Cultural Relativism: A Seductive Yet Disturbing Theory

What Is Cultural Relativism and Why Does It Matter?

You likely believe that certain acts are morally wrong no matter what culture a person lives in. This might include things like murder, stealing, and genocide. Cultural relativism challenges your belief. It holds there are no universal moral truths that hold across cultures. Moral truths only hold relative to particular cultures. 

In this post, you’ll learn about philosopher James Rachels’ objections to cultural relativism so you can keep on believing that, say, genocide is wrong no matter what culture a person happens to live in.

This is the sixth episode in the Exploring Ethics Series. A link to the other videos in the series is in the description. My name is Christopher Michael Cloos. I have a PhD in philosophy and taught ethics at the university-level for many years. Now I teach philosophy online, and I’m glad I get to explore cultural relativism with you today. Let’s jump in.

Key Commitments of Cultural Relativism

Consider indigenous peoples of the Arctic areas of Canada and the United States (i.e., Inuit or Eskimo peoples). They survived in harsh climates for 25,000 years. When explorers first discovered them, the explorers were shocked by some of their customs. The practice of killing infants at birth (infanticide) was common. Men shared their wives with visitors as a sign of hospitality. This highlights the fact that different cultures have different moral codes. What’s morally permissible on one culture may not be morally okay in another culture.

Cultural relativism embraces this fact and concludes that moral truth is not universal. Moral truth is always relative to the moral code of a particular society. There’s no moral truth that holds across cultures for everyone, at all times. 

Let me briefly mention additional features of cultural relativism:

  • No objective way to judge one culture’s code superior to other cultures’ codes
  • Our society’s moral code has no special status
  • Moral code of a society determines what is right in that society
  • We should not judge the conduct of other peoples

Before exploring James Rachaels’ objections to this theory it helps to consider some if its merits that he identifies. Why would someone be attracted to this view in the first place.

Attractive Features of Cultural Relativism

As Rachaels points out, cultural relativism reminds us that many of our cherished practices are mere conventions. Think about commemorating the dead. In most cultures this is done with a ceremony whereby the body is buried or cremated and ashes spread somewhere. However, in other cultures eating the flesh of the deceased person is a way of honoring them.

Cultural relativism appears to promote tolerance and open-mindedness. Different cultural practices are not bad. They’re simply different ways of doing things morally, and afford an opportunity to look at things differently. 

It serves as an “antidote to dogmatism”. Instead of thinking, “this is how we do things in our culture, so this is the right way to do things,” cultural relativism encourages being open to changing your moral outlook.

Cultural relativism counters many prejudices against racial or sexual minorities, and it informs us that our deep attitudes might just be mere conditioning.

With all of those attractive benefits on offer from the theory of morality, what problems with the view give pause to most moral philosophers? 

Rachels's 4 Objections to Cultural Relativism

Rachels’ identifies 4 objections that we’ll consider. 

Objection 1: The Cultural Differences Argument is Unsound

This first objection counters a common way of defending the view. The objection states that facts about morality do no follow from facts about beliefs. Why think the opposite? Why think facts about morality do follow from facts about beliefs?

If what’s called “The Cultural Differences Argument” is a good argument (i.e., a sound argument), then you’d have a good reason to believe moral truths are culturally relative.  

Let’s put some flesh on the bones of the argument by using some examples Rachaels gives.

  1. The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callatians believed it was right to eat the dead.
  2. Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.

Or, consider:

  1. The Eskimos see nothing wrong with infanticide, whereas Americans believe infanticide is immoral.
  2. Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.

What’s wrong with these arguments? The problems is the arguments are not valid. So they’re unsound. Even if the premise is true, the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow. It could be false while the premise is true. 

As Rachels explains about the argument involving the Callatians:

Consider again the example of the Greeks and Callatians. The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead; the Callatians believed it was right. Does it follow, from the mere fact that they disagreed, that there is no objective truth in the matter? No, it does not follow; for it could be that the practice was objectively right (or wrong) and that one or the other of them was simply mistaken.

Rachels reinforces the point by considering the shape of the earth. Some cultures believe in a flat earth. Most, and I emphasize most, people in our culture believe the earth is approximately spherical. Does it follow from the fact that the two cultures disagree that there’s no fact of the matter about the shape of the earth? No, because we know that some cultures can be mistaken in their beliefs about geometry. There can still be an objective truth about the geometry of the earth, and there’s no reason to think all cultures will know that truth. Likewise, there can still be an objective moral truth and there’s no reason to think all cultures will know it. It’s unsurprising that some cultures will have false beliefs about morality.

Now, I need to provide a word of caution. Rachels is making a logical point here. Rachels is not arguing that the conclusion of the argument is false. He’s not arguing there is objective truth in morality. Rather he’s arguing that the truth of the claim that right and wrong are only matters of opinion isn’t necessary assuming the premise is true (i.e., that different cultures have different moral codes). It might turn out that morality is not objective, but the premise in the cultural differences argument does not provide a good reason to believe that.

Objection 2: Consequences of relativism are disturbing and implausible

The second objection entertains the possibility that relativism is true. Even if the Cultural Differences argument is an unsound way to support relativism, it’s still possible there’s another way of defending the view. Assuming relativism is true, what consequences follow?

Rachels argues the following problematic consequences would follow were the view true:

  • Slavery and genocide seem immune from criticism
  • Moral progress seems impossible
  • Moral reform seems too limited

These results give us ample reason to doubt relativism, even on the assumption it is true. The first consequence of taking the view seriously is that: “We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own

Now you might think that sounds good. Isn’t this inability to morally judge other cultures what allows the view to have all those positive benefits discussed at the start of the video? Yes, but it’s a double-edged sword. What appears to license an enlightened and tolerant stance also fails to deliver correct verdicts of moral condemnation where clearly licensed.

As Rachels argues by way of example:

Suppose a society waged war on its neighbors for the purpose of taking slaves. Or suppose a society was violently anti-Semitic and its leaders set out to destroy the Jews. Cultural Relativism would preclude us from saying that either of these practices was wrong. We would not even be able to say that a society tolerant of Jews is better than the anti-Semitic society, for that would imply some sort of transcultural standard of comparison. The failure to condemn these practices does not seem “enlightened”: on the contrary, slavery and anti-Semitism seem wrong wherever they occur. Nevertheless, if we took Cultural Relativism seriously, we would have to admit that these social practices also are immune from criticism.

Secondly,  “We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society.” Think about someone living in South African during Apartheid. Is the policy of racial segregation morally permissible. If relativism is true, someone living tin that culture would just consult what their practice does. Apartheid is practiced, so it’s morally okay.

Rachels explains why this is disturbing, “few of us think that our society’s code is perfect—we can think of ways it might be improved. Yet Cultural Relativism would not only forbid us from criticizing the codes of other societies; it would stop us from criticizing our own. After all, if right and wrong are relative to culture, this must be true for our own culture just as much as for others.”

Third, “The idea of moral progress is called into doubt.” We naturally think some changes morally represent progress. Think about progress made in race and gender equality. Though much inequality still exists, women can now vote, African Americans are not segregated in dining and transportation from their white counterparts,. If relativism is true, we cannot make cross-temporal judgments. We cannot say today’s culture is morally better because it does not include forms of sexism and racism that were cultural norms in prior times. Today’s culture is different. Not better. But isn’t a culture without prohibition of women voting or black people riding on buses a morally better culture, at least in that respect?

The three consequences of cultural relativism just discussed give us reason to reject the view as implausible. Relativism has the veneer of being an enlightened and sophisticated view, but upon further reflection that veneer quickly shows what lies beneath it. And what’s beneath it isn’t pretty. It does seem right to morally condemn genocide, slavery, and anti-Semitism in any culture in which they occur. It seems right to say we’ve morally progressed as a culture in some respects. Because relativism cannot account for these judgments, it is right to reject the view as implausible.

Objection 3: Cultural disagreements are not as deep as they seem

The third objections claims that relativism overplays its hand regarding cultural disagreements. Recall that relativism relies on the fact that moral customs differ between cultures and concludes there’s no fact of the matter about morality concerning those customs. But here’s the problem.

You can’t conclude that because customs differ moral values differ. Even when cultures have opposite practices about a moral issue, they may still share the same underlying moral value. Take the eating of cows. One culture believes it’s wrong because they believe that human souls indwell the bodies of animals, especially cows. That cow might be your grandma. Imagine we live in a culture that eats cows. Do we differ in our moral values? Not necessarily. We differ in our belief systems, as Rachels memorably states,  “We agree that we shouldn’t eat Grandma; we simply disagree about whether the cow is (or could be) Grandma.”

Religious beliefs and beliefs about facts may differ. These differences may produce differences in moral practices. Recall the Eskimo practices of infanticide. 

Do they value children less than a culture that doesn’t practice infanticide. Not necessarily. They’re just forced to make difficult tradeoffs given the harsh conditions in which they live. As Rachels explains, infanticide: “is a recognition that drastic measures are sometimes needed to ensure the family’s survival. Even then, however, killing the baby is not the first option considered. Adoption is common; childless couples are especially happy to take a more fertile couple’s “surplus.” Killing is only the last resort…The Eskimos’ values are not all that different from our values. It is only that life forces upon them choices that we do not have to make.”

Objection 4: Some values must be universal

Rachels last objection is that certain values must be present in all cultures: valuing young and truth-telling. Here’s an argument for the first value:

  1. Human infants are helpless and cannot survive if they are not given extensive care for a period of years.
  2. Therefore, if a group did not care for its young, the young would not survive, and the older members of the group would not be replaced. After a while the group would die out.
  3. Therefore, any cultural group that continues to exist must care for its young. Infants that are not cared for must be the exception rather than the rule.

What are your thoughts about this argument by Rachels?

I think it’s weak on a number of grounds. First, it most directly applies to hunter-gatherer type cultures where life expectancy is lower than industrialized nations. In such a culture it may take only a couple of generations for the culture to start to die out. But in an industrialized nation with long life expectancy it would take so long for the culture to die out that geopolitical instability, a large scale natural disaster, or something else would likely decimate the culture before not readily replenishing the young would have that effect.

Second, the argument there’s a big gap between the level of care needed to raise infants so they can survive and actually valuing the young. A culture may do the bare minimum needed for infants to survive, but this may not reflect a valuing of the young. It may only be a practical value to ensure survival of the culture. Valuing the young to ensure the survival of the group is hardly a moral value that is universal. It’s not even clear such a value is a moral value. To wax Kantian, the infants are valued only insofar as they are a means to broader social goals. 

Lastly, Rachels argues that truth-telling must be universal. This probably is true, as social coordination requires a basic level of trust in others. If truth-telling were not a value of a culture it would be difficult, though not impossible, for that culture to thrive and survive. The valuing of life and prohibiting murder is something else that is likely a universal value. 

As Rachels considers in a Hunger Games key:

Could a society exist in which there was no prohibition on murder? What would this be like? Suppose people were free to kill other people at will, and no one thought there was anything wrong with it. In such a “society,” no one could feel secure. Everyone would have to be constantly on guard. People who wanted to survive would have to avoid other people as much as possible. This would inevitably result in individuals trying to become as self-sufficient as possible—after all, associating with others would be dangerous. Society on any large scale would collapse. Of course, people might band together in smaller groups with others that they could trust not to harm them. But notice what this means: they would be forming smaller societies that did acknowledge a rule against murder. The prohibition of murder, then, is a necessary feature of all societies.

What do you think about this? Is Rachels right that prohibiting murder is a universal moral value?

In conclusion,  “there are some moral rules that all societies will have in common, because those rules are necessary for society to exist….Cultures may differ in what they regard as legitimate exceptions to the rules, but this disagreement exists against a background of agreement on the larger issues. Therefore, it is a mistake to overestimate the amount of difference between cultures. Not every moral rule can vary from society to society.”

Reference: James Rachels, "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism," Chapter 6 in Exploring Ethics (5th ed.), Steven M. Cahn (ed.), Oxford University Press.


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