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Cultural Relativity and Moral Judgments

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2022

Frank E. Hartung*
Affiliation:
Wayne University

Extract

1. Introduction. Cultural relativity is one of the most important conceptions to which anthropology and sociology have devoted much attention in recent years. It is a theory of human conduct based upon observational studies of different cultures and different societies. Many of the leaders in the various social sciences are currently among the advocates of this viewpoint. The burden of these pages, however, is that cultural relativity is flying under false colors: it claims to be empirical but is illogical; it claims to be objective but is surreptitiously moral; it claims to be reasonable but elevates irrationalism; it claims to be scientific but prevents the development of an experimental science of sociocultural conduct. These are serious charges to lodge against leading social scientists; to detail them all would require much more space than is here available. Therefore this paper will be devoted to an incomplete exposition of only two points, namely, that cultural relativity is surreptitiously moral, and, that it deprives man of rational grounds for decision in certain crucial areas. To put the matter bluntly, the advocates of cultural relativity, while they allege themselves to be scientifically amoral, sneak in through the back door a peculiarly crude form of ethnocentric morality which is clearly contrary to the observable facts of human behavior; and, while presenting a presumably scientific analysis of human conduct, leave us only with personal taste as the basis for making certain important decisions.

2. Cultural Relativity Defined. Cultural relativity, briefly stated, asserts that any set of customs and institutions, or way of life, is as valid as any other. It may be well to let some representative cultural relativists speak for themselves at this point, in order to show that the summary statement of their position, just given, is correct. The author of an excellent and widely adopted textbook in cultural anthropology stresses the dignity inherent in every body of custom, and abjures us to be tolerant of the ways of other people:

… cultural relativism is a philosophy which … lays stress on the dignity inherent in every body of custom, and on the need for tolerance of conventions though they may differ from one's own … the relativistic point of view brings into relief the validity of every set of norms for those people whose lives are guided by them, and the values these represent. … The very core of cultural relativism is the social discipline that comes of respect for differences—of mutual respect. Emphasis on the worth of many ways of life, not one, is an affirmation of the values of each culture. Such emphasis seeks to understand and to harmonize goals, not to judge and destroy those that do not dovetail with our own, (4, pp. 76–77).

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Philosophy of Science Association 1954

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Footnotes

1

Read before the Anthropology Section (H) of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, St. Louis, Missouri, December 28, 1952.

References

1. Benedict, Ruth, Patterns of Culture (New York: Pelican ed., 1947).Google Scholar
2. Dunham, Barrows, Man Against Myth (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1947).Google Scholar
3. Gillin, John L. and John, R., An Introduction to Sociology (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1942).Google Scholar
4. Herskovits, Melville J., Man and His Works (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1948).Google Scholar
5. Hume, David, “Of the General Principles of Morals” and Appendix I, “Concerning Moral Sentiment,” in An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals (1751 ed.).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
6. International Military Trials, Nueremberg, Germany, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1946-48), Vol. I.Google Scholar
7. Murphy, Arthur E., The Uses of Reason (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1943).Google Scholar
8. Reichard, Gladys A., “Social Life,” in Boas, Franz (ed.), General Anthropology (New York: D. C. Heath and Co., 1938).Google Scholar
9. Sumner, W. G., Folkways (Boston, Ginn and Co., 1904).Google Scholar
10. Westermarck, Edward, Ethical Relativity (New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1932).Google Scholar
4
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