Anyone who has ever been introduced into a culture different from their own should take notice of all the things that make the two cultures unique: food, manners and customs, dress, values, and so on. We are able to view and evaluate our won culture best when we have something with which to compare it. It is certainly so necessary to be observant learners in the cultures in which we find ourselves when we travel and we often find that we can learn to look at things from a very different viewpoint and decide to try to adopt or not adopt some of the cultural values we’ve experienced.
However, there are so many people today who claim that morality is nothing more than a culturally constructed system particular to different communities. As the world becomes increasingly global and metropolitan in the constant mixing of cultures many young people have come to the conclusion that if not everyone in the world shares the same viewpoint on the things we might hold most dear and might not hold those things dear at all then morality – right and wrong – are objectively different for each culture. This is a very important assertion because it is saying that you and I only believe what we believe about right and wrong because our society told us to and that in the end there is no real standard of right and wrong. As the song says, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” and many would say “it’s moral somewhere.”
Are right and wrong just a matter of longitude and latitude? Whether or not this belief is internally consistent, that is, if it makes any sense, or not is certainly in need of examination. But so is the question of whether or not this belief in the cultural relativism of morality is something that its proponents truly believe in the first place.
In early December 2011 the Obama administration, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her address to the UN in Geneva, called for countries around the world to protect the rights of homosexuality as basic human rights. Whether or not the category of rights is the proper category for this discussion as this presents a complicated moral and cultural issue in itself, is not within the scope of our purposes here. What this story should reveal is that while many believe that morality is cultural they would also see Clinton’s prescription to other cultures to adopt a certain value system as moral as well. How many who asked whether the Iraqis and Afghanis wanted the West to bring them democracy would not care whether or not they wanted the institutional acceptance of homosexuality?
If morality is cultural then anything can be morally accepted somewhere and one culture has no leg on which to stand when it tries to push its morality on another culture. But if it wants to make those prescriptions then it must admit that it does not truly believe in the cultural relativity of morality and seek to find what it is that it believes are the moral absolutes that span time and place. Perhaps the moral relativists are more absolutist than they see.