Cultural Relativism, Its Strengths and Weaknesses

Subject: Culture
Pages: 3
Words: 741
Reading time:
3 min
Study level: Undergraduate


Culture is a difficult word to define, however it is the origin of evaluation of different matters of the act. The aim of this essay is to review briefly, yet comprehensively, the core of cultural relativism, some arguments, point of strength and weaknesses.

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Culture as a term is difficult to define or describe. Some traditional concepts look at culture as the normal values and ideas that influence the perception of a group of people to their surrounding world (Nduwimana, and El Obaid, 2004). In this frame, culture affects human behavior to a great extent. Human culture is different from human acts, which are positive steps taken to achieve an objective. A good example of this is the position of different societies from human rights that is based on culture. The generalized society’s concept of human rights accordingly implies acts that express the society’s notion about human rights (Nduwimana, and El Obaid, 2004).

What is cultural relativism?

The theory of cultural relativism materializes the statement of the right to be different (Nduwimana, and El Obaid, 2004). Basically, it is a theory of the nature of ethics that attempts to answer questions like what are morals, where do they come from, and how one can judge an act being right or wrong? The core of thinking in cultural relativism is to differentiate between the matters of the act (as A person, hits another B), and evaluation (was it right or wrong). In culture relativism, the answer to evaluation is implied by the society’s traditions and customs (culture). Thus the answer is more than just right or wrong. Therefore, a cultural relativist believes that different cultures associate various moral codes for the evaluation of matters of the act rather than providing pure descriptive terms. This moral code (normative claim) is not all that culture associates to matters of the act. Thus, from a cultural relativism standpoint, the answer to the previous example depends on whether A and B belong to the same culture or not (Cutler, 2006).

In cultural relativism, different societies have their own differing moral codes, which decide what is right and what is wrong. Further; there is no objective measure to judge which society’s code is better. In addition, there is no universal truth (a truth that sustains for all people at all times) (Cutler, 2006).

Examples of arguments for cultural relativism

The genetic argument is do individuals learn or gain concepts of morality or is it genetically determined? Second, is cultural relativism the key to understanding each other and solving the conflicts resulting from intercultural interaction? As societies accept cultural relativism, individuals may begin to look critically at their culturally imposed judgment on others (cosmopolitanism argument) (Cutler, 2006).

Strengths and weaknesses of cultural relativism

Cultural relativism may be a better path to understand the subjective meanings of beliefs and the role they play in taking acts and formulation of the social life of a group of people. However, it does not explain where or how these beliefs stem from. Further, if all beliefs are valid, then there is no true or false, nor there is no fixed human nature (Fog, 2003). As the moral agent is culturally developed, thus moral self-identity, moral characters, good values to acquire, and immoral habits to avoid should vary as wide as cultures vary. Based on cultural relativism theory agreed-upon physical brutal actions (as torture) can not be treated as action without background meaning stemming from culture. However; on the other hand, human action should be flat and lacking significance when a society loses its cultural part of the picture (Cere, 2005). Following the way of thinking of cultural relativism, then issues like human rights and women’s rights are not universal and are not matters of conflict (Clavier, n.d.).

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It is important to understand how much cultural relativism can influence socio-economic relations. It is of equal importance to discuss major world problems as the wars carried out since 09/11 by countries devoted to saving oppressed lost nations in the lights of cultural relativism. The author believes that there is no real conflict between cultural relativism and universality. It is true that human rights have no meaning unless they are universal, however, human rights cannot be universal unless there is social background and harbor to develop and protect. If such issues as human rights are to be universal, then there should be universality in access to civil, social, economic, cultural and political rights.


Cere, D. (2005). Modern Moral Culture. Web.

Clavier, S., M. (n.d.). Human Rights and the Debate Between Universalism & Cultural Relativism. Web.

Cutler, D. A. (2006). Cultural Relativism. Web.

Fog, A. (2003). The gap between cultural selection theory and sociology. 11th. meeting of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology, Vienna, Austria.

Nduwimana, F., and El Obaid, A., E. (2004). Universalism and Cultural Relativism. Web.