The Challenge of Cultural Relativism
Adapted from The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels, Chapter 2, pp. 15-29. © 1999
by McGraw-Hill, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits.
-- Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture, 1934)
2.1 How Different Cultures Have Different Moral Codes
Darius, a king of ancient , was intrigued by the variety of cultures he encountered in his travels. He had found, for example, that the Callatians (a tribe of Indians) customarily ate the bodies of their dead fathers. The Greeks, of course, did not do that—the Greeks practiced cremation and regarded the funeral pyre as the natural and fitting way to dispose of the dead. Darius thought that a sophisticated understanding of the world must include an appreciation of such differences between cultures. One day, to teach this lesson, he summoned some Greeks who happened to be present at his court and asked them what they would take to eat the bodies of their dead fathers. They were shocked, as Darius knew they would be, and replied that no amount of money could persuade them to do such a thing. Then Darius called in some Callatians, and while the Greeks listened asked them what they would take to burn their dead fathers' bodies. The Callatians were horrified and told Darius not even to mention such a dreadful thing.
This story, recounted by Herodotus in his History illustrates a recurring theme in the literature of social science: Different cultures have different moral codes. What is thought right within one group may be utterly abhorrent to the members of another group, and vice versa. Should we eat the bodies of the dead or burn them? If you were a Greek, one answer would seem obviously correct; but if you were a Callatian, the opposite would seem equally certain.
It is easy to give additional examples of the same kind. Consider the Eskimos. They are a remote and inaccessible people. Numbering only about 25,000, they live in small, isolated settlements scattered mostly along the northern fringes of North America and . Until the beginning of the 20th century, the outside world knew little about them. Then explorers began to bring back strange tales.
Eskimos customs turned out to be very different from our own. The men often had more than one wife, and they would share their wives with guests, lending them for the night as a sign of hospitality. Moreover, within a community, a dominant male might demand and get regular sexual access to other men's wives. The women, however, were free to break these arrangements simply by leaving their husbands and taking up with new partners—free, that is, so long as their former husbands chose not to make trouble. All in all, the Eskimo practice was a volatile scheme that bore little resemblance to what we call marriage.
But it was not only their marriage and sexual practices that were different. The Eskimos also seemed to have less regard for human life. Infanticide, for example, was common. Knud Rasmussen, one of the most famous early explorers, reported that be met one woman who bad borne 20 children but had killed 10 of them at birth. Female babies, he found, were especially liable to be destroyed, and this was permitted simply at the parents' discretion, with no social stigma attached to it. Old people also, when they became too feeble to contribute to the family, were left out in the snow .to die. So there seemed to be, in this society, remarkably little respect for life.
To the general public, these were disturbing revelations. Our own way of living seems so natural and right that for many of us it is hard to conceive of others living so differently. And when we do hear of such things, we tend immediately to categorize those other peoples as "backward" or "primitive." But to anthropologists and sociologists, there was nothing particularly surprising about the Eskimos. Since the time of Herodotus, enlightened observers have been accustomed to the idea that conceptions of right and wrong differ from culture to culture. If we assume that our ideas of right and wrong will be shared by all peoples as all times, we are merely naive.
2.2 Cultural Relativism
To many thinkers, this observation—"Different cultures have different moral codes"— has seemed to be the key to understanding morality. The idea of universal truth in ethics, they say, is a myth. The customs of different societies are all that exist. These customs cannot be said to be "correct" or "incorrect," for that implies we have an independent standard of right and wrong by which they may be judged. But there is no such independent standard; every standard is culture-bound. The great pioneering sociologist William Graham Sumner, writing in 1906, put the point like this:
The "right" way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been handed down. The tradition is its own warrant. It is not held subject to verification by experience. The notion of right is in the folkways. It is not outside of them, of independent origin, and brought to test them. In the folkways, whatever is, is right. This is because they are traditional, and therefore contain in themselves the authority of the ancestral ghosts. When we come to the folkways we are at the end of our analysis.
This line of thought has probably persuaded more people to be skeptical about ethics than any other single thing. Cultural Relativism, as it has been called, challenges our ordinary belief in the objectivity and universality of moral truth. It says, in effect, that there is not such thing as universal truth in ethics; there are only the various cultural codes, and nothing more. Moreover, our own code has no special status; it is merely one among many.
As we shall see, this basic idea is really a compound of several different thoughts. It is important to separate the various elements of the theory because, on analysis, some parts turn out to be correct, while others seem to be mistaken. As a beginning, we may distinguish the following claims, all of which have been made by cultural relativists:
- Different societies have different moral codes.
- There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another.
- The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.
- There is no "universal truth" in ethics; that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.
- The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society.
- It is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.
Although it may seem that these six propositions go naturally together, they are independent of one another, in the sense that some of them might be false even if others are true. In what follows, we will try to identify what is correct in Cultural Relativism, but we will also be concerned to expose what is mistaken about it.
2.3 The Cultural Differences Argument
Cultural Relativism is a theory about the nature of morality. At first blush it seems quite plausible. However, like all such theories, it may be evaluated by subjecting it to rational analysis; and when we analyze Cultural Relativism we find that it is not so plausible as it first appears to be.
The first thing we need to notice is that at the heart of Cultural Relativism there is a certain form of argument. The strategy used by cultural relativists is to argue from facts about the differences between cultural outlooks to a conclusion about the status of morality. Thus we are invited to accept this reasoning:
- The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callatians believed it was right to eat the dead.
- Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively fight nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.
- The Eskimos see nothing wrong with infanticide, whereas Americans believe infanticide is immoral.
- Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.
Clearly, these arguments are variations of one fundamental idea They are both special cases of a more general argument, which says:
- Different cultures have different moral codes.
- Therefore, there is no objective "truth" in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
We may call this the Cultural Differences Argument. To many people, it is persuasive. But from a logical point of view, is it sound?
It is not sound. The trouble is that the conclusion does not follow from the premise— that is, even if the premise is true, the conclusion still might be false. The premise concerns what people believe. In some societies, people believe one thing; in other societies, people believe differently. The conclusion, however, concerns what really is the case. The trouble is that this sort conclusion does not follow logically from this sort of premise.
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.
To make the point clearer, consider a different matter In some societies, people believe the earth is flat In other societies, such as our own, people believe the earth is (roughly) spherical. Does it follow, from the mere fact that people disagree, that there is no "objective truth" in geography? Of course not; we would never draw such a conclusion because we realize that, in their beliefs about the world, the members of some societies might simply be wrong. There is no reason to think that if the world is round everyone must know it. Similarly, there is no reason to think that if there is moral truth everyone must know it. The fundamental mistake in the Cultural Differences Argument is that it attempts to derive a substantive conclusion about a subject from the mere fact that people disagree about it.
This is a simple point of logic, and it is important not to misunderstand it. We are not saying (not yet, anyway) that the conclusion of the argument is false. It is still an open question whether the conclusion is true or false. The logical point is just that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. This is important, because in order to determine whether the conclusion is true, we need arguments in its support. Cultural Relativism proposes this argument, but unfortunately the argument turns out to be fallacious. So it proves nothing.
2.4 The Consequences of Taking Cultural Relativism Seriously
Even if the Cultural Differences Argument is invalid, Cultural Relativism might still be true. What would it be like if it were true?
In the passage quoted above, William Graham Sumner summarizes the essence of Cultural Relativism. He says that there is no measure of right and wrong other than the standards of one's society: "The notion of right is in the folkways. It is not outside of them, of independent origin, and brought to test them. In the folkways, whatever is, is right."
Suppose we took this seriously. What would be some of the consequences?
1. We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own. This, of course, is one of the main points stressed by Cultural Relativism. We would have to stop condemning other societies merely because they are "different:' So long as we concentrate on certain examples, such as the funerary practices of the Greeks and Callatians, this may seem to be a sophisticated, enlightened attitude.
However, we would also be stopped from criticizing other, less benign practices. 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 regard these social practices as also immune from criticism.
2. We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society. Cultural Relativism suggests a simple test for determining what is right and what is wrong: All one need do is ask whether the action is in accordance with the code of one's society. Suppose in 1975, a resident of was wondering whether his country's policy of apartheid—a rigidly racist system—was morally correct. All he has to do is ask whether this policy conformed to his society's moral code. If it did, there would have been nothing to worry about, at least from a moral point of view.
This implication of Cultural Relativism is disturbing because 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 other cultures.
3. The idea of moral progress is called into doubt. Usually, we think that at least some social changes are for the better. (Although, of course, other changes may be for the worse.) Throughout most of Western history the place of women in society was narrowly circumscribed. They could not own property; they could not vote or hold political office; and generally they were under the almost absolute control of their husbands. Recently much of this has changed, and most people think of it as progress.
If Cultural Relativism is correct, can we legitimately think of this as progress? Progress means replacing a way of doing things with a better way. But by what standard do we judge the new ways as better? If the old ways were in accordance with the social standards of their time, then Cultural Relativism would say it is a mistake to judge them by the standards of a different time. Eighteenth-century society was, in effect, a different society from the one we have now. To say that we have made progress implies a judgment that present-day society is better, and that is just the sort of transcultural judgment that, according to Cultural Relativism, is impermissible.
Our idea of social reform will also have to be reconsidered. Reformers such as Martin Luther King, Jr., have sought to change their societies for the better. Within the constraints imposed by Cultural Relativism, there is one way this might be done. If a society is not living up to its own ideals, the reformer may be regarded as acting for the best: The ideals of the society are the standard by which we judge his or her proposals as worthwhile. But the "reformer" may not challenge the ideals themselves, for those ideals are by definition correct. According to Cultural Relativism, then, the idea of social reform makes sense only in this limited way.
These three consequences of Cultural Relativism have led many thinkers to reject it as implausible on its face. It does make sense, they say, to condemn some practices, such as slavery and anti-Semitism, wherever they occur. It makes sense to think that our own society has made some moral progress, while admitting that it is still imperfect and in need of reform. Because Cultural Relativism says that these judgments make no sense, the argument goes, it cannot be right.
2.5 Why There Is Less Disagreement Than It Seems
The original impetus for Cultural Relativism comes from the observation that cultures differ dramatically in their views of right and wrong. But just how much do they differ? It is true that there are differences. However, it is easy to overestimate the extent of those differences, Often, when we examine what seems to be a dramatic difference, we find that the cultures do not differ nearly as much as it appears.
Consider a culture in which people believe it is wrong to eat cows. This may even be a poor culture, in which there is not enough food; still, the cows are not to be touched. Such a society would appear to have values very different from our own. But does it? We have not yet asked why these people will not eat cows. Suppose it is because they believe that after death the souls of humans inhabit the bodies of animals, especially cows, so that a cow may be someone's grandmother. Now do we want to say that their values are different from ours? No; the difference lies elsewhere. The difference is in our belief systems, not in our values. We agree that we shouldn't eat Grandma; we simply disagree about whether the cow is (or could be) Grandma
The point is that many factors work together to produce the customs of a society. The society's values are only one of them. Other matters, such as the religions and factual beliefs held by its members, and the physical circumstances in which they must live, are also important. We cannot conclude, then, merely because customs differ, that there is a disagreement about values. The difference in customs may be attributable to some other aspects of social life. Thus there may be less disagreement about values than there appears to be.
Consider again the Eskimos, who often kill perfectly normal infants, especially girls. We do not approve of such things; a parent who killed a baby in our society would be locked up. Thus there appears to be a great difference in the values of our two cultures. But suppose we ask why the Eskimos do this. The explanation is not that they have less affection for their children or less respect for human life. An Eskimo family will always protect its babies if conditions permit. But they live in a harsh environment, where food is in short supply. A fundamental postulate of Eskimos thought is: "Life is hard, and the margin of safety small:' A family may want to nourish its babies but be unable to do so.
As in many "primitive" societies, Eskimo mothers will nurse their infants over a much longer period of time than mothers in our culture. The child will take nourishment from its mother's breast for four years, perhaps even longer. So even in the best of times there are limits to the number of infants that one mother can sustain. Moreover, the Eskimos are a nomadic people—unable to farm, they must move about in search of food. Infants must be carried, and a mother can carry only one baby in her parka as she travels and goes about her outdoor work. Other family members help whenever they can.
Infant girls are more readily disposed of because, first, in this society the males are the primary food providers—they are the hunters, according to the traditional division of labor—and it is obviously important to maintain a sufficient number of food providers. But there is an important second reason as well. Because the hunters suffer a high casualty rate, the adult men who die prematurely far outnumber the women who die early. Thus if male and female infants survived in equal numbers, the female adult population would greatly outnumber the male adult population. Examining the available statistics, one writer concluded that "were it not for female infanticide…there would be approximately one-and-a-half times as many females in the average Eskimo local group as there are food-producing males."
Different cultures believe different things. One doesn’t need to be an anthropologist to see that the morality, ritual, and religion vary more and more the further you travel, no matter what direction. In fact, these differences are what define these groups of people. And not only are these values what organize the lives of… well… everyone, but they are also what lay the meaning behind those lives – whether political, cultural or religious in origin.
So what do we do with this fact? What should we conclude? How should we treat this difference?
Easy off the bat answer: Cultural Relativism. Though originally the phrase was coined for a different use, it’s come to signify the idea that every culture’s moral beliefs and rituals are no more true or false, better or worse than anyone else’s. What is right or wrong is whatever that culture says is right or wrong. Nothing more. And because of this what we need is tolerance, acceptance of the equal value of others’ beliefs, and humility in the fact different peoples believe different things.
Now I’m all for tolerance and admitting my passionately held values could easily be incorrect. But I just cannot see how any of those conclusions can lead to, or even can co-exist with, Cultural Relativism.
Why might one be a Cultural Relativist? Below I bring up common arguments for Cultural Relativism and then provide counter-arguments.
1. So many cultures disagree about so many different things.
If the world is full of anything it is passionate disagreement. And because of this it’s easy to wonder if there is any truth behind our moral claims. And since everyone seems to be honest when they make these claims, it seems arrogant to presume that any out of the multitude of nearly identical shouting voices is THE right one.
However, the fact that disagreement exists says absolutely nothing about whether or not there is any truth behind the matter, whether or not one voice among the multitude is closer to the truth. For instance, people disagree about the causes of cancer – does that mean cancer has no cause?
All that the existence of widespread, honest and heartfelt disagreement tells us is that this shit is really hard to figure out. Nothing more.
Further, there is more agreement that disagreement. Like so much in all of the other sciences, though the disagreements we have about morality are salient, we have a vast resource of agreements behind us. And again like in the sciences, crazy opinions always lurk around somewhere, but people across the board are social animals who place enormous value in giving respect to those who’ve earned it; love among spouses, children, family and friends; in keeping one’s promises; in protecting the innocent, and so on.
2. Without God, all is permitted.
All laws need a legislator. So if there is no one up there making the rules, then there are no rules. The presence of ‘moral rules’ is nothing more than what the powerful in each culture have declared or what people, for whatever reason, have simply made up.
I’ve never found this argument to make any sense. First, you have the Euthyphro Dilemma. I won’t go into the details, mostly because I’ve already written a post on this. But, basically, either God has reasons for making the moral rules He does, like human legislators in the analogy, or He doesn’t and makes them up arbitrarily. If they are arbitrary, then that doesn’t explain the force behind their value. We don’t think it right to keep promises because some Deity willy-nilly decided that would be ‘right’. If God had reasons, on the other hand, for commanding this or that, then it is those reasons and not God, or any kind of other legislator, that supports morality.
Looking back at the shortlist of moral values I list above, we can see what kind of things those ‘reasons’ are. Harm, freedom, love, respect, suffering, reputation, and so on are important in and of themselves. It is, for example, the intrinsic value of friendship that supports the virtues that surround it – like trust and compassion – and not that some arbitrary legislator happens to declare friendship to be ‘good’. For a bit more detail, I wrote a long post here on the grounding of ethics without god.
3. It’s important to be tolerant of others’ beliefs.
If you claim morality is absolute then you are being intolerant of other people’s beliefs. This leads to imperialism, conflict and maybe even worse: genocide.
But this argument rests on absolute moral claims themselves! Cultural Relativism would certainly say that the person from a tolerant culture ought to be tolerant. But it would also say that a person from an intolerant culture ought to be intolerant. And with the very same force that we in our culture might be required to be tolerant, others should be intolerant. What is right for each is simply what their respective cultures says is right – and yours arbitrarily says to be tolerant.
Instead, to believe that all people should be fair and tolerant instead of genocidally intolerant is to claim that there are universal values outside of a culture’s beliefs. It is only the person who rejects Cultural Relativism that intolerance is in itself bad and who instead would promote tolerance everywhere.
Tolerance is about how you treat other people. It isn’t about what you believe about their beliefs. So if I kick someone I disagree with out of my store or petition such people be jailed then I’m being intolerant. If I believe they are wrong, or even tell them I disagree with them, all I’m being is truthful. I’m stating a fact about our disagreement. Disagreement itself does not imply disrespect for those you disagree with.
4.Different people in different contexts need different moral codes.
We can’t all have the same moral code because everyone lives in a different world with different demands, expectations, histories, symbols, and problems to overcome. We need to respect the fact that people live different lives and not impose our rules on others or judge them by what works for us.
Again so true!! And this does bring up a certain kind of relativism, but certainly isn’t Cultural Relativism as discussed above. The specific rules and norms at the ‘highest’ day to day level of practice do, and ought to, vary culture by culture. They are only either true or false depending on whether you are talking about this context here or that context there. However, what makes a set of norms better than another in a given context might be specified at a broader and more ‘fundamental’ or ‘basic’ level.
Think of the classic anthropological distinction between collectivism versus individualism. Some cultures thrive better as the first, while others value, and rightly so, the latter. What provides the difference is the kind of values and rules the cultures need to flourish. In the collectivist culture it might be the case a closer community and deeper inter-dependent bonds are necessary for anyone to be able to flourish or for the group to survive. However, in another context, where each man and woman might be able to survive more independently, individualism and valuing competition leads to an explosion of creativity, entrepreneurship and invention.
The surface level dispute between individualism and collectivism is relative. However, it is relative not to the culture but to the environment that culture is currently in. The values of survival, flourishing, creativity and so on are universal and ground whether this or that moral strategy is best. It is simply that different contexts mean different norms are needed in order to access or create these universal goods.
It is only because there is some underlying root to morality, whatever it may ultimately be, that we can understand progress. If morality, as Cultural Relativism argues it is, is nothing more and nothing less than what a particular culture says is right or wrong, then MLK, Ghandi and other social reformers are very simply immoral. They disagreed with the central norms of their culture, i.e. what was in fact ‘right’. So they were ‘morally wrong’ for protesting. Only if we agree that they were all tapping into something more basic and common to humanity that is valuable can we say that they were right. Only then can we say they fought a good fight; one that others, whether they agreed with these social reformers or not, should have also fought.Paul Chiariello (Chief Editor, Rutgers & Yale University) Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology and has been running around the world ever since. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philosophy Curriculum for Camp Quest, Inc. Paul has a MSc in Comparative Education from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on ethno-religious identity and conflict, and has spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship. He has also worked with research organizations at the UN and in DC, as well as schools abroad in Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.