Ruth Benedict Cultural Relativism Essay

Relativism (Text copyright 2008 by Theodore Gracyk)

Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), an anthropologist, argues that science forces us to accept ethical relativism.Pointing to the diversity of accepted behavior within diverse societies, Benedict famously concludes:

We do not any longer make the mistake of deriving the morality of our locality and decade directly from the inevitable constitution of human nature. We do not elevate it to the dignity of a first principle. We recognize that morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits. Mankind has always preferred to say, "It is morally good," rather than "It is habitual," and the fact of this preference is matter enough for a critical science of ethics. But historically the two phrases are synonymous.

In saying that the two phrases are synonymous, she is saying this: 

What is morally good = What is habitual

Benedict also says that most of what is normal is merely habitual. In turn, "Normality . . . is culturally defined." So she is clearly saying that what is habitual depends on social conditioning within the culture.

In summary, Benedict says that what is habitual is synonyous with whatever is normal (whatever is socially agreeable to the majority of people raised in that society). But she also says that whatever is acceptable as normal due to social conditioning is moral. (For example, if racism is moral in one's society, then it is moral to engage in the racist practices that are normal in the society.)

This position is ethical relativism, the idea that moral goodness is to be equated with cultural norms.

Melville Herskovits defends Benedict's position. Herskovits defends relativism on the grounds that it is an antidote to ethnocentrism, which has led Europeans and Americans to behave with intolerance toward cultures with different values. (Ironically, Benedict herself abandoned ethical relativism when she saw that it required her to endorse Nazi rule in Germany.)

William Shaw gives a typical response to ethical relativism. Shaw attacks the relativist’s conclusion by arguing that the facts presented by anthropologists to support ethical relativism may be true, but they do not really support the conclusion that right and wrong is relative to each culture’s beliefs about right and wrong. We can easily accept all of the anthropological facts concerning the way that different cultures endorse different practices. But why should we add the additional assumption that the group's norms should be the individual's norms? Specifically, Shaw argues that if we are willing to make moral values relative to a culture’s beliefs, we should be equally willing to make those values relative to each individual person. Why should a group’s beliefs be assumed correct? 

In addition, Shaw distinguishes the ideas or beliefs held by various groups and individuals from the actual moral standard. While ideas vary from culture to culture and time to time, it does not follow that there is not a universal moral standard that we should follow.  Ethical absolutists accept this distinction (between thinking something is right and its being right), while ethical relativists collapse the distinction, regarding it as a merely verbal distinction. (Look again at the quotation from Benedict.) 

An analogy with astronomy might help to clarify the debate.  Different societies at different times have held different theories about the planets and stars.  Ancient Greek myths regarded the sun as a lantern carried across the sky by one of the gods, later Greeks and many other societies thought that the sun revolves around the earth, and most recently we classify the sun as a star around which we orbit.  A relativist would say that there is no single correct answer, but that the correct answer is just whatever your society believes at the time. (Herskovits actually says this, arguing that there is no reality apart from our culturally biased evaluations of it.) An absolutist would say that there is a single correct answer, and any society whose beliefs conflict with this answer is simply ignorant of the truth.  Shaw and other absolutists thus hold that ethics is no more relative than astronomy, and widely held ethical views may be mistaken.

For more about SHAW, click here.

Moral or ethical relativism is the idea that what is considered moral or immoral depends on the accepted behaviors within the society in which the determination is made. Therefore, what is considered moral or ethical in one society may be considered immoral or unethical in another, but each society is equally correct. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict supports the concept of moral relativism in A Defense of Moral Relativism. On the other side of the debate in Who’s to Judge, Louis Pojman, a professor of philosophy at West Point, argues against moral relativism.

In A Defense of Moral Relativism, Ruth Benedict asserts morals are culturally defined based on what is considered appropriate behavior in the society. Benedict utilizes the examples of homosexuality and murder, which are regarded to many in our society as immoral, to illustrate her point. For example, Benedict states homosexuality in ancient Greece, as demonstrated by Plato’s Republic, was widely accepted and did not have any negative associations with it (80). Benedict also states in the culture of the Kwakiutl, a culture which has been without contact to and thus has remained uninfluenced by our “standardized worldwide civilization,” the death of a loved one (no matter if the person has died of accident or natural causes) is considered an “insult” which is to be dealt with by committing murder (79, 82). According to Benedict, each of these examples demonstrate how what is considered immoral in one society is considered moral in another.

Benedict’s argument is: (1) If what is accepted by society, based on shared beliefs, as normal behavior varies from culture to culture, then morality would vary from culture to culture. (2) Each culture, based on shared beliefs, decides what is considered acceptable and normal behavior within their society. (3) Therefore, morality is relative to the culture. If Benedict’s argument is true, it would mean that morality exists solely as a creation of society. Since morality is not an independent, higher concept outside of societal inclinations, it would be able to be changed by society. Therefore, since morality can change at any time, morality fails to exist except on a superficial level, which makes morality meaningless. Why follow any “moral” action in society then? Just get a majority of people in the society to act conversely to the “moral” action also, then the converse action will become “normal” and thus “moral.” Consequently, the question remains, just because an action is “normal,” does it make the action “moral?”

In Who’s to Judge, Louis Pojman addresses the ethical relativist’s argument. He explains the “Diversity Thesis” of relativism asserts morality varies depending on the society, resulting in there being no moral guidelines, independent of culturally established beliefs, shared by all societies (105). The problem with the “Diversity Thesis,” according to Pojman, is there does appear to be moral guidelines common to many variant societies (110). For example, he quotes an article by Clyde Kluckhohn, which notes how “every culture has a concept of murder…other regulations upon sexual behavior…mutual obligations between parents and children” (110). Additionally, argues Pojman, since there is a majority of different societies which do observe shared moral guidelines, then it could be argued the cultures which do not are simply wrong (111).

Pojman moves on to explaining the subsequent “Dependency Thesis” which asserts actions are deemed moral or immoral depending upon the cultural circumstances of the society (105). Regarding the “Dependency Thesis,” Pojman offers a distinction between morality being upheld based on the culture’s circumstances and morality being determined based on the culture’s circumstances (111). If morality is upheld based on the culture’s circumstances, according to Pojman, then an action may be considered immoral unless the greater good of the society requires the action be done (111). He uses the example of Eskimos with limited food who practice euthanasia (111). Whereas, he continues, if morality is determined based on the culture’s circumstances, then the beliefs of the culture determine right and wrong (111). He offers another example, where a Sudanese tribe will throw deformed babies into the river believing the babies “belong to the hippopotamus” (111). In either case, Pojman asserts there exists shared moral guidelines with our culture, which are independent of cultural biases, like respect for life and giving back what belongs to another (111).

Pojman also presents “Conventional Ethical Relativism,” which asserts that actions are determined to be moral or immoral based on the acceptance of the actions by the society, which leads to tolerance of all actions deemed morally accepted by any society (108). “Conventional Ethical Relativism” fails as well because, as Pojman states, “Conventional Ethical Relativism” allows for tolerance of genocide and nuclear war, just as long as the culture committing the acts deems the actions morally acceptable (109). Additionally, Pojman notes, a person may belong to many cultures and subcultures which have different views on what actions are considered moral, resulting in the person’s actions being both moral and immoral at the same time (109).

Pojman’s argument is: (1) If every society determined morality based on relative and subjective cultural differences, then there would not be any shared moral guidelines between variant societies. (2) All cultures share underlying moral guidelines which serve to promote the interests of the society, such as respect for life and giving back what belongs to others. (3) Therefore, while there are relative and subjective differences in how moral guidelines are used in different societies, morality itself is not based on relative and subjective cultural differences.

Benedict asserts moral and ethical relativism exists as a natural response to cultural differences. Pojman concedes while cultural relativism exists, such as how cultural beliefs can determine the way moral guidelines are used in the society, there are underlying moral guidelines shared by all cultures. I can’t say either way, but if morality is relative, thus based solely on what the society deems appropriate, then morality is able to be changed and therefore is entirely superficial, without meaning.

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