Topics: Morality, Cultural relativism, Ethics Pages: 5 (1686 words) Published: September 11, 2012


Cultural relativism, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Is the thesis that a person’s culture strongly influences her modes of perception and thought” Most cultural relativists add to this definition saying that there is no standard of morality. This means that morality is relative to the particular society that one lives in. Prominent ethicist James Rachels has written against this view in his work titled The Challenge of Cultural Relativism. This paper will be focused on evaluating Rachels’ critique of cultural relativism, and whether it was right for him to endorse objective moral realism. Rachels defines this as “a standard that might be reasonably used in thinking about any social practice whatever. We may ask whether the practice promotes or hinders the welfare of people whose lives are affected by it.” That is the moral worth of an action is based upon how it contributes to the society from which it operates in. Rachels is in agreement with cultural relativist in recognizing that we should keep an open minded approach when making ethical judgments about other societies. His thoughts differ from cultural relativist in that he believes that there exist objective moral standards. He puts forward this motion well on two fronts: first, he presents a major flaw in the way that cultural relativist think; second, he puts forward three arguments that support objective moral standards. Rachels begins his critique of cultural relativism through what he calls the “Cultural Differences Argument”. This is the primary premise from which cultural relativist employ when defending their position. The argument summarized by Rachel as: 1. Different cultures have different moral codes.

2. Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture. Rachels counters this thought very effectively and argues that “even if the premise is true, the conclusion might still be false.” Rachels is making the point that regardless of difference in belief between societies, it is the conclusion that really matters. It is about what really is factual. Rachels further illustrates his point here with a simple yet strong example: In some societies, people believe that the earth is flat. In other societies, such as our own, people believe that the earth is round. Rachels engages the reader to ask themselves, does this mean that there are no objective truths? Like Rachels, my answer to this would be an irrefutable no. Different societies have different perceptions on the shape of the earth, but this does not mean neither view is correct. We know undoubtedly that the earth is round, even though some people would think otherwise. The fact that societies disagree, does not mean that there is no correct answer in the above example, similarly this does not mean that there is no right and wrong in regards to the nature of morality. Rachels presents a well-designed argument against the “Cultural Differences Argument” that is central to cultural relativism. But he goes on further to say that this alone is not enough to disprove cultural relativism. Rachels proceeds to strengthen his argument against cultural relativism, and also now unknowingly strengthens his argument for his own view of objective moral realism. He does this by providing three logical consequences of cultural relativism, which brings about the downfall of cultural relativism. Rachels starts with a strong first argument of logical consequence, saying if cultural relativism were true then “we could no longer say that the customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.” This is yet another important cog of the cultural relativist movement. But Rachels shows the invalidity of this idea stating that it works well with small...
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