Relativism – Part 10

Relativism – Part 10

Part Ten

One of the most attractive expressions of relativism is what is called “cultural relativism.” James Rachaels in his book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, defines cultural relativism and explores Its ramifications. I am indebted to him for much of the following but not the conclusions. As far I can tell, Mr. Rachaels does not adhere to any transcendent system of truth.


The sociologist, William Graham Sumner, writing in 1906 said:

The ‘right’ way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been handed down. The tradition is its own warrant. It is not held subject to verification by experience. The notion of right is in the folkways. It is not outside of them, of independent origin, and brought to test them. In the folkways, whatever is, is right. This is because they are traditional, and therefore in themselves the authority of the ancestral ghosts. When we come to the folkways we are at the end or our analysis.

According to this position, believing in a universal truth in ethics is believing a myth. The customs of different societies dictate different moral codes, precluding the possibility of having an independent standard of right and wrong by which they may be judged. Rachaels suggests that the cultural relativist operates from six presuppositions.

1. Different societies have different moral codes.

2. There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another.

3. The moral code of our own society has no special status. It is merely one among many.

4. There is no universal truth in ethics – that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.

5. The moral code of a society determines what is right within the society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least in that society.

6. It is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other people. We should develop an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.

Illustrations of this abound. For example, certain of the tribes of the American Indians indigenous to this country deserted elderly widows, allow­ing them to die through neglect and exposure to the elements. Certain tribes in Irian Jaya practice cannibalism. There are numerous examples of cultures practicing infanticide. To impose our moral code on such people and pronounce them wrong is nothing short of narrow-mindedness and bigotry. What Is necessary is to practice a sort-of moral isolationism. As Herodotus writes in his History, ‘Different cultures have different moral codes.” What is thought right in one group may be utterly abhorrent to the members of another group and vice versa.


The shortcomings of such a system are immediately apparent. If we embrace cultural relativism, then the United States is bigoted in denouncing apart­heid in South Africa. Or, possibly more importantly, we have no moral grounds for judging as wrong the anti-Semitism of Second World War Germany.

Rachaels goes on to note that if right and wrong are relative to culture, then it has to be true for our own culture as well as for others. Such relativism would not only forbid criticizing other societies, it would prevent us from criticizing our own, as we did slavery in the South prior to the Civil War. Furthermore, it would be hypocritical to talk in terms of a culture progressing in any moral way. For example, we might conclude that we prefer the way that women are treated in Twentieth Century America vis-a-­vis the way they were treated a couple of centuries ago, but we could not call this progress, for progress implies a right and wrong which simply does not exist in cultural relativism.


Rachaels seeks to “save the day’ by suggesting that there are morals that are common to all societies. For example, even though societies practice infanticide, all societies acknowledge the fact that human infants are helpless and require great care to survive and that it is in the best inter­est of a society that the children do survive simply for the preservation of the group.

This is the reason why there is a general prohibition against murder that transcends cultures. Even the cannibals of Irian Jaya are not allowed to apply their trade to fellow members of their tribe. These moral “rules’ are common to all societies in that they are necessary for the society to exist.

Notice, however, that this is a moralism born of pragmatism. For I may elect not to practice euthanasia with my parents, because I recognize that someday I will be old and it is not a precedent that I want to estab­lish for my children. That is, I don’t want my children to treat me the way that I treat my parents. The problem is that pragmatic morality ends up being relative. For example, I may reason that if I am in severe pain, I would like my children to mercifully take my life, and therefore I ought to do the same for my parents.


Truth, if absolute, must be the product of revelation, not reason. Truth may be reasonable in the sense that it does not contradict reason, but reason unaided by revelation can never lead to truth. Reason is the product of the mind, and the mind must deal with pragmatics.

Look again at the example of euthanasia. The Bible commands, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This is reasonable in that it does not offend our moral sensibilities. After all, they are the ones who gave us life and provided for us through the years of our immaturity.

Now these same parents are old, incontinent and suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. They are in constant need of care and a threat to our financial survival. Euthanasia is suggested as a solution – a quick, painless end to a life that is already finished. Reason unaided by revelation will give way to a pragmatic morality.


Roger Rosenblatt, writing in U.S. News and World Report, (2-27-89) suggests that the reaction to Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, is the product of the zealot’s imagination at three levels: (1) The protestors by and large haven’t read the book, and so imagine the content. (2) The faith they seek is the product of the imagination (3) They imagine the consequences of surrendering to the perceived threat.

Levels 2 and 3 presuppose that revelation is nonexistent apart from the mind’s ability to imagine it and that reason is all life has to offer. “Reason” therefore dictates that to be offended by Rushdie or Scorseses film, “The Last Temptation,” is indicative of the zealot’s imagination gone wild, while to protest against apartheid or women being denied access to the ministry of the church is reasonable.

Rosenblatt writes:

Inevitably zealotry must ignite explosions like the Rushdie riots, because it thrashes about in a rigid structure that it sought in the first place. Zealots deliberately will allow isolation (an­other act of the imagination). They allow themselves no room for skepticism and criticism, and yet it is the internal skepticism and criticism that give birth to the outbursts. In a way zealotry is a self-realizing prophecy; outer forces are indeed as threatening as they seem, for they have instilled the self-doubt that must eventually bring the zealot to his knees.

This is the conclusion of reason, as it evaluates revelation. Relativism is the product.


The cultural relativist finds fault with those of us who believe in a set of transcendent absolutes based on revelation, in part because we are inconsis­tent with our own system. Not infrequently the church absolutizes what the Bible allows as cultural preferences. Christians call it legalism. It is, in part, what Rosenblatt calls “a rigid structure.’

Legalism is adding to the commandments of God. It argues that certain things are wrong not because the Bible pronounces them as wrong, but rather because reason (especially reason enlightened by the Holy Spirit) dictates that they are wrong. Women’s apparel, the kind of cinemas one may view, what is an acceptable standard of living, the use of alcoholic beverages are all illustrative of our tendency to add to the commandments of God.

Usually these “additions” are the fruit of interpreting the positive commandments. For example, I Thessalonians 5:22 says “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” This is a positive commandment stated negatively. But what constitutes the appearance of evil? The cultural relativist is correct in noting that this will differ from society to society.

Again, Philippians 4:5 says, “Let your moderation be known to all men.” What does a moderate lifestyle look like? Tony Caupolo writing in World Vision’s Magazine said that anyone who owns and drives a BMW is living ever living in a Third World country with a per capita income of 5500 per year could as easily argue that anyone who owns an automobile is living in sin. Truly such issues are relative.

Legalism leads to relativism, for when you add to God’s commandments, as the legalist does, you end up being an authority greater than God. In essence, what you are saying is, “It may be that this thing is not specifically prohibited in the Bible, but if God had known our abuse that the practice of this thing leads, He certainly would have included it.”

This is a short step from saying, “It may be that this thing is expressly prohibited in the Bible, but if God had known our culture and the need to have this thing, He certainly would not have prohibited it.” When you assume the right to correct the deficiencies of God, you inevitably end up compromising the Biblical absolutes.

This is the reason why fundamental, evangelical, Bible-believing Christians in so many circles have less than sterling reputations in the marketplace.

They misrepresent the facts, refuse to meet their obligations and are poor credit risks. They reason, “If God had known that in the last half of the Twentieth Century men would use litigation as the basis of doing business, He would have not included passages such as I Corinthians 6.”

It is also the basis for concluding that there are “cultural” commands, such as the role of women in the church. Such arguments are the flip side of legalism and lead to relativism, for who decides whether a command is cultural? Invariably it is the culture seeking to modify the Biblical command.

Relativism is a hollow philosophy that will collapse like a supernova, vanishing into a black hole from which no light can escape. As Paul notes in Romans 2:1, the relativist cannot live consistently with his own system. Let us not prolong the life of this dead “star” by embracing a legalism inconsistent with revelation.

Grateful for His Truth,