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Chapter 2: The Challenge of Cultural Relativism“Morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.” Ruth Benedict,Patterns of Culture(1934)2.1. Different Cultures Have Different Moral CodesDarius, king of ancient Persia found that different cultures had different moral codes:Callatians in India ate the bodies of their dead fathers.Greeks practiced cremation and regarded the funeral pyre as the natural and fitting way todispose of the dead.Other example -- customs among the native Arctic peoples:Marriage among the Eskimos: They had marital customs that differ from our norm.Men oftenhad multiple wives and would share their wives with guests as a sign of hospitality. Dominantmen might demand access to other men’s wives. The women were free to leave and take uprelations with other men as long as their former husbands didn’t object too strenuously.Regard for individual life: Infanticide was common with no social stigma attached. Feeble elderlypersons were left out in the snow to die.Concluding observation: “If we assume that our ethical ideas will be shared by all cultures, we aremerely being naïve” (15).2.2. Cultural RelativismSome people conclude that because different cultures have different ethical ideas, there can be nouniversal truth in ethics.Therefore, the folkways handed down from the ancestors-- the traditions within a culture-- contain allthere is to know about ethics, according to some cultural relativists.There is no universal truth; there are only the various cultural codes and nothing more.Claims 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 ofa society 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 people at all times.4.The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is but one among many.5.It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures. We should always be tolerant of them.
A problem for Cultural Relativism: Numbers 2 & 5 may contradict. What if the norms of a society make itintolerant of others? The Nazis invaded Poland. Can a cultural relativist criticize the Nazis for beingintolerant (#5) if intolerance is a part of their society’s code (#2)?

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