Fatal Attraction: The Problem of Cultural Relativism

Despite the recent well publicized backlash against relativism, this persistent philosophy remains entrenched in the minds and hearts of the nation’s liberal thinkers. It also remains the dominant viewpoint on most university campuses. Popular works such as Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind have apparently had little impact on the power and appeal of this philosophy.

In my ethics classes at Boston College I am always surprised by the captivating power of relativism, particularly cultural relativism. Most students favor this form of relativism over pure moral subjectivism, which regards any ethical judgment as a matter of an individual’s personal taste. But according to the less extreme view of cultural relativism, ethical norms differ from one society or culture to another, and sometimes these differences can be quite fundamental. Thus, principles that are considered central and vital in one society might be on the periphery of another’s “value system.” Moreover, the cultural relativist proclaims that there are no firm or fixed standards which can serve as the ultimate guide to a society’s moral code. All moral norms are conditional, completely dependent on time, place, and circumstances.

Why are students so attracted to this philosophy? When this issue is discussed in my classes, one senses an almost palpable apprehension over imposing “Western” morality on a different culture. Students repeatedly assert that they subscribe to cultural relativism because they don’t want to be “dictators” when it comes to morality; they do not want to interfere in the affairs of other countries. To be sure, part of the fear of being a dictator emanates from our general acceptance of cultural diversity within America. Americans prize and respect diversity and pluralism, and this deeply affects our ethical reasoning. Indeed, it is our respect for diversity within our own culture that leads us to respect it abroad, even when we encounter moral behavior with which we might not agree. Thus, students maintain that we should not resolve moral dilemmas in other cultures by reference to some sort of universal moral code that will apply to all peoples.

In addition to their apprehension over interfering in other cultures so different from their own, students are also skeptical of their ability to make sound judgments about the validity of divergent moral codes. On what authority, they argue, can we say that the treatment of women in Islamic culture is ethically inferior to their treatment in Western society? Given its history and unique tradition, how can we claim that it is not morally right for Islamic society? What methods or systems can we use to judge and evaluate such striking differences in behavior? The apparent absence of any scientific methods to assess moral discrepancies provides considerable support for advocates of relativism.

Of course, adherence to cultural relativism is not confined to university students. Consider, for example, Arthur Schlesinger’s speech last year to Brown University, later reprinted as an essay in the New York Times Book Review entitled “The Opening of the American Mind.” In this essay, which typifies the arguments advanced by thoughtful proponents of relativism, Schlesinger eloquently examines the perils of moral absolutism. He argues quite forcefully that it can breed intolerance, imperiousness, and an arrogant disregard for other cultures. This in turn has been a source of endless strife and social discord. He cites examples such as the prolonged conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, and Azerbaijan, where religious intolerance has helped to generate the implacable hostility which fuels these deadly conflicts.

As an alternative to absolutism, relativists such as Schlesinger support a more pluralistic and open approach to morality. In their view, this does not imply that moral principles are arrived at capriciously and arbitrarily. Rather, they are deeply rooted in history and culture and anchored in a country’s national experience. As such, they prescribe moral behavior and guide our actions.

The cultural relativist claims that ethical norms are similar to customs, and therefore, like customs, their authority is local. The practice of polygamy, for example, is considered immoral in America but might be morally acceptable in the context of another culture. The moral judgment “polygamy is wrong” is valid only in countries like America, where the social conditions support monogamous relationships. Yet polygamy might be perfectly suitable for another culture with a different social structure. Thus, according to cultural relativism, it is impossible to make universal and categorical moral judgments, since the type of judgment which expresses an absolute truth belongs exclusively to the sphere of natural science. We may formulate only qualified and particular normative judgments such as “polygamy is wrong for us.”

Philosophical Roots

This version of moral relativism appears to have a firm foundation in two related philosophical movements which have gained considerable currency in the last few decades: emotivism and empiricism. Emotivism entails the philosophical belief that moral discourse is completely prescriptive in nature. In other words, it does not describe various phenomena in the world or convey factual information. Rather, it is used as a means of influencing behavior and exhorting others to act in a certain way. As A.J. Ayer pointed out in his seminal work, Language, Truth and Logic, ethical terms such as “good” or “evil” are similar to aesthetic terms such as “beautiful.” Their function is not to state facts but to express certain feelings and evoke a response.

In this view, moral disagreements are therefore not disagreements in fact but in attitude. When two individuals disagree about a moral issue such as bribery, there is simply a divergence in attitude about acceptable behavior which cannot be settled by appeal to some objective standard. Unlike science, moral discourse does not deal with facts or objectivity. Ethical judgments which express an “ought” or “should” will inevitably involve evaluation, and this process of evaluation may or may not lead to assent to the ethical principle in question. Moreover, this process cannot preclude the presence of many subjective attitudes and feelings. It is precisely this intrusion of subjectivity into ethical reasoning that differentiates ethical claims from those of science and mathematics. Thus, by eliminating the role of reason in ethics, emotivism creates barriers for those who would argue that ethical reasoning can yield absolute moral judgments.

Empiricism represents a much older tradition which can be traced to the writings of the British philosopher, David Hume. It has also been assimilated by several contemporary philosophical movements such as logical positivism, which accounts for its enduring influence. The empiricist claims that words and concepts are unintelligible unless they refer to what can be experienced. The concept “green” has meaning only because it refers to green objects which we can experience. On the other hand, metaphysical concepts such as “potentiality” have no true meaning since they cannot be empirically verified. The moral concept “ought” is equally problematic for the empiricist. The categorical ought is beyond the ken of experience, cannot be empirically verified, and therefore has no real meaning. In other words, sentences like “You ought to tell the truth” cannot be true or false, since they cannot be experientially verified.

Empiricism, then, like emotivism, appears to undermine any absolutism which maintains that we can make categorical and unconditional moral judgments. Both viewpoints highlight the vulnerability and equivocal status of ethical judgments that do not deal with objective reality and that cannot be treated on the same level as scientific judgments.

Given this philosophical tradition and the apparent absence of any universal moral code, the ascendancy of relativism should be no surprise. It follows, too, that tolerance must be an important standard of behavior. If there are no objective moral values or categorical imperatives, and moral disagreements only concern attitudes about right behavior, how can one society impose its moral views on another? One culture’s moral views reflect various prejudiced attitudes and sentiments rooted in its unique history and experience, and any attempt to impose them on another culture with a different history and set of experiences would be sheer dogmatism. As a result, we must be tolerant and accept cultural differences in behavior and attitude.

If, however, one believes that moral principles are universal and should be extended beyond a particular culture, there will be a strong tendency toward intolerance. This will lead to the imposition of one’s principles on those who do not share them and result in the sort of irreconcilable conflicts that relativists such as Professor Schlesinger attribute to the absolutist perspective.

Problems with Relativism

It would be a grave mistake, though, to assume that relativism provides an answer to the world’s problems, for the consequence of relativism is a passive acceptance of social injustice and inhumane activities. If we are to accept the sort of relativism and ethical pluralism advocated by cultural relativists, we must also be prepared to accept in other cultures what most rational human beings would consider profound evils. We cannot, for example, condemn the perverted machismo found in Brazilian culture, which permits men to brutalize their spouses and girlfriends.

As a “60 Minutes” feature on this social phenomenon revealed, this “value” is deeply rooted in Brazilian culture and widely tolerated in the legal system. Yet relativists cannot condemn the murder or brutal beatings of these women. After all, this is a very different culture, and we should not be surprised to find such disparity between their customs and our own.

Still, as human beings we instinctively recoil at these acts of violence and lack of respect for our fellow human beings, whether they be Brazilians or Americans. Are we really prepared to accept this sort of cruelty and debasement simply because it can be traced to a country’s cultural heritage? This position seems to be philosophically incoherent and lacking in the compassion demanded of us as human beings.

A basic deficiency in the notion of relativism is the assumption that morality can be reduced to customs. According to Schlesinger, for example, America’s values are “deep seated preferences” grounded in our “great national documents, in our national heroes, in our folkways, traditions, standards.” But if morality is no more than customs or cultural preferences, moral dissent seems to lose its meaning and intelligibility. How can we judge whether these customs are right or wrong? Do our moral habits become right simply because society approves of them? When there are differences of opinion, presumably the majority’s opinion must prevail, but the conscientious individual has no recourse if he or she disagrees with traditional norms embraced by that majority. On what grounds can such an individual legitimately disagree with these customs if there is no higher morality or some common standards? Unless there is some sort of higher moral principle we cannot preserve the intelligibility of moral criticism and discourse, nor allow for the evaluation of the quality and substance of a society’s moral life.

Moreover, relativism seems predicated on the assumption that we cannot comprehend other cultures, for what we cannot comprehend we should not criticize. Relativists might argue, for example, that we can never really understand a unique cultural phenomenon such as Brazilian machismo because our tradition is so different. But does this sort of cultural solipsism make sense? Are foreign cultures really enshrouded in hopeless obscurity? To be sure, the difficulty of empathizing with an alien culture cannot be underestimated, but this should not imply that it is impossible to achieve some understanding of such cultures, along with the nature and logic of the ethical problem in question. Actually, the argument that we cannot understand cultures other than our own is especially puzzling within the current environment of global cooperation. It is commonly accepted in business schools that a competent business person needs some understanding of a foreign culture in order to be successful. It is precisely because the Japanese do understand American culture so well that they have enjoyed such great success here.

Also, this assumption ignores our common humanity, another metaphysical and somewhat obvious principle that has been jettisoned by contemporary empiricists. The simple truth is that despite cultural diversity we are all inescapably human and essentially similar to all other human beings. This truth makes transcultural understanding possible and should prompt us to embrace common moral laws. It refutes the idea that the moral situation of different cultures is unique and not subject to any common rules or laws. Moreover, if we reject this key idea of a human species or common humanity, if we are all unique individuals or even unique classes of people with different cultural identities, we are vulnerable to those who would claim that theirs is a superior race, or that race subjugation is perfectly acceptable.

Still another problem with cultural relativism is its incompatibility with the popular notion of moral progress. How can we say that moral standards have improved when we have no common principle by which to judge those standards? If moral norms are reduced to what a given society approves, it is impossible to say whether these standards have progressed or deteriorated through the ages. If moral norms are merely preferences at a given point in time, they are no better or worse than previous preferences. The difficulty with this line of reasoning is that it becomes impossible to evaluate the moral ideals of our own culture, since there are no objective standards of comparison.

Paradox of Tolerance

In short, cultural relativism seems to stifle most commonly accepted forms of moral reasoning. Indeed, one might ask those who espouse the principle of toleration so passionately whether this principle itself is relative and culturally dependent. If it is an American and Western value, rooted in our history, it would be wrong to recommend it for, say, the Middle East or Azerbaijan. But if toleration is a universal principle which all cultures ought to embrace, then the relativist seems caught in a serious contradiction, since he proposes it as a universal standard which will help promote peace and harmony throughout the world.

Many liberal relativists correctly observe that the American mind is by nature and tradition pluralistic and relativistic, as evidenced by the works of some of our greatest writers, such as Emerson and William James. But what about the Muslim mind which has been shaped by a very different tradition? How can one argue with any sort of consistency that the Muslim should assimilate the values of pluralism and relativism? They are alien to his culture. The relativist, therefore, cannot extol the virtues of pluralism and toleration for any culture other than his own.

To be sure, the arguments for relativism and openness to moral diversity always sound so sensible on the first hearing. Too many intellectuals and students cannot resist them because they are based on popular liberal themes such as pluralism, skepticism, tolerance, and empiricism. But when we examine these arguments in any depth and carefully consider their implications, the philosophy of relativism becomes quite resistible. It threatens the intelligibility of moral reasoning and devalues even the highest moral standards by reducing them to customs and cultural preferences.

By contrast, there are those who believe that there are universal moral standards applicable to all human beings. Such standards are difficult to specify, yet when stripped of their subtleties, they look strikingly similar in the writings and pronouncements of our greatest thinkers. The Judeo-Christian tradition sums it up in the notion of “love thy neighbor.” Aristotle and Aquinas express this norm as the need to act from our natural inclinations formed by the cultivation of virtues. Such virtues prohibit the taking of innocent human life and other offenses against the community. For a more modern philosopher such as Kant, the moral imperative can be reduced to respect—we should respect other human beings by treating them as ends and never solely as means to achieve our own projects. What clearly emerges in these and other traditions is a simple but fundamental moral standard rooted in our common human nature. Yet the generality of this standard does allow for considerable ethical diversity based on custom and history.

It may be true that ethics is not an exact science, but this does not preclude the use of reason in ethical dialogue and discussion. Moral judgments should be based on rational moral principles and sound, carefully reasoned arguments. Normative claims are far more than emotional expressions or exhortations, since they are supported by an appeal to defensible moral principles which become manifest through rational discourse.

In addition, the acceptance of moral absolutism does not have to be accompanied by insensitivity, intolerance, and belligerence. It is not necessary to be imperious or self-righteous when expressing a moral judgment that differs from the norms of another culture. One can do so with patience and reasoned sensitivity and thereby avoid harmful and disruptive moral indignation.

Richard A. Spinello


Richard A. Spinello is an Associate Research Professor at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of The Encyclicals of John Paul II: An Introduction and Commentary, and Understanding Love and Responsibility: A Companion to Karol Wojtyla’s Classic Work along with numerous other books and articles on ethical theory and applied ethics.