The Roman Skeptic, Sextus Empiricus, was one of the first to propose this theory of Cultural Relativism. The theory suggests that there may not be any objective standard for right and wrong (Gardner, “Beyond Cultural Relativism” 38). James Rachels’ essay, The Challenge of Cultural Relativism, is primarily a critique of cultural relativism and, in a way; the writer has put forward a case for moral objectivity. He identified a logical fallacy in the argument of Cultural Relativism and discussed briefly the limitations of cultural relativism. Moreover, the writer pointed out that even experience can tell us that Cultural Relativism is not quite the case; he based this particular argument on the tinges of moral objectivity that we see amidst the cultural differences in values.
Firstly, the argument against Cultural Relativism proposes that since different values prevail in different societies there can be no objective standard. The fallacy in the argument is that the conclusion does not follow from this premise. While this premise is true and, factually, different societies have different moral values it does not follow that there is no objective morality. There may be objective morality and the values of societies may be different from that objective morality and they may be in accordance with the objective morality. For instance, the writer rightly points out that some cultures believe in heliocentricity and others may still believe in a geocentric arrangement of the universe. In this case, we can easily identify through science, evidence and reason that one of these cultures is mistaken.
On the contrary, while Rachels’ identification of the fallacy seems good enough, he gives no proof for an objective morality. Hence, we are stuck at the same problem; objectivity or no objectivity.
Secondly, the writer pointed out the different limitations of cultural relativism. The fact that there is no measure for societal progress without a standard and no moral value, belonging to any society, can be discouraged, looked down upon or prohibited can be a major problem. These problems ask for a moral standard of values through with progress can be measured and some abusive practices can be discouraged. A need for a standard, hence, is vital.
Lastly, in his attack on Cultural Relativism, Rachels’ established an argument denied the possibility of this theory. The fact that there are values that pertain to every culture and time denies that this hypothesis the stature of a law. Cultural Relativism cannot be a law particularly because of these values that are common everywhere and at all times. There may be exceptions to these values and there may be variations in these exceptions relative to different societies but murder and telling a lie have always been prohibited. Obviously, reason has always persuaded man to believe that telling the truth is always more beneficial for all societies, and necessary for communication. Similarly, regard for life is necessary as well because if one has a right to live he has to allow that right to others as well; basically, a social contract through which people protect each other’s right to life.
Eventually, the writer touched upon the most interesting and pragmatic aspect of the theory. One cannot deny that Cultural Relativism, as a theory, has given us a lesson for tolerance. In his explanation, Rachels writes about the different values that require no standard. For instance, the covering of breasts with a scarf is part of some cultures and is not really important for other cultures. These cultural differences are just practices and customs relating to different areas and times and may not be morally right or wrong. However, the tolerance that they teach different societies is of value.
As we can see, some cultures allow homosexuality and others strongly condemn it but many people who believe in such a theory have learned to live with it. The tolerance people show towards homosexuality is because of Cultural Relativism. Thus, I believe this theory has its importance as well, its usefulness lies in the tolerance that it teaches man. This, however, does not suggest that moral objectivity cannot account for such a tolerance.
Gardner, Martin. “Beyond Cultural Relativism.” Ethics, 61.1 (1950): 38-45.
Rachels, James. “On the Challenges of Cultural Relativism.” Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthropology . Ed. By Steven M. Cahn. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.