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The Philosophies of Cultural Relativism: An Essay

“A foreign land might have many faults, but these could not be identified through the mere fact that its customs were unusual” – Alain de Botton, 2000, p. 142

The number of crimes that are born out of hate is staggering: racism, terrorism, counter-terrorism and wars. It all begs the question; why can we not all just get along? The simplistic answer would be is that we all have different cultural morals, ethics, beliefs, governing social rules, religions, lifestyles, physical traits and priorities. This combined with the belief that our ‘way’ is better than another’s can lead to segregation, discrimination and even violence between different cultures. An extreme case would be, for example, the Nazi Holocaust of World War Two. Hitler hated the Jewish people for their beliefs, appearance and many other reasons and managed to execute a scheme to annihilate them before they tainted his dreams of an Aryan race. The opposite of any acts born out of would be the philosophical theory of cultural relativism, which dictates that all cultures have equal moral standing.

This essay will explore the rules and theories of cultural relativism, what we can learn from cultural relativism as well as the counter argument of where cultural relativism fails us. A large part of cultural relativism is the debate about whether moral progress can exist in accordance with cultural relativism theories. The subject is studied prolifically within philosophical and anthropological circles and there are many noteworthy scholars, some of whom will be introduced in this essay.

So, to begin with, what is cultural relativism?

The philosophy of cultural relativism is one that states that the morals and ethics of a culture are only applicable within that culture and other cultural morals, ethics and values are not better or worse, simply different. Furthermore it is intolerant of us to judge other cultural practices as immoral, unethical, or wrong.

Cultural relativism also dictates that there is no universal truth or independent standard in ethics. If one culture’s practices are said to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ then that implies that there is an independent standard by which they might be judged. This independent standard cannot exist, as all humans have to some extent or another, the belief that some (if not all) of their morals and practices are better than another’s. This makes it impossible for a universal independent standard to be made or recognised, as it would be biased towards the culture/s dictating it. Thus, every standard is culturally bound and there are only different cultural codes. Your’s or my cultural codes have no special status, just being one of thousands (Rachels, J. 1993, p. 17).

One of the positive results of cultural relativism is tolerance. By accepting another culture’s ideas and practices as ‘right’, or at least not ‘wrong’, then there is much more tolerance of different lifestyles, practices, morals and values. This could consequently result in a decrease in prejudice, inaccurate stereotypes, racism and hate crimes. James Rachels argues that it is a good thing to consider aspects of one’s culture better than anothers and indeed, if we did not think this then there would be nothing for us to tolerate.

In some cases the biggest failing of cultural relativism is its tolerance, which is essentially the crux of what cultural relativism is all about. There are many cases where this tolerance is a much needed breath of fresh view points, but cultural relativism also dictates that we must be tolerant of all cultural practices, not just the ones we like. For example, by following the cultural relativism theory to the letter we could not criticise the practice in Africa, Egypt and Sudan of female genital mutilation, despite the fact that it causes short and long term health concerns for the female involved. Furthermore, with cultural relativism we can not criticise our own culture’s values, practices, morals and ethics, so how could there be room for improvement? There can be none and cultural relativism brings doubt to the idea of moral progress (Rachels, J. 1993, pp. 21-22).

“Progress, v.: To proceed to a further or higher stage, or to further or higher stages continuously; to develop, increase; (esp.) to advance to a better state or condition; to improve” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, n.d.). Cultural Relativism says that there is no such thing as moral progress. Progress is defined as advancing “to a better state or condition” (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.) but this would imply that the original cultural values that had since been replaced were inferior. This in turn implies that there is a universal standard to which the previous and its replacement practices can be compared against, which according to cultural relativism can not exist either. This comparison of practices could be taken on the basis that the two periods in the culture constitute two different cultures, and again, cultural relativism dictates that two cultures are incomparable. So in conclusion, according to cultural relativism there is no such thing as moral progress, only change (Rachels, J. 1993, p. 22). We could also adopt the opposing thought that if we agree that a culture has made moral progress, then cultural relativism must be false (Cutler, D. A. 2006, p. 11).

An issue that now affects cultural relativism is while before cultures did not intermingle, they now live side by side, as neighbours and good friends, or worst enemies. Since people began travelling and immigrating there have been cultural clashes; from the colonisation of Australia, America and other islands by the British, to the mass immigration out of Europe during and after both world wars (Rosaldo, R. n.d.). While in previous decades the goal was to create one culture out of many, it is now to create many cultures out of one, particularly in the United States of America (Brym, R. J. & Lie, J. 2006, p. 76). This could be less evident in Australia where we are still creating one culture out of many as people immigrate and bring parts of their home culture with them. It makes for an interestingly diverse set of morals, beliefs and ethics in one country and almost creates a necessity for a moderated version of cultural relativism. If the Australian population, from all the different ethnic backgrounds, did not exercise a level of tolerance toward their neighbours, the country’s culture would be a violent one fuelled by ignorant hatred.

Many cultures believe, or did believe, in ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is defined by William Sumner as “…the technical name for this view of things in which one’s own group is the centre of everything and all others are scaled and referenced to it” (Sumner, W. G. 1999, p. 33). Traditionally, many native American Indian tribes have viciously guarded their beliefs, their language and their religion from outside tribes, and many would have been outraged by inter-tribal marriage. Most of these groups defined themselves as ‘men’ or ‘human beings’, while everyone else was something else. Not necessarily defined exactly, but not to the standard of themselves (Sumner, W.G. 1999, p.33).

Cultural relativism also does not allow you to implement aspects of your own culture in your thinking, irrespective of their positive or negative impact. So when thinking about, for example, an African cultural practice, we will almost always be in some way influenced by our own experiences or prior knowledge which in some ways will be influenced towards the culture you grew up in. This could be as simple as having a Caucasian teacher telling you about African culture, not necessarily saying anything biased, but simply having white skin will leave some small impression in the student’s mind.

There are many people who have an interest in the study of cultural relativism and have been doing so since the start of human history. Michel de Montaigne was a Frenchman who has been called by some the pioneer of cultural relativism (Foglia, M. 2004). He travelled across southern Europe in the late 15th century and noted some interesting differences between attitudes towards the methods by which the French and the Germans heated their rooms. While the French made use of open hearth fireplaces, the Germans found it more efficient to use iron stoves, and each was quite appalled by the other’s abnormality (Botton, A. D., 2000, p. 144). Montaigne says in Botton’s book “Every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs in our own country. There we always find the perfect religion, the perfect polity, the most developed and perfect way of doing everything!” (Botton, A. D., 2000, p. 142)

There have been numerous historical examples of places where cultural relativism might be used. James Rachels noted in his book Elements of Moral Philosophy that many Eskimos commit infanticide, especially toward their female children at birth (Rachels, J. 1993, p. 16). This sounds horrible, and our initial reaction may be one of disgust, but rarely do we stop and ask why the Eskimos kill their daughters. If we were to ask why, we find that due to the harsh nomadic living conditions mean that it is not practicable to sustain many children at once. Also, Eskimo mothers nurse their children much longer than we do, sometimes for four years or more, and if a woman already has a child or two it is very difficult for the woman to nourish more children. It is not due to a lack of respect for human life, but necessity that brings about infanticide in the Eskimo culture. Furthermore, the food collecting males have a much higher casualty rate than the females and it was concluded from statistics that if all female infants were allowed to survive then “there would be approximately one-and-a-half times as many females in the average Eskimo local group as there were food-producing males” (Rachels, J. 2007, pp. 24-25).

While cultural relativism has many great philosophies and could help lower the hate crime rates, it is important to realise that perhaps not all practices, such as the oppression of women, should be tolerated. It does also have some faults in its theories that do not make it a perfect or completely practicable philosophy, but there is still a lot to be learnt from positively looking at different cultures and learning about and from them, and also simply keeping an open mind and asking ‘why’ some things are done the way they are (Rachels, J. 1993, p.28). Montaigne concludes that the best way to avoid the trap of thinking that the unfamiliar equals the inadequate is to implement careful reasoning for, or against, a practice rather than relying on prejudice (Botton, A. D. 2000).


Botton, A.D. 2000, “The Consolations of Philosophy”, Penguin Books, Australia

Foglia, M. 2004, ‘Michel de Montaigne’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, viewed 9 October 2010, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montaigne/#MonRel

Rachels, J. 1993, “Elements of Moral Philosophy”, 2nd edition, McGraw-Hill, Inc., United States of America

Rachels, J. 2007, “Elements of Moral Philosophy”, 5th edition, McGraw-Hill, Inc., United States of America

Rosaldo, R. n.d., ‘Of Headhunters and Soldiers: Separating Cultural and Ethical Relativism’, Santa Clara University, viewed 11 October 2010, http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/iie/v11n1/relativism.html

Sumner, W. G. 1999, “Cultural Relativism” in “The Right Thing To Do” by Rachels, J., McGraw-Hill, Inc. United States of America

Oxford English Dictionary Online, n.d., ‘progress, v.’, viewed 8 October 2010, http://dictionary.oed.com.ezproxy.flinders.edu.au/cgi/entry/50189649?query_type=word&queryword=progress&first=1&max_to_show=10&sort_type=alpha&result_place=3&search_id=hHer-NKjign-11658&hilite=50189649

Cutler, D. A. 2006, ‘Cultural Relativism’, University of British Columbia, viewed 9 October 2010, http://www.philosophy.ubc.ca/cutler/1102/notes/cultural_relativism.pdf

Brym, R.J. & Lie, J. 2006, “Sociology: Your Compass for a New World”, online book, 3rd edition, Thomas Wadsworth, United States of America, viewed 11 October 2010, http://books.google.com.au/books?id=WT_VEMPdOdwC&pg=PA76&lpg=PA76&dq=negative+results+of+cultural+relativism&source=bl&ots=uNEESYexFC&sig=3OQ6-eQ2iO6lhDKStk_nmfrgIJc&hl=en&ei=vrC2TOTiHMWPcZX7_OQJ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&ved=0CEQQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=negative%20results%20of%20cultural%20relativism&f=false

One comment on “The Philosophies of Cultural Relativism: An Essay

  1. Anete Kuree
    November 13, 2010

    It was certainly interesting for me to read this blog. Thanks the author for it. I like such themes and anything connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more on that blog soon.

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This entry was posted on October 15, 2010 by in Essays, Life, People, Thoughts.
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