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Cultural relativism refers to a theory that holds that there is no absolute right and wrong. Instead, the morals, standards and behaviors that vary among cultures must be taken into consideration. The idea is based on the tenet that no one culture can define right and wrong for all other cultures, but that behaviors and beliefs must be assessed as good or evil based on each culture's standards.
Advocates of cultural relativism argue that the philosophy encourages neutrality and reduces ethnocentrism from examinations of different cultures. The advantage of exploring other cultures from this perspective is that we can evaluate their ethics and standards with a detached objectivity, which proponents say leads to greater understanding and tolerance.
Critics of cultural relativism argue the philosophy is bad because it disregards the notion that good and evil transcend cultural differences. Critics also argue that the theory is logically flawed because while it discourages us from judging cultures other than our own, it leads us to excuse behaviors and practices that should be condemned regardless of culture.
Cultural relativism was introduced as a theory by Franz Boas, an early 20th century Jewish, German-American scientist. Boas is the father of modern anthropology and he introduced the notion of cultural relativism when, in his early years of work, he was disturbed by the racial bias and bigotry that were rampant among other anthropologists. Boas sought to remove these biases from serious scientific study, so he argued that each culture should be explored, studied and evaluated relative to its own ethical standards.
Cultural relativism has applications in philosophy, religion, politics and ethics. For example, moral relativism is the companion theory that morals can only be assessed within their own moral code and cognitive relativism is the theory that there is not one objective truth, but various truths relative to the individual or a group of individuals. Aesthetic relativism is the theory that beauty is relative, often based on a set of cultural beliefs and historical context and cannot be judged outside of those criteria. An example of this would be the women painted by 17th century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. The women in Rubens' paintings represented the beauty ideal of Rubens' time, but would be considered overweight and unattractive to many 21st century western audiences.
But how can we judge the weaknesses and strengths of cultural relativism?