Your Relativism Paper


You must demonstrate familiarity with ALL the assigned authors on relativism. The relativism paper requires a considerable amount of reading. I do not recommend that you use any sources other than the assigned reading.


In broad outline, your paper should explain the arguments for and against relativism, as stated by the various authors. The goal here is a "review of the literature." I have asked you to tell me what arguments the assigned authors give about relativism. Your goal is to produce a report of what those authors say. It is essential, therefore, that in this paper, you name all the authors and correctly associate each author with his or her arguments.


The assigned authors and readings are:


Sandra LaFave Relativism: Objectives and Readings
Sandra LaFave Notes on Relativism
James Rachels JR Ch 2
Sandra LaFave Introduction to Metaethics
William Graham Sumner "A Defense of Cultural Relativism" (SS)
Ruth Benedict "A Defense of Moral Relativism" (SS)
Louis Pojman "Who's to Judge?" (SS)
Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban "Cultural Relativism and Universal Rights" (SS)
Lawrence Kohlberg "The Child as Moral Philosopher"
Steven Pinker Excerpt from The Language Instinct



What Your Paper Should Include

Your paper should have three parts:


  1. PART I: Explain what relativism is, according to the assigned readings.


  2. PART II: Explain the arguments in the reading in favor of Relativism.

    You need to lay out the argument for relativism. The reading contains two versions of an argument for relativism. Rachels gives one version (the "Cultural Differences" argument, in which the only premise is what Pojman calls the Diversity Thesis); Benedict and Sumner also give versions of the Cultural Differences argument. Rachels and Pojman both note the invalidity of the Cultural Differences argument. Pojman fixes the logic problem with the Cultural Differences argument by adding a premise (the "Dependency Thesis").


  3. PART III: Explain the arguments in the reading against Relativism.

    Be sure to demonstrate familiarity with the assigned readings. For example, demonstrate that you know which author(s) give which arguments. Correctly paraphrase what they say.

Here is a list of arguments against relativism, to help you with Part III. 

  • The Cultural Differences argument for Relativism is invalid (explain what this means).


  • Even if we fix the logic of the Cultural Differences argument by adding the Dependency Thesis, the premises of the argument are questionable in the following ways.


    • The Dependency Thesis is fishy. Why should belief that p make p true in morality if belief that p doesn't make p true in any other context?


    • The Diversity Thesis is equivocal. We need to distinguish fundamental moral judgments from rules for implementations of fundamental moral judgments.


    • The Diversity Thesis is false if it refers to fundamental moral judgments; empirical research in social psychology (Kohlberg) and linguistic anthropology (Pinker) shows fundamental moral judgments are probably the same from culture to culture.


  • The consequences of Relativism seem unacceptable. Rachels and Pojman make modus tollens arguments, such as:


    • If Relativism is true, we must withhold judgments about other cultures' practices. We cannot say, for example, the female genital mutilation is a violation of basic human rights, since there is no culture-independent notion of basic human rights (Fleuhr- Lobban). However, most people DO say female genital mutilation violates basic human rights. So Relativism must be false.


    • If Relativism is true, praising other cultures' practices does not make sense. We cannot say "We have much to learn about respect for nature from indigenous peoples," for example, since any judgment we make is only from our culture's perspective and might be wrong from the perspective of a culture that did not value nature. But we DO say other cultures are better than our own in some respects ...


    • If Relativism is true, then social progress is impossible. We cannot say that slavery in the pre-Civil War South was wrong, and that things are better now. If the pre-Civil War Southerners approved of slavery, slavery was right for them, and their opoinion then was just as legitimate as our opinion now, since opinion alone creates morality, according to Relativism. But we DO say things are better now ...


    • If Relativism is true, there can be no social reformers or visionaries. By definition, if someone does not agree with the current cultural consensus, he is wrong. But we DO continue to say that people like Martin Luther King, Jr. were right, even though their opinions were not shared (at first) by the majority ...


  • Relativism presupposes that we know how to define culture, and that we can say definitively what culture any person belongs to. But the notion of "culture" is vague (does gender constitute culture? sexual orientation? race? religion? nationality?) and shifting (what is "Canadian" culture in an era of globalization?); furthermore, those categories are not mutually exclusive. Many people feel allegiance to multiple "cultures."


  • Relativists often urge universal tolerance and respect. They say that since no moral rules apply to everyone in every culture, that everyone should therefore respect and tolerate other cultures' practices. But this position is incoherent. "Everyone should respect and tolerate other cultures' practices" is itself a moral recommendation, and by the relativist's own criterion of morality, applies only if one's culture happens to value respect and tolerance.


  • Relativists often (rightly) criticize ethnocentrism for having caused great harm to indigenous peoples of the world. But in making this criticism, the relativist seems to be presupposing an objective inter-cultural notion of harm -- exactly the sort of idea a relativist cannot presuppose, since according to relativism, what counts as harm for one culture might not count as harm for another.


  • Relativism might actually encourage the very ethnocentrism good-hearted relativists are trying to combat. People who have internalized the message of relativism rightly conclude that other cultures are hermetically sealed. You often hear people of good will say things like "You just canít understand people of my sex/people of my race/people of my sexual orientation, etc., if you havenít had our particular experience of oppression, if youíre not one of us." But if you canít really learn anything about other cultures, why try? Why not be lazy and just give up?


Sample papers


One sample graded paper on relativism (grade=C) is online. I suggest you look carefully at it to get an idea of my grading standards and practices. Many comments consist solely of a number. Use the Essay Error Codes to determine the text of the comment that goes with each number. The string "SAL" in the comments stands for my initials. It means I wrote this comment. Your paper may also be reviewed by a TA (with different initials).


In my office I have other sample relativism papers, graded with comments, from previous semesters. They range from F- to A+ in quality. Many are dialogs. If you would like to see them, please make an appointment to come to my office, preferably during my office hours. Since students have stolen sample papers in the past, you cannot "borrow" sample papers. Viewing sample papers is optional and entirely at my convenience. These limitations apply to online students as well as on-campus students.





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