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  • Cultural Relativism:Interpretations of a Concept
  • Thomas H. Johnson

An undergraduate anthropology student came to me with an assigned reading in a philosophy course at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. The student was confused. What he was learning in his philosophy class challenged what he had learned about cultural relativism as a core concept in anthropology and he was surprised to find it examined negatively by a philosopher. The article in his Ethics textbook was "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism" by philosopher James Rachels (Rachels 1993). As we discussed the position James Rachels took in the article assigned to the ethics class, it became clear that Rachels' understanding of cultural relativism differed from that of most anthropologists: that cultural relativism is the attitude of "objectivity" (left undefined) toward another culture, the opposite of ethnocentrism. Rachels rejects cultural relativism because, in his view, cultural relativism is identical to ethical relativism, and this equation leads to an inability to criticize any society's beliefs and practices, including our own. The student had learned, however, that the anthropologist is a participant and an observer at the same time, and that our task is to faithfully portray a culture. Cultural relativism is part of our training as social scientists as well as humanists—we participate and learn to understand and appreciate [End Page 791] another culture, inevitably returning to our own culture to write and teach about what we have learned.

That's part of what I told my student as we discussed Rachels' essay. However, several things soon became clear. Rachels' essay was chosen to represent the ethical issue of cultural relativism in an introductory textbook on ethics. His essay does not pretend to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject, nor does he indicate anything but a nodding acquaintance with what anthropologists have said about the subject. Rachels is only one voice among many philosophers. It would have been helpful if another philosopher had presented an anthropologist's view of cultural relativism, but fairness was not the textbook's objective.

What, exactly, was wrong with what James Rachels said about cultural relativism? From an anthropologist's point of view, the most serious flaw in Rachel's notion that cultural relativism presents a "challenge" to philosophy is that he simply hasn't done his homework, and knows little about anthropology or its central purpose—to understand and learn about the variety of human cultures, past and present. Rachels says nothing about the objectives of anthropology in his essay. His main criticism of cultural relativism is simple: relativism contains no idea of universal morality, "only various cultural codes and nothing more" (Rachels 1993:15). As a result, for Rachels, cultural relativism leads to moral relativism. Finally, having cited several well known examples of customs our society would never condone, such as sharing of wives among some Eskimo, Rachels has one generous thing to say about cultural relativism: even though the concept is flawed, it promotes tolerance of other cultures (Rachels 1993). Questions about why certain customs continue to be practiced and transmitted to each generation, or even whether those customs fit into the fabric of the society are never discussed. Rachels is not a social scientist. For Rachels, however, differences in the morality or value of customs—the relativity of moral values—become the central problem of cultural relativism (Rachels 1993:15).

An anthropologist would have asked different kinds of questions: what function those customs might have served, or how they fit into the structure of the society. Finally, from the anthropologist's point of view, Rachels fails to understand that ethnocentrism governs his understanding of morality. It is the philosophers from our culture—people like Rachels—not the philosophers of other cultures—who assume the right to pass judgment on other cultures, and decide that some universal standard [End Page 792] of morality, yet to be determined, is the real goal. Thus, cultural and moral relativism stand in the way of discovering those universals.

But it is not just the misunderstanding of the objectives and the ignorance of the methods of anthropology that concern me about Rachels' essay. Underlying his ideas is the suspicion that cultural and moral relativism are a threat...


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