Cultural Relativism

Tom Shipka

A prominent ethical theory, cultural relativism, holds that the right or the good is the customary. Further, in that customs often differ from culture to culture, so right and wrong differ, and there is no objective, universally applicable moral law. "(T)here are only the various cultural codes, and nothing more. Moreover, our own code has no special status; it is merely one among many." (1)
Cultural relativism gained currency in large part due to the published research by social scientists over the past century. For instance, writing in 1906, sociologist William Graham Sumner, affirmed:
The 'right' way is the way the ancestors used and which has been handed down. The tradition is it own warrant. It is not held subject to verification by experience. The notion of right is in the folkways. (2)
And writing in 1934, anthropologist Ruth Benedict said:
Morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits. (3)
Philosopher James Rachels has done a careful analysis and appraisal of cultural relativism in his modern classic entitled The Elements of Moral Philosophy.
One of Professor Rachels' key points is that cultural relativism is based on a faulty argument which he calls the cultural differences argument. Here is the argument:
Different cultures have different moral codes.
Therefore, there is no objective 'truth' in morality. (4)
Rachels holds that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. "The premise concerns what people believe. In some societies, people believe one thing; in other societies people believe differently. The conclusion, however, concerns what really is the case." (5) From the mere fact that people disagree on a subject, we cannot conclude that there is no objective truth on that subject. For instance, if one society believes that the earth is flat and another that it is spherical, we should not conclude that there is no objective truth about the shape of the earth. The fact is that one of the societies may simply be mistaken. As Rachels puts it, "There is no reason to think that if the world is round everyone must know it. Similarly, there is no reason to think that if there is moral truth everyone must know it." (6)
According to cultural relativism, if it is customary in a given culture to permit parents whose religion affirms faith-healing to pray over a sick child rather than take the child for medical care, then the parents who do this are acting morally. They may be exempt from prosecution because they have conformed to custom (and possibly law). (7) I would argue as a moral objectivist, on the contrary, that all parents in all cultures have a duty to provide medical care to sick children, local customs and laws notwithstanding. This duty is part of the general custodial duty of parents to help, instruct, and preserve their offspring, a duty addressed by British philosopher, John Locke, more than three hundred years ago in his Second Treatise of Government. (8) Parents who refuse medical care within their means to sick children are guilty of child abuse, negligence, and possibly manslaughter or murder and they deserve moral condemnation and legal prosecution. I believe, further, that modern international moral affirmations, such as the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, support my position. (9)


  1. James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, in Shipka and Minton, Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery, Fifth Edition, p. 256
  2. Quoted by Rachels in Shipka and Minton, p. 256.
  3. Quoted by Rachels in Shipka and Minton, p. 254.
  4. Shipka and Minton, p. 257.
  5. Shipka and Minton, p. 258.
  6. Shipka and Minton, p. 258
  7. This is the case in Wisconsin where 11-year old Madeline Neumann died from a treatable diabetic condition when her parents chose prayer over medicine.
  8. See John, Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Shipka and Minton, pp. 339-340. According to Locke, the duties of parents to their children and their authority over them cease when the children become adults.
  9. There may be circumstances, such as isolated societies, in which suitable medical treatment is unavailable to parents or unknown to them and this may mitigate their moral responsibility.

© 2008 Tom Shipka