The idea of relativism, the idea that “The truth of statement X depends on one’s perception” seems very plausible to most people. Ironically, most people think that whoever uses the phrase more is a better intellectual. This may in fact be because of their tendency towards the middle ground fallacy, which states that having the middle ground in different arguments has more credibility.
But whatever the reason, relativism in its naive fundamentalist (“taken to its limits” as Blackburn (2001) puts) form has serious logical and consequential problems. This essay will first focus on these problems, and after rejecting the naive form of relativism, it will be focused on the question “Is there any relevant form relativism?”.
This is just the way we do it here: In other words, cultural relativism. The best way to discuss this is to first give a good description of what cultural relativism is. In book III of Herodotus’ “Histories” (Blackburn, 2001; Harris, Jr, 1997), he mentions an incident that happened during king Darius’s reign in Persia. The Persian empire at the time was the closest to a multi cultural society that we could find, and all the people had their own cultural behaviour and beliefs.
One day, Darius summoned two groups of people, some Greeks who were present for a conference, and an Indian tribe named “Callatiae”. Darius first asked the Greeks how much money would make them eat their own fathers instead of cremating them after they were dead? To which they replied no amount could make them do it. Then Darius turned to Callatiaens and asked how much money would make them cremate their fathers instead of eating them after they were dead (which was their custom)? To which they cried out loudly no amount of money could make them do it.
Herodotus then concludes that “I think Pindar was right to have said in his poem that custom is king of all.” What could be the problem with Herodotus’ conclusion? The simple fact that he does not argue based on any reason, why customs are the ultimate rules and should be obeyed. He does not ask the important question “Why is this the right thing to do?”, or “What are our reasons behind doing this?”.
Another example can easily illustrate this: Stephens (1967) trained some rhesus monkeys to avoid an object, then placed an untrained monkey in the cage. If the new monkey tried to touch the object, the others that were trained not to touch it acted with hostility towards him. After some time, the new monkey started increasingly avoiding the subject. When compared to a control group, these monkeys did not show interest in touching the object, even if they were alone.
If the monkeys were capable of reasoning, and had the free will provided by that, they could have argued if there is any good reason to touch the object or not. Cultural relativism reduces the ethics and values to an authoritative state dictated by the society. This would also mean that we have to consider some things, that we all see easily and intuitively heinous, to be plausible, good or at the very least none-condemnable. Things like child abuse, homophobia or sexism that happen to be very common all over the world, and particularly stirred into the cultures of African or Middle Eastern countries.
This brings us to another side of the relativity argument. Often, the fact that there are controversies in answering the question “What is the right thing to do?”, and that we have never found the way to discover the right thing to do, are regarded as evidence for cultural relativism. But as Harris, Jr (1997) argues, the argument is fallacious: The conclusion simply does not follow. If we don’t know what is the actual right thing to do, and/or even if we have not yet found any way of knowing that, it does not mean that relativism is true. It can only mean that we don’t know what is true.
“Everything” depends on one’s perception: This is only taking cultural relativism to the extreme. As Blackburn (2001) puts it, this type of relativism is only subjectivism. Aside from the consequential problem that came above, which in this case goes to the extreme (i.e. now each person can justify any action based on their liking), there is a severe logical problem with being a total subjectivist. If the statement “Everything depends on one’s perception” was to be true, then the truth of that statement itself has to be subjected to one’s perception. And if X says that that statement is false, and Y says that it’s true, then it is both true and false at the same time, which is logically impossible. Moreover, if X says that the statement is false, does that mean that X is right?
Can relativism be relevant?: Like many other things, cultural relativism and subjectivism can in some stances be valid or relevant. But they are only relevant when the truth of a statement is only dependant on what it is relative to. This is an obviously trivial statement, in fact it can logically be considered a tautology. But it may not be so much of a useless statement.
Consider the case put forward by West (2009) about the convergence of corporate governance. As he puts it, there is not a one-way model of corporate governance, but there are many. For instance, what is called the Anglo-American model of governance is more or less based on Utilitarianism, while the European/Japanese corporate governance is closer to deontological morality.
This fact begs answering the following question: “Is convergence to one model justifiable?”. If the answer to this question differs based on the society that the company is working with, and if the success of the company is dependent on it matching with the underlying perception of the society, then it seems that at least from a Utilitarian point of view we have to reject the question. In this case it seems Utilitarianism ironically vote against itself in the societies that have more people with deontological views.
Blackburn, S. 2001. Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford. US.
Harris, Jr, C. E. 1997. Applying Moral Theories. 3rd ed. Wadsworth. USA. CA.
Stephenson, G. R., Starek, D., Schneider, R., Kuhn, H. J. 1967. Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. Progress in Primatology. Stuttgart. pp.279-288.
West, A. 2009. Corporate Governance Convergence and Moral Relativism. Corporate Governance: An International Review. 17(1): 107–119