Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

Cultural Relativism | September 6, 2008

It’s pretty easy to find an event to debunk Cultural Relativism, but I think the Protestant Reformation is a pretty good example. Catholicism was dominant in European culture, and dictated the morals of the culture. One of the morals it dictated was that the Catholic Church held all moral authority, and if you challenged the Church you were an immoral person. The Protestant peoples were themselves once Catholic, and so by Relativistic logic they were being immoral. Of course, they didn’t think that, they thought that the Catholic Church itself was being immoral, and thus Catholic Culture (their dominant culture) was immoral. In response they threw off Catholicism and branded themselves as a new cultural group: Protestants. How can Cultural Relativism deal with the divergence of cultures? For cultures to form, they must first begin to break (and cast off) old moral rules. Cultural Relativism deals only with a very modern perspective of history, not with the dynamic and fuzzy nature of cultures as they’ve actually grown. As a Protestant you have certain moral values different from Catholics, but that could only be done by breaking the rules of authority. So then, are Protestants their own cultural group, or just a bunch of bad Catholics? Cultural Relativism supplies no answer for this, which is part of the problem with relying on such a nebulous concept as “culture”.


1 Comment »

  1. I like your example. It’s a good instance of one of the consequences of CR that Rachels pays special attention to: CR’s failure to recognize the possibility that one’s own cultural moral beliefs are incorrect. After all, if CR is correct, then whatever a culture believes is moral actually is moral – there’s no conceivable way that those beliefs could turn out false, given the CR definition of moral truth. But examples like the one you give here show that this is an untenable position – certainly sometimes a small group of reformers can change a culture’s moral beliefs for the better, closer to the true moral standard.

    Comment by Boone B. Gorges — September 7, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

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