My Assessment of Cultural Relativism David Horacek

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My Assessment of Cultural Relativism - David Horacek
I thought I was a Cultural Relativist when I was a freshman in college. To introduce the idea, I will recount what I remember thinking at the time, and how these thoughts led me to Cultural Relativism. I realize now that much of my view was based on some sort of confusion. I’ll try to represent that view as accurately as I can remember it, confusion and all, and maybe you will recognize something familiar in it. Then I will do my best to diagnose the incoherence of the view. First, some definitions:
Cultural Relativism: Definition

A right action =

an action that is approved of by the society in which it takes place.

A wrong action =

an action that is disapproved of by the society in which it takes place.

Here and in all future text, read the identity sign as: “Is identical to” or “Is the same thing as.”

Chapter Two by Rachels does a more thorough job in introducing Cultural Relativism, and you should read that chapter before proceeding to the next section. In class we will discuss a variety of Cultural Relativisms. What they all have in common is that they base the notions of rightness and wrongness on the approval of a society, and they reject Ethical Universalism.

Ethical Universalism: Definition
There is a set of universal moral principles which hold everywhere in the world, and their content does not depend on the opinions of cultures or traditions.


  1. To call the values of a foreign culture “immoral” is really just a narrow-minded prejudice.

Open-minded people understand that our values seem just as immoral to some non-Western cultures as theirs do to us. We all wish that we were better understood by the rest of the world. If they saw where we were coming from, and we saw where they were coming from, we would all realize that nobody is being immoral just for following the values of their culture. Furthermore, we can imagine what we would think if we were brought up in the cultures that now seem to us so strange: We would think exactly what they do. To condemn them for what they think is, in a way, to condemn ourselves – or at least, ourselves as we would be if we grew up elsewhere.

What’s more, if Ethical Universalism were true, then inevitably, the values of some cultures would resemble the “true” universal moral norms more than do others. Then it would be possible to rank cultures by their degree of morality. This sort of thinking is what reinforces our prejudice and prevents open-mindedness. Cultural Relativism blocks this possibility: It says that you can only judge the morality of the actions within the framework of a specific culture. However, it is impossible to judge the morality of the framework itself, because there is no independent standard to which it could be compared.

  1. Anything but Cultural Relativism puts unacceptable limits on people’s freedom.

All people have a right to self-determination, and so should all cultures. No doubt that some people mean well when they criticize the values of other cultures, but those criticisms can never be justified. If they were, it would undo a fundamental right that cultures have: the right to develop their own way. When societies develop their own art, language, customs and rituals, nobody has any right to tell them to “do it differently.” The same goes for moral values: indeed, these are intertwined in the roots of culture itself. If we declare some of these to be wrong and demand they be “improved,” we are basically asking to uproot another culture, and nobody ever has a right to do that.

  1. It’s impossible to settle which culture is right. Since a permanent, irresolvable conflict about values is unacceptable, the only alternative is to split the difference and say that in some sense, everybody is right.

Not all conflict is bad. For example, you want scientists to fight with one another, because it helps them focus on advancing science. A conflict about values is really different, though. Scientists can end their conflicts by doing experiments which settle who is right. When the Ethical Universalists of various cultures get into conflicts about values, there are no analogous culture-neutral ways to settle them. This is why such conflicts turn into wars: It is easier to kill another culture than it is to demonstrate that our values are superior to theirs. (How could such a thing be demonstrated?) War can “settle” conflicts of values, but at an unacceptable cost, and whoever wins still has no right to claim the moral high ground. Occasionally, you hear the winners of wars declare: “Our god is mightier than theirs” (which presumably makes our values superior to theirs). We rightly cringe whenever we hear something so insensitive and ignorant.

How does Cultural Relativism provide an alternative to clashes of cultures? Through promoting tolerance. If our “enemies” realized that our values are right for the context in which we live, it’s hard to imagine that they would continue finding us so offensive. Likewise, if we realized that their values are right for the context in which they live, it’s hard to imagine that we’d continue thinking of them as “our enemies.” It’s not that our values would converge. It’s just that we’d leave one another to each do their own thing. This wouldn’t end all wars, because not all wars are about values. Wars can also be about resources, money or land. However, those grievances can often be settled through compromise. Conflicts over values cannot, and they’re what drives and sustains the hatred between cultures, which drives and sustains wars. Cultural Relativism undercuts the very source of the conflict: It’s a view that says that our enemies live and act in the right way – that is, by their own culture’s rules, and so do we. That’s all there is to acting in the “right” way. Right now, we bomb people in order to get them to act our way, and that’s a mistake.


  1. I was arguing for Cultural Relativism by saying that it’s the best way to achieve something that is universally good. Oops!

Go back and re-read my freshman-reasons above and see if I made any universal value judgments in my support of Cultural Relativism. Did you find them? They are all over the place! Here are some highlights:

  • Open-mindedness is a good thing, prejudice is bad.

  • We shouldn’t condemn people for things that are outside their control.

  • All people have a right to self-determination.

  • Cultures have a fundamental right to develop their own way.

  • Nobody has the right to uproot another peoples’ culture.

  • Genocidal war over values is a bad thing.

  • Tolerance is a good thing. …and so on.

Somehow I didn’t catch this elementary mistake. I wish somebody had asked me whether I am making these value claims because I think they are universally true, or because I think that my culture approves of them. I thought (and still think) that they are universally true, that you can’t make intolerance, cultural subjugation and genocide morally OK just by changing locations – that is, by entering a culture that approves of them. What I didn’t seem to realize is that every Cultural Relativist must deny that these values are universally good. Relativists don’t believe in universal values. At best, a Cultural Relativist can say that here and now, these principles are largely approved of by society, and that makes them good here and now.

But even that weak claim is overstated. The leader of the largest religious congregation in the West, Pope Benedict XVI, declared it to be his “central mission” to wage a war against “dictatorship of relativism.”1 Indeed, a disapproval of Cultural Relativism is fervently shared by Christianity and Islam, in a time when common ground between these religions is scarce. Why does this matter? I mean, can’t Cultural Relativism be morally acceptable even if our society does not approve of it? No. You can work out why – just look at the definition above.

  1. It looks like I was confusing ends with means.

I supported Cultural Relativism because I thought it would make us more tolerant. Maybe I was right, and more tolerance would be good. But that does not give us a reason to think that Relativism is true. Hinduism would make us kinder towards cows, which would be good, but this alone doesn’t mean that Hinduism is the true religion. The point is this: We don’t need Cultural Relativism in order to justify being tolerant toward other cultures, just like we don’t need to become Hindus in order to justify treating livestock with dignity. Maybe Cultural Relativism would help us be more tolerant (although, maybe not; see below), but you know what would also help us be more tolerant? A decision that we should be more tolerant, and a recognition that tolerance is a universal virtue!

  1. In some circumstances, Cultural Relativism can undercut our natural inclination toward tolerance.

If you’ve read Huckleberry Finn, and I hope you have, you will remember Huck wrestling with his own Relativist thoughts: He knew that Jim was an escaped slave who belonged to Miss Watson. He knew that his society approved of slavery. He realized that helping Jim was seen as wrong. Like a relativist, Huck didn’t consider the possibility that his own society might not be the final arbiter of right and wrong, which led to an agonizing internal conflict about Huck’s temptation to “do the wrong thing,” namely, to help Jim escape:

The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it.” (pp. 282-283)

Finally, Huck wrote a letter to Miss Watson with information about how to recover her escaped slave. At the climax of his anguish he realized he could not send the letter. He tore it up, saying: “All right, then, I'll go to hell” (283).

When we read this, it’s abundantly clear to us that Huck’s refusal to betray Jim was in no way wicked. He was a decent kid with a sound conscience. There was nothing wrong with him. It was his society, and its opinion of human property, that was wicked.

Or would you be prepared to say that helping Jim was the wrong thing for Huck to do? Was it really an immoral deed, as Huck himself suspected? If you are a Cultural Relativist, this is exactly what you have to say: After all, there is no doubt that helping a slave escape was seen as immoral by Huck’s society. Every Cultural Relativist must then say that it was wrong for Huck to help Jim.

If this is really what you think (and make sure you understand why you have to think it if you are a Cultural Relativist), I sincerely hope you reconsider. If a consequence like this is not enough to convince you that your moral theory has led you astray, I’m not sure what will. It is also worth thinking back to our original motivation for considering Cultural Relativism in the first place: the promise that Cultural Relativism will make people more tolerant of one another. I suggest that being forced to stand up for slavery and to condemn actions like Huck’s has taken us far from tolerance.

When tolerant people encounter intolerance, do they have to tolerate it? I hope not! It would be a perverted sort of tolerance that led someone to say: “It’s cool with me that your people mutilate women, torture animals and keep slaves. Hey, each to his own! Just don’t try to pull stuff like that when you visit my culture. In my culture, those things are wrong!”

My point is that intolerant cultural institutions are morally problematic even if they are cultural institutions. A Cultural Relativist cannot say this. (To understand why not, always return to the definition of the theory.)

  1. Moral mistakes can be made by individuals as well as groups.

We know well that individuals can make mistakes in morality. Is it so strange to imagine that groups of people can also be mistaken about morality – for example, the morality of slavery, ethnic cleansing and countless varieties of oppression? There is a sad abundance of examples where these moral failings, in countless varieties, were approved of by entire societies. Surely it’s crazy to think that when enough people approve of them, these deeds cease to be wrong. It is not open-minded after all to say that within the bounds of a culture, that culture’s values are automatically right. Perhaps the ultimate act of open-mindedness is to consider the possibility that every culture, including our own, may occasionally approve of immoral deeds.

  1. An entire society can make moral progress.

We have one sure way to tell that we are prepared to judge the rightness of a society’s moral code – despite what the Cultural Relativist says. We do this when we compare a society’s values as they change over time. Hopefully, we discover that with time, a society becomes more decent, inclusive, generous and free. We take this to be a sign that the society has morally improved. However, a Cultural Relativist cannot make sense of this notion, because they can only make moral judgments within the framework of a society – not of the society’s moral framework. He can say that its values have changed, but not improved, since that would be a value judgment, to which societies are not subject. (Again, review carefully the definition of the theory until you see why.)

  1. An action can be understandable, even forgivable, but still be wrong.

I once saw a heated argument in a history class about whether our “Founding Fathers” were wrong to keep slaves. It’s a tricky issue, because on the one side, we don’t want to retroactively justify slavery in any way, but we also don’t want to condemn all historical non-abolitionists as some sort of moral monsters. Some decent people surely owned slaves. Perhaps we can agree with that, but we would hasten to add the following: In their circumstances, they just didn’t know any better. To put it more explicitly: Our Founding Fathers were (for cultural reasons) not yet in a position to realize that slavery was wrong. So that’s one debate settled: Slavery was wrong, even then.

Slavery in today’s USA would be unforgivable and incomprehensible, and anyone who would participate in it would need to be some sort of moral pervert. This is because these days, every American is in a position to know better. This was not so 200 years ago, but this fact doesn’t make the old slavery right. It only makes it more understandable. The point here is this: Just because we hesitate to condemn Washington is not a sign that what’s morally right has changed. It’s a sign that we find his wrong actions forgivable because of the circumstances of the day.

  1. If Cultural Relativism is wrong, that doesn’t mean that our culture is right.

I mistakenly seemed to assume in I.3. that if we give up Cultural Relativism, we would be forced to default back to thinking that it’s our culture that must be right. Not so: Any plausible moral theory that replaces Cultural Relativism will not base morality on the opinions of any culture. If we are stuck inside Relativism for too long, we start thinking that the only possible source of rightness and wrongness is in some sort of social consensus. That’s just a failure of imagination. In this course, we will consider many other, better grounds for our moral judgments.

1, viewed on 31/9/2011.

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