose the right thing to do. Maybe such a system can work in the future. Until humanity is willing to grow up and learn from each other, however, there is a lot of potential for harm in this idea.
Crystal Lombardo is a contributing editor for Vision Launch. Crystal is a seasoned writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience. She has been an editor of three popular blogs that each have had over 500,000 monthly readers.