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Practices That Are Socially or Culturally Relative

Cultural relativity derives from the fact that there are an unlimited number of alternative ways for people in social groups to go about satisfying their needs and fulfilling their desires. Those traditional ways of living within a social group or culture take on the force of habit and custom. They are handed down from one generation to another. To the individuals in a given group they seem to be the ONLY way, or the only REASONABLE way, to do things. For most people these practices guide their behavior from cradle to grave. They answer questions like this:

  • How should marriage take place? Who should be allowed to marry, under what conditions, and with what ritual or ceremony? Once married what role should the male play? What role should the female play? Are multiple marriage partners possible? Is divorce possible? Under what conditions?

  • Who should care for the children? What should they teach the children as to proper and improper ways to act? When children do not act as they are expected to act, how should they be treated?

  • When should children be accepted as adults? When should they be considered old enough to be married? Who should they be allowed to marry?

  • When children develop sensual and sexual desires, how should they be allowed to act? With whom, if anyone, should they be allowed to engage in sexual exploration and discovery? What sexual acts are considered acceptable and wholesome? What sexual acts are considered perverted or sinful?

  • How should men and women dress? To what degree should their body be exposed in public? How is nudity treated? How are those who violate these codes treated?

  • How should food be obtained and how should it be prepared? Who is responsible for the obtaining of food? Who for its preparation? How should it be served? How eaten?

  • How is the society "stratified" (into levels of power)? How is the society controlled? What belief system is used to justify the distribution of scarce goods and services and the way rituals and practices are carried out?

  • If the society develops enemies or is threatened from without, who will defend it? How will they engage in war?

  • What sorts of games, sports, or amusements will be practiced in the society? Who is allowed to engage in them?

  • What religion is taught to members of the society? Who is allowed to participate in the religious rituals or to interpret divine or spiritual teachings to the group?

  • How are grievances settled in the society? Who decides who is right and who wrong? How are violators treated?

Societies regulate virtually every aspect of a person's life—with rules, requirements, taboos, and rituals. Many of these regulations are neither right nor wrong, but simply represent social preferences and subjective choices. However, sometimes, without knowing it, social practices violate basic human rights. Then, they may be criticized. For example, if a society accepts among its social practices any form of slavery, torture, sexism, racism, persecution, murder, assault, rape, fraud, deceit, or intimidation, it is subject to ethical criticism. The question ceases to be one of social preference and relativity.

Schools and colleges often become apologists for conventional thought; faculty members often inadvertently foster the confusion between convention and ethics because they themselves have internalized the conventions of society. Education, properly so called, should foster the intellectual skills that enable students to distinguish between cultural mores and ethical precepts, between social commandments and ethical truths. In each case, when conflicts with ethical principles exist, the ethical principles should rule.

Test the Idea
Distinguishing Between Ethics and Social Conventions

Prior to and during the civil rights movement in the United States, many whites believed that African Americans were intellectually inferior to them. This belief gave rise to laws that denied African Americans basic human rights. It would be hard to find a clearer case of socially accepted conventions leading to socially defended unethical practices.

Identify one newspaper article that embodies the confusion between social conventions and ethical principles. What we are looking for is an article in which a commonly held social belief results in the denial of some person's or group's basic human right(s):

  1. The substance of this article is…

  2. The reason this article implies at least one violation of human rights is…

  3. The universal ethical principle(s) violated was/were…

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