Every culture has its own customs, traditions and beliefs that dictate the actions of its citizens. Cultural relativism states that although practices and ethical beliefs differ from society to society, it must be accepted as good, relative to each respective culture’s beliefs and moral code. A cultural relativist believes that what can be seen as a heinous act in one culture may in fact be totally acceptable or even looked upon as a good act, in another; and rightly so, that cultural relativist would argue.
In The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels argues that the cultural relativist point of view does not take into account the lack of rationale for the argument. He argues that at the root of some controversial customs and actions, the culture which practices the deed actually holds the same basic moral and ethical beliefs as the culture which balked at it. (Rachels, 23)
He uses as an example the Eskimos. It was found through anthropologic research that it was ethically acceptable in the Eskimo culture to practice infanticide. This act, to our culture, would be shunned as barbaric, and, given no more information than the fact that it is practiced, many would agree. Rachels then proceeds to delve further and explain the reasoning behind the practice. He found that killing one’s baby was a last resort, for example, when the life of another child was at stake, because a mother can only provide nourishment for so many children. In essence, the Eskimos would only sacrifice the life of a child in order to ensure the life of another, and therefore ensuring that their tribe would not die out. (Rachels, 17)
Rachels basically argues that there is no true need for the theory of cultural relativism at all because many actions can, at their root cause, be justified. Not only can most actions be justified, the reasoning used can be correlated with the ethical and moral beliefs of most cultures, as well. This is a flawed point of view for a few reasons.
Arguing that cultural relativism does not exist because actions are essentially all motivated by the same base moral beliefs does not account for the actions themselves, but the reasoning behind them. This ignores the consequences associated with the practices.
For example, the practice of excision on a female’s genitalia is fairly common in many African countries. (Rachels, 27) It is acceptable to some, and quite repugnant to others. However, one of the reasons behind this cultural practice of female circumcision is that it is a means of quelling a woman’s sexual desires and therefore is a way of preventing adultery on a wife’s part. There are not many people who would disagree with the opinion that adultery is not a good thing. (That is, assuming that one is not referring to those of the “swinger” and inclination.) However, the ethical belief that adultery is wrong does not truly justify the means by which that belief is upheld, and that is why Rachel’s view is flawed.
His view actually proves that cultural relativism must exist. By accepting that different cultures have similar ethical beliefs, but simply react to these beliefs in different ways, one must logically accept that cultural relativism does exist. This is because there must be some accounting for the cultural practices themselves. It is not logical to skip straight past the action to the justification, because the reasoning provided does not always adequately explain the action. Therefore, the theory of cultural relativism must be accepted in order to allow for individual societies to create and build upon their own codes of ethics.