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Relativism and Universalism in Psychology

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Relativism and Universalism in Psychology


Psychology is the study of ways and patterns of human behavior. Psychology itself is a very broad subject and covers a number of areas. There are a number of further subdivisions in the subject and each category is devoted to the study of a certain aspect of human thought   and behaviors. For instance, the scope of social psychology covers the issues related to human behavior and thoughts with the perspective of the society. On the other hand the area of human thoughts and behaviors covered by comparative psychology includes issues relating to human behaviors in comparison of the behaviors of other species. The study of psychology includes the study of various disciplines. Most of it’s sub categories defined, have some sort of association with other disciplines of social sciences. For instance, social psychology has a close association with sociology and anthropology. Psychological researches and findings have contributed in the development of mankind to a significant extent. Nowadays psychological techniques are used in day to day businesses. With advancements in the field of psychology and development of a number of theories, psychology is affecting almost every aspect of our lives.

Psychology is basically the study of human behaviors and their responses to certain stimuli. In earlier years the psychological developments were limited to observations and experiences. However, in modern psychological teachings, there was a greater emphasis on measurements, controls and experimentations. Psychologists for studying the behavior of an individual use a number of research and study methods. Among these methods the most popular ones are the surveys, observations, case studies and newly developed experimental methods. The mostly used method among these is performing surveys. In psychological research, however, there is no one method that can be said to be completely reliable and authentic. For instance, in a survey process, the results can be unreliable because of the biasness or ignorance of the person involved in research. 

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Relativism versus Universalism in Psychology:

The concept of morality has been discussed and thought upon by thinkers since from the very beginning. A number of philosophers have tried to answer the issue by making an attempt to define a universal set of rules regarding what is right and what is wrong. There are different views from different thinkers. Some think that the question of anything being right or wrong can easily be answered by means of a single moral standard. On the other hand, some theorists hold the belief that it is not necessary to have a single solution or that there cannot be a single solution. The concept of cultural relativism discusses the idea of defining moral standards. It implies that there a single moral standard is not necessarily applicable to every individual in any given circumstances. On the other hand, the concept of universalism states that a universal set of moral values will develop a universal sense of duty and will therefore benefit most of the mankind. It is usually believed that cultural relativism takes different cultures, existing in any society, into consideration. The philosophy of universal truth in ethic is considered to be a myth. Every society has some customs and set of values. No one can label these customs as right or wrong as the standard to declare something as right or wrong is supposed to be independent on the basis of which these judgments are made. Those who favor the idea of relativism claim that with the increase in interaction among people of different cultures and societies, because of the lesser barriers to travel and move from one place to another, it is obvious by this time that how much diversity and differences exists among various cultures. They argue that these are the reasons that lead to the belief that cultural relativism defines morality in the best possible manner. It is further argued that because communication among people today is improved and have developed better and improved ways of communication, one set of moral values will not be adequate enough to address the needs of individual cultures and subcultures around the globe. This leads to the conclusion that there is no single set of values that can address the needs of every unique situation. This implies that the concept of universalism is not practically applicable. There are always exceptions to the rules and norms. The core concept of cultural relativism is that it allows the society to create its ethical and moral standards, set of believes and norms and ideological framework. This provides a solid ground for the notion that there is no one set of ethical standards that can satisfy to the requirements of every situation every time. This allows the societies to develop their moral standards and codes of ethics on the basis of its own culture, history, set of believes and norms. Relativism thus helps the communities and societies to develop their own set of moral values instead of imposing a single set of moral standards for all societies, as the universalism theory will suggest. It is logical to conclude that by imposing the same set of moral values for all communities we will not be able to eliminate all the cultural differences that exist among them. If in case, we consider imposing a universal set of rules and moral standards for all the cultures then a problem arises as to what criteria should be used for the development of such a standard. It will almost be impossible to take into account to different factors such as the religion, law, customs and culture. The reason for which such a set of standards cannot be developed is that the every society has some unique factors that are non-existent in other societies. These are some of the solid arguments in favor of relativism and it is considered to be the best solution for defining moral standards. Each society prefers to define their set of moral standards and norms and to consider to their own social factors such as religion, culture, customs etc. every individual faces a number of situations in his day to day affairs that need a decision to be made on the basis of his/hr moral judgment. It is nearly impossible to define a single set of values for so many people around the world facing a number of different situations. Relativism denies the notion of the universality of moral truth. It precisely states that a universal moral truth is non-existent and that ethics do not hold any such ideology. It assumes that there are only the various cultural and personal set of moral values. It also emphasizes that an individual’s personal moral code has no special status. It is only one of the many codes hold upon by people. This leads us to a fact that different societies might be holding different moral values and these values can be contradictory to each other. Now in such cases a question arises that which one of the cultural values is to be considered correct and which one is to be considered wrong. The universalism in such cases proposes a single solution that should be applied globally but in many cases universalism fails to provide any such solutions. If it supports one moral value associated to any particular society than it will be going against the moral values of the other society. From another perspective it can be seen in the context of right or wrong. If universalism is considering a moral standard of any particular society to be true than in most of the cases it will be considering the standards and norms of the other societies to be wrong. There are a number of factors to be considered when you are making an effort to develop moral values and norms for all the societies and expect them to follow. In developing a set of standards that should be universally applied one has to consider the cultures, values and believes of all the societies. There is no sound reason to declare any culture to be wrong just because it is not in conformance to a person’s own set of values. In many societies, believes that they once hold were given up in later years on the basis of solid reasoning and judgment. Nowadays many societies do not practice and believe on a number of moral standards that they once considered being true. They gave up those norms on the basis of conclusions drawn from observations, proper reasoning and argumentation. However, this change in their set of values will never bring us to the conclusion that these societies were morally wrong. Relativism focuses on the fact that neither culture is right or wrong. Relativism states that each culture has the right to and will decide, on an individual basis, what are their standards to consider any thing morally and ethically right or wrong. The modern communities and societies are full of diversity among cultures. This is the reason that we cannot follow a universal set of rules and morals. It is itself unfair and morally wrong to judge and analyze the behavior of people on the basis of any other standard other than the one on which they believe. The assumption that an individual’s preferences are based on any sort of coherent standard is totally wrong and the concept of relativism is against such assumptions. In fact, individuals develop their practices and believe on the basis of their society and personal preferences. These reasons let one get convinced that relativism is the best answer to the question of developing a standard set of moral standards for all or to just let every one of them develop their own morals and ethics on the basis of their culture, religion and values.

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Once the concept of cultural relativism is clear and understood, this theory or concept can be applied to an individual. Individuals are believed to have the same level of freedom as do societies have, to develop their own set of morals and ethics in the mot suitable way for them. The argument in favor of a person’s right to develop his/her own set of morals and ethics is that if every society can separately develop its norms and standards then there is no point in barring an individual from doing so. The liberty given to any individual to drift from societal standards depend on the ability of the society to enforce its moral truths. If any society imposes too many restrictions on deviating from the societal norms, the individuals who are no in agreement with those norms will then simply calculate the risk of getting caught. A common argument in against of relativism is that relativism considers it wrong to declare any of the moral truths to be right or wrong as every society and individuals are given the right to develop their own truths, then why a society punishes or resents an individual’s decision to not to follow the society’s norms. This argument is replied by the notion that in each society the concept of morality is different and it serves a purpose to the society. The possibilities of existence of any sort of differences in all aspects of life are already considered. The moral of the society are produced after considering all sort of differences. These values serve the purpose of bringing prosperity, growth, stability and harmony in the society. When any one tries to disregard these values hence threatening their existence, they are bringing the prosperity of that society at risk. That is why those members of a society or community are bound to confirm the values of the society. This helps in maintaining a social balance. If in case any of the members chooses to not to follow the norms of the community then he or she is strongly resented and in some cases are expelled from that particular community.  Social norms and values are not only for the benefit for the society as a whole but it also helps the individuals as well. Though these benefits are usually not very obvious until and unless an individual is thrown out of the community. The ignorant and non confirming behavior of the person who is not agreeing with the community’s norms can be of harm for an individuals well being. Therefore it is always emphasized that the moral values developed for a society are for a well being of each and every person who is the member of that society. On the other hand if any individual is breaking the code of ethics and morals of a society of which he or she is a member, there is no point in saying that there is something wrong in that individuals personal morals and code of ethics. However, the society itself instilled guilt. The communities create the moral values and there is no defined rule that if a certain people are not following the rules even then it will not change its values. If there are not enough people in the community following the rules defined by the community then the community will redefine the moral rules and norms. This principle is the basis of Cultural relativism; the community being able to change their set of morals and this change in morals is not going to take place from any other means other than an initiative from an individual. From the evidences and arguments made in favor of relativism, Cultural and Individual

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Relativism clearly is the more logical choice as a theory that best provides a workable solution to the question of what controls ethics and morality.

On the other hand, universalism, tries to prove that there is one single set of moral rules that can be used as a framework for the implementation of moral and ethical standards for all of the cultures and individuals of the world.  

Some other concepts of Psychology:

1) Morality

The concept of morality is very important to the success of an individual. The moral standards and norms determine what things should be practiced and what should not be practiced. Morality is basically related to something that humans think about and believe on. Morality is not supposed to be imposed on an individual but it is something to be taken seriously by an individual as it is about humanity. Though one might not find it to be fair but in actual morality is to be judged by humans. Therefore, any individual’s attempt to ignore the moral values will be noticed by other people immediately. This is thus going to affect his or her relationship in the long term. The practical side of life is based on interpersonal relationships. Regardless of the fact that whether it is a social issue or business deal, communication is the key to resolve the matters and achieve the objectives. If an individual’s perception in the minds of the people is that of an immoral person then that individual is not going to have that level of acceptance and respect from his peers or society that he needs to be successful in his/her life.

2) Psychological Disorders:

From the term mental disorder we mean that those psychological and behavioral syndromes that are totally different from those usually observed in typical human beings enjoying good mental health. The victims of mental disorder are not always alike. There are no records relating to the forms of mental disorders that occur because of the lack of interest of people in the research work for such mental illnesses. The exact number of population infected with any kind of mental disorder is unknown. However, according to an estimate about 15% of the U.S population is suffering from any kind of mental disorder. Several Mental disorders are evident first in infancy, childhood and adolescence. Mental retardation is basically an individual’s ability to learn normally, to respond in a normal fashion and to become a responsible fellow as others. Among the several forms of childhood disorders is attention-deficit hyperactivity, in which a child faces difficulty in completing and managing his/her tasks. The child is lacking in the ability to follow the directions and as a result is experiencing a strong feeling of restlessness. These conditions are usually the result of lack of attention given to the child. One more form of childhood disorder is the Anxiety disorder which is a condition of extreme fear and insecurity. The victim usually fears to leave home or parent, is extremely hideous from the strangers and is in a feeling of excessive fear and worry.

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Another form of psychological disorders is the Paranoid disorder. The victim is supposed to be in a state anger, acts violently and usually is either isolated or a social outcast. He or she is in a feeling of unreasonable jealousy against others and his/her attitude is sometimes totally resentful. An anxiety disorder is another form of psychological disorders. It has further many classifications. First is panic disorder and the other one is generalized anxiety disorder. Phobia and obsessive-compulsive disorders are also included in anxiety disorders. These are the conditions in which a person generally feels fearful while trying to deal with other symptoms. The person is unreasonably fearful and this feeling is so extremely experienced that he/she is interrupted in his every day activities because of this feeling. The fear is relating to any particular object, situation or activity. The person is attacked with recurring thoughts that have no meaning or sense for the person. Compulsive disorders are repetitive activities or behaviors, which are performed by the individual again and again only because he/she does not “feel” like doping that job. The most harmful of all psychological disorders is the Schizophrenia. It is a mix of number of disorders affecting a person’s abilities in a single time. A schizophrenic person is a victim of a lot of disturbances among which the most prominent are disturbance in thought, perception, emotion, physical activity and emotions. The victim of schizophrenia is usually infected in adolescence or in his/her youth. The victim is believed to have a split mind but this does not means that he/she is a split personality. The reasons for the occurrence of any such disorder are numerous and are usually difficult to identify. It is more likely to be inherited by an off spring whose parents may be having any such disease.

3) Stress:

Stress is experienced by almost every one of us. The reasons can be numerous ranging from family tensions, problems at school or anxieties at the workplace. The perception of stress is usually misunderstood because of its complexity. Stress has been defined in a number of ways. However, the basics of most of these definitions are the same. Stress is a person’s adaptive response to excessive psychological or physical demands caused by one stimulus. The stimulus causing the stress is said to be a stressor. It is not necessary that a stimulus causing stress for one person may also affect other individuals. Stress is caused only when a stimulus places excessive demands on the individual and some individuals have more patience for certain demands as compared to other individuals.

Dr. Hans Seyle in his work on stress described a concept of “general adoption syndrome” (GAS) and its corollaries, eustress and distress. According to him every individual has some resistance to stressful stimuli. There are some individuals who can bear more demands as compared to other individuals but everyone can embrace it to a certain level after that the stressor starts to cause stress. (Selye)

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In the initial stages of GAS, an individual easily handles the stressor and experiences an alarm. This may cause a sense of hopelessness and panic. When the demands of an stimulus exceeds the tolerance level of an individual then he/she reacts in some cases by giving up or most probably by resisting the harmful effects of the stressor through their collective physical and mental strength. In such extreme situations individuals usually do whatever they can possibly do to overcome the stressful situation.  The reaction to any stressful situation depends upon that particular individual’s resistance level and his adaptation to that stressful situation, who is experiencing it. According to some researches conducted on this subject, men and women react differently to stressful situations. Women are supposed to experience more stress from psychological effects while men are more influenced by the physical effects. Some studies also show that individuals who consider themselves as complex are more effective in dealing with stressful situations as compared to those who think themselves to be fairly simple.

The condition of stress is not always bad. A person may feel stressed while experiencing something of joy or pleasure like wining a competition, to be a guest of honor or getting any kind of reward. Such kind of a stress was named “eustress” by Seyle. However, in this paper we will use the term stress for both kinds of stresses i.e. distress as well as eustress.

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Psychological Problems and disorders: Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 25, 2001: http://psychologyinfo.com/problems/

Why one should be moral? Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 25, 2001: http://www.pakistanchristianvoice.net/BackIssueFullArticle.cfm?ID=34

The Stress of life: Hans Seyle (McGraw Hill, New York: 1976)

Relativism: Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 25, 2001:


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