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Human Rights Quarterly 22.2 (2000) 501-547

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Cultural Relativism 1

John J. Tilley

I. Introduction

We often hear that "morality is relative to culture" or that "right and wrong vary with cultural norms." These are rough formulations of cultural relativism, 2 a theory with multiple charms, appearing rigorously scientific to some, fashionably postmodern to others. Not surprisingly, cultural relativism is on the upswing in many disciplines, 3 and is seen by many people as [End Page 501] the last word in ethical theory. In what follows I challenge this state of affairs by refuting the chief arguments for cultural relativism.

In doing this I walk some oft-trodden paths, 4 but I also break new ones. For instance, I take unusual pains to adequately formulate cultural relativism, 5 and I distinguish it from the relativism of present-day anthropologists, with which it is often conflated. Also, I address not one or two, but eleven different arguments for cultural relativism, many of which contribute to its popularity but receive scant attention from its critics. To elicit perspicuously the failings of these arguments, I deploy a host of pertinent but often neglected distinctions. In the end, cultural relativism is seen for what it is: for all its allure and popularity, it is intellectually destitute.

II. Formulating Cultural Relativism

My first aim is to produce an adequate formulation of cultural relativism. This is not so easy. Relativists state their view in various ways, and those statements are neither precise nor equivalent. 6 Also, there are two ways in [End Page 502] which a judgment might be relative to a culture. First, its truth (or falsehood) might be relative to the culture. That is, the judgment might be true in a relative rather than an ordinary, nonrelative way. Second, the judgment might be true in an ordinary way but be relative to a culture through a tacit reference to the culture. In the first case, the relativity of the judgment derives from the relativity of moral truth. In the second, the relativity derives from the content of the judgment. The two cases differ sharply, but this is not noticed, much less appreciated, in the classic sources for relativism.

Despite these difficulties, we can formulate a view that strikes a balance among the following: precision, plausibility, significance as a moral theory, and faithfulness to the aims of leading cultural relativists. 7

First some terminological points. Whenever I speak of one or more people, the people are moral agents as well as human beings. 8 If I say that such-and-such is true of Western culture, the Westerners alluded to are moral agents. (Many human beings, e.g., infants, do not qualify as such.) Also, the words "people," "agents," and their cognates refer not just to actual human agents, but to realistically imaginable ones. Here the word "realistically" indicates that neither the people nor their lives have any grossly far-fetched features--for instance, features that are contrary to what we know about the biological nature of humans. The same goes for the word "cultures." If I say that such-and-such is confined to a small set of cultures, I mean that such-and-such is confined to a small set of the cultures that are actual or realistically imaginable. 9 [End Page 503]

Next, for simplicity, let us interpret cultural relativism so that it pertains, not to all moral statements, but to an important set of them, distinguishable in part by their grammatical form. Let us view it as a thesis about moral judgments, restricting the latter term to statements of the form, "X is (is not) morally right (prima facie right, wrong, good, preferable to Y, etc.)," where X is an action, practice, or institution. Let us further restrict the term's meaning by excluding the following: statements that are tautologous or contradictory; statements that expressly reveal whether the object of evaluation accords with the norms (habits, etc.) of a culture; and statements that contain indexicals or explicit references to particular people, groups, or places. Statements a through e are moral judgments; f through k are not...


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