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March 1, 2017 / Congau

The Danger of Cultural Relativism

“Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others from the perspective of that individual’s own culture.” Wikipedia

That could be a good and admirable principle. The willingness to try to see things from another person’s perspective is essential for understanding our fellow human beings. But understanding does not mean accepting and the danger of cultural relativism is that the tolerance may be taken too far and slide into moral relativism.

All cultural practices should not be condoned just because they are means to cope with social circumstances. Ritual killings and human sacrifice are wrong regardless of their presumed function. Our universal moral sense tells us that hurting others and causing suffering should be avoided and we should not let that conviction be compromised by misguided tolerance.

It may be the case that many cultural practices of this world are just bad and maybe even our own culture contains disagreeable features; we should be allowed to condemn that.

True, in order to be justified in condemning something, it must first be understood and that is a healthy side of cultural relativism. If a sufficient cultural insight has been achieved and there is still a reason for moral condemnation, then one can be surer about this judgment. Also, some customs may look repulsive on the surface, but upon closer scrutiny it may turn out that they are actually quite moral as they protect people from unnecessary suffering.

However, being too ready to accept is dangerous. One would probably find that all cultural practices serve some sort of purpose and fit quite nicely into the social fabric. They all contribute to preserving society as it is, including its attractive features, but that can be no excuse for accepting customs that are immoral in themselves. A culture only has a limited intrinsic value. Even the preservation of a culture may not be worth the suffering of the people who have to live in it.

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