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What is Cultural Relativism?

By W. Everett
Updated May 23, 2024
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Cultural relativism refers to a theory that holds that there is no absolute right and wrong. Instead, the morals, standards and behaviors that vary among cultures must be taken into consideration. The idea is based on the tenet that no one culture can define right and wrong for all other cultures, but that behaviors and beliefs must be assessed as good or evil based on each culture's standards.

Advocates of cultural relativism argue that the philosophy encourages neutrality and reduces ethnocentrism from examinations of different cultures. The advantage of exploring other cultures from this perspective is that we can evaluate their ethics and standards with a detached objectivity, which proponents say leads to greater understanding and tolerance.

Critics of cultural relativism argue the philosophy is bad because it disregards the notion that good and evil transcend cultural differences. Critics also argue that the theory is logically flawed because while it discourages us from judging cultures other than our own, it leads us to excuse behaviors and practices that should be condemned regardless of culture.

Cultural relativism was introduced as a theory by Franz Boas, an early 20th century Jewish, German-American scientist. Boas is the father of modern anthropology and he introduced the notion of cultural relativism when, in his early years of work, he was disturbed by the racial bias and bigotry that were rampant among other anthropologists. Boas sought to remove these biases from serious scientific study, so he argued that each culture should be explored, studied and evaluated relative to its own ethical standards.

Cultural relativism has applications in philosophy, religion, politics and ethics. For example, moral relativism is the companion theory that morals can only be assessed within their own moral code and cognitive relativism is the theory that there is not one objective truth, but various truths relative to the individual or a group of individuals. Aesthetic relativism is the theory that beauty is relative, often based on a set of cultural beliefs and historical context and cannot be judged outside of those criteria. An example of this would be the women painted by 17th century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. The women in Rubens' paintings represented the beauty ideal of Rubens' time, but would be considered overweight and unattractive to many 21st century western audiences.

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Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Dec 07, 2019

Cultural and moral relativism are piles of garbage. And I can back it up: we already don't practice moral relativism in the West. For example, we have laws against honor-killing and female genital mutilation. By declaring these acts illegal, we are essentially saying that they are immoral and unacceptable. We are judging. And according to moral standards that are entirely of our own.

Do we try to "assess them as good or evil based on another culture's standards"? No. Most certainly not. I am not saying that we must be right. Maybe we are. Maybe we aren't. And to some cultures, we probably appear to be wrong. But it shouldn't matter. The important thing is that morality is by its nature subjective. It's impossible to come up with objective morality that will be universally agreed upon. And morality being subjective is not a bad thing, either. It's just the way things are, so let's also not beat ourselves up over it, either.

By anon302784 — On Nov 12, 2012

But how can we judge the weaknesses and strengths of cultural relativism?

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