Cultural Relativism


      Cultural relativism is a concept that was developed in the early twentieth century in the discipline of anthropology.   It is based on the observation that there is a “great variety of social customs, religious beliefs, and ritual practices to be found around the world, especially among primitive peoples” (Wilson 4).   Cultural relativists interpret this observation as meaning that decisions about right and wrong are also relative; as such, it is assumed that one should not judge people (particularly people who hold differing cultural beliefs) on the basis of their moral viewpoints.   By contrast, cultural relativism rejects the possibility that “universal moral rules exist in all cultures” (Wilson 17).   Although the views of cultural relativism originated in the field of anthropology, they have since then become an outlook for trying to understand moral decision-making in general.   As Basil Mitchell, a professor of Christian philosophy at the University of Oxford, says in regard to the tendency among anthropologists to refuse to compare “the standards” of different societies, “this methodological restriction can be uncritically erected into a philosophical principle” (43).
      However, there are problems with applying the viewpoint of cultural relativism to ethical decisions.   For example, Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosopher who argues for a more universalistic approach to morality, notes that people generally agree in condemning murder and theft, yet they disagree on issues such as capital punishment and divorce.   According to MacIntyre, “these clear arguments take place against a background of a larger confusion in our moral thinking” (Quoted in Mitchell 6-7).   James Q. Wilson, a public policy professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, likewise claims that problems arise when there is a lack of universal guidelines for moral decision-making.   According to Wilson, people in contemporary times are faced with “the need to...