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Cultural Relativism and Ethics Essay

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Updated: Dec 14th, 2019

Cultural Relativism Theory

Cultural relativism theory is the view that moral and ethical structures which differ from culture to culture are similarly effective. This denotes that there is no cultural structure that is superior to the other. The theory is based on the idea that there is no decisive standard considered good or evil. Therefore, every judgment about right and wrong is a product of the society. This means that we cannot learn or adopt another cultural code of standard (Rachels, 2006).

It is also imperative to use an individual’s culture to determine whether our actions are ethical or unethical. Ethics is relative because what one culture perceives as bad might be good to the other society (Rachels, 2006). This theory of culture also points out that there is no universal truth in ethics. Indeed, this implies that ethical issues are out of bounds to outsiders in a given culture and it can only be analyzed within the context of the culture in question.

It would then be wrong to judge cultural actions as unethical since no culture is better than the other and every cultural standard is guaranteed to a specific culture. Ethical subjectivism further explains cultural relativism. It states that there is no neutral truth in principles, no correct answers to ethical questions and that there are no moral queries with the right answers.

The notion of cultural relativism and culture specificity is exemplified by different life cases appertaining to various cultures that exhibit tendencies of what we might term unethical. Cultural relativism hence acts like a shield against criticism of actions emanating from a particular culture (Rachel, 2006).

Among the Eskimos, regulation of births via birth control method was not possible. As a result, the birth rate was high. This phenomenon is mostly observed in communities where food supply is unable to support a vast population. The Eskimos practiced infanticide as a way of regulating birth and the population (Rachel, 2006). Infanticide was mostly done to female children after birth to lessen the burden of providing food for the men.

Killing of children is unethical but in the Eskimo case it was a way of ensuring survival for some members. Among the Greeks it was normal for them to bury their dead fathers. In Galatians, cannibalism was practiced. They ate their dead fathers instead of burying them. In the modern American society such cases would be morally wanting and some would be considered unethical.

These similar but differently performed and interpreted cases show how ethical issues remain muddled in cultural activities. Although, these cultural differences occur, some similarities in cultures are also observed.

The cultural differences argument

The cultural differences argument holds that each culture has its unique customs, worldviews and moral codes that the members of the society abide by. Cultures are imperatively understood as unique entities that can only be comprehended within their context and not from outsiders’ views. In support of these argument is the notion that there exists no bad or good culture. Cultural activities are coined to suit the demands of a certain society in a given geographical setting.

For example, infanticide among the Eskimos is a way of controlling the population due to scarcity of food resources (Rachels, 2006). This argument also states that there are no universal standards to judge what is wrong or right. Objectively, there neither radiate any good or evil nor bad or wrong since all acts within a society are restricted to the moral codes of cultures.

Therefore, there are no objectives truths in morality, no right answers to moral questions, right or wrong are mere matters of opinion that vary between cultures or groups. Rachels (2006) argues that this cultural differences argument is invalid in the sense that it lacks deductive validity and therefore cannot be proven.

Although, sociology and anthropological studies provide ample evidence about the differences in moral codes among different societies, the argument still holds no deductive validity and therefore cannot be concluded as right. Rachels also stated that the argument cannot be true due to existence of universal moral codes.

For example, different communities have different ideas about the shape of the earth. Thus, the argument holds that there is no independent truth about the shape of the earth and that the notions are views that vary from culture to culture but this does not state that the earth has no definite shape.

The criticisms of the cultural difference argument

Rachel criticizes the cultural differences argument by stating that the argument cannot be deductively validated, although, sociology and anthropological studies among communities has provided evidence of different moral codes. Another criticism stems from the fact that the different cultures share some moral and ethical values in common; the cultural universals.

For example, all societies do not condone murder; take care of their young ones and places significance on expressing the truth. Further, the argument tries to drift away from the fact that cultures have different opinions regarding a certain issue and the conclusion that such an issue has an objective truth. The argument also discards the presence of any collective ethical values, ideals or facts that may strengthen the basis for inter-cultural comparative judgments.

For that reason, this does not mean that there are no inferior cultures in existence. It also implicates the notion that other societies are not entitled to having an ethical stand over the actions of other societies deemed unethical. Genocide and slavery practices in societies serve as good illustrations that cannot be termed as ethical within the context of other cultures.


Rachels, J. & Rachels, S. (2006). The Elements of Moral Philosophy. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies.

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