Ethical relativism is the belief that something qualifies as ethically right if it is believed and accepted to be right by either an individual or a society. Any culturally endorsed practice, therefore, becomes right, regardless of other cultures' opinions on the same (Walsh,2010). Therefore, what is considered right in one culture may thus be regarded as wrong in another culture according to ethical relativists. I, however, stand in agreement with the opinion that conventional ethical relativism does not promote cultural imperialism but actually causes oppression.
The belief that what is culturally acceptable in one society is consequently right means that even when a practice is oppressive to some members of that particular society or even others society, it is ethically right. A conventionalist ethical relativist may, therefore, support the Rwandan genocide of 1994 given that the killings would be justified by the involved cultures. Does this, therefore, make the genocide ethically right? If yes, did this promote or avoid oppression in Rwanda?
Conventionalist ethical relativists also argue that if one individual or a certain percentage of people in one culture believe that something is morally right, then it is. Consequently, this would mean that even in one culture there are many "truths" and "rights". At times, these truths and rights may be of opposing opinions even within the same cultural setting. What "truth" or "right" should then be accepted and practiced within that culture? Given this, we would have morally chaotic cultures where every action can be justified along the lines of what the people think is right without the consideration of other peoples' rights, freedom, and opinions.
The question of cultural imperialism can also not be ignored when it comes to ethical relativism. In the event that we have conflicting beliefs for instance, whose culture will be promoted above others? It is also true that we have individuals belonging to more that one cultural setting. In such an instance, there would be a conflict on what beliefs and practices to follow and for what reason. In addition, conventionalist ethical relativists do not provide a guideline on how to determine whether any culture is superior to others or what beliefs should be adopted as ethically right across cultures (Yount, 2017).
Conventionalist ethical relativism is helpful in explaining other cultures and possibly, why some cultural practices such as female genital mutilation may be practiced by a particular culture. It consequently leaves no room to question or challenge the thought system of why such a practice would be considered ethically right and be widely practiced within a particular society. Is morality them, absolute or culturally relative (Walsh,2010)? Without room to question or challenge practices believed to be ethically right by a culture, there is no room to get justification for practices such as female genital mutilation, cannibalism or other such practices that infringe on human rights.
With the changes that occur within a society over time and for various reasons, the conventionalist ethical relativism leaves room for the change of what is ethically right. What is believed to be right and acceptable within a particular culture may change over time and eventually be considered unacceptable and wrong. Conventionalist ethical relativists may, therefore, be inconsistent and unpredictable (Hobbes, 2011). In contradiction to what defenders of conventionalist ethical relativism believe, therefore, it is important to hold the debate of what beliefs are ethically right or wrong within our society. In the Kwakiutl tribe of the North Pacific, for instance, death was wiped out by the death of another person (Walsh,2010). Innocent members of the society would be killed to wipe out the death of other people and this was deemed acceptable and right. Over the years as the culture of the Kwakiutl tribe has evolved, this practice is now deemed wrong. Conventionalist ethical relativists would not have questioned this practice that absurdly infringed on an individual's right to life. Eventually, once the culture regarded the practice as wrong, conventionalist ethical relativists will then, without question agree it's actually wrong.
Without room to criticize or challenge other people's cultural beliefs, we should, therefore, be tolerant of absurd cultural practices that are considered ethically right in other cultures. For instance, the practice of female genital mutilation is widely accepted and practiced in many societies up to date. This practice has led to many health challenges and even death, especially for young girls. Similarly, in some cultures across the world, young girls are married off to older men from as young as 10 years, defenders of conventionalist ethical relativism would like us to tolerate such practices simply because they are accepted within those particular cultures. There is a global campaign to reduce HIV infections. Female genital mutilation is one of the ways HIV is being transmitted to young girls due to the sharing of cutting knives. If then we are taking part in the global campaign against HIV, how then can we be silent or condone such practices that are setting back the efforts to fight HIV?
Conventionalist ethical relativism also fails to provide a guideline as to who within a culture determines what is ethically right and acceptable as moral. In addition, there may be discord even within one culture, where a certain percentage of members accept a practice as right and another percentage does not. In this case, what will be considered right within that culture? This may also bring about enforcement of practices and beliefs for some members of the society who do not agree. For instance, if the parents of a 10-year-old girl are forced to marry her off by her extended family contrary to her will and belief that it is wrong, what then is to be considered right within that culture? Is it right because the extended family believes so, or wrong because the girl's parents believe its wrong? Furthermore, there is sometimes a split in the number of people who accept something as right or wrong. What percentage should, therefore, be used to determine if something is to be considered morally and ethically right within that particular society (Yount,2017)? These issues raise concern over what defenders of conventionalist ethical relativism believe.
Most societies are made up of numerous sub-cultures thereby making it difficult to determine what particular culture to consider when determining what is ethically right or wrong. For instance, within one society, there may be sub-cultures based on race, religion, sexuality, gender among others. Members of these sub-cultures may have contradicting views cutting across the same issue which would make it almost impossible to determine what will be considered the right or wrong of that particular society (Walsh, 2010). The LGBT community, for instance, will support same-sex marriages whereas a particular religion within the same society will be opposed to the same. Conventionalist ethical relativism does not give a guideline on how to address this issue to know what will be considered culturally acceptable as right or wrong within that society.
Conventionalist ethical relativism also fails to provide for individuals who belong to more than one culture (Ondego, 2015). What cultural practices should one follow and consider as ethically right or wrong if they belong to two different cultures? For instance, in the case of female genital mutilation, an individual may subscribe to both their religious views which oppose the practice and their traditional belief system in support of the practice. How then does one determine what to subscribe to as ethically and morally right?
In conclusion, conventionalist ethical relativism is greatly flawed and has many loose ends. The argument that what is considered ethically right within one culture is right for its people and should not be questioned or justified causes oppression and cultural imperialism. Furthermore, there are no criteria to determine what exactly makes up a culture and who determines what that culture considers to be ethically right. conventionalist ethical relativism also provides a loophole for denying individuals their human rights and freedoms simply by belonging to a particular culture.
Hobbes, c. (2011). Moral Relativism vs. Moral Objectivism: Conventionalism.
Ondego, J. (2015). Differences Between Ethical Relativism And Ethical Objectivism.
Walsh, K. (2010). Moral Absolutism: a Response to Relativists.
Yount, D. (2017). Ethical Relativism: What it is, and objections thereagainst.
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