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Term Paper on Ethics Cultural Relativism


Ruth Benedict and Pojman are the two names that come to mind when one think of cultural relativism. They stand on the opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to ethical relativism in the light of cultural differences. The differences in moral practices across cultures give rise to the important issue of ethics - the concept of "ethical relativism." It holds that morality is relative to the norms of one's culture i.e. the differences of cultures are reflected in the ethical relativism. Of course, if there were no differences in the ethical requirements across the cultures, there would not have been any relativity. Ruth is of the concept that an action may be right or wrong depending upon the moral norms of the society in which it is practiced. The same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another. She is of the opinion that there are no universal moral standards that can be universally applied to all peoples at all times.


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According to Ruth ethical norms of societies depend on the cultural differences. The only moral standards against which a society's practices can be judged are its own. In ethical relativism, there can be no common framework for resolving moral disputes or for reaching agreement on ethical matters among members of different societies. Itís the power of the custom and learning of a society against nature and for the infinite capacity of human beings to change. The ethical behavior within societies is powerfully influenced by the prevalent customs and beliefs in those societies. However, she does not imply that the inborn temperament within a culture is negligible or that the individual had no control over her surroundings. But the individual power is so small that the cultural powers overcome it and influence the individual behaviors. Ruth believed that an individual could successfully change the conditions of her life and in so doing, changes society.

Ruth has been criticized on the grounds of ignorance of going further than a plan beyond tolerance and awareness of individuals. Thus we now come to the opposite side that is mainly dominated by Pojman. He states that ethical requirements should be standardized for each and every society regardless of the differences in their cultures. He questioned whether there are any universal moral principles or whether morality is merely a matter of "cultural taste." He gave examples of the range of practices considered morally acceptable in some societies but condemned in others. These are the infanticide, genocide, polygamy racism, sexism, and torture that in some societies are believed to be just and in some heinous crimes.
Pojman is an ethicist who rejects the theory of ethical relativism of Ruth and claim that while the moral practices of societies may differ; the fundamental moral principles underlying these practices do not. He believes that the societies may differ in their Placation of fundamental moral principles but agree on the principles themselves.

It may also be the case that some moral beliefs are culturally relative whereas others are not unlike what Ruth has stated who characterizes all such moral beliefs as culturally relative. Pojman believes that certain practices, such as customs regarding dress and decency, may depend on local custom whereas other practices, such as slavery, torture, or political repression, may be governed by universal moral standards and judged wrong despite the many other differences that exist among cultures.
Pojman also criticizes the lack of freedom of an individual that follows by following the morally accepted culturally affected social norms and beliefs. Individuals are then considered morally wrong if they deviate from the societal or cultural bounds. At the same time an immigrant who has always practiced his beliefs in the previous society would have to alter his way of thinking in the new society thus leaving no room for his own personal beliefs and values. Such a view leaves no room for moral reform or improvement in a particular society since its individuals are submissive without any freedom to bring any change. Furthermore, members of the same society may hold different views on practices. In the United States, for example, a variety of moral opinions exist on matters ranging from animal experimentation to abortion. Who is to judge what is right and what is wrong?

In my personal view I believe that the most influential and thorough knowledge of the righteousness of a belief comes from ones religion, if one has any. Cultures are also affected through the religions as they give a thorough code of ethics. The ethics of societies are not dependent on what the culture in that society says but the individuals should be free to act as per the ethical requirements as stated by their respective religions and that the rest of the society members should have patience to the individual beliefs. As far as the views of Ruth and Pojman are concerned I believe that Ruth states what is there and cannot be changed and what Pojman states is something of an ideal which if achieved would be much better but at the same time extremely difficult to maintain.

I believe that ethical behavior should be categorized into two major categories. Some of the behavior should be made universal which all human beings on earth would be required to fulfill and the second category may differ as per the local requirements of culture and beliefs.


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