Summary of Cultural Relativism

Left to right: Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Buddha, Confucius, Averroes

Philosophical Ethics 

Ethics is that part of philosophy which deals with the good and bad, or right and wrong in human conduct. It asks questions like: What is morality? Is morality objective or subjective? What is the relationship between self-interest and morality? Why should I be moral?

We can divide philosophical ethics into four parts. Meta-ethics analyzes moral concepts, moral justification, and the meaning of moral language. Descriptive ethics describes the moral systems of various cultures. Normative ethics considers moral norms, standards or criteria that underlie moral theories. Applied ethics applies normative theories to moral problems in law, medicine, business, computer science, the environment and more. Over the next few weeks we will discuss normative ethics, or moral theories. We’ll begin with relativism.

Now you might agree that my previous assault on relativism has been successful, but still claim that while some truths are objective—logical, mathematical, and natural scientific ones for example—other so-called truths are relative—ethical truths for instance. Such considerations lead us to moral relativism, the theory that there are no absolute, objective, and universally binding moral truths. According to the moral relativist, there exist conflicting moral claims that are both true. (X is right, and x is wrong.) In short, the ethical relativist denies that there is any objective truth about right and wrong. Ethical judgments are not true or false because there is no objective moral truth—x is right—for a moral judgment to correspond with. In brief, morality is relative, subjective, and non-universally binding, and disagreements about ethics are like disagreements about what flavor of ice cream is best.

And what specifically might morality be relative to? Usually morality is thought to be relative to a group’s or individual’s: beliefs, emotions, opinions, wants, desires, interests, preferences, feelings, etc. Thus, we distinguish between two kinds of moral relativism: cultural moral relativism and personal moral relativism. (I’ll discuss the first one today, and the second one tomorrow.)

What is Cultural Moral Relativism? 

Cultural moral relativism is the theory that moral judgments or truths are relative to cultures. Consequently, what is right in one society may be wrong in another and vice versa. (For culture, you may substitute: nation; society; group, sub-culture, etc.) This is another theory with ancient roots. Herodotus, the father of history, describes the Greeks encounter with the Callatians who ate their dead relatives. Naturally, the Greeks found this practice revolting. But the Callatians were equally repelled by the Greek practice of cremation causing Herodotus to conclude that ethics is culturally relative. World literature sounds a recurring theme: different cultures have different moral codes, an insight confirmed by the evidence of cultural differences. The Incas practiced human sacrifice, Eskimos shared their wives with strangers and killed newborns, Japanese samurai tried out his new sword on an innocent passer-by, Europeans enslaved masses of Africans, and female circumcision is performed today in parts of North Africa.

Cultural moral relativism contains two theses: 1) the diversity thesis—moral beliefs, practices, and values are diverse or vary from one culture to another; and 2) the dependency thesis—moral obligations depends upon cultures, since they are the final arbiters of moral truth. In short, cultural relativism implies that no cultural values have any objective, universal validity, and it would be arrogant for one culture to make moral judgments about other cultures.

The thesis of diversity is descriptive; it describes the way things are. Moral beliefs, rules, and practices, in fact, depend upon facets of culture like social, political, religious, and economic institutions. By contrast the thesis of dependency is prescriptive; it describes how things ought to be. Morality should depend on culture because there is nothing elseupon which it is based. Now we might argue for cultural relativism as follows:

Argument 1 – (from the diversity thesis)

  • Different cultures have different moral codes;
  • Thus, there is no morality independent of culture.

The weakness of this argument is that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. The fact that cultures disagree about morality doesn’t show that morality is relative. After all, cultures disagree about whether abortion is moral or immoral, but their disagreementdoesn’t mean there is no truth about the matter. It might be that one culture is just mistaken. Consider how cultures might disagree as to whether the earth or sun is at the center of our solar system. Their disagreement doesn’t mean there is no truth about the matter. Similarly, societies might disagree about whether they should put their young to death, but that disagreement proves nothing, other than societies disagree. So cultural disagreements are not enough to prove cultural relativism. Consider another argument:

Argument 2 – (from the dependency thesis)

  • What is often regarded as the moral truths depends on cultural beliefs;
  • Thus, there is no moral truth independent of culture.

The argument commits the fallacy that logicians call “begging the question.” This occurs when you assume the truth of what you are trying to prove. (For example, if you ask me why I think abortion is wrong and I say, because it’s bad, I’ve begged the question.) In argument 2, one is trying to show that right and wrong depend on culture. It begs the question to say that right and wrong depend on culture because they depend on culture.

Now might we make a stronger case for the relativist if we put the two theses together?

Premise 1 – Right and wrong vary between cultures (diversity).
Premise 2 – Right and wrong depend upon a cultural context (dependency).
Conclusion – Thus, right and wrong are relative to culture. 

Critique of Cultural Moral Relativism – Premise 1

This seems better; at least the conclusion follows from the premises. But are these premises true? Let’s consider the first premise (diversity). Nothing seems more obvious than the fact of cultural differences. Eskimos believed in infanticide; most Americans do not. Most Americans believe executing criminals is morally justifiable; most French find the practice barbaric. Clearly, there are different cultural mores. But maybe the differences between cultural values are not as great as they seem.

Consider that Eskimos live in harsh climates where food is in short supply and mothers nurse their babies for years. There simply isn’t enough food for all their children, nor enough backs upon which nomadic people can carry their children. So Eskimos want their children to live just like we do, and it is the harsh and unusual condition that force them to make difficult choices. Sometimes they kill a weaker child so that both the stronger and weaker children won’t die. We may disagree with the practice, but we can imagine doing the same in similar circumstances. Thus, the underlying principle—life is valuable—has been applied differently in different contexts. Maybe cultures aren’t so different after all.

Consider that there is more crime in America than in France. Most Americans seem to believe that criminals deserve to be punished for their crimes, that severe punishment brings peace to the victim’s family, that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime, etc. The French are more likely to renounce retribution or doubt that capital punishment brings victim’s families peace or deters crime. But notice again. Both cultures are steered by a principle—act justly—even though they apply the principle differently. So upon closer inspection, there doesn’t seem to be as much disagreement as it first appeared. So the differences in cultural values might be more apparent than real.

Now suppose we could show that there are moral principles that all cultures share? Wouldn’t that show that morality was not relative to culture? Many scientists claim that there are moral principles common to all cultures.1 For instance, all cultures share: regulations on sexual behavior; prohibitions against unjust killing; requirements of familial obligations and child care; emphasis on truth-telling; and reward for reciprocity and cooperation. If we take these two ideas together—cultural moral differences aren’t as great as they appear, and all cultures share some moral values—then the diversity thesis is false. And if the first premise is false, then the conclusion of the cultural relativist’s argument doesn’t follow.

However notice that even if the first premise is false, that doesn’t prove that moral objectivism is true. Cultures that share the same moral values could all be wrong! So the empirical evidence concerning similarities and differences between moral codes isn’t relevant to the question of whether morality is absolute or relative. And that means that while we haven’t proven the truth of cultural absolutism, we have undermined the cultural relativist. For the evidence about diversity of culture is irrelevant, then we have undermined the relativist’s first premise, and with it the conclusion of his/her argument.

Critique of Cultural Moral Relativism – Premise 2

While undermining the first premise sufficiently undermines cultural relativism, let’s turn to the second premise (dependency) to see if it fares any better. Now it does appear true that some moral “truths” depend on culture—for example, regulations on sexual behaviors or funeral practices. But it is not self-evident that all moral truth depends on culture. Moral truth may be independent of culture in the same way that other truths are independent of culture. Ethics may be objectively grounded in reason, the god’s commands, the most happiness for the most people, human nature, or something else.

But rather than trying to contradict all the relativist’s arguments for the second premise, consider the implications of taking cultural relativism seriously. If cultural relativism is true then all of the following (counter-intuitive) are true. 1) We cannot make cross-cultural judgments. We could not consistently criticize a culture for killing all those over forty, exterminating ethnic groups, or banishing children to the Antarctic. 2) We cannot make intra-cultural judgments. We cannot say, even within our culture, whether we should send children to their death or to school, whether we should torture our criminals or reward them. 3) The idea of moral progress is incoherent. All you can say is that cultures change, not that one is better than another. The old culture practiced slavery; we do not, and that’s the end of it. The appearance of moral progress is illusory.

But all of this is counter-intuitive. We might think that cultures can do what they want regarding funeral practices, but what about human sacrifice? Aren’t there some things that are just plain wrong, in both other cultures and our own? Don’t you believe that society is better now because it has outlawed slavery? Cultural relativism answers no to both questions. But can such a strongly counterintuitive theory be correct?

Summary and Transition

Thus cultural relativism is as incoherent and unsubstantiated as epistemological relativism, as I argued yesterday. The logical arguments for cultural relativism fail, and we have good reasons to doubt the truth of the premises of cultural relativism. Finally, cultural relativism contradicts our moral intuition. While we can’t prove that cultural relativism is mistaken—you can only really do this in logic or mathematics—we have shown that there are many reasons to doubt the theory, and few reasons to accept it.

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

3 thoughts on “Summary of Cultural Relativism

  1. I’d like to offer an odd point of view on this question, although I hasten to point out that I have no expertise, and my analysis is nowhere near as careful or thorough as your own. Treat this idea as a curious stimulus for thought, not a clearly established thesis.

    I look at reality and I see no morality. It’s not in this tree; I don’t find it when I dig a hole, nor does it seem to be under the sea or in the stars. It is a strictly human concept; in fact, it is a human. To my narrow physicist’s point of view, this means that it is not objectively real; it’s merely a human perception.

    Of course, there are plenty of human perceptions that *are* real in some sense. English is a language; so is Urdu; and they are certainly real in the sense that they are used in the real world. In fact, I think that languages provide us with a useful analogy. Moral systems are arbitrary in the same sense that languages are arbitrary. That is, there is absolutely nothing in the physical world that dictates that the sound “cat” intrinsically refers to our pets. “Gato” and “feles” are just as arbitrary. Nevertheless, language is constrained to follow an innate “deep structure” that is universal to all humans.

    In the same fashion, we could argue that morality is arbitrary yet constrained by certain universal principles. I here argue that morality has been subjected to exactly the same evolutionary pressures that applied to humans as individuals. Cultures with stupid moral systems were superseded by cultures with more pragmatic moral systems. The prohibition against murder, for example, is obviously of great pragmatic value for any society. Similar principles elicit prohibitions against many other behaviors.

    As you point out, applications of the deep principles can manifest themselves in surprisingly different fashions in different physical environments. Yet there remains one fundamental principle: societies evolve moral systems that optimize their ability to survive and prosper in the physical environment in which they find themselves.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s how I perceive the existence of moral systems. I understand how many people feel a need for some objective moral system to exist, something that we could find graven in stone that would give us peace of mind in knowing what truly is right and wrong. I maintain that no such stone can ever exist.

    I’m sure that, with your vastly greater experience wrestling with these issues, you can pick out some blunders in my thinking, so I’d love to see your reactions.

  2. Hi Chris

    Most of these issues are addressed in my ethics book or at good sites like Wikipedia, Stanford Enc. of Phil, or the internet enc. of phil. Everything you say is spot on and you could have a new career as an ethicist. Ethics is so important, we so need more moral and intelligent people. Basically you have adopted an anti-realist position in meta-ethics in your comments.

    Moral Anti-Realism (or Moral Irrealism) is the meta-ethical doctrine that there are no objective moral values.
    It is usually defined in opposition to Moral Realism, which holds that there are indeed objective moral values, that evaluative statements are factual claims which are either true or false, and that their truth or falsity is independent of our perception of them or our beliefs, feelings or other attitudes towards them. Thus, Moral Anti-Realism can involve either a denial that moral properties exist at all, or the acceptance that they do exist, but that their existence is mind-dependent and not objective or independent.

    You do hedge your bets slightly with this quote “In the same fashion, we could argue that morality is arbitrary yet constrained by certain universal principles.” This position was defended by another non-professional philosopher Michael Shermer in his wonderful and readable book “The Science of Good & Evil.” I think you would like it.

    The position you adopt is popular but not the most popular position. Here are the stats from the site “what phils believe” Meta-ethics: moral realism 56.4%; moral anti-realism 27.7%; other 15.9%.

    Finally you mention evolution and we are of one mind here. I am an evolutionary ethicist and you can read all about that too. I think game design might have to go on hold while you become an ethicist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.