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Cultural Relativism

Ruth Benedict and James Rachels have both tackled the issue of Cultural Relativism in both their works, “Anthropology and the Abnormal” and “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism,” respectively. Despite the similarity in topics, the two authors are not entirely on the same page when it comes to their views on the topic. Ruth Benedict claims that “morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits” (73). This statement suggests that there is no universal measuring stick for morality.

The morality of a person all depends on his or her cultural background. If a person is raised in an environment where certain rituals are considered taboo or even immoral to other societies, nobody is in the proper position to judge the morality of their actions except those who belong to the same society. Using the example of the Kwakuilt, Benedict emphasizes her point; the Kwakuitl are known to kill anyone randomly after a relative has died. For American citizens (who do not belong to the Kwakuitl society), the practice is horrifying.

Yet, while it is horrifying, Benedict implies in her article that one cannot criticize the act because it is just the way the Kwakuitl culture is. On the other hand, James Rachels claims that Cultural Relativism has its flaws. Rachels says that the conclusion of Cultural Relativism does not follow the premise. He argues that even if the premise is true, the conclusion might be false (Rachels 20). Taking Cultural Relativism too seriously has consequences; 1) We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.

Rachels says that this is a fallacy—just because other societies are different, it does not mean that they are not immoral. 2) We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society. Cultural Relativism would prevent us from criticizing our own culture since every practice would be relatively moral. 3) Finally, the idea of moral progress is called into doubt. Old traditions that are obviously wrong like slavery would not be subject to criticism because old traditions are just following the trend of society during their time.

Rachels believe that all societies must have some common values because it is essential to the peoples’ survival, like the values which involve lying and murder. Hence, using Rachels’ point of view on Cultural Relativism, Americans have the right not to tolerate the rituals of the Kwakiutl because it does not follow that just because a particular society believes that what they are doing is correct means what they are really doing is right. While both share somewhat similar views on Cultural Relativism, James Rachels argument is more comprehensive and convincingly true.

Ruth Benedict only goes up to claiming that different societies have different moralities, and outsiders do not have the right in judging their customs. James Rachels expands this argument by accepting that indeed, different societies have different tolerances for different practices, but a universal truth exists among all societies, unlike what Ruth Benedict has stated in her work. Works Cited Benedict, Ruth. “Anthropology and the Abnormal. ” The Journal of General Psychology 10 (1934): 59-82 Rachels, James. “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism. ” The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 4th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. 16-31.

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