This is a discussion guide with optional readings and exercises, on the topic of Values, Norms, and Rules in Different Cultures. Philosophers debate whether or not there are universal values across different cultures, for if we cannot claim that there are one or more of these values, it is difficult to critique practices across cultures (and even difficult to do so from within a single culture). This guide can help broach the topic with students, middle through high school.
You can begin by having students read the following statements to one another (in small groups, pairs, or as a whole class), allowing their peers to agree or disagree and to give reasons as to why they agree or disagree:
- All families have the same rules.
- Rules are made only by parents.
- Children sometimes invent rules.
- Only parents can enforce rules.
- It is never right to break a rule.
- If a person is unwilling to obey a rule, the rule applies to him just the same.
- If a person is unable to obey a rule, the rule doesn’t apply to him.
- Family rules remain the same, whether or not adults are present.
- Some rules are imposed on us by others.
- Some rules we invent and impose on others.
- Some rules we invent and impose on ourselves.
- Some rules are invented by others, but we accept them and impose them upon ourselves.*
*These statements are borrowed from Lipman and Sharp’s Looking For Meaning.
If you are working with middle school students, this may be followed by a consideration of rules or customs from another country, as pertinent to what you are studying in your Social Studies curriculum. It would be a good idea to consider cultural practices that seem patently wrong to your students, and to have them (possibly in a written assignment or class discussion) consider whether or not they have the same answers to the above questions when evaluating ‘strange’ cultural practices (such as infanticide, cannibalism, sacrifice, body modifications, etc.).
If you are working with high school students or have eager middle school students, you can assign the attached reading by philosopher James Rachels, on the topic of Cultural Relativism. Rachels argues against the idea that cultural values, norms, and rules are arbitrary, thus offering us some tools by which we can critique various practices and further consider the basis upon which these universal values — Rachels calls them — are formed. In sum, Rachels argues in the article that there are a few core values that all cultures share, but that what differs is our beliefs about these values. This article provides a great way of framing a class conversation about how there may be an underlying agreement even when there is an apparent disagreement (in politics, for example!). There is also a quiz (below) that can be administered after the reading.
Philosophers who argue for more of an objective basis for morality, who would be good to follow this lesson or topic include Kant and Plato. Another direction to take this conversation is to consider the position of feminist ethicists such as Gilligan who challenge the basis for many philosophers’ arguments regarding universal morality.
Optional quiz after students read Rachels:
Quiz on Rachels’ “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism”
Cultural Relativism holds that there is no such thing as ______________ in ethics.
- universal suffrage
- subjective values
- universal truth
- subjective truth
According to Rachels, what are three consequences of taking Cultural Relativism seriously? Select three answers.
- We embrace diversity and seek harmony among differences.
- The idea of moral progress is called into doubt.
- Racism disappears.
- We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards our society.
- We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.
Which of the following is not one of the values that Rachels argues all large societies must have?
- The value of truth-telling
- The value of prohibiting murder
- The value of caring for infants (to the extent that it’s possible)
- The value of protection of private property
Which of these statements does Rachels reject?
- Many of our practices are only cultural products.
- Many of our practices are only cultural products, so all our practices must only be cultural practices.
What are the two positive lessons that we can take from Cultural Relativism, according to Rachels, without having to accept the whole theory? Select two answers.
- Cultural practices are all that we have.
- There is a danger in assuming that all our preferences are based on some absolute moral standard.
- Some cultures are more evolved than others.
- Our feelings are not necessarily perceptions of the truth — they may be nothing more than the result of cultural conditioning.