by Kenia Torres
In this essay, Kenia Torres guides us through the often-contentious terrain of cultural relativism and absolutism. By providing vivid examples and adopting a flexible approach, Torres is able to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each philosophical stance. We specifically admire Torres’ ability to synthesize and evaluate these theories.
—Joss Lake, editor
Living in the United States, a country that is associated with the societal norms and ethical values of a traditional western society, we have both consciously and unconsciously set a moral standard from which to judge cultures which are unfamiliar to us based on our own perception of absolute moral truths. Moral truths are ethical standards which we see as applicable to every situation and to all people and which hold truth no matter what. For instance, in most Western societies most people would agree that the following truths should be considered absolute: Murder, cheating and stealing are all wrong and shouldn’t be done. This idea of holding all people accountable to the same moral standards is known as the concept of absolutism and is one of the main theories of morality in philosophical ethics. Its contrasting viewpoint, cultural relativism, argues that the morality of a person’s actions and practices should be judged to the standard of that person’s culture as opposed to the standards of another. It also promotes the idea that the concepts of right and wrong are culture-specific. For example, while a western society might consider murdering someone without a cause to be inhumane and wrong, from a cultural relativist perspective, we should not judge or criticize other cultures that engage in that practice since they have their own set of moral standards from which to judge it. Based on these two differing perspectives, whether or not we should be allowed to judge other cultures and their customs/practices varies. While a cultural relativist such as Ruth Benedict or Seungbae Park would argue that because different cultures have different norms, many moralities exist and we therefore don’t have enough knowledge to judge these cultures efficiently, a cultural absolutist like Mary Midgley or James Rachel would say that we are allowed to judge other cultures because we are already able to define judgements and distinguish between good or bad. Overall, both theories present strong arguments, and while they both advocate for the choosing of a definite side, it is impossible to do so since we must take into account both the motives of other cultures and what we as individuals consider to be morally correct. That means that our involvement with judging other cultures is merely circumstantial; hence, before gravitating towards either extreme, relativism or absolutism, we should consider compromising between both theories and accepting the fact that ideas from either may be appropriate at different times.
Early twentieth century American anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, defends the concept of moral relativism by attempting to show that many moralities exist and that they are each relative to individual cultures. Benedict claims that no universal truth exists since different cultures have different moral norms which set the standard of what is right and wrong (21). Benedict uses examples from different cultures to prove her claim. The first one deals with an island northwest of Melanesia in which people from a tribe strongly believe in black magic and display what she perceives as an overly-paranoid attitude towards each other, which shapes their way of living. For example, people in this tribe are so scared of being poisoned that a woman may never leave their cooking pot unattended for any reason, and they do not have any community stores since everyone else’s food is seen as deadly poison. “Their polite phrase at the acceptance of a gift is, “And if you now poison me, how shall I repay you this present”(Benedict 22). In this same tribe there is one man who is perceived as “crazy” by the rest of the tribe members. This “crazy” man, who displays what we would describe as positive attributes, is very kind, hardworking and enjoys being helpful, regardless of his culture’s norms. Because of this he is made fun of and shunned by the rest of the tribe. Benedict goes on to explain that there were others in this tribe who ran around frothing at the mouth and stabbing whoever was in reach. Although this behavior could be described as “crazy” according to western standards, people like this were merely avoided by the tribe and their behavior was disregarded (22). They made no attempt to control these individuals nor did they think anything of it. Although we would consider ourselves to be in more danger when in the presence of these violent individuals, as opposed to with the man that was previously described, the difference in our ways of living has taught us to be fearful of different things and to therefore formulate different interpretations for the word crazy.
In another example, in the Northwest coast among the Kwakiutl, there is a tradition which states that if a family member dies, no matter what the cause of death is, people should go out and kill another person. “It is no matter of blood revenge or vengeance. There is no effort to tie up the subsequent killing with any responsibility on the part of the victim for the death of the person who is being mourned” (Benedict 22). In one example a chief’s sister and daughter had gone on a trip and, because of an unknown reason, never came back. Upon hearing the news, the chief sent his warriors to do some killing. They set out and found seven men and two children asleep and killed them. Then they felt good when they arrived at Sebba in the evening (Benedict 22). In this culture, this practice is seen as noble since it shows that the person has not been downed and that they are fighting back in return (22). The point of interest here, as Benedict states, is that in our society, those who on that occasion would feel good after killing people would definitely be the abnormal ones. She goes on to say that although there may be some, even in our society, who might exhibit this emotion, it is not a recognized and approved mood considering the circumstances (22). Benedict also adds that in the Kwakiutl culture, those who experience the emotions of satisfaction and happiness after the killings are the ones whose emotions are accepted and deemed as normal, whereas those who see the action as repugnant can be accepted by their society only if they push those feeling aside and act according to the societal norms. If they don’t, they are considered deviant and fall into their category of abnormality.
Through these examples Benedict attempts to show that normality is culturally defined. “A normal action is one which falls well within the limits of the expected behavior for a particular society” (Benedict 23). She goes on to say that if an adult who is shaped to the standards of either of these cultures were to be transported into our civilization, they would fall into our categories of abnormality, whereas in their culture they are perfectly normal (23). She also states that most of what people label as normal is merely habitual behavior and that we therefore cannot judge other cultures because what is seen as “morally good” is dependent on a culture’s habits.
Controversial contemporary Korean Philosopher Seungbae Park states that it is unclear whether cultural relativism or cultural absolutism has more of a dangerous impact on our daily lives. However, he makes the argument that if Hitler was a cultural relativist, he wouldn’t have attacked Jews because he would have acknowledged that neither German culture nor Jewish culture was more correct than the other (164). Likewise, he adds that the same can be said about slave owners. If the masters would have been cultural relativists, he argues, they would not have enslaved African Americans in the first place because they would have acknowledged that their own culture was no better than African American culture (165). Nonetheless Hitler’s beliefs in German superiority and the slave owner’s belief in white supremacy conformed to that of an absolutist perspective, which goes to show the faults and dangers in the absolutist position.
As a contemporary British cultural absolutist, Mary Midgley refutes the validity of moral relativism by arguing that we possess the knowledge to make judgements about other cultures and that those who argue otherwise do it simply because they associate respect and tolerance with the inability to take up a critical position on other cultures. For example, when talking about the reasons for why people advocate for the practice of cultural relativism, she says that they do it because they feel it is respectful. Midgley however, believes that this isn’t respectful at all. She states, “Nobody can respect what is entirely unintelligible to them. To respect someone, we have to know enough about him to make favorable judgements however general and tentative. And we do understand people in other cultures to this extent” (Midgely 25). Midgley also adds that if we consider something to be a serious moral truth in one culture, it must be applied to all other cultures whenever circumstances admit it, regardless of how different they may be. If we refuse to do this, it means we are not taking the other culture seriously (Midgley 27). Not only does Midgley believe that it makes no sense to view moral judgement as something that is only applicable to people of the same group, whether that be a country or culture, but she also argues that cultural relativism is an “impossible position” for multiple reasons (26).
Midgley provides an example of an ancient Japanese practice, referred to as tsujigiri, in which Samurais would test out their swords on any civilian that passed by to make sure that they were working efficiently. This was important because if it didn’t work properly, they could lose the war, let down their emperor, and offend their ancestors. An efficient sword would be one that could slice through someone at a single blow from the shoulder to the opposite flank (Midgley 25). Midgley states that while a cultural relativist may argue that we simply do not understand this custom and are therefore not qualified to judge it, this statement presents a problem since it brings with it the following question: Does the isolating barrier between cultures prevent us from giving and receiving praise the same way that it restricts us from casting judgement? (Midgley 25). For example, if we wished to acknowledge that the samurai custom held many virtues such as courage, respect and honor, or if we wished to praise the customs of any other culture, would it be appropriate to do so given that we are likewise unfamiliar with the culture? Midgley believes that praising other cultures is important; however, she argues that it would be almost impossible to praise them efficiently if we couldn’t criticize them, since our praise would rest on “no definite grounds” (26). From the point of view of Midgley, judging goes hand in hand with understanding and then praising. While she admits that we may sometimes have to praise things which we do not fully understand by simply acknowledging that there is good in a situation or custom, for the sake of learning from strangers; she argues that in order to do this, we must separate the strangers that are worth learning from and those who are not (26). Midgley defines judging as “forming an opinion and expressing it if it is called for” (26). Although she states that we should avoid forming opinions that are biased, for example one which dismisses the samurai culture as entirely bad just because it goes against one’s religious beliefs, she reminds us that cultural relativism prevents us from form forming any opinions on other cultures and that this is simply impossible because if we can’t judge other cultures, it would be difficult to judge our own. Midgley states that other cultures provide “the range of comparison and the spectrum of alternatives against which we set what we want to understand” (26). This range of comparison allows us to learn from other people’s success and to avoid their mistakes. She argues that when we judge something as good or bad, we are using it as an example to either aim at or avoid (27). By restricting ourselves from making judgements about other cultures, Midgley argues that we would be laying a ban on general moral reasoning, which would lead to inaction and result in our disinterest in all moral questions.
Contemporary American philosopher, James Rachels, also elaborates on this idea by arguing that with cultural relativism, the idea of moral progress, even within our own cultures, is called into doubt. He starts his claim by describing a time in history where women’s rights were suppressed: they were denied the right to vote, own property and to hold a position in office. Rachels then states that if cultural relativism were to be correct, we wouldn’t be able to think of the current changes in women’s rights as progress. This is because progress is defined as finding a better way to do things and we wouldn’t have any standard from which to judge the new ways as better, if we were to respect the cultural relativist viewpoint of not judging the old ways with the social standards of our current time (Rachels 6). To say that we have made progress suggests that present-day society is better, which is an unacceptable claim according to the standard of relativism (6). Furthermore, Rachels argues that this also affects the idea of other types of social reform. He states that the actions of commonly known reformers, such as Martin Luther King Jr., who have sought for societal change, go against the ideals of relativism since they are challenging something that by relativistic definition is already correct (6). It can then be seen that relativism places us in a position in which the morality of societal progress is challenged which leaves little room for growth. Rachels supports the position of Moral absolutism by claiming that just because people disagree over the existence of absolute moral truths doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. For example, to prove his point, he states that while people in some societies believe the earth is flat, other societies such as our own, believe that the earth is spherical. He then states that just because this disagreement exists, doesn’t mean that there is no “objective truth” in geography (4). He states that such a conclusion cannot be drawn because we must realize that sometimes cultures may simply be wrong in their beliefs (4). “There is no reason to think that if the world is round everyone must know it. Similarly, there is no reason to think that if there is a moral truth everyone must know it” (Rachels 4).
Going off his previous point, Rachels claims that contrary to what most people believe, there is actually less disagreement amongst cultures than it seems. He proves that while cultural relativism stems from the observation that cultures are drastically different in their views of right and wrong, the extent of these differences are overestimated (6). Rachels states that while there may be differences in our belief systems, our values are ultimately the same or very similar (6). He uses as an example a culture in which it is wrong to eat cows. He states that although this culture may be very poor and not have enough food, they still refuse to eat the cows (6). At first it may seem as though this society has very different values than we do; however, when questioning the reasons for why this society refuses to eat the cows, we realize that our values are quite similar. Rachels asks us to suppose that the reason why these animals aren’t eaten is because these people believe that when their loved ones die, they reincarnate into animals, especially cows, and so the cow may be someone’s grandmother (7). “The difference is in our belief systems, not in our values. We agree that we shouldn’t eat Grandma; we simply disagree about whether the cow is (or could be) Grandma” (Rachels 7).
In a similar example Rachels compares Inuit culture to Western culture. He states that at first sight Inuit culture appears to be quite different from ours especially in the ways in which they regard human life. He mentions that they seem to have less respect for human life and that practices like infanticide were common (2). “Knud Rasmussen, one of the most famous early explorers, reported that he met one woman who had borne 20 children but had killed 10 of them at birth. Female babies, he found, were especially liable to be destroyed…” (Rachels 2). While there appears to be a great difference in the values of the two cultures, Rachels shows that upon analyzing the motives behind the Inuit actions, it is evident that Inuit values are actually quite similar to ours. For example, infant boys are preferred over infant girls because males are hunters and the primary food providers. Since hunters suffer a high casualty rate, the number of women would far outnumber the number of men were it not for female infanticide (7). This would pose a problem since “there would be approximately one-and-a-half times as many females in the average Eskimo[sic] local group as there are food-producing males” (Rachels 7). Knowing this information, we are able to realize that Inuit actions are merely a drastic measure that needs to be taken in order to ensure the family’s survival. Rachels adds that despite appearances, Inuit are protective of their children, and this is known because any cultural group that continues to exist must care for its youth (8). Killing the baby is in fact never the first option and it is only considered as the last resort when all other alternatives such as adoption fail (8). Rachels once again emphasizes that Inuit values are not too different from ours but that “life forces upon them choices we do not have to make” (Rachels 7). Overall, through these two examples, Rachels shows that cultures are a lot more similar than we may think, therefore refuting the argument of cultural relativism which states that we can’t judge other cultures because they are widely unfamiliar to us.
It may be concluded that judging other cultures is circumstantially permissible. Although a cultural relativist would say that we should not be allowed to judge other cultures at all, because all societies are different and morals, along with what is considered to be acceptable, varies from culture to culture; a cultural absolutist would disagree by arguing that cultures aren’t as different as they appear to be. Overall, in order to view this debate objectively, it must be said that both theories may be appropriate at different times. While we should have the right to judge other cultures and to voice our opinions on some matters, for the sake of progress and societal growth, we must draw the line when our interference isn’t absolutely necessary for the sake of respecting other cultures and what is unfamiliar to us.
Benedict, Ruth. “Moral Relativism: A Defense.” Principles of Moral Philosophy: Classic and Contemporary Approaches, edited by Steven M. Cahn and Andrew Forcehimes, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 21–24.
Midgley, Mary. “Moral Isolationism.” Principles of Moral Philosophy: Classic and Contemporary Approaches, edited by Steven M. Cahn and Andrew Forcehimes, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 25–28.
Park, Seungbae. “Defense of Cultural Relativism.” Cultura, vol. 8, no. 1, 2011, pp. 159–170., doi:10.2478/v10193-011-0010-3.
Rachels, James. “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism.” The Elements of Moral Philosophy, edited by Stuart Rachels and James Rachels, McGraw-Hill Education, 2019, pp. 15–29.
Published November 12, 2021