Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Relativism and Tolerance


The American Anthropological Association’s “Statement on Human Rights” was an attempt to argue against a universal declaration of human rights. The members of the Association were clearly worried that such a statement would be used as a pretext to maintain or extend colonial rule: “We have to stay in charge to ensure that they don’t violate individual rights.”

They weren’t wrong. Just about every war fought during my lifetime has been sold with a healthy dose of concern for the rights of women, minorities, or dissidents in the place being invaded. Come to think of it, the US has been occupying Afghanistan for as long as some of you have been alive. And yes, the necessity of doing so for the sake of democracy and human rights was front and center.

While their politics might have been on target, it’s less clear that their philosophy was. What we talked about today was whether the truth of moral relativism would show that the colonial powers, say, should be more tolerant of less powerful societies.

The basic idea is that if morality is relative to a culture, there is something misplaced about judging the members of another culture by the standards of one’s own culture. “They have their ways that are correct for them; while they would be incorrect for us, we should not judge them by our standards.” Does that hold up?

What is moral relativism?

Moral relativism is the view that each culture (or society, the terms are often used interchangeably) has its own moral code and that this code is the correct one for its members to follow.

It’s helpful to contrast moral relativism with two other positions: moral realism and moral nihilism.

  1. Moral realism: there is one true moral code for all cultures.
  2. Moral relativism: there are lots of equally true moral codes; there is one for each separate culture.
  3. Moral nihilism: there are no true moral codes for any culture.

Moral nihilists tend to agree with moral realists that moral beliefs are justified only if there is one true moral code. Nihilists think there isn’t a true code while realists think there is.

Moral nihilists agree with moral relativists that the various moral beliefs are equally justified. But moral relativists think they are all equally good; they’re all tied for first. Moral nihilists, on the other hand, think that all moral beliefs are equally bad; they’re all tied for last.

Sometimes when people are arguing about moral relativism, they slide between relativist and nihilist arguments. For example, an argument like this is sometimes made: “you think X but they think Y; who are you to say you’re justified in thinking you’re right and they’re wrong?”

This comes perilously close to nihilism. Suppose our “you” isn’t justified in believing X because “they” disagree and there is no neutral standpoint from which to evaluate the dispute. Then presumably “they” are not justified in believing Y for the same reason: there’s no neutral standpoint. But if no one is justified in believing anything, that’s pretty much nihilism.

Moral relativism, by contrast, would be the view that both you and they are equally justified. (Provided “you” and “they” are representative members of different cultures, that is.)

Do cultures have standards?

One point that dominated our discussion was the difficulty of determining what a culture’s moral standards are. Zach pointed out that no culture is uniform. Every one has disagreements about moral questions. If the relativist position is that each culture has its own moral standards that are correct for its members, there will have to be some way of determining who speaks for the culture when its members disagree.

Emma astutely observed that the disagreements often reflect differences in power. When the ruling autocrat says that his culture puts little value on democracy and human rights, well, it’s at least worth asking whether he’s really speaking for himself rather than his culture.

Whose standards should we use?

Let’s put this to a test. Suppose that you have a choice about interfering with another culture. There’s another society where what you regard as human rights are routinely violated. You want to put a stop to it, but you’re convinced by the anthropologists that moral standards are relative to a culture.

Whose standards should you use when evaluating the other society?

  1. Their culture’s standards.
  2. No standards at all; you should not judge them.
  3. Your culture’s standards.

It’s hard to see why moral relativism would tell us to use another society’s standards in determining what we should do. The thrust of the view is that each culture has its own standards that are correct for its members.

But each culture having its own standards that are correct for its members sounds like the third position: use your own culture’s standards. That would leave us exactly as inclined to intervene as we would have been before reading the Anthropologist’s statement.

What the anthropologists pretty clearly want is the second answer: you shouldn’t judge at all. But that’s very hard to do while also being true to your own culture’s moral standards. If we really believe in human rights and see them being violated how can we both retain our commitment to our society’s values and also say that we can’t judge?

It seems to me that the difficulties of maintaining the position they have in mind are on display in this paragraph towards the end of the statement.

Even where political systems exist that deny citizens the right of participation in their government, or seek to conquer weaker peoples, underlying cultural values may be called on to bring the peoples of such states to a realization of the consequences of the acts of their governments, and thus enforce a brake upon discrimination and conquest. For the political system of a people is only a small part of their total culture. (American Anthropological Association 1947, 543)

This is obviously a reference to Nazi Germany. If they had been strict about their hands-off attitude, they would have said that what happened in Nazi Germany is none of the outside world’s business; they can’t be judged. They are, of course, unwilling to say that. But instead of saying that they are judging Nazi Germany by their own standards, they look for a compromise: maybe some aspect of German culture could be used to express the outside world’s objections. That would be the first option: use their culture’s standards. But it would be used in bad faith, in my opinion, as the motivation for getting involved in the first place would have been driven by the anthropologists’ own moral standards.

Is there a fourth option?

Zoë said that I was leaving out a fourth option:

  1. Use the standards common to all cultures.

Fair enough, I did leave that out and that is what everyone really wants. Me too! However there are going to be problems.

First, that’s what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was supposed to be. And it’s what the Anthropological Association was against on the grounds that cultures are distinct and that there isn’t really one common humanity. So I’m not sure they would have been willing to go for it.

Second, I also think there would be some tricky questions about how to decide who is right when different culture’s views conflict with one another. It’s hard to imagine a compromise with Saudia Arabia over the rights of women, for instance; one side or the other is going to win. Speaking for myself, it’s also hard to see why a compromise would be desirable. I don’t see any reason to deviate from my moral beliefs in their direction. That’s not saying that I think the rest of the world should invade Saudi Arabia for the sake of women’s rights. But it is to say that we should feel free to say that we think they’re morally wrong with a clear conscience. That’s my opinion, at least.

Key Points

You only have to know the American Anthropological Association’s “Statement on Human Rights.” I won’t include the Benedict reading on the exam.

  1. How the American Anthropological Association’s Statement argues for tolerance on the basis of moral relativism.
  2. The difference between moral realism, moral relativism, and moral nihilism.
  3. The “whose standards should we use?” question.


American Anthropological Association. 1947. “Statement on Human Rights.” American Anthropologist 49 (4): 539–43.

Benedict, Ruth. 1934. “Anthropology and the Abnormal.” The Journal of General Psychology 10: 59–79.