James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy

Lecture notes by Dan Gaskill



Chapter 2:  Cultural Relativism


            In the last chapter, we examined a variety of arguments in support of different positions on various ethical matters of life and death.  These arguments invoked competing ethical principles and led to conflicting conclusions, but they all had one thing in common:  all of them assumed that there was just one right answer to the ethical question at issue.  In other words, they all assumed that there was objective moral truth.  Now we will consider some challenges to this notion.  The first of these is Cultural Relativism.

Cultures differ with respect to what is deemed morally acceptable.   Rachels illustrates this with the story of the ancient King Darius, the Callations and the Greeks. (The Callations were an Indian tribe who had a custom of eating their dead fathers, while the Greeks cremated their dead; according to the story, each regarded the others’ practice as abhorrent).  Other examples:  Most people in America consider polygamy to be a moral outrage, but it is common and accepted for men to have more than one wife in some cultures, including Islamic countries.  In America, no legal or moral distinction is made between killing infants, the elderly, or anyone in between (all are condemned, of course).  But among Eskimos, infanticide is permitted at the discretion of the parents.  Killing of the elderly (by abandoning them in the snow) has been practiced by Eskimos and the native peoples of northern Greenland.  Lending money for interest was considered sinful in medieval Europe, and it is still regarded as such in some parts of the world.  In America, male circumcision has been the norm since the late 19th century, and parents who opt against it are often roundly criticized or condemned; it is quite the opposite in Europe and most of the rest of the world.  Female circumcision, on the other hand, is condemned in America and Europe but widely practiced in many African countries.  There is no shortage of such examples.

There is no doubt that cultures exhibit differences --often radical differences-- in their ethical stances on food, sex, punishment, political expression, human rights, and matters of life and death.  The existence of differing ethical norms in different cultures has convinced many people of Cultural Relativism,  the doctrine that ethics is culturally relative and that there are no objective moral standards.


As Rachels points out, Cultural Relativists have advanced several distinct claims:


(1)       Different societies have different moral codes.


(2)       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.


(3)       There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one society’s code better than another’s.


(4)       The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.


(5)       There is no “universal truth” in ethics; that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.


(6)       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.


As we shall see, these claims need not be accepted or rejected as a package:  some of them may be true even if others are false.

            The following are examples of the kind of reasoning that convinces people of Cultural Relativism:

1.  The Greeks believed it was wrong to eat the dead, whereas the Callations believed that it was right to eat the dead.


Therefore, eating the dead is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong.  It is merely a matter of opinion that varies from culture to culture.


1.  The Eskimos see nothing wrong with infanticide, whereas Americans believe infanticide is immoral.

Infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong.  It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.


More generally, we have:

The Cultural Differences Argument

1.  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.



Is this a sound argument?






No.  It is not a sound argument because the conclusion does not follow from the premise (in other words, it is not valid).  The fact that cultures have differing beliefs about what is moral does not imply that morality is culturally relative.  It is easy to see this if we consider an analogous argument:


1.  Historically, cultures have had a variety of different views about the size, shape and motion of the earth, its relation to celestial bodies, and astronomy generally.


Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in astronomy.  The size, shape and motion of the earth (e.g. whether the earth is flat), whether there are other planets, etc. are only matters of opinion which vary from culture to culture.



Not very convincing, is it?  We are inclined to say that many cultures have simply been wrong on various points.  The Medieval Europeans believed that the earth was flat, that the planets were perfect spheres moving in perfect circles, and that the earth was stationary.  We now reject all of these claims on the basis of well-supported scientific theory.  The bottom line:  mere disagreement does not imply relativism.  This is not to say that we have shown Cultural Relativism to be false.  The present point is just that the Cultural Differences Argument fails to establish Cultural Relativism.


However, there are some powerful objections to Cultural Relativism that have convinced many people that it is false:


(O1)  We could no longer say (truthfully) that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.


To many people, this may sound like a good result, at first.  But now consider some of the customs that would not be morally inferior, according to Cultural Relativism:


·  Waging war for the purpose of taking slaves

·  Genocide

·  Rigid and oppressive caste systems

·  The subjugation of women or of any other group



It hardly seems enlightened or morally progressive to hold that none of these practices are wrong, but according to Cultural Relativism, are all morally right so long as they are culturally sanctioned.


(O2)  We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society.


This implication is problematic for Cultural Relativism in a couple of ways.  First, it seems to imply that the phenomenon of moral deliberation --and moral reasoning generally-- is a complete waste of time.  If we want to know what is right, then we ought to do a survey of our culture’s laws, practices and commonly held beliefs.  Moral reasoning doesn’t enter into the picture at all.  At the very least, the cultural relativist owes us a good explanation of why we have held the mistaken belief that moral deliberation is a good way to decide what we ought to do.  Second, Cultural Relativism has the very surprising result that those who have been hailed as great moral reformers and revolutionaries:  Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc., were all wrong whenever they went against the prevailing moral code.  Moreover, we can know this just by knowing that they were in the minority and without hearing what they had to say.  By contrast, those figures who maintain the moral status quo --whatever that is-- are automatically deemed right by the lights of Cultural Relativism.  As Rachels points out, “Cultural Relativism not only forbids us from criticizing the codes of other societies; it also stops us from criticizing our own.”  This brings us to a third and closely related objection:


(O3)  The idea of moral progress is called into doubt.


            We like to think that, at least in some ways, the moral standards of our society have changed for the better.  Most would agree, for example, that the criminalization of slavery in America is an improvement over the 18th century.  But “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 impossible”.


Each of these objections can be viewed as a reductio ad absurdum against Cultural Relativism.  A reductio ad absurdum is an argument in which an opposing position is assumed, for the sake of argument, and then is rejected when it is shown that the opposing position leads to an “absurd” consequence.  For example:

1.         Larry is a married bachelor (reductio assumption).

2.         Bachelors are, by definition, unmarried.

3.         Thus, Larry is both married and unmarried (follows from 1 and 2).

4.         But premise 3 is absurd -- it cannot possibly be true.


Therefore, Larry is not a married bachelor. (rejection of reductio assumption)


In the case of Cultural Relativism, we have:


1.         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 (reductio assumption).

2.         It is possible for there to be a society with a moral code that promotes genocide.

(uncontroversial premise)

3.         Therefore, it is possible for there to be a society where genocide is morally right.

(follows from 1 and 2)

4.         But genocide could not be morally right relative to any society.


Therefore, Cultural Relativism is false.



 As an exercise, try to construct the two other reductio ad absurdum arguments on your own.



Why Cultural Relativism does not really support Tolerance towards other cultures


Let’s take another look at the list of claims typically espoused by Cultural Relativists.  In particular, we have



(2)  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.


This is the central thesis of Cultural Relativism.  Now consider


(6)  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.



Here we are told how we should react to other cultures.  It is not clear exactly what is required of us in being tolerant, but presumably it would require that we not interfere in other cultures for the purposes of imposing our own moral standards on them.  The question now arises:  is the claim that we should be tolerant of other cultures supposed to be an objective moral truth, or is it just part of our own moral code?  If the tolerance requirement is supposed to be an objective moral truth, then it is incompatible with cultural relativism, for cultural relativism tells us that there are no objective moral truths.  So, the Cultural Relativist who wants to support the tolerance requirement must hold that (6) is part of our own moral code, but not necessarily true for other cultures.  There are a couple of serious problems with this, however.  First, it just seems to be false that the tolerance requirement is part of the moral code of the U.S.A.  At this moment, the U.S.A. is attempting a massive restructuring of the social institutions of Iraq, including the creation of a western style democracy.  While many Americans have objected to this, the objections have been mostly practical ones (the cost in lives and dollars, the potential to make more enemies than friends, and the risk of failure).  Only a tiny minority has complained that it would be immoral to impose democracy on a non-democratic society (although many people have noted that it would be extremely difficult).  If the tolerance requirement were really part of our moral code, then we would expect this to be the main objection to the current Iraq campaign.  But if the tolerance requirement isn’t part of our moral code, then by the Cultural Relativists own standards we have no reason to abide by it.  Secondly, if it were part of our moral code, then it would actually prohibit us from criticizing other intolerant cultures.  After all, if those other cultures are acting in accordance with their own moral codes, then the tolerance requirement tells us that we must tolerate them, even if their behavior is imperialistic.  Ironically, then, the tolerance requirement implies that it is arrogant and inappropriate for us to pass judgment on imperialist cultures of the past, such as the great colonial empires of Europe.  This is exactly the opposite of what the proponent of (6) wants to say, but it is just a logical consequence of Cultural Relativism in conjunction with (6).

            There is a lesson here:  Those who do not think through the logical implications of their beliefs do so at the risk of having beliefs that don’t hold up to logical scrutiny.


Why There is Less Disagreement Than it Seems


But first, here is some more terminology:


moral standard:  A moral standard is a rule for governing behavior, such as “Be kind to strangers” or “Don’t steal”.


justified moral standard:  We say that a moral standard is justified when it would be immoral for someone to violate it.  Not all moral standards are justified.  “Don’t kill people just for laughs” is a justified moral standard, whereas “Don’t wear shorts to school” is not (or so I claim!)


moral code of a society:  This is the collection of moral standards that are generally accepted in the society in question.  We can also speak hypothetically about moral codes, as in “Would our society be better off if we adopted this as our moral code?”


justified moral code of a society:  This is the collection of moral standards that are justified in a particular society, regardless of whether that society actually accepts them.



            Is it really true that different cultures have radically different moral codes?  We noted earlier that in Eskimo culture, there is no prohibition against infanticide, whereas there is a very strong prohibition in our own culture.  This difference can be explained by the very different circumstances in which our respective societies exist.  Eskimos live in extremely harsh conditions where there is little food or other resources to spare.  A family may want to nourish its babies but be unable to do so.  If parents determine that there aren’t enough resources to support a child, then they may decide that it is better for the infant to die immediately; if the infant consumes precious resources first, then others will be deprived of them and this could result in even more hardship or death.  This apparent justification of infanticide raises the question of how much difference there really is between the moral code of the Eskimos and our own moral beliefs.  Compare the following principles:


P1:  Infanticide is always morally wrong.

P2:  Infanticide is always morally acceptable.

P3:  Infanticide is wrong, except in cases where there are not enough resources to care for the infant.


            In American society, there are always enough resources to care for an infant:  even if the parents do not have enough money themselves, they can give the child up for adoption and know that it won’t starve to death.  So, in American society, there is no practical difference between P1 and P3:  in neither case would infanticide ever be justified for us.  This makes it difficult to determine how far apart the two cultures really are on this issue.  When Americans say that infanticide is always wrong, is this simply because they are not imagining being in a situation where the infant cannot be cared for?  Likewise, if Eskimos say that infanticide is not immoral, is this because they are not imagining living in a wealthy society where the infant can be cared for?  It is possible that the two cultures are closer than they appear, and that both accept something closer to P3 than the other alternatives.

            Arguably, all cultures must have certain values in common.  This is because certain values are necessary for the survival of any society.  For example, any society must value caring for its infants.  Any society that didn’t care for its infants would die out.  So, in any society where infanticide is acceptable, it must be the exception to the rule (as in P3).  If infanticide were the norm, or if the acceptance of infanticide was part of a general disregard for the welfare of children, then the society could not survive.  Similar reasoning suggests that certain moral standards must be more or less universal:


· tell the truth

· keep your promises

· be loyal to your friends

· don’t steal

· don’t murder

· discourage wrongdoing


            The list above could use quite a bit of clarification and filling out, and probably some revision.  There are many questions we can ask, including:  What does loyalty to friends require?  Why is friendship necessary for the survival of a society?  Does discouraging wrongdoing necessarily involve severe punishments for criminals?  And so on.

I do not mean to suggest that all cultures really do have the same moral code or that the apparent differences in moral codes are an illusion.  The point is that there appear to be limits on the extent to which much the moral codes of societies can diverge.


This brings us to:


Moderate Cultural Relativism (MCR):  There are some universally justified moral standards, and there are other moral standards that are justified in some societies but not in others.


There are a couple of important things to note about MCR.  First, it does not say that the moral standards justified in a society are the ones that are accepted in that society.  In other words, it doesn’t assume that the moral code of a society is the right one for that society.  This is good, because it means that O2 and O3, two of the objections against Cultural Relativism, do not arise.  Second, MCR tells us nothing about what justifies a moral standard in a society.  (In contrast, Cultural Relativism told us, in effect, that the moral code of a society justified itself, with the result that the moral code of a society can’t be wrong relative to that society.  As we saw, this led to a lot of trouble.) 

Unlike Cultural Relativism, MCR is not a meta-theory:  it doesn’t tell us what makes moral claims true or false.  However, it does tell us that certain moral claims will be true across cultures.  One consequence of this is that it is possible to make transcultural moral judgments, at least about certain matters.  Thus, MCR also avoids O1, the first objection raised against Cultural Relativism.

If we want to explain what makes a moral standard justified, we still need a theory about this.  As it happens, there are lots of meta-theories available that are compatible with MCR.  Here is an example of one such theory:


Society Centered Rule Utilitarianism (SCRU):  A moral standard is justified relative to a society if and only if it is part of the moral code that, if generally accepted and enforced, would maximize happiness in that society.


We won’t be concerned about whether SCRU is actually true.  But do take note of the fact that it is very congenial to MCR.  Plausibly, certain prohibitions (those against murder and vandalism, for example) would help to maximize the happiness of any society, and so would be justified standards in any society, according to SCRU.  But it also plausible that many other standards (perhaps those pertaining to funerary practices, for example) would be justified in some societies and not in others, owing to the different histories and circumstances of those societies.  Eating the dead makes the Callations happy, but not the Greeks.  Burning the dead pleases the Greeks, but not the Callations.  Thus, SCRU is one example of an ethical theory that is compatible with Moderate Cultural Relativism.