Cultural relativism

Definition & Introduction

Cultural relativism is 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 judgments 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.

Featured Reading

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Relativism

"Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment..."

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Relativism: Cognitive and Moral

This collection of essays incorporates studies of both cognitive and ethical relativism. The selections were handpicked to demonstrate the complexity and importance of relativistic doctrines and the many fundamental issues they raise.

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Some Criticisms of Cultural Relativism

Published in The Journal of Philosophy in 1955, Schmidt analyzes some of cultural relativism's key insights and ambiguities. He believed the term was "a convenient label" for his time "covering some positive insights", but also some "outright errors".

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Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights

Donnelly's 1984 article attempts to answer the question: how can the competing claims of cultural relativism and universal human rights be reconciled? He details the relationship between relativism and universalism offering an approach to reconcile their tension.

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Discussion Questions

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?