Cultural Relativism


Cultural relativism is a philosophical stream which predetermines that all beliefs, customs and values and ethical norms which exist in a particular society should be viewed equally to the same beliefs, customs, values and ethical norms in another society. In other words, the values of one society cannot be viewed as the absolute comparing to the values of another society. Such terms as right and wrong receive their connotation depending on the society. The things which are right in one society may be viewed as wrong in another. Cultural relativism is often referred to the issue of morality. Every society identifies itself what is moral and immoral for its people. Such choice is based on the cultural specifics; thus, there cannot be a universal standard of morality and no one can judge another society for its ethical norms or customs. 

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Cultural relativism states that all cultures are equal in their rights and values. Even those cultures, which moral beliefs may be viewed as confused, cannot be considered as good or bad. Thus, every culture should be discussed from a pure neural perspective in order to avoid prejudice. 

Cultural relativists do not view anything wrong or right. For instance, the Mayan practice to make human sacrifice is a cultural tradition, as well as making fireworks on 4 July for the Americans. In both cultures, their traditions are viewed as an acceptable norm of behavior. However, from the perspective of another culture, it may be viewed absolutely in a different way and even as a crime. 

According to such fact, cultural relativism helps view the specifics of a certain culture from a neutral point of view. Every culture leaves a footprint on a person’s consciousness which makes a person perceive the world and other cultures from the perspective of the particular culture’s values and ethical norms. Cultural relativism ignores the privileges of some ethical norms over others and introduces the opportunity to estimate the core values of the particular culture without prejudice.  

Cultural Relativism Concepts 

Cultural relativism is often described by such statement – “Different cultures have different moral codes”. The idea of the absolute truth contradicts to the cultural relativism principle because it means that the understanding of morality by one culture should be viewed as a supreme comparing to its understanding by another culture. However, any explanation of morality is bounded by a cultural standard. William Graham Sumner said that “right” is how ancestors viewed it from the perspective of their traditions. Hence, it is right only because it was traditionally viewed as right and people should follow such explanation of “right” according to the authority of ancestral ghosts. 

Such explanation of morality may make some people more skeptical about ethics. Nevertheless, cultural relativism does not ignore the existence of such value as code of ethics. It only states that for every person, depending on his/her cultural background, such phenomenon has its meaning. Hence, there could not be the universal truth in ethics, but there exists the variety of cultural codes of ethics. Thus, it is necessary to outline the basic principles of cultural relativism in order to identify its main characteristics:

  • Different society have different codes of ethics;
  • One society cannot be judged by another society using its standards as an objective way of judgment;
  • No society has a special status for its moral code and all codes are equal;
  • The explanation of universal truth cannot be provided by any culture;
  • The moral code of a particular society identifies what is moral only for this particular society and it cannot be used towards another society;
  • One should accept the fact that other people may have different perception of morality and thus, he/she should demonstrate tolerance towards others’ beliefs. 

The introduced six concepts of cultural diversity are independent and may be viewed separate from each other. They demonstrate the way one should understand differences in cultures and why cultural diversity is not simply a tolerance, but the way people should view others’ cultures. 

Cultural Relativism in the United States’ Policy Line

The American society is probably a good example to demonstrate cultural relativism in practice. The American society is often called ‘the melting pot’ because the nation contains so many representatives of other cultures that it is difficult to identify what is the origin of the American nation. In this way, the different cultures have mixed and created a new one which has the features of various cultures. Nevertheless, even the American culture, which should be more tolerable than any other culture in the world, it still has many features which identify its misunderstanding of other cultures and the blind belief in the superiority of its own culture. 

The brightest example of American culture is its political line and the promoting of democratic ideas. The American society truly believes that their principles of freedom and liberty are the only correct; all other political systems which do not share the same values are viewed as hostile and unacceptable. In fact, such phenomenon can be viewed as ethnocentrism, when one views his/her beliefs as better than others. The government of the United States ensures its citizens that democracy is good, while sharia is bad. On the other hand, Muslims do not view their way of life as incorrect because they have always lived according to such rules and norms and it has become the standard for their society. 

Differences between political views can be introduced in the way of cultural values. One of the most widespread ethical norms is human rights. The United States, as well as other developed countries, has established certain behavior and standards which are viewed as human rights. According to such rights, every human has a right to demand to be treated fairly, not to be abused physically or verbally, have a right for life and freedom for his/her own beliefs and views. However, relativists may argue such political norm because it means that one culture defines what a standard for all other cultures is. For instance, African cannibals will not share the idea that eating other people is bad, immoral and the violation of a person’s right for living. 

Thus, it can be said that the political line in the United States is only the reflection of the American culture. In other words, one can state that the principles of democracy are only correct of development for people all over the world. Thus, from the perspective of cultural relativism, the American policy line cannot be considered as tolerant. 

Cultural relativism and Religion

When the first missioners arrived to America, they tried to covert people who were living to Christianity. They believed that Christianity is the only true religion and those people who did not share their views were sewages and blasphemers. Native Americans did not want to accept the new religion because it was strange and not understandable for them. Relativists state that the missionaries’ attempts to convert Native Americans to Christianity was a mistake because for Native Americans Christianity was an element which was outside of their native society. Despite the fact that Indians practiced such customs as human sacrifices and cannibalism, relativists state that such customs were acceptable for Indians; thus, they can be viewed as a standard for their culture and viewed as an ethical norm. For instance, Sir Richard Francis Burton, who was exploring Africa in 1800s, found a tribe, where stealing and lying was viewed as an ethical norm. Those people did not judge such phenomena, they viewed them as virtues.  

Nevertheless, the current state of Christianity in the United States differs from the times when the first missionaries promoted its religion to Indians. Relativists have always viewed Christianity as a religion which does not show tolerance towards others’ views and beliefs. For centuries, Christians tried to ensure all other non-Christians that there is only one God and people should obey the customs which are promoted by Christianity. However, today the situation has changed. Relativists outline that Christianity in the United States becomes more tolerable than ever. The changes were much influenced by the political line which predetermines freedom of beliefs and views. However, the changes in Christianity do not include only the ability to obey any religion without being judged or discriminated by Christians. Hence, the political correctness has made Christianity to view the world wider and even accept such behavior as witchcraft or gay marriages. Such changes led to the appearing of a new form of Christianity which is called the Emerging Church. According to such new stream of religion, all religions are viewed as equal. People may have friends who are Muslims, Buddhists or atheists; thus, there should not exist such bounder as a religion. The idea that all religions are equal lead to universalism which predetermines that all people, without distinction on their beliefs, will be saved. Hence, cultural relativism views the shifts that occurred in the American Christianity as positive because for the first time religion became not a bounder, but something that will unite different people with different views.


Taking all the above mentioned information into consideration, one can see that such phenomenon as cultural relativism is a philosophical stream, which core idea is that customs, traditions, ethical norms, beliefs and values of any country must be accepted and respected by other countries. People should understand that each country has its traditions which are perceived by its people as a norm, no matter how strange, cruel or silly they may seem to people from any other country. In other words, cultural relativism propagates tolerance towards other countries, including their traditions, customs, beliefs, values, etc. The reason is that every country is a separate state that has its own rules which cannot be criticized by people from a different culture. For instance, many people who belong to various cultures may find Arabian way of dealing with thefts cruel and inacceptable. However, in accordance with cultural relativism, people from different cultures do not have a right to criticize such rule. Thus such behavior may be not approved by other cultures, it is still a norm for Arabian society and must be conducted due to the existing rules that were created many ages ago. 

Regarding the influence of the analyzed philosophical phenomenon on America, one can state that the impact is visible, since it is known that America is a representative of a great number of different cultures. People from all around the world live in this country and that is why America is called ‘the melting pot’, which means that people from different cultures live at the same territory. Nonetheless, even in spite of this fact, Americans still believe that their culture is the best and the right one. In other words, they accept other cultures’ traditions but do not understand them and believe that such traditions are worse than their own.


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