Cultural Relativism: Do Cultural Norms Make Actions Right and Wrong?

Author: Nathan Nobis
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 998

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Consider these cultural practices:

Arranged marriages; female genital cutting; male circumcision; requiring women to wear veils or burkas; canings as punishments; whaling and dolphin hunting; eating cats and dogs; eating meat; human sacrifice; harsh punishments throughout history.[1] 

Many readers will judge at least some practices like these to be morally wrong. If they announce this, however, they might get a response like this:

“Don’t judge these cultures’ practices! It’s their culture, their traditions, so what they do should be tolerated!”

People who say things like this may be expressing sympathy for an ethical theory called cultural relativism.[2] This essay introduces this theory.[3]

A child scanning a globe.
A child scanning a globe.

1. Understanding Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism proposes that what is ethical is relative to, or depends on, cultural attitudes:

  • if a culture disapproves of people doing an action, then it is wrong for people in that culture to do that action;
  • if a culture approves of people doing an action, then it is not wrong for people in that culture to do that action.[4]

Cultural relativism is not the empirical observation, accepted as true by everyone, that different cultures sometimes have different ethical views, or that what people believe, think, or feel about the morality of an action is sometimes “relative” to the culture they are in.

Cultural relativism is a theory of what makes actions right and wrong. The “don’t judge!” and “be tolerant!” reactions above might be based on it and reasoning like this:

“People in other cultures aren’t doing anything wrong because ethics is determined by cultural attitudes: so they shouldn’t be judged; they should be tolerated.”

2. Cultural Relativism’s Implications

We can better understand cultural relativism by thinking about what follows from it:[5]

if cultural relativism were true or correct, then:

1. the majority view on any moral issue is always correct;

relativism identifies the majority view with what’s ethically correct in that culture, so the majority view is always correct, no matter what;

2. people who criticize majority views and advocate for change are always wrong:

since according to relativism, majority views are always correct, anyone who critiques them must be mistaken;

3. what’s ethical is identified by opinion polls;

according to relativism, to find out whether an action is ethical or not, we survey the population to find the majority view: research, reflection, and wise guidance aren’t needed;

4. there is only cultural change, never progress or improvement:

according to relativism, if, e.g., a culture approved of slavery then slavery was not wrong in that culture at that time; if that culture came to reject slavery, then slavery would become wrong in that culture; this, however, was not moral improvement or progress since slavery earlier was not wrong according to relativism: there was merely a change of views.

Many people think these implications show that relativism is a false theory since the majority isn’t always right, cultural critics are sometimes correct, opinion polls don’t tell us what is really ethical, and cultural views really can improve and, unfortunately, decline.

3. Arguments For Cultural Relativism

What can be said for cultural relativism? What’s appealing about it?

3.1. Tolerance

Some people argue for cultural relativism on the grounds that we should be tolerant and accepting of cultural differences.

One problem with this reasoning is that (almost?) no culture holds that we should tolerate and accept everything, no matter what. So, a principle of universal tolerance and acceptance contradicts relativism, which maintains that ethical standards are culture-bound and not universal. To think that we should be tolerant and accepting of everything is to reject relativism. 

According to relativism we should accept and tolerate only what our culture accepts. Since many cultures condemn many of the actions above, relativism implies that people who reject these judgments – like those above who urge toleration – are usually mistaken. So, if our cultures should be even just more accepting and tolerant, we should reject relativism.

3.2. Disagreements

Everyone observes that there are some profound ethical disagreements between cultures. From this fact, relativists conclude we should accept relativism.

This reasoning, however, is doubtful. In general, when there are disagreements on an issue, at most one general “side” can be correct:[6] e.g., if one person believes the Earth is spherical and another believes the Earth is flat, they can’t both be correct. Relativists urge that everyone can be right when they should think that, at most, one “side” is correct.[7]

But how can we tell which side is correct? Evaluate the arguments on each side: e.g., do cultures that support female genital cutting give good reasons for the practice? Or is the case against it stronger?[8]

About many issues, understanding and evaluating the arguments in genuinely fair and balanced ways is difficult. Whatever the challenges though, they don’t support accepting cultural relativism, which makes answering hard ethical questions very easy: do an opinion poll![9]

Finally, some people might appeal to relativism to try to avoid challenging issues: if relativism is correct, it’s a simple “the majority rules” and there’s no need to investigate and discuss.[10]

4. Conclusion

Cultural relativists are correct that sometimes we should be more tolerant and accepting of cultural differences.[11] Some things done in other cultures are unfamiliar and may seem strange. But “different” is not the same as “wrong,” and learning about relativism can remind us of that.

But just because some culture approves of something does not mean it’s OK. Cultures, like individuals, sometimes approve of practices that are very wrong: they aren’t perfect and neither are we.

Rejecting cultural relativism usually involves accepting ethical realism, that what’s ethical is determined by factors that are not relative to cultural attitudes: e.g., whether actions are harmful or beneficial to whoever is affected by them, or whether actions are done with the consent of all involved, and other objective considerations.

What’s of primary philosophical interest is not that some culture approves or disapproves of an action, but why, their reasons. Do they have good arguments for what they support? Do we? That’s the question that ethics is all about.

Notes

[1] For information on these cultural practices, see Wikipedia, “Arranged marriage”; Brian Earp,  “Boys and girls alike: An un-consenting child, an unnecessary, invasive surgery: is there any moral difference between male and female circumcision?” Aeon, 1/13/2015, and Brian Earp, “Does Female Genital Mutilation Have Health Benefits? The Problem with Medicalizing Morality.” University of Oxford Practical Ethics blog, 8/15/2017; James Vyver, “Why do Muslim women wear a burka, niqab or hijab?” ABC News, 8/17/2017; Wikipedia, “Caning in Singapore”; Natasha Daly, “Japan’s controversial annual dolphin hunt begins,” National Geographic, 09/09/2021; Justin McCurry, “Japan resumes commercial whaling for first time in 30 years. The Guardian, 06/30/2019; George Petras. 2/25/2019. “South Koreans eat more than 1 million dogs each year — but that’s slowly changing. Here’s why. Young Koreans lead efforts to end a centuries-old practice.” USA Today; Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, Red Wheel, 2020; Wikipedia, “Human sacrifice”; Greta Christina, “How Religious Fundamentalism, Ironically, Leads to a Screwed-Up Moral Relativism,” The Orbit, 4/17/2014.

[2] Cultural relativism is an ethical theory, or a normative ethical theory. Such theories attempt to explain, in general, why actions are wrong (or right, or permissible) or what makes them so.

“Cultural relativism” is also sometimes called “ethical relativism,” “moral relativism” and sometimes even just “relativism.” These are names for the same view, which proposes that what’s really right and wrong – not just believed to be right and wrong – is relative to, or dependent on, cultural approval.

Another form of relativism is “individual relativism,” which is also sometimes (but sometimes not) called “ethical subjectivism,” which holds that what is right and wrong for a person to do is relative to, or dependent on, that person’s own approval or attitudes towards what they are doing. Individual relativism is very implausible since it seems to suggest, e.g., that if a person approves of their being, say, an ax-murderer, it is not wrong for them to be an ax-murderer: any action can be morally permissible provided the person doing the action approves of what they are doing.

Another view called just “relativism,” is “relativism about truth,” which claims that if someone, or a group, believes some claim, that claim is true. This view, however, is not true because belief and truth are distinct, and so what anyone believes to be true, or thinks is true, need not be actually true: e.g., sincerely, confidently believing you are a billionaire doesn’t mean or make you a billionaire and someone merely believing you are dead or imprisoned doesn’t make you that. Usually, if someone says something is “true to them” or “their truth,” they are best understood as stating what they believe or think, which may or may not be true. For more discussion, see Huemer, Michael. “Relativism: What is this Nonsense?” Fake Noûs, December 25, 2021.

[3] The understanding of relativism discussed in this essay is the version developed and discussed by James and Stuart Rachels in their Elements of Moral Philosophy textbook, as well as James Rachels’ “Some Basic Points About Arguments” chapter from their anthology The Right Thing to Do.

[4] Cultural relativism is sometimes presented as “if a culture believes an action is wrong, then that action is wrong in that culture” and “if a culture believes an action is permissible, then that action is permissible in that culture.”

This statement of the view, however, doesn’t make sense and is incorrect, since what would it be to “believe an action is wrong” on this proposal of what relativism is? What would a culture be believing or thinking here, if they believed an action is wrong? What thought would they be thinking about what “wrong” means?

[5] There are deeper concerns about cultural relativism in terms of simply understanding what the view actually is. 

Cultural relativism claims that ethics depends on cultures’ attitudes, but exactly what is a cultures’ attitudes? What percent of the population or how pervasive must some attitude be to be considered representative of the culture?

And what is a culture anyway? What is it to be part of a culture? (Is a visitor in a new culture “part of that culture”?).

However cultures are defined (can an individual person and their views be considered a culture?), each individual person is a member of different cultures, which often have different attitudes on the same actions. E.g., suppose some college students are also part of a “conservative,” “traditional” religion. Their college student culture may approve of what their religious cultures disapprove of, and vice-versa, and so it is unclear what action cultural relativism would require of them in these cases of intra-personal cultural conflicts. Which culture should an individual “follow” in cases of conflicts?

These interesting, theoretical questions about defining cultural relativism will not be addressed here.

[6] A potential exception to the rule that, in cases of disagreement, at most one general position is correct are aesthetic disagreements, disagreements about what’s most beautiful or attractive or pleasing.

For example, one person might think that the first song on an album is the best song, but their friend thinks that song is the worst. They seem to disagree, but it also might seem that neither of them is correct: no song is “objectively” best if “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” as is sometimes said: it just depends on what someone likes, and we often like different things.

One theory of aesthetic judgments is that they are about what someone finds pleasing or attractive. So, on this view, one person here is saying, “I enjoy this song the most,” whereas the other says, “I don’t enjoy this song the most.” On this view, they don’t really disagree, since they are both just talking about what pleases them most: they are both accurately reporting what they like; they are both telling the truth. 

A difficulty for this view, however, is that it sometimes seems that people can be mistaken in their aesthetic judgments: e.g., if a beginning songwriter claims his songs are as good as Dolly Parton’s, or a tone-deaf singer thinks she’s as good a singer as Whitney Houston, or a local church choir thinks they are as good as the Mormon Tabernacle choir, it seems to many like all those judgments are false. If that’s correct, that means that beauty isn’t quite “in the eye of the beholder,” since some judgments about what’s beautiful, or more or most beautiful, can be mistaken. What might make them mistaken, however, is a challenging philosophical issue.

Nevertheless, judgments about what’s, say, the most flavorful ice cream or who the best guitar player is or whether someone is more beautiful or attractive than someone else are importantly different from whether killing someone was wrong or not, whether a law is just and other weighty ethical concerns.

[7] Another response to ethical disagreements is concluding that nothing is wrong or not wrong at all: there is no such thing as “wrongness.” Ethical irrealists or anti-realists called “error theorists” develop this position. See Ethical Realism by Thomas Metcalf and Moral Error Theory by Ian Tully. For a critique of moral error theory, see “Bah Fortiori: On the peculiarly specific character of our moral outrage” by Oliver Traldia.

[8] In “What’s Culture Got to Do with It? Excising the Harmful Tradition of Female Circumcision” it is observed that female genital cutting is sometimes argued, by its advocates in cultures where it is practiced, to be morally permissible because it is a tradition, it reduces promiscuity, it increases fertility and eases childbirth, it is required by their religion(s), and it makes women more attactive to the men in these cultures. Whether any of these arguments is sound might depend on any of those claims being true and that claim’s corresponding, unstated premise being true also: all traditions are morally permissible (a premise similar to cultural relativism); all actions that decrease promiscuity are morally permissible; all actions that increase fertility and/or ease childbirth are morally permissible; all actions required by someone’s religion are morally permissible; and all actions that make someone more attractive to someone else are morally permissible.

[9] Another potential motivation for relativism is people simply not knowing much about better methods to ethical reasoning. Few people take ethics classes where they learn to systematically engage issues using ethical theories that are arguably better than relativism. In such classes, students are usually exposed to ethical theories that deny cultural relativism, see Deontology: Kantian Ethics by Andrew Chapman, Consequentialism by Shane Gronholz, and John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ by Ben Davies. For an approach that seeks to combine positive insights of many of these theories, see Principlism in Biomedical Ethics: Respect for Autonomy, Non-Maleficence, Beneficence, and Justice by G. M. Trujillo, Jr.

Some people seem to assume that the only options for what could make wrong actions wrong is either individual or cultural approval (so relativism) or God’s approval and commands: this explanation is known as the “Divine Command Theory” of ethics. There are, however, as noted there are many other plausible explanations for what makes wrong actions wrong and, interesting, the Divine Command Theory is subject to some objections that are similar to objections to relativism since both claim that its “just because” some authority disapproves or approves of an action that makes that action wrong or not. See Because God Says So: On Divine Command Theory by Spencer Case.

[10] For this interpretation of common appeals to relativism, which sees these appeals as attempts to avoid careful and rigorous discussion, see Satris’s (1986) very insightful discussion of what he calls “Student Relativism.”

[11] Cultural “conservatives” sometimes claim that “liberals” accept relativism since liberals sometimes say things along the lines of “people should be able to do what they want,” “if people like doing that, they should be able to do that,” and so on. But what they don’t notice is that liberals say this only about actions they argue are not wrong, since, for actions that are not wrong, it makes sense to say that people should be able to do them, if they want. It’s not like “liberals” claim that if someone wants to be a school shooter or dump toxic waste in the river, they should do it. So “conservatives” sometimes do not think about the contexts and subjects that relativistic-sounding, but not genuinely relativistic, claims are made.

References

Christina, Greta. 4/17/2014, “How Religious Fundamentalism, Ironically, Leads to a Screwed-Up Moral Relativism,” The Orbit.

Daly, Natasha. 9/09/2021. “Japan’s controversial annual dolphin hunt begins.” National Geographic.

Earp, Brian. 1/13/2015. “Boys and girls alike: An un-consenting child, an unnecessary, invasive surgery: is there any moral difference between male and female circumcision?” Aeon.

Earp, Brian. 8/15/2017. “Does Female Genital Mutilation Have Health Benefits? The Problem with Medicalizing Morality.” University of Oxford Practical Ethics blog.

Huemer, Michael. December 25, 2021. “Relativism: What is this Nonsense?” Fake Noûs.

Joy, Melanie. 2020. Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Red Wheel.

McCurry, Justin. 6/30/2019. “Japan resumes commercial whaling for first time in 30 years.” The Guardian.

Petras, George. 2/25/2019. “South Koreans eat more than 1 million dogs each year — but that’s slowly changing. Here’s why. Young Koreans lead efforts to end a centuries-old practice.” USA Today.

Rachels, James and Stuart. 2019. The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 9th Edition. McGraw Hill.

Rachels, James. 2019. “Some Basic Points About Arguments.” In James and Stuart Rachels’ The Right Thing to Do, 8th Edition, Rowman & Littlefield.

Satris, Stephen. 1986. “Student Relativism.” Teaching Philosophy. 9(3). 193-205.

Traldia, Oliver. January 27, 2019. “Bah Fortiori: On the peculiarly specific character of our moral outrage.” Arc Digital.

Vyver, James. 8/17/2017. “Why do Muslim women wear a burka, niqab or hijab?” ABC News.

“What’s Culture Got to Do with It? Excising the Harmful Tradition of Female Circumcision.” 1993. Harvard Law Review. 106(8). 1944–1961.

Wikipedia, “Arranged marriage.”

Wikipedia, “Caning in Singapore.”

Wikipedia, “Human sacrifice.”

For Further Reading and Viewing

Brain in a Vat. 8/16.2020. “Is Cultural Relativism Racist? With Justin Kalef.” Youtube. 

Edgerton, Robert B. 1992. Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony. Free Press.

Huemer, Michael. 2013. “The Progress of Liberalism”: Michael Huemer at TEDxMileHigh. Youtube.

Prinz, Jesse. January/February 2011. “Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response.” Philosophy Now. 82.

Related Essays

Critical Thinking: What is it to be a Critical Thinker? by Carolina Flores

Deontology: Kantian Ethics by Andrew Chapman

Consequentialism by Shane Gronholz

John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ by Ben Davies

Principlism in Biomedical Ethics: Respect for Autonomy, Non-Maleficence, Beneficence, and Justice by G. M. Trujillo, Jr.

Because God Says So: On Divine Command Theory by Spencer Case

Ethical Realism by Thomas Metcalf

Moral Error Theory by Ian Tully

Evolution and Ethics by Michael Klenk

Ignorance and Blame by Daniel Miller

Responding to Morally Flawed Historical Philosophers and Philosophies by Victor Fabian Abundez-Guerra and Nathan Nobis

Acknowledgments

The author appreciates feedback and guidance on this essay from Felipe Pereira, Dan Lowe, Thomas Metcalf, Chelsea Haramia, and a set of Facebook friends who helped him develop a list of cultural practices of ethical significance. 

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About the Author

Nathan Nobis is a Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. He is co-author of Thinking Critically About Abortion, author of Animals & Ethics 101, and the author and co-author of many other writings and materials in philosophy and ethics. NathanNobis.com

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