If I'm correct, the concept of cultural relativism claims that since each culture has its own values and practices, we should not make value judgments about cultural differences or assert our conceptions of morality on them. Each culture is a unique specimen of the historically formed collective personality of a people and consequently, rights of individuals are culturally specific.
If we consider something such as genocide or ethnic cleansing, however, it seems unlikely that even the staunchest cultural relativist would argue that this could be acceptable within certain cultural or traditional contexts. But as we saw in class, other practices such as female circumcision present harder questions of culturally relative morality. Where do we draw the line? When there is a choice between defending human rights and defending cultural relativism, should we choose to protect and promote human rights? How can an international body such as the UN do this without imposing their Western views of universal rights?
In addition to this question, I take issue with cultural relativism in that it seems to perceive cultures a black boxes—individual, specific, well-defined and exclusive societal organisms in which traditions and beliefs are uniform and universally agreed upon. Within “cultures”, there are countless amorphous sects, groups, and individuals whose opinions, experiences and belief systems are constantly changing, shifting and evolving.
The problem with cultural relativism, then, is that the supposed consensuses prevalent within cultures are exaggerated if not manufactured altogether. Differences of class, sect, caste, gender, ethnic origin and so on are present in all cultures. For example, the “norms”, beliefs and perspectives of Brahmin priests in Indian culture cannot reasonably be the same as that of the lower orders of Hindu society.
With this in mind, how can we designate specific “norms” to different cultures? In order for a practice or belief to be considered a norm, must it be upheld by the entirety of the society? The majority? The majority as dictated by a supposedly-democratic state? If so, then cultural norms are nothing more than what has been clearly established or institutionalized. Does this really represent and reflect the beliefs and practices of a “culture”?