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Moral Theory: Cultural Relativism

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In a fast shrinking world there is very little that a society can do to hide from the scrutiny and judgmental eyes of others. The media and the Internet make it very easy for the rest of the world to know of any indiscretion or any wrongdoing committed by a person or a group of individuals. The problem with judging others though is not as simple as it may seem. There is simply no universal rule to be followed when it comes to some of the more complex ethical issues such as euthanasia, abortion, recreational drug use, etc. Determining what is right and wrong, in this modern age, has been simplified to a moral relativism never before seen since the Western World accepted religion as a standard for living right.

The idea that no one can judge others – especially those coming from a different culture – is also known as cultural relativism. This is rooted, in a more general sense, to a concept called moral relativism. This makes the discussion more complicated because according to Timmons, relativism, “… is used as a label for a quite a variety of views and ideas that differ in important ways” (2002, p. 38). Timmons adds, that relativism should be understood from the following perspective, “…rightness or wrongness of actions ultimately depends on the moral code of the culture to which one belongs” (2002, p. 38).

Expounding on the ideas described above it is better to begin from the positive side of cultural relativism. It is a common contention that cultural relativism is a position that one should take when discussing the evils of legalism – the familiar scene when those who are in a position to demand conformity abuses their power and forces others to follow. The dogmatism and legalism that came from religion is a painful reminder that without a proper view of cultural relativism then there are interest groups who will impose harsh laws and statutes that would make it impossible for others to follow.

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With regards to the second point, there are cases wherein people groups and even individuals need the benefit of the doubt from others in order for them to fully express themselves or even to execute a plan to perfection. The Western mindset can criticize the oriental mindset but there are times in history when the Western World could have benefited from the wisdom of some Asian practices if they just took the time to give them the benefit of the doubt. Americans for instance ridiculed some of the business practices of post-war Japan and later found out that their way of doing things allow them to produce quality products that even surpassed the competition.

With regards to the third point, there is no need to look further and begin examining U.S. foreign policy and the way it has been criticized all over the world. There can be good reasons why the mighty United States of America is meddling with the affairs of other countries. But the reaction is already evident in the now infamous September 11 and the Iraq debacle.

Understanding, the positive side of cultural relativism would do well to heal conflicts between two different groups but at the same time too much of a good thing can also backfire. Moral looseness can spell chaos, disaster, and tyranny. With regards to the first idea as to why cultural relativism must be opposed a case study was presented by the sociologist James Q. Wilson in sharing an experience he had with his class. Details are shown in the following pages.

According to Wilson, he had an interesting and somewhat disturbing discussion with his students in the subject of relativism. He said that the students in reaction to the issue of the holocaust asserted an extreme form of relativism in that they refused to acknowledge that the evil that was the holocast.

This is very serious for Wilson and the proponent of this study agrees with him. There is clearly a demarcation line between allowing room for cultural relativism and simply turning a blind eye towards something as significant as the murder of six million people. This is an example as to how cultural relativism can be taken too far.

Furthermore, the two points raised concerning the negative aspect of cultural relativism can also be seen in the case study presented by Wilson. Cultural relativism can result in behavior that is destructive and harmful for the general public. In this case a group of people – the Nazis – were given blanket authority to harm fellow Germans, who happened to be Jews. This is the disturbing thing about relativism. The Jews who were massacred were not people belonging to another nation. They were in fact Germans, with valid citizenship who happened to belong to a particular heritage or to a particular religion. Yet, the Nazis did not consider this and instead went on to murder their own.

On the third and last point, cultural relativism can be allowed but only on certain terms. If cultural relativism is allowed without boundaries, it can result in something as serious as a world at war. And the Nazis rise to power is the case in point. The German people allowed this group of radicals to dictate their politics and their moral code. So at the end they were forced to pay a steep price for it. Even today their history is tainted with the blood of six million Jews and it is more jarring that some of them are trying to erase the stigma by using cultural relativism, an idea that was seen in full bloom in Mr. Wilson’s class.


Cultural relativism, an idea rooted in moral relativism is a view that in essence encourages respect and creating boundaries in dealing with people coming from a different social background and culture. This simply means that relativism allow for a more understanding environment, a world where people learn to be more gracious and open minded when it comes to other people’s actions. Those who agree with cultural relativism points to the necessity of first understanding the other person’s social background, culture, and the details of the circumstances that made him or her do something even as disturbing as the holocaust.

This view plays an important role in creating a world more open to discussion and less prone to hostility. But there is another side to cultural relativism that can create the same set of problems that it hoped to solve. Those who are espousing cultural relativism aims for a global society that is more humane, more forgiving and more open to discussion. The opposite can happen as seen above.

The explanation can be partly seen in the analysis of Catherine Wilson who remarked that in order to perform, “…just and benevolent actions, to approve just and benevolent actions in others, and to attribute merit to those who perform them … requires a social system that regards actions as items for judgment and criticism” (2004, p. 4). In other words this world cannot function having only cultural relativism as a guide. Humanity requires something more stable than just a simplistic answer such as relativism.

Relativism is like a band-aid to something as serious as gangrene. One can simply patch up a festering wound denying the fact that something is rotting underneath hoping to show that everything is fine will not solve the problem. The sociologist James Wilson was right to be appalled by the naivete and simplistic formulations of his class. Six million people murdered not including millions more who suffered in death camps could not be simply be dismissed as part of freedom of expression based on the unique circumstances surrounding the event.

It is the height of hypocrisy for the students to turn a blind eye from the suffering of Jews in Word War II and yet become so livid when others are violating their own freedom. How come they can easily allow the Nazis to trample the rights of the Jews when they could not stand their own parents telling them what to do. This is simply inconsistent and goes against human nature. Cultural relativism can be allowed in areas where cultural preferences and highly debatable issues are at stake but not when lives are on the line and especially when heinous crimes were committed.


  1. Dreier, L. (2005). Contemporary Debates in Moral Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  2. Posner, R. (1999). The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory. Boston, MA: First Harvard University Press.
  3. Soccio, D. J. (2004). Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. 5th Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  4. Sorell, T. (2000). Moral Theory and Anomaly. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  5. Timmons, M. (2002). Moral Theory: An Introduction. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  6. Wilson, C. (2004). Moral Animals: Ideals and Constraints in Moral Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

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