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Pros and Cons of Cultural RelativismEssay

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¶ … Against Cultural Relativism

As innovations in transportation and telecommunications technology continue to make the world a smaller place, there are few places left on earth that remain untouched by modern civilization. The increasing exchange of ideas and international commerce has also introduced new questions concerning the legitimacy of cultural relativism in justifying acceptance of behaviors and practices in other societies that may be regarded as inappropriate, aberrant and even life-threatening. To determine the facts, this paper reviews the relevant literature including essays by Ruth Benedict and James Rachels concerning moral relativism to identify arguments for and against cultural relativism, followed by a summary of the research and important findings concerning these issues in the conclusion.


In her essay, "Morality is Relative," Benedict makes the point that normality and abnormality are culturally defined, and what is widely accepted as appropriate behaviors in one society may be viewed as aberrant in others and vice versa. Likewise, the contextual nature of cultural relativism are described by Perusek thusly: "Civilization is not something absolute but ... relative, and our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes" (822). According to Benedict, every society is the result of an infinite number of influences that affect the contemporary outcome in ways that differ geographically and temporally. Therefore, this infinite range of influences compels different people to respond in different ways in order to survive and prosper, and it is disingenuous for one society to critically judge another based on their own outcomes (Benedict 449). For instance, Benedict notes that, "Behavior honored upon the Northwest Coast is one which is recognized as abnormal in our civilization" (449).

Citing other salient examples from what she describes as "simpler peoples," Benedict argues that it is just as culturally appropriate for some societies to even engage in headhunting if the practice satisfies certain social needs, and these behaviors are normal insofar as they are widely regarded as acceptable by those that practice them. In a similar fashion, societies that practice strict religious observations such as in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, may view mainstream cultural practices in the West as aberrant and outrageous despite their widespread acceptance otherwise by hundreds of millions of people. Indeed, individuals who are considered "pillars of society" in one country may well be viewed as terrorists or murderers in another. In this regard, Benedict reports that, "These illustrations & #8230; force upon us the fact that normality is culturally defined. An adult shaped to the drives and standards of [certain other] cultures, if he were transported into our civilization, would fall into our categories of abnormality. In his own culture, however, he is the pillar of society" (449).

These arguments in support of cultural relativism appear rationale on their face, especially given Benedict's observations concerning the effects of longstanding traditions and practices on people's views about other cultures. It is a simple matter to approach any analysis of other people from an ethnocentric perspective, viewing one's own culture as superior, but these tendencies serve to adversely affect people's ability to understand the basis for cultural practices in other societies that may have their foundations in antiquity (Benedict 450). Moreover, Benedict makes the point that the tendency to equate normality with that which is good and approved by society means that any cultural practices or behaviors that fall outside the acceptable range of normality will naturally appear bad or at least "less good" in comparison (450). Finally, Benedict emphasizes that every society will experience some deviant behaviors that may be considered aberrant only because they vary from what priorities a given society has in place. For example, Benedict reports that, "The vast majority of individuals in any group are shaped to the fashion of that culture" (451). The foregoing arguments in support of cultural relativism, though, fly in the face of some substantial arguments against as discussed further below.


In his essay, "Morality is Not Relative," Rachels agrees with Benedict's description of how cultural relativism has influenced the perceptions of other societies throughout history, beginning with King Darius of Persia who found that burial practices in one society horrified members of another society, even though these practices were accepted in each country. Because there is no universally accepted definition of what is right and wrong, though, it is natural to view different cultural practices as being "wrong" based on what is regarded as "right" within a given society.

In the 21st century, though, concepts of national sovereignty and cultural relativism have been replaced with the growing recognition that some cultural practices must be considered "wrong" even if they are culturally acceptable to the people who practice them. In this regard, Rachels notes that if the precepts of cultural relativism are accepted, then "We would be stopped from criticizing less benign practices. Suppose a society waged war on its neighbors for the purpose of taking slaves. Or suppose a society was violently anti-Semitic and its leaders set out to destroy the Jews. Cultural relativism would preclude us from saying that either of these practices was wrong" (453).

Clearly, though, these are real-world problems today in some countries and the international community has a fundamental responsibility to prevent genocide and rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran from waging nuclear war on its neighbors since this would threaten the stability of the entire world. At some point, differences in other cultures must be considered as "wrong" notwithstanding the lack of a universally accepted definition. Indeed, the complexity of the geopolitical situation today is a far cry from the not-too-distant past when countries could wage war with impunity or openly engage in the slave trade. Nevertheless, cultural relativists would argue that even these types of practices must be regarded as "normal" and "acceptable" because they are culturally based. For instance, Polisi emphasizes that, "Cultural relativist arguments often have been used to justify even the most severe human rights abuses around the world" (2004: 41).

According to Rachels, the arguments in support of cultural relativism are flawed for several reasons, including most especially the fact that from a logical perspective, the argument is not sound. In this regard, Rachels emphasizes that, "The fundamental mistake in the Cultural Differences Argument is that it attempts to derive a substantive conclusion about a subject (morality) from the mere fact that people disagree about it" (455). As an example, Rachels notes that some people believe the world is flat, while most people in the West understand that it is roughly spherical. Simply because there is a disagreement over the shape of the earth does not mean that there are relative degrees of differences in its shape, but rather there is a lack of consensus only. Further, an interesting point made by Ceaser is that cultural relativism is a largely Western perspective that is not necessarily shared by other countries in the world who remain firmly convince that their way of life is superior and disregard any arguments to the contrary. According to Ceaser, "The most troubling problem derived from the fact that none of the other cultures we studied professed cultural relativism. On the contrary, each attested firmly to the truth of its position. Our culture, and our culture alone, was being urged to embrace cultural relativism" (15).

In addition, Rachels points out that the simple test of what is right and wrong provided by cultural relativism (e.g., whether the practice is culturally acceptable in a given country) also fails to conform to modern standards. Applied to apartheid-era South Africa, for example, cultural relativism would hold that the practice was right despite the obvious social inequities the practice caused. Finally, Rachels argues that adherence to the Cultural Relativism Argument would preclude any moral progress in the world, and would restrict the ability of other people to become meaningful members of the international community. For example, Rachels notes that, "If Cultural Relativism is correct, can we legitimately think of this as progress? Progress means replacing a way of doing things with a better way" (emphasis author's) (456). Taken together, it is reasonable to suggest that the arguments against cultural relativism outweigh the precepts of the arguments in favor of it.


The research indicates that cultural relativism provides a useful framework in which to analyze the cultural practices of other people to gain fresh insights into their historic origins and modern applicability. Anthropologists have shown time and again that behaviors and practices that are acceptable in one society may be viewed far differently in others, but these behaviors and practices are culturally defined as to their rightness or wrongness and these differences must be taken into account in any cross-cultural analysis. Despite these attributes, the research also showed that there are several arguments against cultural relativism, including most especially its inability or unwillingness to accept the fact that some practices are just wrong irrespective of their cultural foundation and acceptability to other people. In the final analysis, cultural relativism has its… [END OF PREVIEW]

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