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4.1 What Is Cultural Relativism?

Learning Objectives

  1. Define cultural relativism.
  2. Show how cultural relativism defies traditional ethics.

Nietzsche and the End of Traditional Ethics

“God is dead,” the declaration attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, stands along with “I think, therefore I am” (René Descartes, 1641) as philosophy’s most popularized—and parodied—phrases. The t-shirt proclaiming “Nietzsche is dead, signed, God” is funny, but it doesn’t quite answer what Nietzsche was saying in the late 1800s. What Nietzsche meant to launch was not only an assault on a certain religion but also a suspicion of the idea that there’s one source of final justice for all reality. Nietzsche proposed that different cultures and people each produce their own moral recommendations and prohibitions, and there’s no way to indisputably prove that one set is simply and universally preferable to another. The suspicion that there’s no final appeal—and therefore the values and morality practiced by a community can’t be dismissed as wrong or inferior to those practiced elsewhere—is called cultural relativismThe suspicion that values and morality are culture specific and not the result of universal reason. They’re what a community believes, and that’s it..

Example: For most of us, the killing of a newborn would be among the most heinous of immoral acts; a perpetrator would need to be purely evil or completely mad. The Inuit Eskimos, however, regularly practiced female infanticide during their prehistory, and it was neither evil nor insane. Their brutal living conditions required a population imbalance tipped toward hunters (males). Without that gender selecting, the plain fact was the entire group faced starvation. At another place and time, Bernal Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain recounts the Spanish invasion of the Americas and includes multiple reports of newborns sacrificed in bloody ceremonies that made perfect sense to the locals, but left Spaniards astonished and appalled. The ethics of infanticide, the point is, differ from one culture and time to another. Further, these differences seem irreconcilable: it’s extremely difficult to see how we could convince the Inuit of the past to adopt our morality or how they could convince us to adopt theirs. And if that’s right, then maybe it no longer makes sense to talk about right and wrong in general terms as though there’s a set of rules applying to everyone; instead, there are only rights and wrongs as defined within a specific society.

Finally, if you accept the cultural relativist premise, then you’re rejecting the foundation of traditional ethics. You’re rejecting the idea that if we think carefully and expertly enough, we’ll be able to formulate rules for action that everyone—people in all times, places, and communities—must obey if they want to consider themselves ethically responsible.

Cultural Relativism in Business Ethics

In the world of international business, Entrepreneur magazine introduces the pitfalls of ethical variation across cultures with this statement from Steve Veltkamp, president of Biz$hop, an American import-export business: “Bribery is a common way of doing business in a lot of foreign places.”Moira Allen, “Here Comes the Bribe,” Entrepreneur, October 2000, accessed May 12, 2011,

If that’s true, then US businesses trying to expand into markets abroad—and competing with local businesses already established there—are probably going to consider doing what everyone else is doing, which means getting in on the bribery action. As the Entrepreneur article points out, however, this leads to a problem: “While bribes are expected in many countries, the United States’ 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits payments made with the aim of gaining or maintaining business.”

So American hands are tied. If a construction company is bidding on the contract to build an airport in a foreign nation, one where the local politicians will be expecting to get their palms greased, they’re at a distinct disadvantage since they’re not allowed to play by the local rules. Still there is (as there almost always is) a loophole: “Not all payments are prohibited by the act. Some payments are acceptable if they don’t violate local laws. Gifts, for instance, to officers working for foreign corporations are legal.”

There’s no bribing, but gifting, apparently, gets a green light. There’s a problem here, too, however: “It can be difficult to determine the difference between a gift and a bribe in a given situation. ‘If you give a gift to someone and it leads to a business deal, is that a bribe or a gift?’ asks Veltkamp. ‘In some cultures, gift-giving is an entrenched part of doing business. If you look at it in a certain sense, maybe it’s a bribe, since they won’t talk to you until you’ve made that gesture.’”

Now what? Over there, cash changes hands and it’s called an acceptable gift, while those watching from back here see an illegal bribe.

There are two ways of looking at this dilemma. One is to say, well, this has to be one or the other, either a gift or a bribe; it has to be either moral or immoral. Given that, we need to take out our traditional tools—our basic duties, the utilitarian doctrine that we should act to serve the greater good, and so on—and figure out which it is. Nietzsche went the other way, though. He said that situations like this don’t show that we need to use ethics to figure out which side is right; instead, the situation shows what moral rules really are: just a set of opinions that a group of people share and nothing more. In the United States we believe it’s wrong to grease palms, and so it is. In some other places they believe it’s honorable to hand money under the table, and so it is.

If that’s true, then specific convictions of right and wrong in business ethics will never be anything but cultural fashions, beliefs some community somewhere decides to hold up for a while until they decide to believe something else. Anything, the reasoning goes, may be morally good or bad in the economic world; it just depends on where you happen to be, at what time, and who else is around.

Key Takeaways

  • Cultural relativism is the suspicion that values and morality are culture specific—they’re just what the community believes and not the result of universal reason.
  • For cultural relativists, because all moral guidelines originate within specific cultures, there’s no way to dismiss one set of rules as wrong or inferior to those developed in another culture.

Review Questions

  1. Why do you imagine the term cultural relativism was chosen to mean what it does?
  2. Do you believe cultures are irreconcilably different? Or is it that deep down people are people and we’re really all the same? How does this distinction relate to the difference between cultural relativism and traditional theories of ethics?