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Cultural Relativism

The argument for cultural relativism is this:

1. All moral principles and rules apply only to the culture, time and place from which they arise. There are no universally true moral rules that apply to all cultures, at all times and all places.

2. Therefore, it is always morally wrong to criticize another culture; regardless of time, place or culture.

Criticizing one culture while inhabiting another presupposes moral truths that transcend any particular culture, time or place and no such truths exist, claims the cultural relativist.

The premise is factually wrong

The cultural relativist does not actually care about the premise of this argument; which as an empirical (factual) claim, is probably false. Every culture that has lasted for any length of time will have a general prohibition on murder and lying. Thus, there are universally true moral rules applying to all cultures. To lift all restrictions on murder would mean instant self-annihilation. Not constraining lying would be a slower cultural suicide, but by eliminating any possibility of trust, it would have the same result. Friends, family, lovers, workmates, would all lie to each other. Families would fall apart and the economy would cease to function. So, the premise is wrong, which means it cannot be used to provide evidence of the truth of conclusion.

A reductio ad absurdum argument against cultural relativism

Also, there are reductio ad absurdum reasons for rejecting cultural relativism. Not being able to criticize other cultures would mean that it would not be possible to condemn the Holocaust unless you were German. If you correctly believe that the Holocaust, involving genocide on a literally industrial scale, was grossly immoral, then you must reject cultural relativism. Similarly, half the population of Rwanda killed the other half in a government sponsored genocide. International intervention might have been able to prevent a lot of the killing, but, immorally nothing was done. Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians into submission in the 1930s. Mao Zedong single-handedly caused millions of Chinese to starve in a misguided “Great Leap Forward,” getting Chinese peasants to melt down all iron implements including farming tools, the metal from which was actually unusable afterwards, so they could not farm or harvest. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia murdered between 1.2 and 2.8 million of their own citizens, which was as much as 30% of the population, in a communism inspired murderous slaughter. All these events were moral disasters involving the deaths of millions. Cultural relativism claims we should remain silent on these murders and even that it is morally wrong to criticize the deaths of all these innocents. Reductio ad absurdum arguments are ones where a proposed belief is shown to contradict beliefs already held, with the hope of getting someone to reject the proposed belief. Cultural relativism is inconsistent with things you know to be true, such as the immorality of the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, and some actions of Stalin and Mao Zedong, therefore it should be rejected.

The argument for cultural relativism is self-contradictory

However, all these criticisms are rendered redundant because cultural relativism is categorically false. The premise directly contradicts the conclusion. The premise says there are no universally true moral principles holding true for all cultures, at all times and all places. The conclusion then purports to be a moral truth holding true for all cultures, at all times and all places. Criticism of other cultures is always wrong no matter, the time, place, or context, the conclusion claims. That means that the conclusion is supposed to be the very thing that cultural relativists claim does not exist. Since there are no true contradictions, this contradiction is not true either.

The argument for cultural relativism is logically comparable to this:

1. There are no ghosts. (conclusion)

2. How do I know there are no ghosts? What evidence do I have for my conclusion?

3. A ghost told me. (premise)

To put the argument in standard argument form (premise first, conclusion second):

1. A ghost told me there are no ghosts.

2. Therefore, there are no ghosts.

The conclusion directly contradicts the premise. The premise assumes a truth – ghosts exist – while the conclusion says the opposite – ghosts don’t exist.

This argument is much simpler and easier to remember than the one about cultural relativism. But the ghost argument is there just to highlight the logical structure of the argument for cultural relativism. Your job is to identify and explain what the contradiction is in the argument for cultural relativism. It won’t be enough just to quote the “there are no ghosts” argument.

What many cultural relativists get wrong about egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and worldcentrism and why they are often ethnocentric while seeing themselves as worldcentric

Cultural relativists have failed to understand moral development. Moral development in all children begins with egocentrism. Concern and love for oneself. This is morally essential. The phrase “Love your neighbor as yourself” assumes that you love yourself. If I do not care about my own wellbeing, health, job prospects, etc., I am unlikely to care about yours. I love me and I love you because you are my friend. If I hate me, then I will regard you as an idiot for hanging around such an unlovable person. Likewise, anyone who wants to date me I will despise because I regard myself as unlovable and therefore that person has terrible taste. If I never take a vacation because I do not care about the importance of relaxation and I am your boss, I am unlikely to by sympathetic if you my employee ask for a vacation. Love for neighbor presumes love for self.

If all goes well developmentally, egocentrism turns into ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism means caring about the larger group, and not just yourself. It will probably start with friends and family, and hopefully expand to your neighborhood, larger community, and then the whole nation. If aliens arrive on earth, and they seem nice and moral, then caring only about all human beings would now be ethnocentric. Caring about a whole race, or sex, is ethnocentric and better than egocentrism. Ethnocentrism transcends, but includes egocentrism. Egocentrism is the precondition for ethnocentrism. Both are moral and both are good.

Worldcentrism is rather rare and it transcends and includes egocentrism, and ethnocentrism. Someone who is worldcentric loves and cares about himself, his group, and everyone in the world, at least in principle. Someone who is worldcentric does not hate people who are egocentric or ethnocentric because hate is not care and concern (love), and he cares about everyone. And it would be suicidal to eliminate egocentrism and ethnocentrism. If they did not exist, worldcentrism could not exist either. It is shameful to hate and despise people who are less developed than you are, although it is fine to criticize their actions at times if you think it will help. If you only like the group of people who qualify as worldcentric, then you are not worldcentric. You are ethnocentric, since you love only the group, not all people.

Someone who is worldcentric and open-minded will take an interest in other cultures out of respect for others and curiosity. Once having learned about another culture, there is almost certainly some features that are better than your own culture, and some things that are worse – much of it being a matter of opinion, but some of it will be moral. This is the experience of probably every immigrant to a new country and culture. On balance, that immigrant, or anyone else, might decide that overall he prefers his own culture, or he might decide he prefers his adoptive land. That does not make him ethnocentric. Everyone is allowed to have his own preferences.

If, however, someone insists that his culture is better than someone else’s just because it is his culture, then that is just bigotry. If someone were to say “My country is the best in the world” it would be necessary to state in what respects it is better if that person wants any claim to being a rational, reasonable, unbigoted person. Again, having a special affection for one’s own country, culture, or family is perfectly fine. In fact, a culture or family will cease to exist, or function very poorly, if its members no longer regard it as special and do not work to maintain it.

Simply teaching someone a false doctrine like cultural relativism does not make that person worldcentric. It just makes them confused and wrong. And plenty of cultural relativists hate those who are ethnocentric, or egocentric (all young children and quite a few grown-ups) and would like to eliminate both the egocentric and ethnocentric. That is a lot of hating and eliminating. That is not tolerant or caring; it is hateful. And the eliminating would have to begin with every human baby.

Identity politics is fairly low-level ethnocentric. It is us against them. It pits one group against another and denotes a tribal perspective. High-level ethnocentrism would care, for instance, about all Americans. If one subset of Americans is having a problem, then that is a problem for everyone and we can work together to solve it as Americans with an emphasis on what we have in common, just as when a family member is having a serious problem, that concerns the whole family. Worldcentrism would transcend and include this and extend concern for all people on the basis of a shared humanity. Zero sum games are situations where if I win, you lose, and if you win, I lose. Positive sum games, instead, are situations where everyone benefits. Trade between countries, for instance, can be mutually beneficial, while stealing in any context is not. The aim should be for worldcentrism and positive sum games.

An example; the wrongness of slavery

If someone looks at child slavery in Ghana and claims that it is wrong because it is un-American, then he is being an ethnocentric bigot. If instead reasons are given for why child slavery in Ghana is wrong that are true and relevant, then this is rational. This does not guarantee that the person is correct, but having good reasons for claims makes it more likely someone will be right.

If reasons are offered for moral assertion, and these reasons are both true and relevant, then someone is presenting a rational argument for his moral contentions. He has met the burden of proof. If someone wants to disagree with such arguments, then the burden of proof is now on him and he would have to provide a counter-argument and/or show which premises in the argument, i.e., which reasons, were wrong.

It is no good saying that the notion that slavery is morally wrong is “just your perspective.” It would be “just my perspective” if I offered no reasons for my claim. If I give you an argument: i.e., offer premises/reasons/evidence for my conclusion then this is not “just my perspective.” It is an argument; my assertion for which I have provided plenty of evidence. Rationally, if you want to continue to disagree with my assertion, you will have to show that my evidence is false, irrelevant or that there is some other evidence that I have omitted.

Slavery is a moral mistake because it treats the wishes, desires and concerns of the enslaved person as less important and less valuable than the slave owner. No true and relevant reasons (rational) can be given for this hierarchy of value. If my wishes and desires are important, then so are yours. The golden rule that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you captures this moral truth succinctly.

By definition, slavery also involves the removal of freedom of choice. Admittedly, children already have their freedom limited by their parents but this differs from slavery partly because many slaves are adults and the fact that good parents limit the freedom of children for the benefit primarily of children; although their improved behavior will benefit the people around them too. The limitations parents place on children are part of socializing the child, teaching him or her to delay gratification (self-discipline), and to encourage them to learn (enforced homework, music lessons, athletic participation, etc.). Slavery constrains freedom solely in the interests of the slave owner. If the slave is forced to learn an occupation, and the slave is benefited, this is an accidental byproduct. The real goal in this case is to increase the slave’s value as a commodity. Flourishing means realizing someone’s human potential and being enslaved will impair this.

Freedom is part of human dignity. We make choices and make mistakes. We learn from these mistakes. If nearly everything you do is involuntary, then learning in this way is curtailed. Additionally, even if our life circumstances are objectively good, if we have not freely chosen them, they are in fact a prison. Oswego may the nicest place to live on the planet, but if you are told that you can never leave, you are a prisoner.

At places of work, along with mastery and purpose, autonomy is highly prized. We will work for money alone if necessary, but we prefer to do a job that has some real purpose in our eyes. We like to feel that we have mastery in our occupation, and we enjoy autonomy. Autonomy means doing our jobs in the way we see fit; to do our jobs as we think they should be done. This is not likely to be possible with slavery. Also, even if our slave owner orders us to do the job in just the way we would have done it anyway, the very fact that we are now acting under compulsion and not due to the exercise of autonomy, will detract from our job satisfaction.

Slavery, whether of children or anyone else, may involve the claim that the slave is less than fully human and therefore slaves do not deserve the moral privileges of humans. This claim is irrational without further evidence that these people are not human.

The slave owner may point to tradition. It may be the tradition to enslave people in his cultural milieu. This is not to be taken lightly. Traditions often embody hard won wisdom attained by trial and error. Marriage is traditional because it has been found better than indiscriminate mating behavior. Most traditional cuisines are nutritious because the alternatives made people sick or feel worse. But it is always possible that a tradition may be pathological, or that the same ends can be attained through some other much better method.

The children in Ghana are being exploited as human machines by their slave owners. Their development as human beings is being retarded because decisions about their lives are being made for commercial purposes, not because these decisions will ultimately benefit the children. The reasons against slavery are both intrinsic – slavery involves treating the slave owner’s desires as being more important than the children, although they are not; slavery does not respect human dignity or desire for autonomy; and extrinsic – meaning that slavery has undesirable consequences – namely, the retardation of the development of children who will be less valuable contributors to society when they grow up.

All these considerations can be generated by yourself if you think about what you would like for your own children, and why. If you are not willing to send your own children off to Ghana to be enslaved, then you should not be cavalier in thinking it fine for other people’s children to be enslaved. To think otherwise is ethnocentric and uncaring.

Female Genital Mutilation

If we say that FGM is un-American and therefore immoral, we are being ethnocentric and a bigot. You are bigot because your opinion is not rationally justified. If instead we give reasons that are true and relevant, then we are being rational. This does not guarantee that we are correct, but having good reasons for what one does and how one acts means that you are more likely to be right.

FGM involves the older relatives of adolescent girls holding them down while a knife is used to remove the clitoris and labia of the girl. The vaginal opening is often partially sewn up to prevent intercourse. Unfortunately, it can hinder the purging of blood during menstruation. FGM is always very painful and can lead to infections and even death. FGM can also lead to infertility. Having children is something that gives many people valuable meaning and purpose in their lives, doing something that endangers this capability is, on the face of it, immoral. FGM also removes any possibility of experiencing significant pleasure from sex. Since sexual pleasure is possibly the highest form of physical pleasure, removing the possibility of this pleasure is a significant harm. When partner in sexual intercourse is really not enjoying the experience, this tends to effect the enjoyment of the other person. The excitement of your sexual partner affects your own level of excitement. If one of you is not enjoying it, then this qualifies the sex as ‘bad sex.’ Some cultures are therefore only familiar with bad sex, which is unfortunate for them.

Sex arouses delicate feelings between loving couples. Sex is inherently intimate. Taking off all your clothes and embracing the other naked person is to make oneself vulnerable and the physical closeness tends to enhance emotional closeness. When both partners have enjoyed sex and care and concern for the other person’s enjoyment have been demonstrated new levels of affection are attained. FGM renders this kind of thing nearly impossible. The woman will experience sex as something being done to her without her desires being relevant – at most as a favor to the man.

Why is FGM performed? FGM is a means of control. FGM exists to make sure that women have no sexual incentive to cheat on their husbands. Men have a very real and justified fear that another man may impregnate their wives and they will spend the next twenty or so years raising another man’s child. Most people do not willingly raise other people’s children, so this is a significant harm. However, FGM as a means of controlling women is barbaric.

Alternatives would include beating wives up and holding the threat of physical violence over them to make sure they do what they are told. One could also chain wives to immobile objects like radiators every night, as described in Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas. Both methods of controlling women would arguably be more humane than FGM. None of the dangers of FGM would be present and the harm is reversible, assuming that the beating does not result in permanent harm, like concussion. If a man were given the choice between being beaten up and being castrated, most would choose being beaten up. Wife beating and wife chaining would both be better than FGM and achieve the same result. But since all these alternatives are also immoral, it would be better to abandon the attempt to control women in these physically coercive ways.

A counter-argument is sometimes given that women in the cultures where FGM are practiced cannot get married unless they have been mutilated. This may be true. However, that rule is itself immoral. If I make an arbitrary rule that you cannot get married unless you give me all your earnings for a year, this does not make the taking of your money moral. You cannot use one immoral rule or practice to justify another immoral rule or practice. We know that this rule is arbitrary because most cultures manage to function at least as well as Ethiopia or rural Sudan, where FGM is practiced, and probably better.


A culture is partly a shared agreement about the rules of conduct within a community. Will women, for instance, be allowed to get an education, walk outside unaccompanied by a male chaperone, and be permitted to drive cars? Self-determination is the idea that each culture should be allowed to make its own rules for social interaction, and about what is and is not permitted.

Every culture will have its good points and its bad points. The bad points are mistakes. Every culture should be allowed to make its own mistakes.

When an English politician told Ghandi that Indians would regret getting rid of the English colonization of India because India would make all sorts of mistakes, Ghandi replied, “Yes, but they will be our mistakes.”

Think about older teenagers. Your parents, thanks to having more experience, could possibly make better choices than you about your choice of major, and your prospective boyfriends and girlfriends. However, parents in most Western countries think it appropriate that older teenagers should make their own decisions about such things, and then let you learn from your mistakes. If someone else continues to make all your important decisions, you will never learn anything. Cultures can grow and develop only in the absence of authoritarian rule. The latter has the effect of keeping a culture static and unchanging.

If aliens millions of years more advanced than us landed, they might consider us to be their technological and more importantly moral inferiors. And so we might be. Nonetheless, we would have no desire to simply relinquish our right of self-determination to our superiors. It would be a kind of slavery and we would cease to make any progress. Being “good” means nothing if you are forced to do it. Such things must be voluntary. If we chose as a culture to learn from these superior beings and adopt some of their practices, this would be a completely different matter.

Self-determination means that every culture has the right to decide their rules of conduct for themselves. If this taken away, then the population is effectively enslaved.

However, if your parents see you disappearing up into your room with a length of rope and a shaky stool in your hands, and thus strongly suspect you might be about to kill yourself, then they would of course intervene. Similarly, if another culture is doing something truly morally outrageous, it might be necessary to intervene, if an intervention would do any good. When one tribe in Rwanda decided to murder all members of the rival tribe, the US probably should have intervened as a) Genocide is egregiously immoral, and b) military intervention would probably have been effective. And it might not have had to be that long lived. But, female genital mutilation cannot be stopped in this way. All that is needed is a stone, knife, or soup can lid, it takes just a few minutes, and it is done by your own mother and her sisters. Tanks, bombs, soldiers, and machine guns cannot prevent this kind of activity. The most that can be done is to offer arguments against the practice.

Richard CocksRichard Cocks

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

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