Photo by Haddy Bello
Interior of the Mezquita in La Serena, Chile.

CULTURAL RELATIVISM: the view that ethical and social standards reflect the cultural context from which they are derived.

Cultural relativists uphold that cultures differ fundamentally from one another, and so do the moral frameworks that structure relations within different societies. In international relations, cultural relativists determine whether an action is 'right' or 'wrong' by evaluating it according to the ethical standards of the society within which the action occurs. There is a debate in the field on whether value judgements can be made across cultures. Cultural relativism should not be confused with moral relativism, which holds that moral absolutes guiding individual behavior do not exist as a matter of principle.



1. Can you think of examples of universal values that supersede the particularities of cultures? What are the challenges associated with determining international standards for morality within cultural relativism?

2. Societies and aspects of their moral frameworks change with time. How is social progress possible within cultural relativism theory? Who are the agents of change?

3. What are the main contributions of cultural relativist thought to the study of international relations? What would you say are its deficiencies or dangers, if any?

4. Consider the different interpretations of marriage in the article, "When Rites Are Rights: Cultural Challenges To Marriage Laws". In your opinion, should rites be protected as cultural rights? Explain.

5. Read "This Forest Is Ours". The Kenyan government views the Mukogodo forest as a strategic national resource worthy of protection whereas the Indigenous Yiaaku view the Mukogodo as a cultural heritage and as inseparable from Yiaaku life. In your opinion, who should have access to the forest? Why


Boas, Franz, Race, Language and Culture (New York: Macmillan, 1948).
Cohen, Ronald, "Human Rights and Cultural Relativism: The Need for a New Approach, "American Anthropologist 91, no. 4 (1989): 1014-1017.
Cook, John W., Morality and Cultural Differences (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Donnelly, Jack, "Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights," Human Rights Quarterly 6, no. 4 (1984): 400-419.
Hartung, Frank, "Cultural Relativity and Moral Judgments," Philosophy of Science 21: 118-126.
Geertz, Clifford, "Anti-Anti-Relativism," American Anthropologist 86. no. 2 (1984): 263-278.
Herskovits, Melville, Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism (New York: Random House, 1973).
Krausz, Michael & Jack W. Meiland, eds. Relativism: Cognitive and Moral (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982).
Schmidt, Paul, "Some Criticisms of Cultural Relativism," Journal of Philosophy 70 (1955): 780-791.
Tilley, John J., "Cultural Relativism," Human Rights Quarterly 22, no. 2 (2000): 501-547.