Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ethical Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism is the form of moral relativism that holds that all ethical truth is relative to a specified culture. According to cultural relativism, it is never true to say simply that a certain kind of behaviour is right or wrong; rather, it can only ever be true that a certain kind of behaviour is right or wrong, relative to a specified society.
The strength of cultural relativism is that allows us to hold fast to our moral intuitions without having to be judgemental about other societies that do not share those intuitions. If we reject cultural relativism then we face a difficulty: if we are to be consistent about our moral beliefs then it seems that we ought to condemn those past societies that have not conformed to our moral code and perhaps even seek to impose our moral code on those present societies that do not already accept it.
On cultural relativism, our moral code applies only to our own society, so there is no pressure on us to hold others to our moral standards at all. On cultural relativism, we can say quite consistently that equality in the workplace is a moral necessity in our society but is inappropriate elsewhere around the globe. In an age where tolerance is increasingly being seen as the most important virtue of all, this can seem to be an attractive position.
This strength of cultural relativism, however, is also its weakness. Cultural relativism excuses us from judging the moral status of other cultures in cases where doing so seems to be inappropriate, but it also renders us powerless to judge the moral status of other cultures in cases where doing so seems to be necessary. Faced with a culture that deems slavery morally acceptable, it seems to be appropriate to judge that society to be morally inferior to our own.
Cultural relativism, as it has been called, challenges our ordinary belief in the objectivity and universality of moral truth. It says, in effect, that there is no such thing as universal truth in ethics; there are only the various cultural codes, and nothing more.
Many thinkers believe that different cultures have different moral codes, thus generating a system of cultural relativism. A good example of such theories can be found in anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s popular book Patterns of Culture (1934). What one believes and does depends simply on where you are, according to Benedict. For example, in Mexico a journalist may well moonlight for a politician in the evenings, and there is nothing unethical about it, whereas in the United States such a practice would be considered unethical. The believer in ethical cultural relativism would claim that there is no objective standard by which we can call one societal code better than another, that different societies or cultures have differing ethical codes, that one’s own moral code has no advantage over others, that there is no universal truth in ethics, and that it is nothing more than arrogance for us to judge the conduct of other peoples. Cultural relativism is closely related to contextual (sometimes called situation) ethics.
Journalism is traditionally practiced through news organizations such as newspapers, broadcasting stations or news web sites. These organizations have their individual modes of operations and cultural expectations, but they are part of a larger culture in which the profession is practiced. Journalists do not work alone. They are part of a larger culture that has its conventions and norms. Journalist must be grounded in matters pertaining to the national interest of societies within his scope of operation.