Relativism: Is it wrong to judge other cultures? | BBC Ideas

Relativism: Is it wrong to judge other cultures? | BBC Ideas


The A to Z of isms… relativism. Moral relativism is the view that
what’s right in one culture may be wrong in another, and that there’s no way of judging
between the two – it’s all relative. There’s no absolute truth
of the matter. Different strokes
for different folks – and that’s OK. Imagine a Martian landing on Earth – she would see that people behave
differently in different places. They’ve got different moral rules,
different social customs. What’s right in one location
is wrong in another. She might well conclude that there’s no such thing
as ‘the right way to live’ or the ‘right thing to do’
for everyone at all times. It’s all a matter of cultural norms. So in parts of Spain,
bullfighting is seen as a spectacle, whereas in many other countries
it’s considered outrageous cruelty. Try setting up a bull ring in
present-day London, for instance. If the visiting Martian could get an
overview of the history of the world, she’d see that
in Ancient Rome it was fine to have gladiatorial combat
to the death and to own slaves, but that both practices
would be widely frowned upon in present-day Rome. Or Amsterdam. Or elsewhere. Attending fights to the death
and keeping slaves was acceptable for the Romans,
but would be wrong in today’s Europe. This sort of relativism has been
popular with some anthropologists, who’ve attempted to appreciate
other cultures from within, understanding sets
of interwoven practices as responses to particular
circumstances and traditions. They recognise that morality
is different in different cultures, and they often argue
that it’s ethnocentric to impose your own set of values
elsewhere, as if you know best. Such non-judgmental relativism
might seem attractive, but think about Nazi Germany. There it became socially acceptable,
and even required, to treat Jews, homosexuals,
and Gypsies as less than human. This became ‘right’ there,
both legally and morally. A relativist would simply
have to bite the bullet, and say that that was indeed
‘right’ for Nazi Germany – that’s what morality meant there – and that a morality which treats
everybody with equal respect is no better or worse than
the Nazi way of doing things – just different. Unless you want to embrace that
sort of repugnant conclusion, it’s probably best to steer clear
of moral relativism. Some people go further, and say that
everything is relative, even truth. That what is true at one time
and one place isn’t true for everyone everywhere. Or that there’s no such thing
as objective truth, just the truth according to me. We see hints of this
in politics today. There is a big problem
with this sort of relativism though, the theory of relativism itself
would have to, on its own account, be relative. So the theory that truth is relative
couldn’t be absolutely true. Thanks for watching.
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6 thoughts on “Relativism: Is it wrong to judge other cultures? | BBC Ideas

  1. "keep slaves was acceptable for tthe romans,but would be wrong in today's Europe"

    ahah not in the muslim today europe

  2. The truth that relativism is relative, couldn't be absolutely true.

    Well, that's the perfect description of relativism, isn't it.

  3. When Walter White was making drugs for other adults – who were other Americans to judge that he was immoral? It was immoral because the drugs tend to make people addictive and we lose soldiers of society. But what if that fellowship is defined by religion? So incarcerating people for consenting drug transaction is "same" as incarceration for blasphemy. That is moral relativism.

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