Additional reading


There are versions of relativism for almost every area of human knowledge. One issue in understanding relativism is perfectly general: how can one have a logically coherent statement of relativism in any domain? A second issue is more specific: why think that one particular area, such as ethics, is subject to relativist analysis while another, say science, is not? I will mention two particularly good accounts of relativism. Both define a coherent general statement of relativism and defend, to a greater or lesser extent, ethical relativism.

First, one defender of relativism in ethics is, surprise surprise, Bernard Williams. See “The Truth in Relativism” in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society supplementary volume LXXV (1975), pp. 215-28; this essay is reprinted in Williams’s book Moral Luck (Cambridge UP: 1981). Also relevant are chapter 9 of Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985) and the first 37 pages of Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972). For criticism of Williams, see Jack Meiland, “Bernard Williams’ Relativism” Mind 88 (April 1979): 258-62 [JSTOR].

A second defense of relativism is Gilbert Harman’s “Moral Relativism Defended” Philosophical Review 84 (1975): 3-22. [JSTOR].

Harman engages in a very interesting exchange on relativism in ethics with Judith Jarvis Thomson; it is published as Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity (Blackwell, 1986).

Alan Gewirth disputes Harman’s characterization of his view on pp 51-52 of this book. Gewirth claims to have dealt with the relevant issue in Reason and Morality in a discussion of a character he calls “the amoralist.” I leave it up to others to decide who is right.


The American Anthropological Association revisited human rights in 1999. The Declaration on Anthropology and Human Rights is the official view of this professional association. (It goes without saying that this does not necessarily represent the views of all anthropologists).

The original 1949 statement was controversial even among anthropologists. To get a sense of the controversy, here are articles and letters published in the American Anthropologist that discuss moral relativism, arranged chronologically. (The Engle piece at the end is about how the controversy has played out in the professional association). These articles should be accessible to those with a University of Chicago internet connection via the JSTOR and MUSE links.

  1. Barnett, H. G. “On Science and Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 50, no. 2 (1948): 352-55. [JSTOR]
  2. Steward, Julian H. “Comments on the Statement on Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 50, no. 2 (1948): 351-52. [JSTOR]
  3. Bennett, John W. “Science and Human Rights: Reason and Action.” American Anthropologist 51, no. 2 (1949): 329-36. [JSTOR]
  4. Geertz, Clifford. “Distinguished Lecture: Anti Anti-Relativism.” American Anthropologist 86, no. 2 (1984): 263-78. [JSTOR]
  5. Washburn, Wilcomb E. “Cultural Relativism, Human Rights, and the AAA.” American Anthropologist 89, no. 4 (1987): 939-43. [JSTOR]
  6. Renteln, Alison Dundes. “Relativism and the Search for Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 90, no. 1 (1988): 56-72.
    Abstract: The theory of ethical relativism has been the subject of much misunderstanding. It is argued that the central insight of relativism is enculturation and not tolerance. Relativism is characterized as a metaethical theory about the nature of moral perceptions. As such it is logically consistent, permits moral criticism, and is compatible with cross-cultural universals. The existence of universals may indicate global support for particular human rights. [JSTOR]
  7. Cohen, Ronald. “Human Rights and Cultural Relativism: The Need for a New Approach.” American Anthropologist 91, no. 4 (1989): 1014-17. [JSTOR]
  8. Engle, Karen. “From Skepticism to Embrace: Human Rights and the American Anthropological Association from 1947-1999.” Human Rights Quarterly 23, no. 3 (2001): 536-59. [MUSE]

Case studies

As Waldron notes, the example that is thought to embarass relativists is clitoridectomy. Yale Tamir’s “Hands off clitoridectomy” in the Boston Review provoked a very interesting exchange over this case.

Linda Burstyn’s article Female Circumcision Comes to America shows that this is not something that happens only outside of American borders. Question: does it make a difference whether the procedure is done here or elsewhere? Are Americans allowed to regulate their own society, but not others? That seems to be an upshot of a kind of relativism: ban whatever offends you in your own society, but hands off others. On the other hand, one gets the sense that those who are attracted to tolerance of other societies would find that artificial.

On the other hand, Americans have their own rites and rituals that can seem pretty barbaric too. For example, in making the case for thinking that ancient Pueblo Indians practiced cannibalism, Jared Diamond notes that, “many behaviours accepted by one society are abhorred by another. The horror of my New Guinea friends when I described circumcision, US treatment of the elderly, and US funeral customs matched Westerners’ horror at cannibalism.” Source: Jared Diamond, “Talk of Cannibalism” Nature 407 (2000) 25-26.