Pitfalls of Relativism


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 

 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 incorrect.

 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 barbarianism.

 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 Argument1" 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. 

End Notes

1. Rachels, James. "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism."
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.


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