The Ethics of Human Rights (14): Is Morality Linked to Culture and Culturally Relative?

Is morality linked to culture? Or, in other words, is morality culturally relative? Does every culture have its own moral rules? This is relevant from a human rights perspective because human rights can be seen as moral rules for humanity. However, if morality is culturally relative, then this is a problem. Universality of moral rules then seems to be impossible and without universal moral rules it is difficult if not impossible to judge the practices of another culture. These practices may seem morally wrong from the viewpoint of the culture of the West for example, but the rules of the West, i.e. human rights, only apply within the morality of the West. Other cultures have their own rules and can only be judged by their own rules. One cannot apply the rules of American football to European soccer or vice versa.

As is often the case, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Whereas some moral rules are obviously very specific to particular cultures, other rules are globally accepted (which doesn’t mean respected). It follows that both extremes, imperialism and isolationism, are wrong. Human rights promoters should not go about and destroy cultural diversity, but cultural diversity is not the ultimate goal either. Cultures should not be isolated from human rights criticism. Individual rights matter just as much, if not more, than the rights of cultures. After all, if culture is important, it’s because it’s important for individuals.

The Cognitive Evolution Laboratory of Harvard University has started a project aimed at showing that morality is in essence universal. It has created a moral sense test which everyone can fill in (it’s available here, and takes less than 10 minutes to fill in; you’ll help these people by doing it).

3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (14): Is Morality Linked to Culture and Culturally Relative?”

  1. Filip Spagnoli, I think you’re being sort of contradictory here. You want to have your cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, I do not believe morality is so generous. Descriptive ethics does indeed show us that morality is understood and defined differently from culture to culture. Philosophical ethics, however, would suggest that there is universal morality, as you point out. Moral universalism is central to this idea. However, if we accept moral universalism, then we cannot say that because a culture rejects a particular human right out of cultural preference, for example, they are acting morally. Instead, we must apply the rule universally. What is wrong for one culture to do is always wrong for another. There cannot be exceptions in the name “cultural diversity.” Doing so abandons the principle of universality.

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