Ethics For Designers: What’s Cultural Relativism?

When your moral principles are what your society approves of.

As explained in my introduction to this series, moral philosophy is mainly about trying to define what’s “good”, what’s “bad”, and how we act on the basis of these definitions. It’s about how we make decisions.

This is maybe one popular and relatively well-known position: cultural relativism (CR). It can be defined as such: “Good” means “socially approved”. In other words, it claims that good and bad are relative to culture.

This concept has been popularized by anthropology and first introduced in 1887 by Franz Boas in his early work: “civilization is not something absolute but is relative, and our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes”. Cultural relativism finds its roots in the German enlightenment (but differ from), such as in the ideas developed by Immanuel Kant and Johann G. Herder, as well as in sociology (i.e. ethnocentrism).

It is important to understand that cultural relativism is both a moral position (as such) as well as a practical tool for analysis. Developed for anthropological research, the idea was to:

  1. raise awareness of the researcher’s own ethnocentrism and potential bias toward other cultures;

Again, I insist on the distinction between a research tool and a moral position (or framework) as the goals are quite different. In the first case, we aim for a non-judgemental, observational, and as unbiased as possible view on the subject under analysis. In the second case, we aim for a moral compass, the kind that helps us determine what’s good or not, and make concrete decisions. We will see later why it is important.

Cultural Relativism Metaethics

Let’s go a bit deeper into the moral stand behind cultural relativism (CR). Here I’ll try to make an argument for CR and later, we’ll see some of the moral issues it raises.

The Relativism Argument

In its view, morality is a cultural construct: there are intrinsic moral differences between each society. The norms you were taught are those of your own society and other societies have different ones. As a society’s culture creates different styles of food and clothing, they also create different moral codes.

A common example of this is the belief that infanticide is wrong. You were probably taught this as objective truth, but it isn’t: when we say “infanticide is wrong” this means that our society disapproves of it. For instance, in ancient Greece and Rome, some forms of infanticide were commonly practiced and considered right (see here and here).

As such, there is no sense in asking what is correct. Romans’ view is true relative to their culture, and our view is true relative to ours. And here we come to the main point of cultural relativism: there are no objective truths about right or wrong, and to claim otherwise is just imposing our culturally taught attitudes. Good is, therefore, a relative term and needs a further reference to complete its sense.

Similarly, something isn’t “good” absolutely, but only “good in this or that society”. In the same way, goals are not intrinsically good or bad, neither are behaviors intrinsically virtuous. We don’t have absolute moral rights, but, instead, society decides such questions for its members and different societies may decide them in very different ways.

Lastly, to extend a bit the CR’s reasoning, here are some of the major arguments:

  • The cultural differences argument points out that cultures can differ radically on moral issues, like infanticide, polygamy, and women’s rights. When we speak of good or bad absolutely, we’re just absolutizing the norms of our society and taking them to be objective facts. So, in dealing with conflicting norms from another culture, we think that we’re right and they’re wrong. In other words, objectivity is a myth.

The Different Forms Of Relativism

Relativism exists in different forms, which may differ from cultural relativism. Here are some of the known forms and their differences:

Normative relativism holds that “good” is only relative to something else. This type of relativism is the closest to cultural relativism. Cultural relativism, also called cultural normative relativism makes morality relative to culture: “X is good” means “the majority (of the society in question) approves of X”. In such a context, it makes no sense to ask if slavery is “right”: it might be right in one culture but wrong in another. In other words, slavery is neither right nor wrong outside of cultural standards.

Descriptive ethical relativism holds that people factually differ in their basic moral norms. This position comes in two main forms, as we can differentiate again cultures from individuals. Here, two groups may agree on the basic norm that we ought to promote the welfare of our parents but they apply this differently because of different factual beliefs. In this sense, the implementation of similar basic values may differ from one group to another: i.e. Americans drive on the right and British on the left, but both agree that society ought to promote safe driving by having everyone drive on the same side.

Global relativism holds that everything is relative either to a culture or to an individual, not just morality. Therefore, nothing is absolutely true or false, but there are only things that are “true for a person or her culture”. Note that this is a self-refuting extreme, as it asserts that it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth.

The Issues With Cultural Relativism

I will try to cover some of the major known issues with cultural relativism (CR) as an ethical (moral) framework.

So, one big issue with what we just covered is that it forces us to conform to society’s norms. Furthermore, if what is “good” is what is “socially approved”, this means we could prove that something is good from the premise that it is socially approved. This also means that it should be contradictory for something to be socially approved but not good. In other words, if cultural relativism is true then we have to conform completely to our society’s values whatever they are: we could not disagree with them while being consistent with our moral framework.

This is absurd as we can easily affirm that some things are socially approved and deny that they are good. Think about segregation — or basically any other social issue that is or was socially accepted. Cultural relativism as a moral framework would mean that we have to conform to the view of the majority even if the majority is ignorant. And if the majority opinions change, we should have to change ours accordingly. Here, the central virtue is conformity.

In the same way, CR allows us to defend racist actions as soon as they are socially approved. It would also show any position that acknowledges such actions to be socially approved but deny them to be good as morally false — which is difficult to accept. It is not better regarding other issues: take climate change, for instance. If we follow cultural relativism, we would have to accept any view on the subject as “good” until it is the majority, and even if people accept it out of ignorance of the scientific evidence.

As such, cultural relativism denies the idea of objective values and asserts that such objectivity is a myth: we have been taught some norms by our society and we’re just taking them to be objective facts. In this respect, it entertains the idea that while there are big moral differences between societies, there is uniformity within each society since the majority decide the norms.

This tendency to oversimplify the complexity of overlapping social groups and their conflicting interests and values is a problem. At a practical level, it dismisses sub-groups dynamics, requires us to define each group’s boundaries and what values apply. For instance, as an individual, you are part of a nation, state, city, etc. as well as part of other groups (e.g. family, professional, peers, etc). Each might promote conflicting values at some points. So which norms do you follow? Which majority do you conform to? CR poorly addresses such reality.

Another important flawed argument is that “all moral beliefs are products of culture”. We can indeed agree that our culture influences our (moral) beliefs but that is not the only factor. Individual differences, such as personal experiences, feelings, and thoughts create various (moral) beliefs that may differ from those of the larger group. Our biology also dictates certain of our social instincts, as it is the case for other social animals. Religion and other constructed beliefs may call us to higher or, perhaps, different standards than our society.

Finally, even though CR seems to promote tolerance over other cultures, it does so only if it is the view of the majority: in an intolerant society, cultural relativism would mean we have to conclude this intolerance is “good”. We can also see how cultural relativism, as an ethical framework, leads to intolerance over minorities as they are not the view of the majority and, therefore, by CR standards are wrong.

Conclusion

As we saw, cultural relativism defines “good” as “socially approved” by the majority of a group, society, or culture. Here, slavery, infanticide, or racism aren’t objectively good or bad but are rather good in a culture that approves it and bad in one that disapproves it.

Despite its apparent plausibility, cultural relativism as an ethical framework raises some problems. It forces us into conformity and leads to questionable results regarding social issues such as racism, climate change, etc. It also leads to some oversimplifications regarding group dynamics. Following its reasoning, it becomes weirdly easy to support any position as soon as it is “socially accepted”.

Cultural relativism makes us accept self-contradictions. Societies may have inconsistent norms (e.g. promoting rights for liberty but limiting those of some minorities), yet cultural relativism requires us to accept all of them. Also, imagine your society disapprove of changing your beliefs to fit what most believe in. Cultural relativism requires you to not change your beliefs, but it also requires you to do it to follow the view of the majority. This is flawed.

Another topic not really discussed here is the inability for CR to resolve ethical contentions. As Peter Singer, a renowned moral philosopher, points out:

“If our society disapproves of slavery while another society approves of it, this kind of relativism gives us no basis for choosing between these conflicting views. Indeed, on a relativist analysis, there is no conflict — when I say slavery is wrong, I am really only saying that my society disapproves of slavery, and when the slave owners from the other society say that slavery is right, they are only saying that their society approves of it. Why argue? Most likely, we are both speaking the truth. –Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (p. 6).

We can, however, take away some important concepts from cultural relativism:

  • Culture influences our moral beliefs.

What It Means For Designers

So what does it mean for design decisions? What’s interesting for whatever is designed, especially if it does not yet exist, is to ask, together with your team, if what you are designing will support what’s socially approved even if this means supporting things that are arguably not good. In other words, we should not just hope for the good but also explore the potential consequences of our work.

You can do this by exercising your team to explore scenarios in which your design decisions could lead to negative outcomes.

  • Are the design decisions, the product, the service, increase/favor socially accepted norms? What are they?

Finally, designers and their teams should also ask themselves how they could measure the outcomes of their work.

Thanks for reading!
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Written by

Senior Designer & Strategist in the Swiss🇨🇭FinTech & Banking industry. Critical / Design / Systems Thinker & practitioner —Design as a catalyst for change.

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