Cultural Relativism

Moral Relativism

Moral relativism is generally the view that: what is morally right may differ among different societies, groups, or individuals.  

Moral relativism is opposed to moral objectivism (the view that there is an objective or universal and culture-independent moral standard; e.g., Kant, utilitarianism).

I.e., moral objectivism argues that there is an objective moral standard of right or wrong that applies equally to many different societies, groups or individuals.

We will examine one kind of moral relativism here: cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism is one kind of moral relativism, which argues that: one’s moral standard (or moral code) is derived entirely from one’s own culture, AND different cultures may have different moral standards / codes. Morality can differ among different societies and cultures.

More than a hundred years ago travelers reported very interesting cultural practices among the Eskimo people [not sure whether this is actually true]:

Wives: polygamy, and wife-lending as courtesy; also, special “right of access” given to leaders and village chiefs.

Treatment of infants: infanticide was supposedly very common and accepted.

Treatment of elderly: abandonment was  acceptable.

If these practices really did take place among Eskimos, we would find them unacceptable.

BUT we would be naïve to think automatically that we are right and the Eskimos were wrong to do these things: from ancient times, human beings had a wide range of varying cultural practices. 

For example, treatment of the dead: some cultures buried dead bodies, some burned them, some sent them down rivers, and some even ate them [ancient Callatians].

Cultural relativism starts with the very reasonable premise that we are all right: every culture is morally right, according to their own standard.

The 5 Claims of Cultural Relativism

1) Different societies have different moral codes [a “moral code” = a system of moral beliefs or moral standards].

2) The moral code of a society determines what is morally right within that society.

3) There is no objective moral standard that can be used to judge that my society’s code is better than another society’s code. I.e., there is no society-independent or culture-independent moral standard. I.e., there does NOT exist any moral truths that hold for all people at all times.

4) The moral code of my own society has no special status or value. It is just one among many others. All moral codes are equal in status and worth.

5) It is arrogant for you to judge the actions of people in different cultures. You need to be tolerant of other cultures and their moral codes.

NOTE: These claims are independent of each other although they are often asserted together, i.e., some of them may be true while others may be false. Also a relativist does not need to hold onto ALL of these, she may hold onto some of them only.

Strengths of Cultural Relativism

(A) Can explain the complexity and diversity of our moral intuitions:

It shows us that at least some of our moral beliefs may be just products of our own culture, and thus conventional and applicable to only our own society (but not necessarily to other societies).

Thus people from other very different societies and cultures may have very different and diverse “moral intuitions.”

(B) Teaches us the importance of keeping an open mind and attitude toward others:

We find our own ways of doing things “natural,” but we must not think that other peoples’ ways are therefore “unnatural.”

There are many different natural ways: that’s the point of cultural relativism. Don’t think that your way is the only right way! This can only lead to suffering and conflict among human beings. 

Problems for Cultural Relativism

Problem 1: The Cultural Difference Argument.

A supporter of cultural relativism might make the following argument (“the cultural difference argument”):

Premise: different cultures have different moral codes/standards.

Conclusion: there is no objective moral truth (no objective morality that applies to all cultures), i.e., right and wrong are merely matters of opinion and opinions can vary from culture to culture.

So basically, the cultural difference argument says that because different societies disagree about what is morally right, there is no objective or universal moral truth.


The premise is about beliefs, while the conclusion is about facts or truth.

Your beliefs are not always necessarily true!

Example: does Sara really love me? A belief in something does NOT guarantee truth in that thing.

So: just because different cultures have different moral beliefs, this cannot guarantee that there is no objective moral truth. But the cultural difference argument says precisely this: because different cultures have different moral beliefs it MUST be that there exists no objective moral truth. This is wrong.

For example: there may be an objective moral truth, but it’s just that no culture has discovered this so far.

OR: may be possible that one culture has in fact discovered the moral truth, and hence its moral beliefs are in fact true while the other culture’s moral beliefs are false.

Problem 2: Cultural Relativism Leads to Unacceptable Consequences.

If you believe in cultural relativism then you must also hold onto two consequences of cultural relativism:

1: there is no way to criticize another culture’s morality and moral standard. Why?

Because cultural relativism says that all cultures’ moral standards are equal in status. If another culture’s standard is equal in status to yours, then you have no basis to criticize it as inferior to your own culture’s standard.

2: you cannot even criticize your own culture’s moral standard. Why?

Because what is right and wrong for us is determined by our own culture’s moral standard, so we can’t criticize the standard itself. We can criticize someone’s actions (if he belongs to our own culture) based on our moral standard, but we cannot criticize our moral standard itself.

These consequences are not acceptable to us because:

1: sometimes we need to criticize some culture’s morality – when a culture is peaceful, then no problem, but imagine a very warlike and violent culture! What if they want to come and kill us? Should we just let them do it, because we are cultural relativists and we have no basis to criticize them? No, we MUST morally criticize and condemn them.

But cultural relativism says we should not condemn or criticize these violent and destructive moralities.

2: sometimes we also need to criticize our own culture’s morality because no culture has a perfect moral standard. Sometimes we do and we should criticize the moral standard of our own society.

But cultural relativism says we cannot do this, since our moral standard is what determines our morality.

Thus: cultural relativism leads to unacceptable consequences, and if a moral theory leads to such problematic consequences, then the moral theory itself also is unacceptable [reductio ad absurdum].

Problem 3: Cultural Differences DO NOT Guarantee Moral Differences.

Example 1: in the Hindu religion in India, it is wrong to eat a cow.

In our culture, eating beef is perfectly acceptable.

So we have a cultural difference (differences in cultural values) between us and Hindus, and this seems to show different moral values in these two cultures (wrong to eat beef vs. right to eat beef).

BUT: this difference may NOT be based on differences in moral values, but rather on  differences in religious or factual beliefs.

Hindus believe that after your family members die they could be reborn (reincarnated) as a cow. And this is why they think it’s wrong to eat cows. We don’t have such religious beliefs.

So, in fact BOTH us and Hindus believe it is morally wrong to eat our ancestors.

The cultural difference is due to different views about the human soul and what happens when we die, NOT about what we think is morally wrong.

Thus moral values are the SAME yet there are differences in culture (different cultural values) due to other (non-moral) factors.

Cultural Relativism (CR) claims that differences in culture guarantee differences in moral values (since all moralities are determined by the culture they grow in). 

But these examples show that differences in culture DO NOT always guarantee differences in moral values – moral value is the same, yet there are cultural differences [which are due to other factors, such as differences in religious beliefs, or differences in physical environment].

This means that morality is NOT always determined by culture [since you can have cases where there is cultural differences yet SAME moral value].

THUS, cultural relativism is incorrect.

Problem 4: Some Moral Values Are Same for EVERY Culture.

Consider these moral values:

A: telling the truth.

B: not murdering other people.

These moral values are actually held onto by many different cultures. In fact it turns out that EVERY culture has these moral values.

This is simply because these moral values are necessary for any society to continue to exist. Without these, no society could function properly.

SO: if this is true, then we DO have an objective culture-independent, society-independent moral standard (a standard that applies to all cultures):

Rules such as “don’t murder” and “tell the truth” [and there could be more rules] can function as objective moral standards that could apply to every culture and society, simply because they are necessary for any society to exist.

CR claims there CANNOT be any such objective moral standards.

THUS, if there are such objective moral rules, then CR is wrong!

Kathleen Li


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