The source material of Bob Marley’s song, ‘legalize it’, refers to marijuana which he, and the Rastafarian culture use as part of their religion. The Rastafarians believe that smoking marijuana, which they often call ‘herb’ or ‘ganja’, is a sacramental action based on Genesis 1:12 and psalms 104:14 which reads ‘he causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and the herb for the service of man’. The bible also quotes other verses which justify the use of marijuana in the Rasta’s way of life. The philosophical issue that arises from the source material is the theory of cultural relativism and whether the role of smoking marijuana in Rastafarianism should take priority over the illegality of obtaining marijuana in the laws of society. The source material provokes the argument of whether, (when using cultural relativist principles) religious obligations should take priority over the law. The banning of wearing burqas, an essential piece of clothing for women in Islam, in France causes a similar argument to that of the illegality of smoking marijuana.
Cultural relativism holds the belief that ‘ethical standards vary according to culture or society of the individual concerned’. As a cultural relativist sees the world through our background or culture, and not by laws governing countries or societies, there can be no universally valid moral principles as every tribe or culture will have a different set of values and none of them will all agree on the same thing. For example one might think that everyone can agree that murder is a universally valid moral principle. However the Aztecs believed in regular human sacrifices and there are supposedly some tribes still around today which still undergo human sacrifices. Cultural relativism allows us to hold our own moral beliefs as well as saying we cannot criticise other cultural beliefs who do not share our own moral principles. When the principles of cultural relativism are applied to the source material, marijuana should not be made illegal as this would conflict with the principles of cultural relativism. Rastafarians should be allowed to smoke marijuana any where they want according to cultural relativism. However if cultural relativism is restricted by geographical boundaries then you could allow marijuana use if Rastafarianism is practiced in defined geographically areas.
Cultural relativism, through the diversity thesis, states that what is considered to be morally wrong varies from society to society and that there are no universally held moral standards. The dependent thesis asserts that individual acts are right or wrong depending on the nature of the society in which they occur. What is right for us is culturally determined and requires the context of the goals of a particular society. Therefore according to these two theses, there are no absolute moral standards applicable to all people. The Rastafarian ritual of smoking marijuana therefore should be allowed as it is relative to the society in which they live, as shown by the dependent thesis. Also the bible mentions in Genesis that God ‘causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man’. This shows that there is evidence that God told the Rastafarians to smoke marijuana. However the fact of God’s existence is not important. Even if it is assumed that there is not a God, it is a cultures belief which counts.
To the law smoking marijuana is illegal, except for in a few countries, and one would be fined heavily or imprisoned for possession of the drug. Even in Jamaica, the birthplace of the Rastafari movement, marijuana possession is prohibited. This is because ‘if Jamaica legalizes small amounts of marijuana for personal use, it could violate international treaties and bring sanctions from the United States’. The law states that possessing marijuana is illegal and this is regardless of one’s background or culture. Therefore even if you are a Rastafarian you should not possess Marijuana even if it is a sacramental action. Although according to cultural relativism, there are no universally valid principles; law does not take this into account as if it did anything could be right or wrong leading to a chaotic society. This provides a paradox whereby restricting drug use in national law prohibits Rastafarians from practicing their religion. So if a society was culturally relativist there could be people stealing regularly, like the Spartans, or people committing human sacrifices saying that it is part of their culture. One could make up their own culture, deciding it on things that would benefit themselves. Any society would collapse as any control it would have over the public would disappear as cultural relativists have no base on which to set their morals on. Therefore there would be no way of deciding what actions are right or wrong.
Another problem one encounters with the cultural relativism is that the principles of the theory imply that there are no universally valid moral principles. This is a problem as cultural relativism becomes limited as if there are no universally valid moral principles then not everyone will agree with it. As cultural relativism therefore insists on us tolerating the moral values of other people from other backgrounds, we should treat every person’s morals as equal to ours. The problem with cultural relativism insisting that we should accept others values as equally valid to our own causes cultural relativism to contradict itself. Cultural Relativism appears to be an enlightened, liberal response to ethnocentrism as it leads to cultural tolerance but the contradiction appears when it insists on tolerance of other countries values as this tolerance appears to be an absolute moral position. So the cultural relativist has to contradict himself. Also in a culturally relativist society you could not get reformers as reform could not take place as there would be no right or wrong to judge your actions on to reform from.
If the society used cultural relativism and wanted to solve the problem of the creation of new religions and cultures, all they have to do is make sure that anybody who commits a crime has a background which gives a reason for why they committed that crime. Then you could assign everybody to their background so everyone has their own set of rules which shows them what they are allowed and not allowed to do. However the problem with this is that there are a lot of multicultural people of combined nationalities and cultures which have contrasting moral values. As different values can come from different countries, races, religions and sexes, multicultural people will have more than one set of moral principles. Therefore if you had someone who was a British Rastafarian then that person would be able to carry out the culture Rastafarianism as well as combing the Rastafari values with British Law. This example is a relatively easy one for society to deal with compared with a person who has more than two cultural backgrounds. This shows that cultural relativism does not account for multicultural people who could combine their backgrounds to expand their set of moral values.
One of the ways of solving the multicultural person problem is by making the multicultural person choose one of their sets of morals. However you would still have problems if the Rastafarian were to stick to his morals in Britain, so the ideal solution would be making people stick to the morals of the country they currently live in. However if we had a multicultural person who had a religious background as well as belonging to the society of a country, for example a Rastafarian from Jamaica, then which set of morals takes priority, that of the law or that of religion? As religion is ‘a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny’surely religion should take priority over national laws as religious people are following the orders of God. As the Rastafarians, are using the word of Jah(God), following evidence from the bible, their religious obligations should take priority over the law as they are using the word of an omnipotent and all loving God.
However society can counter the argument that religious obligations take priority over the law. If religious people agree that their religion has to take place as they are following the word of their God or Gods, and that they agree that their god is omnipotent then their God would be able to recreate the law to suit the followers of that religion. So if the Rastafarian God is omnipotent then the God would be able to change the laws of Jamaica so that Marijuana was made legal so the Rastafarians could carry out their sacramental action. The leaders of all the worlds’ nations could also justify their laws using the religious argument, as they can claim that God has chosen them to be leaders so he must agree with their laws. This would mean that the Jamaican leader could say to the Rastafarians that, if they think that their God is omnipotent than he would have put him in charge or Jamaica. This would mean that the Rastafarian God believes that marijuana should be illegalized, contradicting what he had said in the chapter of genesis in the bible.
As cultural relativism asserts that there are no universally valid moral principles it would therefore be impossible to establish moral rules or norms due to the amount of cultural diversity in the world. Only very rarely may a society have a universal moral principle which everyone’s own set of principles agreed with. The simple solution to the problem of cultural relativism would be to have a set of moral principles for each country which one, on entering the country, would have to abide to or else face the consequences. So if I was to go to Saudi Arabia, even for an overnight stay, I must abide to their laws and not to the ones I live with in the U.K. That way there would be no conflict about which set of morals you should abide to in which country. However religious obligations may still conflict with the laws of the country the religious people inhabit. Therefore their solution would either be to move to a country which would accommodate their beliefs. If there were no countries that would accommodate their belief than the law should give an exception to the people with religious obligations, then those people should be branded under that religion, causing them to have to stick to their new set of morals. This implies the need for a moral system such as moral absolutism which would be used to decide which actions are absolutely right or wrong.
The source material appeals for the legalisation of marijuana as it is a religious obligation for the Rastafarians. Cultural relativism argues that religious obligations should be equally respected as the national laws, which would mean that Rastafarians should be able to follow their own sacramental actions. They would be able to do this anywhere they wanted even if their cultural actions may be against the law as cultural relativism says we cannot criticise other cultural values. However if cultural relativism were to be instated there would be no right or wrong, leading to a state of chaos, causing the argument to become largely invalid. Also the law in the real world takes priority over culture and everyone should abide to the law of the country that they are currently in. This causes law to take priority so the Rastafarians would have to leave out some of their sacramental actions. To conclude my opinion is that religious obligations should take priority over the law if the majority of the population of that society votes in favour.
 Moral Problems by Michael Palmer. Pg.15
 Ethics by Louis Pojman. Pg.27