Our politics, laws, and social activities are all shaped by our standards of morals and ethics. As time progressed through human history, the interactions between variously different cultures have occurred more frequently; thereby, creating a philosophical dilemma in dealing with different societies with very different sets of moral values. Now entering the modern era, comprehension of inter-cultural relationships is extremely important and relevant, as corporations encompass a greater number of nations around the world, and global participation becomes the driving force of the economic mechanics.
The concept of morality is much too varied and intricate to comprehend, even though every human individual has a certain set of morals or a code of ethics that they live by day to day. These sets of morals are diverse, as much or more so than the number of different cultures that exist on the Earth. It is the diversity of the human moral code that creates a potentially problematic situation for cross-cultural understanding, international cooperation, and the larger scheme of globalization.
Since different societies function on a different set of moral values, we need to further understand how relationships between different moral societies take place, and whether or not comparisons can be made between dissimilar cultural morals. The approach to determining a method of comparison can be divided into two large schools of thoughts: moral relativism, and moral absolutism (Hinman, 2005).
I would like to begin my evaluation of moral relativism by further exploring the concept. The primary ideas of moral relativism are that moral differences between societies around the world should be accepted and tolerated as being unique onto their own (Hinman, 2005).
Moral relativism is the stance that judgement between different morals cannot be made. This is because in order to formulate a judgement you must compare one set of morals onto your own (Hinman, 2005).
It is neither suitable, nor incompatible to compare one’s own culture from another, primarily because the understanding of moral normality differs from society to society. Normality is defined by Ruth Benedict as being a “variant of the concept of the good…one which falls well within the limits of expected behaviour for a particular society” (Benedict, 1993, p.166). This concept is further reinforced by a quote from Ruth Benedict that, “normality is culturally defined” (Benedict, 1993, p.165), meaning that it is the collection of individuals within a society with similar thoughts on what is ‘right and wrong’ that create morality.
If the cultural boundaries of a society characterize its own realm of moral normality, then greatly different cultures compared together will have an equally great difference in their moral attributes. This in turn will make it difficult for a collaborative relationship to take place between morally polar cultures, since their differences in moral values differ. Relativism is a thought more commonly expressed and demonstrated in our own Canadian multicultural society.
Canada is the central hub when it comes to foreign immigration from various places around the world. The United States, similarly to Canada also welcomes immigrants into their country; however, immigration policies are set in place to eventually Americanize the new immigrants into a homogeneous ‘melting pot’. Canadian society on the other hand, has a long standing history of tolerance and morally relativity.
Therefore, immigrants living in Canada retain much of their native morals, and even find it comfortable to continue practicing those values within the greater Canadian moral scheme. There are however, problems in a morally relevant society, especially in a multicultural environment where all that is done is simply acknowledging different cultural values. Although relativism preaches tolerance, it does not however make any attempt to view foreign moral standards critically in the slightest and therefore, moral relativism allows for the stagnation of a set of morals.
Relativism is flawed in the sense that it leaves the potential for collective achievement undermined, and this can lead to social barriers within the society. Division is created within the society, according to various groups sharing similar moral values, or cultural beliefs. This division creates boundaries and the labelling of certain groups attributed to certain cultural values, as well as creating economic boundaries. Cross-cultural moral relativism in Toronto creates ethnic enclaves within the city, where much of the economic movement is done intra-culturally.
Division will ultimately damage the collective thought, since relativism denies the ability to compare one society’s morals to another, since there is no common ground. The common moral ground cannot be found in relativistic ideals, since relativism is the acknowledgement of accepting the moral fact that different cultures have different sets of moral values; hence, is no reason to create commonality between them.
The attempt to create commonality however, is found in the thoughts of moral absolutism. Absolutism is the search to find the single, right, universal morality. It is the belief that, unlike relativism, all other moralities are flawed, and therefore one’s own moral values are solely valid (Hinmin, 2005). Absolutism raises thoughts that relativism fails to address, thus creating polar ends on the moral scale. There lies a fundamental problem in relativism, stemming from a lack of attempt to create a standard moral view shared by every different society, so we can reconstruct an understanding of how their different morals came to existence. Without a point of reference, studying the evolution and origins of other moral values is rather woolly, if not outright ambiguous. In order to find this universal morality, it is imperative to break down human behaviour and thought into its most basic, primitive, and raw form. In the book by Charles Taylor, titled Modern Social Imaginaries, he included a quote by Grotius which states,
“Human beings are rational, sociable agents who are meant to collaborate in peace to their mutual benefit” (Taylor, 2002, p.3). In other words, the primary drive of all human beings is the will for survival, since all decisions, actions, thoughts, and technological innovations from the beginning of humanity were focused on “what is [morally] right is what promotes survival” (Hospers, 1993, p.171). John Hospers provides an interesting thought on critiquing relativism where he states that, “different groups may be using the same basic moral principles but applying them in different ways to different situations” (Hospers, 1993, p.171). The fundamental morality which Hospers is referring to is the capacity to live.