Arguments Against Relativists


Arguments Against Relativists Essay, Research Paper

Arguments Against the Relativists Theory

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.

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.

Notes 1. 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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