Cultural relativism is a thesis according to which, beliefs and mental activities of an individual are relative to the culture, which the individual in question belongs to. In its radical version, cultural relativism considers that cultural diversity requires that the activities and beliefs of an individual must be understood and analyzed from the point of view of its culture.
Although Franz Boas has never used the term himself, through him the American School of anthropology, was an ardent advocate of a strong form of cultural relativism at the very beginning of the 20th century, opposing proponents of universalism.
Cultural relativism is sometimes reduced to its component of moral relativism also known as ethical relativism, a thesis claiming that it is not possible to determine absolute or universal moral but that moral values are worth within cultural boundaries, where the moral code is the product of the customs and institutions traditional for the relevant human group.
Linguistic relativism is a form of cultural relativism, which considers that language influences our vision of the world and that, therefore, the mental representations of individuals speaking different languages differ also. This is the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Cultural relativism is a thesis little defended before the 19th century. It can be found, in some way, in Herodotus, in which he described the manners and customs of the peoples he had visited without estimation from outside. It can also be found among the skeptics who questioned it in more general relation to the truth. Plato in the Theaetetus describes Protagoras in controversial manner as one of the advocates of an individual relativism.
The idea of Protagoras was that “man is the measure of all things.” Protagoras considered that what each individual believes is true for him. In this sense, it can be considered a precursor philosophy of cultural relativism, in which each individual believe is real what the culture he lives in considers real. Relativistic thinking denies the possibility to share a morality, except by cultural convention indeed.
Cultural relativism is sometimes placed in contrast to ethnocentrism: judging the moral standard of a member of another corporation is a form of ethnocentrism; some cultural relativists believe that people can be judged only in the light of the moral code of their own society, others consider that given that moral codes differ between the various companies only common parts of these codes can be used to issuesuch judgments.
A consequence of this point of view is that any judgment of a society based on the moral code of the observer is invalid; individuals must be judged according to the norms of their society and there is no broader context in which these judgements are correct. This is a source of conflict between relativistic and absolute morality because, for the latter, a society as a whole can be judged for its acceptance of immoral practices such as slavery, the retention of women in a position of inferiority or the death penalty.
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