How Large Does a Relativistic Culture Need to Be?


By now, you should be an expert on descriptive, metaethical, and normative relativism. Each of these theories basically states that moral standards are relative to one another, culture by culture. These claims are offered in varying degrees, but the essence of relativism in general is that morality is based under certain circumstance. If an activity is deemed moral in one culture, it may not be in another. Whether you agree with that depends on which type of relativist you are. Descriptive is the least convinced while normative claims that not only are there varying versions of morality around the world, but no one on the "outside" should ever question or intervene in someone else's version of it. Cultural and moralistic norms can swing wildly based on location, belief system, and tradition.

The problems with moral relativism become apparent as soon as we begin taking a closer look at the details of the theory. Let's pretend to tell a small child about anti-realism. Or relativism. Take your pick.

"Mommy, why are those people over there eating dogs?"

"Because that's their culture sweetie. We shouldn't question their activities. They are different than us. And that's okay."

"Well, what if they decide to eat humans? Is that still okay?"


I'd say that's a problem. Just because a certain culture has decided that an activity is okay and somehow deemed moral, does the rest of the world have to go along with it? Lots of cultures have done horrible things throughout history. During these times, outsiders had to step in to stop the misbehavior. Was it wrong for the outsiders to step in?

And let me ask you a question - what is a "culture" anyway? How many individuals does it take to make a culture? Is it a nation? A religion? A small gathering? A backyard BBQ? A cult? A town or village? And how many people does it take to legitimize a moral standing or to devise a moral code? Does it take two? Can only two people claim that eating their neighbor was in alignment with their moral code, therefore it was fair and just? And that the rest of us should keep our opinions to ourselves? How about only one person? Can just one person claim a version of morality? Does moral subjectivism rule the land? Is morality based on personal tastes, feelings, and opinions?

These questions pose a huge issue for relativism as a whole. The idea of a culture is so nebulous to begin with that it can't possibly serve as part of a framework for dealing with the questions of morality. Even within cultures there are varying degrees of acceptance for a moral standing. Cultures tend to bleed at the edges and while the core of any particular culture may be steadfast in their values, the periphery may not be on board at all. The entire argument for and against "cultural morality" is almost a waste of time. It's simply too difficult to define.

Here's another question: Does majority rule when it comes to morality? What if an entire nation agreed that slavery was okay and even encouraged? The nation's laws even backed this up. Would it be wrong for a small group of people to think and act out against the majority? Wouldn't it be unethical for them to do so? What if an entire nation lived under a tyrannical dictator? What if much of the nation's elite profited off of the dictator's actions? Would it be wrong for a small group to resist the dictates of the government? And if a small group did resist, who's to say that their version of morality is more fair and just than their governments? And if the government declared itself to lean toward normative relativism because it wants to avoid outside interference, would they then need to respect the opinions and moral standing of the resistance?

If you were a normative relativist and you held the belief that every culture's view of morality is correct and allowable, that would mean that you agree that slave drivers had the moral right to do what they were doing. And if anyone questioned that right or moved against it, they'd be wrong. But what if a small group from the inside stopped agreeing with this version of morality? What if this group stopped endorsing slavery? Would that make this small group a culture unto itself? Would it be wrong for anyone to question or move against this new culture? Would you, as a moral relativist, then hold the view that both cultures were correct in their views? Or would they at least have the right to avoid interference from the outside? As you can see, questions like this can go on and on. There really is no end.

I guess the ultimate questions I have are:

- What defines a culture in regards to relative morality?
- What makes a version of morality representative to that culture?
- Does every culture have distinct edges or boundaries?

To the normative relativist, does every culture truly hold the right to avoid questioning? Is every culture moral, no matter what? Do enlightened cultures always need to avoid interfering with others?