The philosopher James Rachels, in his book, “ The Elements of Moral Philosophy” defines Cultural Relativism theory as follow: different cultures have different morals codes, there is nothing like right or wrong and right or wrong is just matter of opinion which can varies from culture to culture (14). Cultural Relativism theory strongly opposes the idea of criticizing other cultures and believes that one should not judge others according to their own believes and moral codes. For instance, eating food with hands in one culture doesn’t means that they are uncivilized or primitive rather it is the way they eat. According to Cultural Relativism theory there is nothing like universal truth or objective standards to evaluate truth. Therefore, judging others seems to be a sign of arrogance and lack of tolerance towards others. Many scholars strongly believe in Cultural Relativism theory and show reluctance towards criticizing other cultures and at the same time some other scholars have contrary views towards this theory.
However, according to Rachels and other philosophers there are certain advantages of Cultural Relativism theory in general and particularly this theory is important because no one can claims to be good and superior to others. In other way it is easy to have a diverse society if people believe in Cultural Relativism theory because no one will judge others and everyone may have a better chance to live their life according to their own moral codes. On the other hand Rachels also talks about critics who highlight many drawbacks of Cultural Relativism theory. For example, Firstly, one cannot criticize on others cultural norms, such as, slavery, sati, female genital mutilation, etc (19). Secondly, one cannot say that certain actions are right or wrong. For instance, according to Cultural Relativism theory we cannot say that Hitler and Nazi forces were wrong (20). Thirdly, many critics say that according to Cultural Relativism theory the idea of progress in society doesn’t make any sense. Some positive changes are happening in certain societies which are considered beneficial by most of the people, such as equal rights for women, but according to Cultural Relativists there is no room for such type of progress in any society (20). These are considered as some general drawbacks of Cultural Relativism theory. This paper will particularly discuss female genital mutilation with the help of Cultural Relativism theory.
First of all what is female genital mutilation and why it is worthy to discus about? Female genital mutilation is defined by the World Health Organization as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” (WHO). Female genital mutilation is common in many African countries and today it is one of the controversial customs of Twenty first century. Many African people and even some non-African people are opposing this custom because of health issues caused by it. If we study female genital mutilation according to Cultural Relativism theory then it is very difficult to say that female genital mutilation is wrong and it should not be practice in any society. Since, Cultural Relativism theory says that there is nothing like right or wrong and it is just a matter of opinion and opinion varies from cultural to cultural. Thus, before deciding either female genital mutilation is right or wrong we will see some advantages of this custom according to some African cultures and we will also see some drawbacks of this custom in general.
According Yael Tamir, professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University, proponents of female genital mutilation believe that clitoridectomy or female genital mutilation help women to restrict their sexual desires and therefore, they can be more righteous wives and mothers (Tamir). Some African cultures believe that females are more vulnerable for sexual desires which may lead to social problems. On the other hand, if we study medical consequences of female genital mutilation one can only get disadvantages from such cultural norms. Rachels, highlights many drawbacks of female genital mutilation in his book, “The Elements of Moral Philosophy” such as it is painful and one cannot have sexual pleasure, it also causes “hemorrhage, tetanus, septicemia, sometimes women die, chronic infection, hinder in walking and continuing pain” (27). Despite of having this many disadvantages of female genital mutilation Cultural Relativism theory deny that this practice is wrong. I do agree that one cannot easily say right or wrong to any particular cultural norm. But it doesn’t means that even after having scientific or medical proofs against certain cultural norm still we should support it only because we cannot be judgmental.
May be ethics may not has universal truth but we do have many things which are medically or scientifically considered right or wrong. Female genital mutilation is one of them which are proven to be wrong by medical science or by other branches of science. Cultural Relativism theory may be useful to evaluate some other cultural norms in certain societies to maintain equality, but it can’t be use to evaluate every social problem in any society. In fact, this theory has its own benefits but it has also some limitations. For example, some norms which are proven by science as right or wrong due to different reasons should be considered right or wrong by society too. Therefore, we can say that some norms which are harmful for health or even threaten for human life should be amended by societies. In addition to this, Cultural Relativism theory says that there isn’t any universal truth. This doesn’t seems persuasive enough because some scholars believe that in one way or other human beings have same values but their believes are different from each other (20). For example, Rachels explains that almost in every society people respect life but it is not necessary that how they define respect and how they practice respect in their society (23). So we can say that universal truth is present but people have different believes due to which their practices are vary from culture to culture.
Further, if we talk about reforms and other progresses in different societies shall we say that those reforms are judgmental and it is not good to have such reforms in any society? Should we say that reformers are judgmental people and they don’t have tolerance for other cultures or even for their culture? If this is true then why so many reformers are celebrated by many nations and bestowed so many prizes and titles? Here again we come up with one of the limitations of Cultural Relativism theory. Most scholars believe that over the time changes are needed by certain societies, but it doesn’t means that those norms are wrong and people who used to practice them were stupid. Rather we can say that some practices were applicable in certain time period are no longer have the same importance or need in other time period (22). Here, if we relate this concept with female genital mutilation we can say that in past this norm had importance and was considered necessary in some societies, but due to progress in medical science importance of this norm is lessened and no longer seems to be needed. However, changes in moral codes are continuously occurring in societies and most of them have certain good reasons but not all changes can be beneficial.
Finally, Cultural Relativism theory does has some social advantages but it also has some limitations therefore we cannot evaluate every social problem only with the help of this theory. Even the defender of Cultural Relativism theory, Ruth Benedict, an American anthropologist, herself accepted the limitations of this theory during Civil Rights Moment in 1960s (Class Lecture). So before having a final decision about any cultural norm we should consider all aspects of that particular norm in that society, such as ethical, social, medical, etc. In fact, cultural norms, ethical values, new innovation in science and medicine all have mostly a common purpose and that is to ensure well being of humans. Therefore, if any moral code has more disadvantages over its advantages for human beings it seems pretty obvious that we should change that moral code. For example, slavery, gender discrimination, sati and many other norms have being changed. Thus, female genital mutilation should also be change because it has so many medical issues and have very few or apparently no advantage for women in any society.
“Female Genital Mutilation.” World Health Organization. WHO 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
Rachels, Stuart, and James Rachels. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 7th ed. n. pag. 16-31.
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Tamir, Yael. “Hands Off Clitoridectomy.” Rev. of Boston Review. Boston Review BR Ideas
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