I’ve been actively participating in some discussions about the Japanese whaling issue over on Darin’s blog. I don’t want to discuss the ethics of hunting endangered species, nor do I want to get into the complex legal background of the issue. What I’m more interested in is this question: Do right and wrong depend upon culture?

In other words, could hunting endangered species be “wrong” in western countries, but “right” in Japan? Could inflicting pain on dogs to cause them to release chemicals that make them taste better be “right” in Korea, but “wrong” in Australia? Could creating absurd quantities of greenhouse gasses be “wrong” in Europe, but “right” in America? My feeling is that if something is “wrong”, it’s wrong regardless of culture. Maybe the things I listed above are all “wrong”, but only a little bit so.

Think about slavery. Would anybody actually defend slavery as just part of the “culture” in the southern states of the US 150 years ago? Could anybody defend the concentration camps and gas chambers in Nazi Germany, or the chemical and biological toxins experiments the Japanese performed on the Chinese during World War II as “culture”? Obviously, some things that large numbers of people think are ok, or at one point thought were ok, are still wrong. It’s my contention that relative ethics are no ethics at all. Still, boundary cases, such as cases in which one thing is good for an individual’s rights and another is good for society in general, require that conflicting values are weighed against each other. Obviously not all people and cultures will put the same weight on the same values. What are your views? Should you ignore what happens outside of your own culture and let other cultures decide what is right for themselves, or should you stand up for what you think is right?