Arguments Against the Relavists Theory


The year was 1943. Hundreds of Jewish people were being
marched into the gas chambers in accordance with Adolf
Hitler's orders. In the two years that followed, millions
of Jews were killed and only a fraction survived the
painful ordeals at the Nazi German prison camps. However,
all of the chaos ended as World War II came to a close: the
American and British soldiers had won and Hitler's Third
Reich was no more. A certain ethical position would state
that the anti-sematic Nazi German culture was neither right
nor wrong in its actions. In fact, it is this view of the
cultural relativist that assumes all actions considered
right in a culture to be good for that culture alone.
Moreover, the relativist claims that these actions cannot
be judged according to their ethical correctness because
there is no absolute standard by which they could be
compared. In the above case, this position would not allow
for the American and British soldiers to interfere with the
Nazis; the relativist would claim that the Allies were
wrong in fighting the Germans due to a cultural
disagreement. In truth, it is the relativist position which
has both negative logical and practical consequences, and
negligible benefits.
The first logical consequence of relativism is that the
believer must contradict himself in order to uphold his
belief. The view states that all ethics are relative while
putting forth the idea that no absolute standard of
rightness exists. If this is the case, then what is
cultural relativism relative to? From a purely logical
point of view, this idea is absurd, for in assuming that
something is relative one must first have some absolute by
which it is judged. Let the reader consider this example to
reinforce the point. A young woman is five feet tall, and
her older friend is six feet tall. The younger female
considers herself short because she looks at her friend and
sees that she is taller than her. It would be illogical to
say that the first woman is short if she were the only
female in existence; if this were the case then there would
not be anyone for her to be relative to in height. However,
this logical fallacy is what the relativist assumes by
stating that there is no standard of rightness for
relativity. Quite simply, the cultural relativist is
stating that he is relative to an absolute which he
considers non-existent.
One other logical error that the relativist makes lies in
his "Cultural Differences Argument.1" The premise of this
argument is that "different cultures have different moral
codes." The conclusion that the relativist derives is that
"there is no objective 'truth' in morality, [and therefore]
right and wrong are only matters of opinion [that] vary
from culture to culture.2" The main logical problem with
this argument is that the stated conclusion does not
necessarily need to be the case if the premise is given.
The premise states what different people believe to be
true, and the conclusion jumps to the assumption that this
belief must necessarily be the case. Let the reader
consider this instance, which closely follows the form of
the above given argument. Assume that there is a society
that believes that sunning as much as possible in the nude
can only benefit a person. Due to scientific study, it has
been experimentally shown that overexposure to the sun's
ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer. Being in the
American culture, people know this to be true and therefore
would disagree with sunning too often. According to the
relativist, since the two cultures disagree concerning the
practice of sunning there is no objective truth about it.
However, this is a faulty conclusion because empirical
evidence shows that the first culture would be wrong in its
beliefs. In truth, one cannot "derive a substantive
conclusion about a subject (morally) from the mere fact
that people disagree about it.3"
Having discussed the logical consequences of relativism, it
is necessary to expound upon the effects of its practice.
The first of these repercussions is that the culture
determines what is functionally right and wrong. This means
that the individual has no say in the matter, and if there
is a conflict between the two, the individual's ethical
belief is not given any consideration. Of course, in theory
this does not seem to create an enormous problem; but let
the reader consider this instance of racial segregation in
the early 1900s. In this case, southern blacks were kept
from attending white schools, and, sometimes, they were
barred from an education entirely. In the southern culture,
this practice was considered normal and right; the whites
believed that blacks were ignorant slaves that did not
deserve such things as proper schooling. The cultural
relativist would state that this southern white culture was
right in segregating the blacks. This is completely false.
In fact, there were many intelligent blacks (Martin Luther
King, Jr., Malcom X, etc.), who, if they had been given the
chance, could have contributed their ideas to the white
school children. Because of this, it would have been
functionally right to have included such black students in
the white schools. Thus, just because a culture deems an
action right, it does not mean that the action is
functionally correct for that culture.
Moreover, the "relative" beliefs of certain cultures have
not only caused dysfunctionality for that culture alone;
but, also, cultural beliefs and actions have caused
devastation on a much larger scale. An example that comes
to mind is the quest to gain back the Holy Land, Jerusalem.
In this case, thousands of Muslims were killed because the
Christians believed that Jerusalem was sacred ground. The
relativist might say that each culture was doing what was
right; but when such chaos is the final outcome, relativism
seems much less practical.
The second consequence of practicing cultural relativism is
that it is impossible to judge the actions of any culture
as to their morality. In fact, because the relativist
believes that what is right is what is functional for a
specific culture, there is no room for comparing one
culture's actions to another culture's. This may seem quite
benign to the reader, but under certain circumstances there
are negative ramifications. Suppose that one culture
practiced infanticide, and another society believed that
babies are to be protected from all harm. The relativist
would explain that neither culture was more correct in its
views; both societies would be doing the functionally right
action for their culture alone. However, "the failure to
condemn [this] practice does not seem 'enlightened.4'" Upon
casual observation, it seems that infanticide is wrong, and
therefore, the culture that practices it is also morally
Just as one culture could not criticize another society,
there cannot be criticism of a culture from within it.
Consider the instance of a culture that fought others
simply to rape and pillage them. The relativist would not
allow for and individual in the belligerent culture to
speak out against their inhumane actions. This is because,
as previously mentioned, the relativist states that one
culture's actions cannot be judged as to their morality.
A third consequence of practicing relativism is that there
cannot be any moral progress in a culture. Since the
relativist does not allow for any action of a given culture
to be objectively right or wrong, he cannot give the name
of progress to any change in a given society. At best, the
cultural relativist can only admit to change in that
culture. Let the reader consider this example of women's
rights. "Throughout most of Western history the place of
women in society was very narrowly circumscribed. They
could not own property: they could not vote or hold
political office; with a few exceptions, they were not
permitted to have paying jobs; and generally they were
under the most absolute control of their husbands.5"
However, in the modern age, women have been viewed as equal
to men (at least most people hold this position). According
to the relativist stance, this cannot be seen as moral
progress, since the relativist does not allow for it.
This third consequence of relativism also leads to an even
worse state: stagnation. Because the relativist does not
leave room for moral advance, there would be no reason to
promote moral change in a given culture. Consider the
previously mentioned example of women in the American
society. In the last few years, women have taken on more
productive roles and have exercised their well-deserved
freedom (by joining the workforce, owning their own homes,
and rising to positions in politics, etc.). The relativist
would be inclined to say that this is simply a change in
cultural policies that has no moral merit whatsoever.
Moreover, he would state that, since the new policy on
women's rights does not indicate any progress per-say, then
it does not differ (morally) from the original oppressive
state of affairs. In effect, the cultural relativist allows
for a society to remain in a state of paralysis concerning
moral practices.
Thusfar, the logical and practical consequences of
relativism have been discussed; at this point it is
necessary to draw attention to its negligible benefits. The
first of these is the idea that cultural relativism
promotes tolerance of differing cultures. Granted, this
statement has some truth to it. For instance, the
relativist would claim that a society that believed in
placing jewelry with the dead so that they may have these
possessions in the afterlife is to be accepted by another
culture. In this instance, the relativist belief seems
fairly harmless; however, let the reader consider a more
serious case. Suppose that a society believed in genocide
as a normal cultural function. In this case, the relativist
would necessarily adopt the position that the above
mentioned culture should be respected in its belief. Why
should this belief be tolerated, though? If the relativist
position is considered seriously, many such instances of
"over-toleration" can be pointed out. In fact, the outcome
of the position under such circumstances is utter
Another remote benefit of the position is that it "warns
us... about the danger of assuming that all our preferences
are based on some absolute rational standard.6" The
relativist may sight the example of the mound-men, an early
culture which piled their dead in the field and then
covered them with mud (in the shape of a mound). His
argument would be that, even though the American culture
does not carry out such activities, the early culture was
not objectively (or rationally) wrong. Once again, this
makes good sense, for if cultures were to uphold this
strict objective standard, then they would be
culturalcentric and totally unaccepting. However, let the
reader consider this example of the primitive headhunters.
As part of a religious ritual, these societies would hunt
and kill people from other cultures in order to keep their
skulls as trophies. From the relativist perspective, the
primitive culture is doing what is right for them and its
practices cannot be judged as immoral. However, the action
of killing without just cause is immoral, and since this
culture practiced it, the culture should be said to be
committing a moral outrage. In such circumstances, an
absolute standard of morality is needed in order to halt
wrong acts.
One final negligible benefit of the relativist position is
the idea that the position advocates keeping an open mind.
The relativist would explain that just because one
culture's ideals differ from another's, one should not
automatically label these ideals as immoral. In some cases,
this is quite important. The far-fetched example of aliens
coming to Earth with their customs comes to mind. Here,
just because this new culture may have very different, yet
harmless beliefs, other cultures should not condone these
beliefs. However, an example can be given in which an open
mindshould not be extended. Let the reader consider the
recent crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Serbs and
Croats are "ethnically cleansing" villages in the area. It
seems quite immoral to kill others simply because of their
ethnicity, yet the relativist would consider such and
incident with an open mind. Obviously, there are certain
events that cannot be considered in such a way.
In the final analysis, it is the relativist position which
has both negative logical and practical consequences, and
negligible benefits. The logical consequences include the
fact that the relativist must contradict himself in order
to uphold his belief, and that his "Cultural differences
is not sound. The problems of actually practicing cultural
relativism are numerous. They include the fact that the
culture determines what is right and wrong, that it is
impossible (being a relativist) to judge a culture morally,
and that there cannot be any moral progress in a culture
per-say. As discussed, the negligible benefits of cultural
relativism such as tolerance, lacking of an absolute
standard, and an open mind can only be applied to a limited
range of instances. As previously shown, extreme relativism
"in its vulgar and unregenerate form7" leads to stagnation
of cultural morals and passive acceptance of ethical
injustice. Of course, just as in any ethical theory, there
are some things to be learned from it. One of these is the
idea of not being too critical of other cultures. Also, the
theory shows the importance of not becoming so
culturalcentric that one looses the ability to learn from
other socities. In truth, if more cultures tempered their
tolerance with wisdom, then many of the evils that plague
us could be effectively eliminated. 

Notes 1. Rachels, James. "The Challenge of Cultural
Reason and Responsibility. Ed. Joel Feinberg. p. 454.
2. Rachels, p. 454.
3. Rachels, p. 454.
4. Rachels, p. 455.
5. Rachels, p. 455.
6. Rachels, p. 457.
7. Williams, Bernard. "Relativism." Reason and
Responsibility. Ed.
Joel Feinberg. p. 451. 

Quotes: Search by Author