The Erroneous Moral View of Cultural Relativism

Introduction (Much of the content for this article is taken from the following book, "Beginning Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy.  Author, Lewis Vaughn.)

Cultural relativism is the view that the majority of people in any given culture is where people get their moral standards or rules.  This view is replacing the view of moral objectivism, which is the view that their is objective moral rules that are universal or absolute and no dependant upon the human perspective.  Moral objectivism was and is widely held by people who believe God exists or that something greater or higher than human beings gave human beings our conscience and the ability to know moral truths.  As people turn away from God beliefs and embrace some form of human secularism, they often turn to some form of moral relativism.  As this article will prove, cultural relativism is a moral framework which does not pass the test of reason or plausibility, and thus should be rejected by those who care about what is true.

Cultural Relativism:

The most common argument for cultural relativism is an inference from differences in the moral beliefs of cultures to the conclusion that cultures make morality.

Let us examine the argument for cultural relativism more precisely and examine it closely. We can lay out the argument like this:

1. People’s judgments about right and wrong differ from culture to culture.

2. Since people’s judgments about right and wrong differ from culture to culture, then right and wrong are relative to culture.

3. Since right and wrong are relative to culture, there are no objective moral principles across all cultures.

A good argument gives us good reason to accept its conclusion. An argument is good if its logic is solid (the conclusion follows logically from the premises) and the premises are true. So is the foregoing argument a good one? We can see right away that the form of the argument is in fact solid. That is, the argument is valid: the conclusion does indeed follow from the premises.  The question then becomes whether the premises are true.

As we have seen, Premise 1 is true to some degree. People’s judgments about right and wrong do vary from culture to culture.  There is ample evidence to prove this to be true.

But what of Premise 2? Does the diversity of views about right and wrong among cultures show that right and wrong are determined by culture, and thus that there are no universal moral truths? There are good reasons to think this premise false.

Premise 2 says that because there are disagreements among cultures about right and wrong, there must not be any universal standards of right and wrong. But even if the moral judgments of people in various cultures do differ, such difference in itself does not show that morality is relative to culture.

Just because people in different cultures have different views about morality, their disagreement does not prove that no view can be objectively correct—no more than people’s disagreements about the excellence of a football team demonstrate that no one’s opinion about it can line up with actual facts about the team; or that people’s disagreements about which is the tallest mountain in Washington State before precise measures were possible means that there was not a tallest mountain in WA St.

Premise two is a classic non-sequitur, meaning, something in the statement does not follow.  In this case, because people have different judgments about what is right or wrong in different cultures, it does not follow that no objective moral principles exist.  It merely means that people in different cultures have some different moral judgments.  The argument does not address the rightness or wrongness of particular moral positions.  Nor does it in anyway prove that no objective moral beliefs exist.

Suppose culture A endorses infanticide, but culture B does not. Such a disagreement does not demonstrate that both cultures are equally correct or that there is no objectively correct answer regarding the rightness or wrongness of killing infant! After all, it is possible that infanticide is objectively wrong (or right) and that the relevant moral beliefs of either culture A or culture B are false.

Logical Error 1: Disagreement among people from different cultures regarding moral issues does not prove that an objective moral position on an issue does not exist.  Here is the false argument:

People A disagree morally with People B about moral issue X, therefore Y (objective moral truth) does not exist.
Logical Error 2:  A majority of people holding a moral belief does not make the belief right.

For example, there have been many cultures which the majority believe that their people are superior to other people in other cultures – Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and slavery in the U.S. South in the time period of early colonialism (late 1600’s) through 1865 when slavery was legally abolished.

Another reason to doubt the truth of Premise 2 comes from questioning how deep the disagreements among cultures really are.

Judgments about the rightness of actions obviously do vary across cultures. But people can differ in their moral judgments not just because they accept different moral principles, but also because they have divergent non-moral beliefs. They may actually embrace the same moral principles, but their moral judgments conflict because their non-moral beliefs lead them to apply those principles in very different ways.  If so, the diversity of moral judgments across cultures does not necessarily indicate deep disagreements over fundamental moral principles or standards.

Here is a classic example: The story is told of a culture in which a son is regarded as obligated to kill his father when the latter reaches age sixty. Given just this much information about the culture and the practice in question it is tempting to conclude that the members of that culture differ radically from members of our culture in their moral beliefs and attitudes. We, after all, believe it is immoral to take a human life, and regard patricide as especially wrong. But suppose that in the culture we are considering, those who belong to it have the following spiritual or non-moral believes:

(a) that at the moment of death one enters heaven;
(b) one’s physical and mental condition in the afterlife is exactly what it is at the moment of death; and
(c) men are at the peak of their mental and physical powers when they are sixty.

Then what appeared at first to be peculiarities in moral outlook on the part of the cultural group in question regarding the sanctity of life and respect for parents, turn out to be located rather in a non-moral beliefs of the group.

A man in that culture who kills his father is doing so out of concern for the latter’s well-being—to prevent him, for example, from spending eternity blind or senile. It is not at all clear that, if we shared the relevant non-moral beliefs of this other culture, we would not believe with them that sons should kill their fathers at the appropriate time.

To find similar examples, we need not search for the exotic. In Western cultures we have the familiar case of abortion, an issue hotly debated among those who at first glance appear to be disagreeing about moral principles. But in fact the disputants agree about the moral principle involved: that murder (unjustly killing a person) is morally wrong.

What they do disagree about is a non-moral factual matter—whether the developing human is an entity that can be murdered (that is, whether it is a person). Disagreement over the non-moral facts masks substantial agreement on fundamental moral standards.

The work of several anthropologists provides some evidence for these kinds of disagreements, as well as for the existence of cross-cultural moral agreement in general. The social psychologist Solomon Asch, for instance, maintains that differing moral judgments among societies often arise when the same moral principles are operating but the particulars of cultural situations vary.

Other observers claim that across numerous diverse cultures we can find many common moral elements, such as prohibitions against murder, lying, incest, and adultery and obligations of fairness, reciprocity, and consideration toward parents and children.

Some philosophers argue that a core set of moral values—including, for example, truth telling and prohibitions against murder—must be universal, otherwise cultures would not survive.

So, let’s review the case against Cultural relativism thus far.

A.     Its primary argument is a non-sequitur (or logical fallacy) argument that contends that because people in different cultures have different views on some moral issues mean that no objective moral precepts exist, and;
B.     It is a logical fallacy (Begging the question or circular reasoning) to argue that because a majority of people holding a moral belief as correct makes the belief morally correct, and;
C.     There is good evidence that there are not deep divides between cultures regarding moral judgments, but rather much significant agreement, and most of the disagreements regarding moral judgments are caused by non-moral beliefs, often religious or spiritual beliefs.

Therefore, premise 2 of the argument for cultural relativism is false. And if one premise is false, then the conclusion is false as well.  Cultural relativism’s argument gives us no good reasons to believe that an action is right simply because one’s culture approves of it.

For many people, however, the failure of the argument for cultural relativism may be beside the point. They find the doctrine appealing mainly because it seems to promote the humane and enlightened attitude of tolerance toward other cultures.  Broad expanses of history are drenched with blood and marked by cruelty because of the evil of intolerance—religious, racial, political, and social.

Tolerance therefore seems a supreme virtue, and cultural relativism appears to provide a justification and vehicle for it. After all, if all cultures are morally equal, does not cultural relativism both entail and promote tolerance?

We should hope that tolerance does reign in a pluralistic world, but there is no necessary connection between tolerance and cultural relativism.  For one thing, cultural relativists cannot consistently advocate tolerance, no matter which version!

To advocate tolerance among cultures is to advocate an objective moral value. But if tolerance is an objective moral value, then cultural relativism must be false, because it says that there are no objective moral values!

So instead of justifying tolerance toward all, cultural relativism actually undercuts universal tolerance.  How?  By denying it does or should exist!

Moreover, according to cultural relativism, intolerance can be justified just as easily as tolerance can. If a culture approves of intolerance, then intolerance is right for that culture. If a culture approves of tolerance, then tolerance is right for that culture.

Cultural relativists are thus committed to the view that intolerance can in fact be justified, and they cannot consistently claim that tolerance is morally right everywhere.

At this point we are left with no good reasons to believe that cultural relativism is true.  In other words, cultural relativisms primary moral doctrine of tolerance is used in a universally objective  manner, thus contradicting cultural relativism’s primary claim, that there are no moral principles that are universal!

But the problems for the doctrine go deeper than this. Like subjective relativism, cultural relativism has several implications that demonstrate irrational principles or significant inconsistencies.

First, as is the case with subjective relativism, cultural relativism implies moral infallibility. A culture simply cannot be mistaken about a moral issue. If it approves of an action, then that action is morally right, and there is no possibility of error as long as the culture’s approval is genuine.

But, of course, cultural infallibility in moral matters is flagrantly implausible, just as individual infallibility is. At one time or another, cultures have sanctioned witch burning, slavery, genocide, racism, rape, human sacrifice, and religious persecution. Does it make any sense to say that they could not have been mistaken about the morality of these actions?

Cultural relativism also has the peculiar consequence that social reformers of every sort would always be wrong. Their culture would be the ultimate authority on moral matters, so if they disagree with their culture, they could not possibly be right. If their culture approves of genocide, then genocide would be right, and anti-genocide reformers would be wrong to oppose the practice. In this upside-down world, the anti-genocide reformers would be immoral and the genocidal culture would be the real paragon of righteousness.

Reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Mary Wollstonecraft (champion of women’s rights), and Frederick Douglass (American abolitionist) would be great crusaders—for immorality.

Our moral experience, however, suggests that cultural relativism has matters exactly backward. Social reformers have often been right when they claimed their cultures were wrong, and this fact suggests that cultural relativism is wrong about morality.  Wherever cultural relativism holds, if you have a disagreement with your culture about the rightness of an action, you automatically lose. You are in error by definition.

Furthermore, what about a disagreement among members of the same society? What would such a disagreement amount to? It amounts to something very strange, according to cultural relativism. When two people in the same culture disagree on a moral issue, what they are really disagreeing about—the only thing they can rationally disagree about—is whether their society endorses a particular view, NOT whether a particular behavior is right or wrong. After all, society makes actions right by approving or disapproving of them.

According to cultural relativism, if René and Michel (both members of society X) are disagreeing about capital punishment, their disagreement must actually be about whether society X approves of capital punishment. Because right and wrong are determined by one’s culture, René and Michel are disagreeing about what society X says. But this view of moral disagreement is dubious, to say the least.

When we have a moral disagreement, we do not think that the crux of it is whether our society approves of an action. We do not think that deciding a moral issue is simply a matter of polling the public to see which way opinion leans. We do not think that René and Michel will ever find out whether capital punishment is morally permissible by consulting public opinion. Determining whether an action is right is a very different thing from determining what most people think.  This odd consequence of cultural relativism suggests that the doctrine is flawed.

One of the more disturbing implications of cultural relativism is that cultures cannot be legitimately criticized from the outside. If a culture approves of the actions that it performs, then those actions are morally right regardless of what other cultures have to say about the matter. One society’s practices are as morally justified as any other’s, as long as the practices are socially sanctioned. This consequence of cultural relativism may not seem too worrisome when the societies in question are long dead. But it takes on a different tone when the societies are closer to us in time.

Consider the 1994 genocide committed in Rwanda in which nearly a million people died. Suppose the killers’ society (their tribe) approved of the murders. Then the genocide was morally justified. If you are a cultural relativist, you cannot legitimately condemn these monstrous deeds. Because they were approved by their respective societies, they were morally justified. They were just as morally justified as the socially sanctioned and lifesaving activities of Albert Schweitzer, Jonas Salk, or Florence Nightingale.

But all of this seems implausible. We do in fact sometimes criticize other cultures and believe that it is legitimate to do so. Contrary to the popular view, rejecting cultural relativism (embracing moral objectivism) does not entail intolerance. In fact, it provides a plausible starting point for actual tolerance. A moral objectivist realizes that she can legitimately criticize other cultures, and that people of other cultures can legitimately criticize her culture. A recognition of this fact, together with an objectivist’s sense of fallibility, can lead her to an openness to criticism of her own culture and to acceptance of everyone’s right to disagree.  This have the very positive benefit of avoiding violent conflict!

Furthermore, we not only criticize other cultures, but we also compare the past with the present. We compare the actions of the past with those of the present and judge whether moral progress has been made. We see that slavery has been abolished, that we no longer burn witches, that we recognize racism as evil, and then we judge that these changes represent moral progress.

For moral relativists, however, there is no objective standard by which to compare the ways of the past with the ways of the present. Societies of the past approved or disapproved of certain practices, and contemporary societies approve or disapprove of them, and no transcultural moral assessments can be made. But if there is such a thing as moral progress, then there must be some cross-cultural moral yardstick by which we can evaluate actions.

There must be objective standards by which we can judge that the actions of the present are better than those of the past. If there are no objective moral standards, our judging that we are in fact making moral progress is hard to explain.

Finally, there is a fundamental difficulty concerning the application of cultural relativism to moral questions: the doctrine is nearly impossible to use. The problem is that cultural relativism applies to societies (or social groups), but we all belong to several societies, and there is no way to choose which one is the proper one. What society do you belong to if you are a first generation Italian American Buddhist living in Atlanta, Georgia, who is a member of the National Organization for Women and a breast cancer support group?

The hope of cultural relativists is that they can use the doctrine to make better, more enlightened moral decisions. But this society-identification problem seems to preclude any moral decisions, let alone enlightened ones.


What, then, can we conclude from our examination of cultural relativism? We have found that the basic argument for the view fails; we therefore have no good reasons to believe that the doctrine is true.

Beyond that, we have good grounds for thinking the doctrine false. Its surprising implications regarding moral infallibility, moral reformers, moral progress, the nature of moral disagreements within societies, and the possibility of cross-cultural criticism show it to be highly implausible.

The crux of the matter is that cultural relativism does a poor job of explaining some important features of our moral experience. A far better explanation of these features is that some form of moral objectivism is true.

If you are a person who can see the destruction taking place and who want to help in trying to stop it, please, find the One who says, "I am the truth", place your faith in him and enter into his Life and come, join the Peaceful Revolution!

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