Moral absolutism versus Cultural relativism: An argumentative piece
| In the last century alone, we have seen incidents that beg us to question how we define what is right and wrong: Nazi Germany saw millions of Jewish people to their deaths in the name of racial purity and the Aryan ideal. The people of South Africa had their rights to a fair wage, education and even the right to love decided by the colour of their skin. The relativist who would feel good about all the niceness of their politically correct philosophy may soon forget the darker side of things that can be seen in those examples—if culture defines what is right and wrong, then how can we say that those incidents were not “right”, when the culture of its perpetrators saw nothing wrong about it? While certainly it could be argued that not everyone within Germany was anti-semitic, culture, as we know, is defined by the majority. Would such a horrifying regime have gone to the heights that it did if the people had not supported it?
The line between right and wrong is a fuzzy one, easily warped by society to suit its own needs and wants, which may not even be the same for different societies. Absolutism holds certain standards against which all acts are to be judged against, regardless of circumstance. As dictator-like as such a practice may sound, might it be the lesser of the two evils if it condemns acts that harm other humans, which is we generally agree on to be a bad thing, where it might have otherwise been approved and practiced?
Human rights and working conditions are sometimes a less than primary concern for employers in poorer developing countries, where people work for a fraction of the wage that workers in more well-off nations would consider ‘minimal’. Would the relativist argue then that harassing and bullying your employees and getting paid lint is “fair” and “right”, since it is simply the norm there? At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I would say that sometimes, it is necessary, for the wellbeing of other humans, to “educate” and “correct” people on their beliefs and practices, which could otherwise lead to much grief on the part of the downtrodden, who in reality have no real say in matters.
Another painfully evident case where intervention of other “cultures” and perspectives are needed is with the practice of traditional mutilation. From the infamous Chinese foot-binding practice that is now no longer practiced to female genital mutilation that is still prevalent in countries like Africa and Egypt, these practices were only stopped (or entered the process of being stopped) when other people, outside of the culture that saw it as “right”, came in and educated them on the health hazard, as well as cruelty, that were these practices.
As we humans grow increasingly “modern”, focus is turning to the invidividual pursuit of happiness and the more sentimental side of life. The outlawing of corporal punishment in most western countries came about when parents wanted more say in the way their children were taught, as well as the slow realization that such discipline was damaging to the child psyche. Do we allow it then, if people from other cultures, who were raised with strict enforcement of discipline, to thusly discipline their own children? When we know that the child faces harm of the physical kind, while (mostly) not permanent, may leave a scar of the psychological and mental sort?
While other cultures may be unique in their customs and ways, practices that infringe on a basic human right and ethics such as the right to live or the right to safety and happiness should not be accepted. It may be argued that moral absolutism takes away freedom and masks cultural imperialism, but when weighed against the harm of another being, I would, in clear conscience, side with the lesser of two imperfections.