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The Challenge of Culture Relativism (and Tolerance)

Cultural relativism is the belief that there is no universal truth in defining ethics and morality due to the existence of different cultures. According to the theory, societies have different cultural codes that define their behaviors. For example, the Callatians ate the bodies of their dead while the Greeks cremated and buried them respectively, and each of the cultures would not give up their cultural practice because the other community viewed it as unacceptable or unimaginable. However, there lacks an objective standard that determines which culture is better or more ethical than others to make it universal or acceptable. As a result, the moral status of a specific culture lacks no special status since it is merely a part of many existing cultural codes. The codes operate within a society that embraces the cultural beliefs on what is right or wrong to judge the people based on them in the realm of the said culture. Thus, it is wrong to judge other people’s behavior based on their cultural practices, calling for the need to embrace tolerance towards other people’s cultural differences.

Summary of Sections 2.1 to 2.7

Different cultures provide different moral guides that guide human behavior. People tend to judge others’ cultures as right or wrong concerning their cultures. For example, a person outside the Eskimo culture would view their way of life as disrespecting the marriage institution and disregarding human life. However, to the Eskimos, the practices are acceptable and morally right. The general public would not accept infanticide or killing old people, leave alone sharing their husbands or wives, since it is primitive. The difference in beliefs shows that what is morally right in one culture may be abhorrent to another, making the idea of right and wrong different between cultures. The differing cultural views show the nature of morality, which is barely based on opinions from people. For example, one is bound to accept or deny eating the dead or cremating them depending on their culture, making it neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. However, the argument may lack logic if argued from a premise point of view since the premise that cultures are different may be right, but the conclusion that such difference does not warrant a universal truth may be wrong.

Embracing the teachings of cultural relativism may have certain repercussions in the larger society. If we accept all the cultural practices as right, then we provide a society guided by all primitive and unacceptable practices that defy what other people believe in. For example, if Eskimos were to expand their cultural beliefs, infanticide would be a widely accepted practice, yet it is a homicide in other societies. Thus, exploring the right or wrong action from a cultural point of view would spark a crisis since all one need to do the judge others is whether an action conforms to their beliefs. The behavior stops individuals from criticizing the undesirable qualities of their cultures, denying them room for improvement and change. However, seeing the change in modern society, it is evident that social change occurs in cultures to address the arising problems that cannot rely on specific beliefs. For example, slavery was an unacceptable culture that required change by abandoning the primitive belief that one race was superior to the other. The change has improved society, where everybody is equal. Thus, whilst generalizing the nature of morality based on cultures seems plausible, it leaves the question of the need for social change when the practices defy the acceptable practices in a larger society.

Having harmony in a society with different cultural beliefs requires moral values acceptable to all cultures to foster their peaceful coexistence. For example, the rule against murder can maintain cohesion in society even though the nitty gritties of the rule would differ between cultures. However, such a rule would ensure that societies do not collapse by killing others at will. It brings a sense of order, considering that even cultures with extreme practices like the Eskimos have specific limitations to their practices. For example, the Eskimos nurture their children to foster the continuity of their community to show that they place a specific value on their children. Thus, some values are more universal than others, making them relevant in adopting a common moral code that defines societies’ relationships.

The automatic question that comes into mind is whether there is a culturally-neutral standard that society can use to define right and wrong in a culturally-diverse world to avoid conflict between cultures. For instance, excision is a widely accepted practice in African cultures but is viewed as female genital mutilation in western culture. Can there be a way to harmonize these beliefs to avoid the quest to save African girls from the practice by the westerners and ex-communication with those who defy the practice within the African communities? Both sides should weigh the overall benefits and harms the practice brings to the victims, families, and larger society and consider a better alternative to promote everybody’s wellbeing. The practice still continues in both Muslim and Christian communities because people are reluctant to speak against other cultures’ practices to show cultural tolerance. However, condemning the practice does not mean that the culture is bad; it points out the bad elements of a good culture that need elimination in modern society.


Though we should be tolerant of other people’s cultures, there is a moral limit to tolerance. Rosenstand (2021) argued that some cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation, have caused suffering to community members since they have no benefits to the victims or communities, hence the vehement need to fight against it. The efforts from international communities like the UNICEF proves that tolerance towards cultural practices is limited to the benefits the practices bring to members. The view shows that cultural relativism is becoming less relevant when dealing with cultural problems in modern society, hence the need for universal moral codes guiding individual practices towards other people.


Rosenstand, N. (ed.) (2021).The Moral of the Story. McGraw Hill.


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