Is Morality Determined by Culture?

Many consider “cultural relativism” a new phenomenon. But people have long recognized that cultures differ in their moral beliefs and practices. It was not a modern anthropologist, but the Greek historian Herodotus who observed, “if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others.” (Histories, III.38) Pindar before him had declared, “Custom is king over all.”

For many people today, the mere fact of disagreement between cultures provides sufficient evidence against universal moral judgments. They believe themselves to be following laws that are arbitrary, that could be totally different if they were living in a different time or place. The initial acceptance of cultural relativism, that is, different standards for different cultures, easily turns into a cultural determinism that is, the belief that people are not free to have moral beliefs different from their own culture. People, on this view, could not question or reject the customs in which their culture has formed them.

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