Arguments Against The Relativists Theory Essay

The year was 1943. Hundreds of Jewish people were being marched into
the gas chambers in accordance with Adolf Hitler’s orders. In the two
years that followed, millions of Jews were killed and only a fraction
survived the painful ordeals at the Nazi German prison camps. However, all
of the chaos ended as World War II came to a close: the American and
British soldiers had won and Hitler’s Third Reich was no more. A certain
ethical position would state that the anti-sematic Nazi German culture was
neither right nor wrong in its actions. In fact, it is this view of the
cultural relativist that assumes all actions considered right in a culture
to be good for that culture alone. Moreover, the relativist claims that
these actions cannot be judged according to their ethical correctness
because there is no absolute standard by which they could be compared. In
the above case, this position would not allow for the American and British
soldiers to interfere with the Nazis; the relativist would claim that the
Allies were wrong in fighting the Germans due to a cultural disagreement.

In truth, it is the relativist position which has both negative logical and
practical consequences, and negligible benefits.

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The first logical consequence of relativism is that the believer must
contradict himself in order to uphold his belief. The view states that all
ethics are relative while putting forth the idea that no absolute standard
of rightness exists. If this is the case, then what is cultural relativism
relative to? From a purely logical point of view, this idea is absurd, for
in assuming that something is relative one must first have some absolute by
which it is judged. Let the reader consider this example to reinforce the
point. A young woman is five feet tall, and her older friend is six feet
tall. The younger female considers herself short because she looks at her
friend and sees that she is taller than her. It would be illogical to say
that the first woman is short if she were the only female in existence; if
this were the case then there would not be anyone for her to be relative to
in height. However, this logical fallacy is what the relativist assumes by
stating that there is no standard of rightness for relativity. Quite
simply, the cultural relativist is stating that he is relative to an
absolute which he considers non-existent.

One other logical error that the relativist makes lies in his
“Cultural Differences Argument.1” The premise of this argument is that
“different cultures have different moral codes.” The conclusion that the
relativist derives is that “there is no objective ‘truth’ in morality, [and
therefore] right and wrong are only matters of opinion [that] vary from
culture to culture.2″ The main logical problem with this argument is that
the stated conclusion does not necessarily need to be the case if the
premise is given. The premise states what different people believe to be
true, and the conclusion jumps to the assumption that this belief must
necessarily be the case. Let the reader consider this instance, which
closely follows the form of the above given argument. Assume that there is
a society that believes that sunning as much as possible in the nude can
only benefit a person. Due to scientific study, it has been experimentally
shown that overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause skin
cancer. Being in the American culture, people know this to be true and
therefore would disagree with sunning too often. According to the
relativist, since the two cultures disagree concerning the practice of
sunning there is no objective truth about it. However, this is a faulty
conclusion because empirical evidence shows that the first culture would be
wrong in its beliefs. In truth, one cannot “derive a substantive
conclusion about a subject (morally) from the mere fact that people
disagree about it.3″
Having discussed the logical consequences of relativism, it is
necessary to expound upon the effects of its practice. The first of these
repercussions is that the culture determines what is functionally right and
wrong. This means that the individual has no say in the matter, and if
there is a conflict between the two, the individual’s ethical belief is not
given any consideration. Of course, in theory this does not seem to create
an enormous problem; but let the reader consider this instance of racial
segregation in the early 1900s. In this case, southern blacks were kept
from attending white schools, and, sometimes, they were barred from an
education entirely. In the southern culture, this practice was considered
normal and right; the whites believed that blacks were ignorant slaves that
did not deserve such things as proper schooling. The cultural relativist
would state that this southern white culture was right in segregating the
blacks. This is completely false. In fact, there were many intelligent
blacks (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, etc.), who, if they had been
given the chance, could have contributed their ideas to the white school
children. Because of this, it would have been functionally right to have
included such black students in the white schools. Thus, just because a
culture deems an action right, it does not mean that the action is
functionally correct for that culture.

Moreover, the “relative” beliefs of certain cultures have not only
caused dysfunctionality for that culture alone; but, also, cultural beliefs
and actions have caused devastation on a much larger scale. An example
that comes to mind is the quest to gain back the Holy Land, Jerusalem. In
this case, thousands of Muslims were killed because the Christians believed
that Jerusalem was sacred ground. The relativist might say that each
culture was doing what was right; but when such chaos is the final outcome,
relativism seems much less practical.

The second consequence of practicing cultural relativism is that it is
impossible to judge the actions of any culture as to their morality. In
fact, because the relativist believes that what is right is what is
functional for a specific culture, there is no room for comparing one
culture’s actions to another culture’s. This may seem quite benign to the
reader, but under certain circumstances there are negative ramifications.

Suppose that one culture practiced infanticide, and another society
believed that babies are to be protected from all harm. The relativist
would explain that neither culture was more correct in its views; both
societies would be doing the functionally right action for their culture
alone. However, “the failure to condemn [this] practice does not seem
‘enlightened.4′” Upon casual observation, it seems that infanticide is
wrong, and therefore, the culture that practices it is also morally

Just as one culture could not criticize another society, there cannot
be criticism of a culture from within it. Consider the instance of a
culture that fought others simply to rape and pillage them. The relativist
would not allow for and individual in the belligerent culture to speak out
against their inhumane actions. This is because, as previously mentioned,
the relativist states that one culture’s actions cannot be judged as to
their morality.

A third consequence of practicing relativism is that there cannot be
any moral progress in a culture. Since the relativist does not allow for
any action of a given culture to be objectively right or wrong, he cannot
give the name of progress to any change in a given society. At best, the
cultural relativist can only admit to change in that culture. Let the
reader consider this example of women’s rights. “Throughout most of
Western history the place of women in society was very narrowly
circumscribed. They could not own property: they could not vote or hold
political office; with a few exceptions, they were not permitted to have
paying jobs; and generally they were under the most absolute control of
their husbands.5″ However, in the modern age, women have been viewed as
equal to men (at least most people hold this position). According to the
relativist stance, this cannot be seen as moral progress, since the
relativist does not allow for it.

This third consequence of relativism also leads to an even worse
state: stagnation. Because the relativist does not leave room for moral
advance, there would be no reason to promote moral change in a given
culture. Consider the previously mentioned example of women in the
American society. In the last few years, women have taken on more
productive roles and have exercised their well-deserved freedom (by joining
the workforce, owning their own homes, and rising to positions in politics,
etc.). The relativist would be inclined to say that this is simply a
change in cultural policies that has no moral merit whatsoever. Moreover,
he would state that, since the new policy on women’s rights does not
indicate any progress per-say, then it does not differ (morally) from the
original oppressive state of affairs. In effect, the cultural relativist
allows for a society to remain in a state of paralysis concerning moral

Thusfar, the logical and practical consequences of relativism have
been discussed; at this point it is necessary to draw attention to its
negligible benefits. The first of these is the idea that cultural
relativism promotes tolerance of differing cultures. Granted, this
statement has some truth to it. For instance, the relativist would claim
that a society that believed in placing jewelry with the dead so that they
may have these possessions in the afterlife is to be accepted by another
culture. In this instance, the relativist belief seems fairly harmless;
however, let the reader consider a more serious case. Suppose that a
society believed in genocide as a normal cultural function. In this case,
the relativist would necessarily adopt the position that the above
mentioned culture should be respected in its belief. Why should this belief
be tolerated, though? If the relativist position is considered seriously,
many such instances of “over-toleration” can be pointed out. In fact, the
outcome of the position under such circumstances is utter barbarianism.

Another remote benefit of the position is that it “warns us… about
the danger of assuming that all our preferences are based on some absolute
rational standard.6″ The relativist may sight the example of the mound-men,
an early culture which piled their dead in the field and then covered them
with mud (in the shape of a mound). His argument would be that, even
though the American culture does not carry out such activities, the early
culture was not objectively (or rationally) wrong. Once again, this makes
good sense, for if cultures were to uphold this strict objective standard,
then they would be culturalcentric and totally unaccepting. However, let
the reader consider this example of the primitive headhunters. As part of
a religious ritual, these societies would hunt and kill people from other
cultures in order to keep their skulls as trophies. From the relativist
perspective, the primitive culture is doing what is right for them and its
practices cannot be judged as immoral. However, the action of killing
without just cause is immoral, and since this culture practiced it, the
culture should be said to be committing a moral outrage. In such
circumstances, an absolute standard of morality is needed in order to halt
wrong acts.

One final negligible benefit of the relativist position is the idea
that the position advocates keeping an open mind. The relativist would
explain that just because one culture’s ideals differ from another’s, one
should not automatically label these ideals as immoral. In some cases,
this is quite important. The far-fetched example of aliens coming to Earth
with their customs comes to mind. Here, just because this new culture may
have very different, yet harmless beliefs, other cultures should not
condone these beliefs. However, an example can be given in which an open
mindshould not be extended. Let the reader consider the recent crisis in
Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Serbs and Croats are “ethnically cleansing”
villages in the area. It seems quite immoral to kill others simply because
of their ethnicity, yet the relativist would consider such and incident
with an open mind. Obviously, there are certain events that cannot be
considered in such a way.

In the final analysis, it is the relativist position which has both
negative logical and practical consequences, and negligible benefits. The
logical consequences include the fact that the relativist must contradict
himself in order to uphold his belief, and that his “Cultural differences
Argument1″is not sound. The problems of actually practicing cultural
relativism are numerous. They include the fact that the culture determines
what is right and wrong, that it is impossible (being a relativist) to
judge a culture morally, and that there cannot be any moral progress in a
culture per-say. As discussed, the negligible benefits of cultural
relativism such as tolerance, lacking of an absolute standard, and an open
mind can only be applied to a limited range of instances. As previously
shown, extreme relativism “in its vulgar and unregenerate form7” leads to
stagnation of cultural morals and passive acceptance of ethical injustice.

Of course, just as in any ethical theory, there are some things to be
learned from it. One of these is the idea of not being too critical of
other cultures. Also, the theory shows the importance of not becoming so
culturalcentric that one looses the ability to learn from other socities.

In truth, if more cultures tempered their tolerance with wisdom, then many
of the evils that plague us could be effectively eliminated.

Notes1.Rachels, James. “The Challenge of Cultural
Reason and Responsibility. Ed. Joel Feinberg. p. 454.

2.Rachels, p. 454.

3.Rachels, p. 454.

4.Rachels, p. 455.

5.Rachels, p. 455.

6.Rachels, p. 457.

7.Williams, Bernard. “Relativism.” Reason and
Responsibility. Ed.

Joel Feinberg.p. 451.


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