The Ethics of Cultural Relativism


Do you view Sharia law as dangerous, outdated, and full of human rights violations? Now, let’s do a complete 180 and consider this: are nudists immoral exhibitionists? These are some extreme examples, but if you have an elaborate and spirited answer to either of these questions, then we really need to talk about cultural relativism.

What Is That?

When we see something that is different from what we are used to, we may develop some negative bias towards it, rejecting it immediately. Different cultures have different sets of values and beliefs, as well as what is considered proper and polite conduct.

Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s actions should be judged in the context of that person’s culture, rather than based on the values of another. It is the idea that judging a person in this way would be extremely unfair to them because they have been raised in a way that is different from our own.

Let’s look at an example. Let us assume that I come from a family of huggers. We are loud, blunt, and see personal space as a suggestion, rather than an unspoken rule. If I came across a person from England or Japan, I might think that they are uptight and unable to speak, whereas they might see me as obnoxious, coarse, and stupid. Both sides here display ethnocentrism, which is taking one’s own culture as a baseline for all things normal. Anything that strays from this baseline is weird, to say the least.

Moral Relativism

It is the same with food. Some people eat insects. Personally, I may feel disgusted at the concept, until I realize that there may not be an abundance of poultry in their areas. Some cultural traits came about as a way to make do with what you’ve got at your disposal. Religious laws and practices, for example, provide certain guidelines in terms of moral behavior, which is great when you need to pull your group together.

It is important not to get carried away. Do you remember the questions I asked you at the beginning of this piece? Most likely, your first instinct was something along the lines of apples and oranges. You may have perceived one of the items as abhorrent and the other as strange, but harmless (or beautiful, natural, whatever).

The point is that, sometimes, when learning about cultural relativism, people assume that all cultures have an equal footing in terms of moral standards. Therefore, cultural relativism is often confused with moral relativism, a belief that no action is absolutely moral or immoral since there is no absolute moral standard.

Cultural relativism is more about trying to understand someone’s actions by putting them into the context of their culture, rather than society. In other words, nudists outside of nudist colonies may be arrested for indecent exposure, but that doesn’t tell us much since they were out of the colonies and in the society where laws forbid that type of behavior. However you try to spin the situation, clothes were required to be worn in this fictitious example.