Difference Between Cultural Relativism and Moral Relativism

Cultural Relativism vs Moral Relativism
 

There is only a subtle difference between cultural relativism and moral relativism, making it difficulty to understand the difference. To understand the difference clearly, first, you should understand what each term stands for. We live in a world full of diversity. There are very little universal, overriding values and norms, which are applicable to all human beings. This is because people belong to different nations, cultures, religions and even ethnic groups. In such a context, tolerance of the other is vital. Cultural and moral relativism brings to perspective this diversity in people. Cultural relativism is the awareness that people behave according to their own culture  and judgments should be made based on their respective culture. On the other hand, moral relativism refers to the fact that the morality of an individual action is also relative based on the cultural, religious and philosophical standing of a context or community. This article attempts to highlight this difference through an understanding of the two terms.

What is Cultural Relativism?

When paying attention to cultural relativism, it can be defined as the need to view the actions or activities belonging to a certain culture, based on the values, and norms within that particular cultural context. This highlights that one cannot judge the behaviour, or thinking patterns of people through the application of values of an alien culture. This is especially significant in anthropological studies, where the researcher has to realize the behaviour through the respective culture and not by the cultural attributes of the researcher. This also highlights that no culture is superior and all norms, values of cultures are of the equal status. Let us try to understand this through an example. In the rural settings of Asian countries, the belief systems of various gods and spirits is rather high. People in such settings place trust in these gods and rely on them to cure their illnesses. To a person from a modern, urban setting, this may look completely ridiculous. Yet the person has to understand the rituals and practices through the eyes of the people within the context. This is to be culturally relative.

Difference Between Cultural Relativism and Moral Relativism - Example for Cultural Relativism

Performing a ritual for a sick lady

What is Moral Relativism?

Moral relativism denotes that the moral judgments are based on the context with emphasis on religion, culture, and even philosophy. Once again, moral relativism stresses that there is no such thing as universal morality. This denial of universality allows researchers to seek the unique function of each moral belief. Sometimes , within the same context, the moral judgments of one time period may be considered as immoral in another. Let us understand this through an example. In Sri Lanka, sometime back, polygamy was in practice. The reason for this practice was so that the land would not go out of the family. However, in the present, polygamy is looked upon as immoral and monogamy is accepted and considered as moral.

What is the difference between Cultural Relativism and Moral Relativism?

• Cultural relativism is the awareness that people behave according to their own culture, and the judgments should be made based on their respective culture.

• Moral relativism refers to the fact that the morality of an individual action is also relative to the cultural, religious, and philosophical standing of a community.

• In both cases, universality is rejected.

 

Images Courtesy: Performing a ritual for a sick lady by Bhutan Cultural Atlas