Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cultural relativism and moral objectivity are not at odds

I've noted this before, but since it came up recently in the comments, let me briefly explain my view on this again:

10,000 BC:
Gor: The enemy is coming! You must warn our village as fast as possible!
Sab: I will start running there right now!

400 BC:
Galestes: The enemy is coming! You must warn our polis as fast as possible!
Sabro: I will start riding there on my horse right now!

1820 AD:
Galeano: The enemy is coming! You must warn our city as fast as possible!
Santo: I will hop on the train going there right now!

1920 AD:
George: The enemy is coming! You must warn our city as fast as possible!
Sam: I will phone them right now!

2015 AD:
Gene: The enemy is coming! You must warn our city as fast as possible!
Samson: I will text them right now!

The answer to a question can be (and very often is!) both objectively correct (or not) and situationally relative.


  1. I don't think anyone has ever claimed that the right thing to do doesn't vary depending on the situation (warning the city that the enemy is coming, for example, might be good if the enemy is actually coming but bad if they aren't). Cultural relativism, though, claims not just that some things are relative but that everything is.

    1. Josiah, cultural relativism is not a single, monolithic thing: it comes in many degrees. I do think the strongest form, one that says everything is culturally relative, is incompatible with objective morality.

  2. Completely agree on the distinction between cultural relativism and moral relativism. It was disheartening to see this conflation made in a new book I'm reading, "Philosophy Between the Lines" by Arthur Melzer.

    BTW, other than a few other mistakes, I think this book is very good. Have you heard of it or read it, Gene? If so, I was wondering what you think of it. I've never thought much of Straussian esotericism, but Melzer makes a very compelling case that most premodern philosophers wrote in deliberately esoteric and obscure fashion, and intended their true message to be understood only by a very few keen and discerning readers. The evidence he marshalls for this strikes me as impressive and he's just about won me over, although admittedly I am not a professional historian. It's quite a mind bending read, as, if Melzer's thesis is correct, it would radically change the way we read these philosophers and would also have a host of other profound implications. (Sorry for the tangent.)

  3. Also, to make the connection between my previous reply and your original post a bit clearer: Melzer’s thesis significantly weakens the case for strong cultural relativism. To the extent he is correct, then many of the erroneous views which we today widely assume were held by the great philosophers of the past because those philosophers were a “product of their time” may, in fact, turn out to have been merely surface-level arguments advanced to evade censorship and persecution, protect fragile but important traditions from exposure dangerous truths, etc. Whereas in many cases the philosophers’ deeper views, properly understood, reflected truths that transcended (or transgressed) their cultural norms.



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