Cultural relativism is the view that all cultures that is beliefs, customs and ethics are relative the individual within his social context. It simply means what is right or wrong is culture specific because what may be considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another. Therefore, because there is no universal measure to standards of morality in the society, no one has the right to judge the other on what is wrong or right (Martin 1950). According to Kenneth (1981) an anthropologists, no culture is superior to the other, for example you cannot be allowed to condemn a terrorist community or vampires or night runners as evil.
Cultural relativism sees nothing inherently wrong or good in any cultural set up. Therefore, viewing one culture as immoral due to their moral beliefs could be seen as ethnocentrism. Cultures are diverse and even those with conflicting moral beliefs should not be viewed in terms of right and wrong or good and bad. We can therefore conclude that cultural relativism is being widely accepted in modern anthropology. Cultural relativism has touched on all aspects of life and computers and information technology has not been spared either.
Computer revolution has necessitated the need for future global ethics or information ethics. Computers through information technology and the internet have created a global community. With the creation of global community and therefore giving rise to the need for unification of moral systems or what has been referred to as global ethics. Therefore, unifying ethical rules have to be constructed within a cyberspace that can serve a new global ethic. Cultural relativism has had great influence on computer ethics especially on information technology.
The main affected areas are privacy, intellectual property rights and freedom of information. Information ethics could be looked at from cross cultural and inter cultural contexts. In cross cultural context differences exist between moral systems of different cultures which have very important implications for moral attitudes towards uses of information and information technology. In intercultural information ethics context we reflect moral questions regarding information technology and use of information on the basis of different cultural conditions. This should be focused comparative study of moral systems.
Its overall aim would be to interpret compare and critically evaluate moral systems in different cultures regarding their moral attitudes and behavior towards information and information technology (Brey 2007). We need to specifically look into these three areas that is privacy, freedom of information and intellectual property rights whose ethics differ is relative especially between western and non western countries. These countries have different policies regarding the ethics governing those three issues due to different moral attitudes on information systems.
Privacy of information is well instituted in some countries while in others there are no policies governing privacy. Privacy is an individual right, however such right may not be recognized in countries that belief in collective interests which take priority over individual rights. For example in non western countries like china Japan and Thai have no concept of privacy. So probably privacy laws let alone on information are not enacted (Martin 1950). For instance, what they refer as private sphere in Thai and Japan has different meaning in western countries (David 2006).
In china, a word close to privacy is “yinsi” which means “shameful secret” and is associated with shameful things. In Japan, they have a word for private, “watakusi” meaning partial’, secret and selfish (Bao and Xiang 2006). Although these words have started to take the privacy meaning in the recent past due to western influence, the individual rights have not been well implemented in those countries. Japan, china and Thai have only recently implemented privacy laws; however though Thai privacy laws are hardly enacted may be due to western influence.
This cannot be narrowed to those countries only, there are many more through out the world who believe in collective recognition due to their cultural beliefs (Brey 2007). Intellectual property rights are another issue characterizing the revolution of computers. This touches on those individuals and companies that develop soft ware and other applications and who feel that there intellectual property should be protected by for example copyrights. In the west the governments are keen on protecting such rights, unlike, taking a case study of china where due to communist rule such property is not protected by the government.
To them all means of production like farms and factories are communally owned until very recently. However due to economic reforms and increased interaction with the west they have had to institute IPRs (intellectual property rights) only to harmonize Chinese economic systems with the rest of the world. China is still struggling with this concept up to date. In such countries which have communist culture, piracy cannot be labeled as crime but copyrights and patents are viewed as selfishness (Paul 1955).
Freedom of information is another issue that has displayed an aspect of cultural relativism in computers. Freedom of information comprise two principles: freedom of speech which is expressing ones opinion or ideas in speech freely or in writing and secondly freedom of access to information. Freedom to express one self through publication can be viewed as the third principle (Brey 2007). In western countries freedom of information is basically a constitutional and inalienable right to every individual.
The government can only be allowed to sensor information in extreme cases like hate speech and information undermining national security. In such countries people post all types of information on the internet and it is upon the parent and other individuals to protect their children from information that should not be accessible to the children especially pornography and bad eating habits (Paul 1955). On the contrary in other non western countries freedom of information is not a guiding principle and there are many practices interfering with freedom of information.
This is because of their reserved culture or their religious beliefs. In these countries the internet, databases and libraries are censored especially when they are accused of disseminating “inappropriate” information to the society. Mass media being government owned, they see it as the right thing to do to protect its citizens and ensure they have access to the “right” information (Brey 2007). The values of privacy, freedom of information and intellectual property are central in analyzing cultural relativity in computer world and information ethics.
In western world information is accessible to everyone and there is respect for individual information ethics and is not concentrated on morality that is the values that are central in western information ethics are not the values central in many non western systems of morality (David 2006). We can immensely conclude that cultural relativism is true for computers through information systems. In conclusion, cultural relativism touches on every aspect of human life and in the recent part it is becoming more widely acceptable.
The value systems of different countries influence the way they perceive computer and information ethics. At least two different approaches to morality are found in the world; a virtue centered morality that emphasizes good for the community and are found in traditional cultures like southern and eastern Asia and in Africa, and rights center morality that that stresses value of individual freedom like the west. Despite the modern technology and some expected rules to play along like Christianity, cultural relativism is here to stay and it is really gaining ground despite its challenges.
Reference: Bao, X & Xiang, Y. (2006). Ethics and information digitalization: Digitalization and global ethics Journal. (8), 41-47. Brey, P. (2007). Global information ethics and the challenges of cultural relativism. New York: SAGE. David, Wong (2006). A defense of pluralistic relativism. New York: Oxford University Press. Kenneth, E. Goodpaster. (1981). Relativism in ethics. New York: HBS Case Services. Martin, Gardner. (1950). Beyond Cultural Relativism. Ethics Journal, (1):38-45. Paul, F. Schmidt (1955). Some Criticisms of Cultural Relativism. Journal of Philosophy, (25):780-791.