One very common way this manifests itself is the all-to-common response, "Well, you're a white male!" This is a response that is becoming much more frequent, in discussions of a whole host of social issues. However, it has deeply flawed presuppositions, given that it stems from a relativistic mode of thinking. The way it does so is that it emphasizes the role that subcultures play in our day to day interactions. Since one subculture(White, heterosexual men) may have differing values than another group(White women, for instance) the values are relative to those groups, and the individuals within them. Hence, we have culturally relative values.
Cultural relativism, known also as "Society Does Relativism"(A term coined by Greg Koukl and Francis J Beckwith; Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted In Mid-Air) is probably the most common ethical theory taught in sociology courses today, right after Marxism and Utilitarianism. The theory goes like this: "Since different societies have differing standards of what is right and what is wrong, one society has no say over the ethical issues involved in another society."
This view is very popular among intellectuals today, and is the basis for much of sociological and anthropological study. One college textbook, A New History of Asian America, is a prime example, since it assumes this view outright, by critiquing the practices of European colonial powers, from the beginnings of the modern West, all the way to the present age, while holding the position that since the European Empires tried to influence cultural and ethical customs in different cultures, various human rights abuses were bound to be the result. (Note: the book was very well-researched and argued it's case persuasively; I do recommend it for aiding further study)
It is easy to see why, today, many social issues where questions of race and gender are going to be raised, tempers will flare. I have personally been told while doing pro-life outreach on the campus that since I am a white male, my point of view is no more valid than someone of another race or gender. This is one big reason why colleges tend to set up ethnic and gender based resource centers. College students are taught to assume that varying life experience's, based on race, gender, and other factors, all hold equal weight in the major issues of today. This, again, is an example of how cultural relativism has influenced ethical though within our society.
Several Key Flaws:
There are several key flaws in this line of thinking, that I think if they are addressed, can make discourse on controversial topics much more successful in the long run. For those who wish to learn more, I highly recommend Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith's book, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. I will be using many of the concepts from this work through the rest of this piece. Since the idea behind cultural relativism is that moral values are relative to the cultures they originate in, I will specifically be addressing this claim here. However, many of the same flaws also apply to individual relativism, given it's similar philosophy. "Says Who?" is the common slogan of the relativist, but if we take this line of thinking to where it will logically lead us, we will see that it is ultimately bankrupt.(As Greg Koukl has said elsewhere, we "Take The Roof Off" of the idea, and see what is left standing)
Flaw #1: Cultural Relativists cannot accuse other cultures of wrongdoing:
While this is a common objection that is raised by cultural relativists when they are examining the actions of other people groups, many times they fail to see that their line of reasoning also nullifies their own critique. For example, in my class on Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities last fall, the professor criticized the notion of Christian missionaries "imposing" their religious view on the people's in Asia and the Pacific they were encountering. The professor had remarked "Who were they to impose their cultural values on someone else?" Unfortunately, this also ends up being an example of "imposing" ones own cultural values. If a student had raised her hand and said "Professor, who are you to say that they cannot do that? Aren't you imposing your cultural values on them?" I have a hard time seeing how one can respond to this while still maintaining their relativism. If the professor had said "Well, obviously it was evil." Then she has rejected the notion that cultural values are relative, and has embraced the idea that there is at least one moral rule that transcends culture. The only consistent answer would be "Well, these are my culture's own moral preferences, but we shouldn't ask others to embrace them in place of their own values."
Flaw #2: Cultural Relativists cannot complain about social injustice:
Since a relativist, in order to be consistent with their own view, can't accuse others of wrongdoing, they also lack the foundation by which to object to obvious acts of evil. When relativists object to the practice of colonialism, slavery, and exploitation, are they implying that these are always unjust and wrong, for all peoples, in all times and places? Was it wrong for European powers to subjugate the less powerful and enslave them? Who is the relativist to say that was wrong? Is their cultural value of diversity and respect any better? "Says Who?" As soon as they object to an obvious injustice, they are no longer immune from having their cultural values critiqued by those who hold different values, including the European cultures that college professors loathe so much
Or, more recently, in modern issues like race relations, sociologists are very quick to object when a member of a racial or gender majority seeks to encourage a minority group to adhere to the same standards as the majority. As Thomas Sowell highlights in his book, Intellectuals and Race, cultural relativists will object very quickly when minority students are held to the same standards, whether they be legal, educational, or cultural. But, yet again, "Says Who?" Who is the relativist to apply their own cultural standards(In this case, sub-cultural) of cultural relativism, and say that this is wrong to do? The majority group is just following their cultural values, so what of it? The problem should be becoming much more clear.
Flaw #3: No Group's Experience is any more valid than another
One of the first soundbites to be stated on the campus today is that we must "Listen to and value other groups experiences the same as our own." Now, I completely agree, we shouldn't ignore someone simply because they are different than us, but why? Some cultures or subcultures do indeed have different experiences. So what? If all groups of people have their own values, who's to say when it's wrong for one group to ignore another? "Says Who?" raises it's ugly head again. To object to this outcome is to assume that maybe there are some objective moral rules that transcend culture and experience after all...
Flaw #4: The Good Guys of History Will Uphold the Status Quo, Not Challenge It
My good friend and Christian apologist Steve Bruecker hit the nail on the head in an article he wrote a few years ago, "The Joker Is The Hero of Moral Relativism". He points out that the logical outworking of the sort of relativism that leaves values up to the individual is that there is no more basis to call a sadistic killer(Like the Joker) immoral and evil. It's simply a matter of preference.
In a similar manner, when a culture begins to decide it's own values for itself, what are we left with? Anyone who attempts to change those values would be immoral, according to that culture's standards. This may sound great on paper, but the logical conclusion ends up being ghastly. Think of someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce, or Dr. Martin L. King. When these individuals challenged their societies to respect their fellow human beings, regardless of any differences, what should the cultural relativist make of this? Did these men try to change the values that were relative to those cultures? We praise them(and should) for their courage, but the relativist is left with nothing to praise them or curse them with, other than the cultural norms he happens to agree with. If he is from a tolerant, just, and inclusive society, he may adore these men, but if he is from a racist, oppressive, and exclusive society, the relativist is no different morally(According to relativism).
To paraphrase the Christian pastor and Theologian Tim Keller, if your worldview's premise leads to the conclusion that you know just isn't true, maybe it's time to change the premise?( Tim Keller, The Reason for God)
Flaw 5: Social Justice Becomes Meaningless
As I have titled this piece, Cultural Relativism makes the very notion of justice within society a concept with no meaning whatsoever behind it. "Social Justice" is often defended with relativism. However, when "Says Who?" is the only logical response to a complaint about a very obvious injustice, we've got a very big problem with our logic.
Historian H.W. Crocker gives a good example of this concept, in highlighting the British Empire's outlawing of the burning of widows on their husband's funeral pyres in 19th century India. When the British acknowledged that it was a traditional Indian custom, they simply pointed out that Britain had a custom of punishing men who would do such a thing to women. Somehow the cultural relativists in the Women's Studies departments of the modern university don't have a problem with this form of "imposing one's cultural values on others". Again, it may be simply because there are, in fact, moral rules and obligations that transcend societies., such as the rule that you don't treat women in that sort of manner.
So, if cultural relativism is the correct way to think of ethics and morals(Another oxymoron if relativism is true) then we are left with the conclusion that there is no standard of justice that a society must adhere to. There is no real basis for determining whether or not a particular action or law is inherently good or evil. This is outrageous. When the culturally relative sociology student loudly insists that "I have a right to abortion" or "I have a right to marry whomever I love", they might as well be having a sneezing attack. Under relativism, you can insist on being granted certain rights as loudly as you want. All it will take is for someone else to come along and insist louder than you that those rights don't exist, or that they can be revoked for whatever reason the society deems fit.
In conclusion, it seems that cultural relativism, while making for a good classroom discussion, is not of any good for any discussion on ethics, and what truly matters in life. In fact, when life, liberty and what it means to be human are at stake, we should do better than saying "That's just your view."