As the social sciences began to be recognized in the nineteenth century, many thinkers developed a particular interest in the customs and morals of other groups of people. In 1865, six years after Darwin’s origin of species and six years before his Descent of Man, Sir Edward Taylor, one of the greatest leaders in the scientific study of humans, published his researches into the Early History of Mankind. Taylor believed that the study of ancient pagans and the study of uncivilized people and various heathen groups that lived outside the scope of civilized Victorian culture would throw light on English culture itself. It was Taylor’s view that all people shared the same human capacities and mental potentialities and that there had been a progression, or positive development, form ignorant savagery to civilized culture. This was a daring view at that time.
Many people especially defenders of religious orthodoxy believed both that Darwin was seriously wrong to affirm a development or evolution of human beings from animals and that Taylor was seriously wrong to affirm a development or evolution of intelligent civilized Christians from ignorant uncivilized pagan savages. The conventional view held by many was that God had created human beings in his image as rational and moral beings; any savages who existed in the nineteenth century must have fallen into that state through neglect of reason, a lack of morality, and an absence of faith. Surely, this view continued, human beings were not initially created as ignorant savages who were beads, if anything at all, and followed a pagan life of promiscuity and superstition.
Sir James Frazer was greatly stimulated by his reading of Taylor. He too wrote extensively about the customs of primitive people, and he believed that such people exhibited ‘the rudimentary phases, the infancy and childhood, of human society.’ To the question of whether or not he had actually seen any of the savages that he had written so much about, Frazer is said to have replied. ‘God forbid!’ Frazer and most social scientists of the late nineteenth century studied books, read the diaries of travellers, and corresponded with those in distant lands. Field study had not yet established itself as a necessary social scientific technique. The armchair studies of Frazer are by no means manifestations of laziness or lack of commitment; Frazer devoted his life to the scientific study of humankind and is said to have spent 12 hours a day for over 50 years reading, taking notes, and writing.
During this century several well-known social scientists have endorsed a sophisticated type of cultural relativism. The armchair studies have been replaced by years of field studies that include a sympathetic involvement with the lives of the people one is studying. Gone is the view that so-called primitive people are standing on the lower rungs of the same ladder that leads to modern Western culture. There is no separation of the ‘civilized’ and the ‘uncivilized.’ There are various civilizations and various cultures, and our own culture is only one of many. Melville J. Herskovits was a champion of cultural relativism, which he saw as an antidote to European colonial attitudes and the ethnocentrism that they express. Herskovits was, in particular, a student of African societies and of the experience of blacks in the New World. He regarded as a great mistake and a great tragedy that Europeans thought that they were the civilized ones and that the Africans were not. It was by force, not by civilization, that Europeans imposed themselves upon African cultures. According to cultural relativism, it is false to think that, in matters of morality, our own Western culture is uniquely in a position to make absolute moral judgments.
The fact is that different cultures simply have different moralities. The moral percepts of a given culture might appear as absolute to the individual who is acculturated in that culture, but this is a common error. Some social scientists respond critically to cultural relativism and challenge Herskovits on the question of colonialism, and argue that cultural relativism, at least with respect to morality, has several highly implausible consequences. And these consequences, when understood, should lead to the rejection of moral relativism. Moreover, they maintain that certain particular practices must be supported by any society in any time and any place.
Various social scientists also argue that the thesis of cultural relativism is false; nevertheless, they claim that there are positive lessons to be learned from the view. In fact, they say that the view is based on the insight that mush of what we think of as the only way or the only natural way, or the only correct way to arrange social matters is really arbitrary or the result of historical forces that could just as well have been otherwise. Anti-relativists might argue that these considerations are really beside the point. Even if the relativists are correct in their view that moral disagreement is widespread, this does not prove that no one knows any truths in morality or that there is no truth in morality. The fundamental point to which anti-relativists return is that, ‘there is no truth about matters of X’ simple does not follow from the premise that ‘there is widespread disagreement about X.’ All that follows from the premise about disagreement is that there is no consensus.
Certain particular values must be held by all groups if they are to survive and reproduce both physically and culturally and every society must maintain these values as moral values. Even if we prove that care of the young is of value for the survival of any given society, why would this be considered a moral value? Why couldn’t this be compared to the value that attaches to the care of one’s body for one’s own continued personal existence? That is, do we think that someone who eats healthy foods and exercises regularly is thereby morally better than someone who does not?
(Excerpt from: “Culture and Morality: A study)