Cultural relativism asserts that it is a particular culture’s belief in a practice or a custom that determines its moral status. Who are we westerners to pass judgment on an activity that is an acceptable part of another culture?
Side-stepping for now the fact that in reality most of us would have a hard time swallowing the belief that cannibalism is OK because it was culturally acceptable in some cultures, consider the logic as well as the practice. It is clear that some cultures did once believe cannibalism to be acceptable whereas now they see it to be wrong. This indicates that cultures, like individuals, change their minds. But does the uncertainty of changing beliefs mean that there is no certainty in fact?
What if a culture changed its mind in the opposite direction? William Gairdner invites us to imagine a society that believes cannibalism is wrong today but changes its opinion tomorrow (in The Book of Absolutes, p.38). Surely the day-to-day fluctuations in public opinion polls do not determine the objective nature of the practice? So Gairdner asks us:
What percentage of ‘a people’ is needed before we can say that something is right for a people when a huge percentage of the same people may disagree?
Remember: this is the dilemma relativists face as they assess the Nazi atrocities, trying to decide if a big enough majority constitutes cultural moral approval. Gairdner continues:
If we answer 50% plus one, we are then applying a specifically Western majoritarian concept to other societies to judge their relativism absolutely ... But ... if a society is exactly decided except for one person, that one person may walk across the floor, so to speak, and (according to our theory) alter the public ‘beliefs’ of the entire people. He or she may then walk back again and alter them once more. (The Book of Absolutes, p.38).
There are numerous issues here. For example, it is impossible to define the notion of what is “culturally acceptable” to any people group, for they are to some degree internally divided. Furthermore, imposing a western democratic principle of 50%+1 to solve the dilemma requires an assumption that this democratic principle is morally right – and not all will agree with that. It also makes any notion of morality as fleeting as are the fortunes of western political parties in the fickleness of opinion polls.
Fortunately we do not have to live in the swirling currents of cultural relativism. We are not given the freedom to decide by a vote on matters on which God has spoken.