Culture describes a collective way of life, or way of doing things. It is the sum of attitudes, values, goals, and practices shared by individuals in a group, organization, or society. Cultures vary over time periods, between countries and geographic regions, and among groups and organizations. Culture reflects the moral and ethical beliefs and standards that speak to how people should behave and interact with others.
Cultural norms are the shared, sanctioned, and integrated systems of beliefs and practices that are passed down through generations and characterize a cultural group. Norms cultivate reliable guidelines for daily living and contribute to the health and well-being of a culture. They act as prescriptions for correct and moral behavior, lend meaning and coherence to life, and provide a means of achieving a sense of integrity, safety, and belonging. These normative beliefs, together with related cultural values and rituals, impose a sense of order and control on aspects of life that might otherwise appear chaotic or unpredictable.
This is where culture intersects with ethics. Since interpretations of what is moral are influenced by cultural norms, the possibility exists that what is ethical to one group will not be considered so by someone living in a different culture. According to cultural relativists this means that there is no singular truth on which to base ethical or moral behavior for all time and geographic space, as our interpretations of truths are influenced by our own culture. This approach is in contrast to universalism, which holds the position that moral values are the same for everyone. Cultural relativists consider this to be an ethnocentric view, as the universal set of values proposed by universalists are based on their set of values. Cultural relativism is also considered more tolerant than universalism because, if there is no basis for making moral judgments between cultures, then cultures have to be tolerant of each other.