This paper will discuss the arguments for and against the concept of [SAL1] relativism as presented by the following authors: Sumner, Benedict, Rachels, Pojman, Fluehr-Lobban, Kohlber[SAL2] , and Pinker.


What Is Relativism?

Taken at the most general level, relativism is a doctrine that a claim is true or false only in relation to some particular viewpoint or perspective. What I have been able to understand in the readings so far is that [SAL3] specific kinds of relativism distinguish themselves [SAL4] according to which kinds of claims the doctrine of relativism applies to, and which viewpoint or perspective these claims are relative [SAL5] to.

Cultural [SAL6] relativism asserts that no single culture is better than any other culture. Each culture is distinct and different [SAL7] in its own right and each attempts to solve its problems the best way it knows how. Relativists claim, in general, that morality is different for different people. More specifically the relativist claims that the people of that culture make up their morality and that no objective moral principles or universal norms exist between all cultures in the world. Ethical relativism theorizes that there are no universally valid moral principles, but that all moral principles are valid relative to culture or individual choice.

The readings reviewed for this outline [SAL8] describe two types of moral relativism, subjective relativism and cultural relativism. Subjective relativism asserts that morality is an individual creation. Cultural relativism asserts that morality is a creation of a specific culture.

Herodotus announced the relativist principle when he said, “Custom is king.” (SS p.206) This principal [SAL9] begins a discussion of how accurate this theory is when used as an argument to defend the customs of some cultures. [SAL10] Ruth Benedict and William Graham Summner [SAL11] support this theory in their writings. 

At first glance, the theory of [SAL12] relativism is convincing because it allows us to adopt a view of tolerance as we view [SAL13] the differences in moral/ethical [SAL14] customs of other cultures. It seems to be the polite way to view the differences between cultures without judging them. It offers an easy explanation of why cultures are not the same. Other philosophers and moralists reviewed in this paper such as Pojman, assert that this tolerance should end when the practice or custom of a particular culture violates a universal human right.

As I read the different assertions of these authors, I find myself moving back and forth between accepting and rejecting relativism. Being relatively inexperienced in these matters, I hope this is normal. I find this behavior of “changing camps” both amusing and confusing. Through the discussions of the differences of opinion among the authors presented in this outline perhaps I will settle on whether or not relativism feels right for me.[SAL15] 




In favor of relativism

William Graham Sumner claims that ethical relativism comes from what he calls the “folkways” of an individual society. He maintains that these folkways are the customs, mores and traditions of each society become ingrained [SAL16] and that the members of these societies naturally come to think of them as objectively “right” and “good.” Sumner states, “The morality of a group at a time is the sum of the taboos and prescriptions in the folkways by which right conduct is defined” (SS p.220). He believes that the study of cultures and how their beliefs change over time is preferable over judgment of these cultures and their beliefs. [SAL17] Sumner does believe that the mores of a culture change whenever scientific or technological advances change the life condition of life [SAL18] for that culture. Sumner summarizes the make up of the[SAL19]  Cultural Relativism Theory in the following way[SAL20] , “ The notion of right is in the folkways. It is not outside of them, of independent origin, and brought to test them. In the folkways, whatever is, is right” (JR p.21).


Ruth Benedict argues for the relativity of moral standards from the standpoint of cultural anthropology. She believes that the standards of what are [SAL21] normal in a culture is[SAL22]  a function of their [SAL23] social organization and that these standards usually vary for different cultures. Benedict asserts that these standards define what is good and bad morally respective for each culture[SAL24] . In reading her arguments for relativism it seems that [SAL25] she in asserting that as anthropologists study more cultures they are finding [SAL26] huge differences between what some cultures perceive as right or wrong. From this she draws the conclusion [SAL27] that there cannot be a universal standard of what all cultures would agree is [SAL28] right or wrong in terms of morality[SAL29] . One example of this is Benedict’s claim that the fact that various cultures have dealt with homosexuality in very different ways supports her contention that moral standard[SAL30] s are dependant [SAL31] on time and location.

Benedict, however, did have a break from her stance regarding the Cultural Relativism Theory. When World War II broke out, Benedict reconsidered her beliefs on Relativity. She was having difficulty believing that the Nazi culture was just as valid and adaptive [SAL32] as any other culture was. This internal conflict led Benedict to her concept of synergy, which states, "any society that is compatible with human advancements is a good one, but a society that works against basic human goals is antihuman and evil, and can be judged as such." (Patterns of Culture)[SAL33] 

The Cultural Differences argument as outlined by James Rachels in The Elements of Moral Philosophy makes the following claims.[SAL34]   Different societies have different moral codes.  The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society.  There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another’s[SAL35] .  The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.  There is no "universal truth" in ethics; that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.

It is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures[SAL36] 


Against relativism

James Rachels does not find these arguments plausible. He asserts that the cultural relativists argue from facts about cultural differences and lead to a [SAL37] conclusion about the status of [SAL38] morality. Rachels argues that this is a very persuasive argument but that it “lacks soundness because the conclusion does not follow from the premise.” (JR p.20) Rachels sees three consequences for taking the Cultural Relativism Theory seriously.  We could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own. Societies permitting slavery or infanticide would have to be seen as behaviors[SAL39]  we should tolerate because they are just different from us.  We could decide whether actions are right or wrong just by consulting the standards of our society.

Rachels asserts two positive aspects of the Cultural Relativism Theory. He says that Cultural Relativism[SAL40]  serves to remind us not to confuse our preferences or standards with regard to morality as being universal to other cultures just because they are important to us[SAL41] . Second, Rachels believes the Cultural Relativism Theory reminds us to keep an open mind as we accept and reject the practices of other cultures. This, he believes, “will leave us more open to discover the truth, whatever that might be” (JR p.31).


Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban objects to the widespread acceptance of ethical relativism by anthropologists. She believes the posture of tolerance requires anthropologists to stand up for basic human rights. [SAL42] She spotlights cultures which exploit and degrade women as examples of when anthropologists should step up and speak out against such practices. Fleuhr-Lobban states “the time has come for anthropologists to take a stand on key human rights issues. We cannot just be bystanders” (SS p.226). 

            Fleuhr-Lobban acknowledging that anthropologists did speak out against Nazi atrocities and South African apartheid, she [SAL43] still believes anthropologists need to become more judgmental whenever cultures practice behaviors which violate human rights. 

The practice of female circumcision is some cultures motivated Fleuhr-Lobban to speak out against it. She asserts that this practice culturally discriminates against women. She contends that anthropologists must expand their role to me [SAL44] more than non-judgmental observers. She feels they need to condemn what she considers a misuse of cultural relativism by some governments to take attention away from what she considers human rights violations. [SAL45] Taking a judgment stance may jeopardize the anthropologist’s ability to study the behaviors of some cultures[SAL46]  but Fleuhr-Lobban believes this to be a [SAL47] acceptable if is helps to promote basic human rights.


Lawrence Kohlberg argues that in all societies individuals work through three levels of moral development. Level one consists of punishment and reward in which children begin to determine levels of morality. [SAL48] Level 2 is the conventional level in which the recognition of social norms and the belief that people strive for a need of approval from others.[SAL49]  Level 3 is a self-actualized level in which an individual is aware of universal moral principals and is self-motivated to follow them. Kohlberg asserts that all societies have these three levels in common, but a majority of their population becomes fixed at the conventional level. He maintains there are false solutions, which attempt to remedy the relativity problem. [SAL50] One solution according to Kohlberg is to call moral education socialization. He believes this to be a “hidden agenda to get children to adapt to society” (Jackson, 1968).

Another false solution asserted by Kohlberg [SAL51] is for us to rely on vague positive terms such as “moral values.” He claims that educators develop programs to teach students values but these programs do not define what these values might be or why students should seek them.

Kohlberg's third false solution [SAL52] centers on education defining moral values by a set of positive personality traits. He claims that by doing this we might eventually compile a list of virtues that will suit everyone. The problem compounds when we try to agree on what values need to be in this bag of virtues. Kohlberg advises of [SAL53] three ways children can begin to develop positive values. The first is to assist children in becoming more aware of their own values and how they relate to their decisions. Second, is to make their values consistent and arrange them in hierarchies for decision-making. Third, he would advise children to become aware of the values of others. Last of all is to develop the ability to tolerate these differences in others. He feels this approach is different [SAL54] because it lets the student think for themselves [SAL55] instead of others telling them how they should think.


Louis Pojman examines three theses of relativism. The first of these [SAL56] is the Diversity Thesis. This thesis considers that what is morally right and wrong varies from society to society, so that there are no moral principles accepted by all societies.  The second thesis, the Dependency Thesis, asserts that all moral principles derive their validity from cultural acceptance. Ethical Relativists then conclude therefore, that there are no universally valid moral principles, objective standards that apply to all people everywhere and at all times. Pojman asserts that these theses are problematic. He sites [SAL57] anthropologists who have found several commonalities among cultures.

Pojman makes a distinction between cultural relativism and ethical relativism. He asserts that cultural relativism is only a way of asserting that there are differences in what cultures agree is right or wrong in terms of moral behaviors [SAL58] and that there are no universal values shared among cultures. He sees ethical relativism as a “theory that there are no universally valid moral principles, but that all moral principles are valid relative to culture or individual choice.” (SS p. 239)

Pojman sees morality as a set of mores and customs our society has approved over time. The common conclusion [SAL59] follows from both the Diversity thesis and the Dependency Thesis. “It there are [SAL60] different moral principles from culture to culture and is all morality is rooted [SAL61] in culture, then it follows that there are not universal moral principles valid for all cultures and people at all times.” (SS p.242) He asserts that relativists have no forum for passing judgment on those who are intolerant. We would have to tolerate a culture’s worst atrocities because that culture has adopted behaviors, which were different from ours.

In the end Pojman says that it is we who are to judge but that we would experience difficulty time justifying [SAL62] our judgment over the judgment of others.


Steven Pinker asserts that over the years some anthropologists have been misinformed or that they have misinterpreted the information they have observed. This information is presented in their papers and incorporated into the textbooks used to educate our students. He sites [SAL63] several examples of anthropologists who got their facts wrong. His article is a list of behaviors, which he asserts, is complex interactions [SAL64] between a universal human nature and the conditions of living in a human body on this planet. Pinker describes a myriad of human behaviors in his article. He describes these behaviors in terms of their commonality among the human nature of individuals and not necessarily particular from culture to culture. [SAL65] In this respect he argues against cultural relativism. I found his article believable but poorly written.[SAL66]  Pinker exudes [SAL67] lists of behaviors but fails to thread them together to explain what he is trying to convey other than these behaviors are a result of human nature and not culturally learned. I think that I would need to read other articles by Pinker to understand his stance on human nature and how it fits in relation to the other authors evaluated in this paper.



Relativism fails just when we need it to work - as long as people are behaving in ways, which we agree with;[SAL68]  there is no need to judge. It is when they do things we disagree with that we wish to correct them - and it is at this point that the relativist will step in and encourage us to "be tolerant". (But then, if tolerance is a virtue relative to our society, what do we do with cultures that are less tolerant?)

The relativist theory doesn't work!  We need to be able to judge people.

We need some sort of absolute moral code[SAL69] , but don't want to be restricted too much. We need to think, experience and share. If societies had cultural mores and values that everyone in that culture [SAL70] embraces then why are our prisons so full of people who make the decision not to live by them?  These authors were interesting to read. There is much to think about and discuss with regard to relativism.[SAL71] 


























Christina Sommers & Fred Sommers (SS).  (2001) Vice and Virtue.  Fort Worth, TX:

Harcourt College Publishers.


James Rachels (JR).  (2003) The Elements of Moral Philosophy.  Mc Graw-Hill

Companies, Inc.


Patterns of Culture. (1934) New York


WebCT.  (2003, March 19)  Steven Pinker’s The language Instinct

[WWW document]. 



 [SAL1] 10

 [SAL2] 6

 [SAL3] 10

 [SAL4] 21

 [SAL5] 21 This is an unfortunately confusing choice of words.

 [SAL6] New  paragraph?

 [SAL7] 10

 [SAL8] 10, 22

 [SAL9] 6

 [SAL10] 10, 22

 [SAL11] 6

 [SAL12] 10

 [SAL13] 10

 [SAL14] 10

 [SAL15] 37 In a paper like this, you want to make yourself as invisible and unobtrusive as possible. Think of me as your manager, and our relationship as professional.  I am interested in the work.  I don’t have time to read about your feelings. (I mean this in the nicest possible way – of course your feelings are important.)

 [SAL16] 32

 [SAL17] 10  MUCH TOO WORDY! Better: “He believes we should study but not judge.”

 [SAL18] 10

 [SAL19] 10

 [SAL20] 10

 [SAL21] 3 subject is “what” (singular)

 [SAL22] 3 subject is “standards” (plural)

 [SAL23] 9

 [SAL24] 32 what is “morally respective”?  Something to do with respecting?

 [SAL25] 10 I don’t want to hear about you!

 [SAL26] 7 “as they study, they find”

 [SAL27] 10 concludes

 [SAL28] 10 “universal” means “applies to all”

 [SAL29] 10 Since this is an ethics class, I think we can assume this.

 [SAL30] 12

 [SAL31] 6

 [SAL32] 36

 [SAL33] This is very interesting.  It contradicts the reading in SS, in which she denies the concept of human nature.  For a cite like this, not part of assigned reading for the class, you need to give a more complete reference, with a page number, publisher, etc.   I actually want to look this up, and you’re supposed to make that easy for me!

 [SAL34] 12, 22 “James Rachels … outlines …”

 [SAL35] 7 “one society’s code better than another’s” – both possessive or both not possessive -- they must be parallel

 [SAL36] 60

 [SAL37] 32 they argue and lead to?

 [SAL38] 10

 [SAL39] 12 societies would have to be seen as behaviors?

 [SAL40] 10

 [SAL41] 32 HUH?

 [SAL42] 32 She says exactly the opposite: the posture of tolerance makes it impossible for anthropologists to stand up for universal human rights.

 [SAL43] 10

 [SAL44] 6 You again! J

 [SAL45] 10

 [SAL46] 50

 [SAL47] 32

 [SAL48] 32

 [SAL49] 10 Please write more plainly!

 [SAL50] 36

 [SAL51] 32 You mean he’s wrong about this?

 [SAL52] 32 And he’s wrong about this too?

 [SAL53] 24 recommends?

 [SAL54] 36 different from what?

 [SAL55] 3

 [SAL56] 10

 [SAL57] 6 cites

 [SAL58] 10

 [SAL59] 9 what conclusion?

 [SAL60] 32

 [SAL61] 32

 [SAL62] 32

 [SAL63] 6

 [SAL64] 3

 [SAL65] 10

 [SAL66] 37

 [SAL67] 21

 [SAL68] 13

 [SAL69] 50 Is absolutism really the answer?

 [SAL70] 32

 [SAL71]  You seem to understand the arguments, but you shoot yourself in the foot with many distracting (and elementary!) tech errors plus overly-complex fuzzy sentences.

  I’d like you to work on writing more simply.



Content Grade:  A




Deduction for tech errors:  20%  

(Since this was the first paper, I was generous.)



Grade: C