For the purposes of this question, take the Cultural Relativist Thesis to be the claim that what actions are right and wrong is a function of the which actions the norms of one's culture endorse as right and condemn as wrong.

Say that that thesis works for a member of an isolated and culturally homogeneous hunter gatherer cultural group. For members of contemporary "modern" societies, there seems to be a problem that does not arise for the members of isolated and homogeneous groups.

We all are members of multiple cultures at one time. Consider, for example, a liberal Catholic native French-speaking resident of the Canadian Province of Manitoba. She belongs to Canadian, Manitoban, Francophone, Franco-Manitoban, Catholic and liberal Catholic cultures. She likely also belong to other subcultures based on her profession and hobbies. On at least some moral issues, these various cultural affiliations will pull in different directions. For instance, overall, Canadian culture supports same sex marriage, Catholic culture does not, and support for same sex marriage is lower in the Prairie provinces (such as Manitoba) then the more populous provinces.

So, how do proponents of the Cultural Relativist Thesis respond to the difficulty that, for most people in the world, there is no one unique culture to which they belong and that the various cultures to which a person belongs may provide both the verdicts of "right" and of "wrong" for some particular actions?

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    I would imagine the response is that multiculturalism is a culuture too - what the moral relativist needs as a starting point is that any individual is culturally localized even if that localization is the focus of overlapping subcultures - you can still take it as one culture for the sake of argument. Can you not? I haven't thought this through but it doesn't seem to me to present an immediate difficulty for moral/cultural relativism
    – Chuck
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 9:35
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    @Chuck Say we do take the various different cultures in which one person is embedded as a single culture. (I think that there are some pretty serious problems with that, but leave them aside.) It is almost certain that there will be at least one morally controversial practice X such that that, according to this version of the Cultural Relativist Thesis, the "single" multiculture to which we have supposed the person belongs, says of X both that X is right and that X is wrong. I don't rule out that there may be something to say to diffuse the worry, but it is a prima facie problem, surely.
    – vanden
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 15:35

2 Answers 2


Chuck makes a good point: what constitutes a "culture" should be regarded as a dynamic entity, i.e. you could say liberal Catholic native French-speaking residents of the Canadian Province of Manitoba form their own, small, particular culture in some regards.

With regard to cultural relativism, it might be practical to speak of a community rather than a culture—a group of people holding certain common opinions, rather than the set of opinions itself: if a culture is shared by zero people, it is irrelevant to cultural relativism.

However, this does not address the essence of your question. Suppose I were a part of the above ad-hoc defined culture, but also in an underground group of hypochondriac lesbian dominatrices. These two cultures overlap only in me, which could hardly be said to constitute a community. One could say that, where relevant, each person had his own, individual culture: but that would defeat the purpose of the theory of cultural relativism, which suggests that people's opinions are influenced by their peers.

It would seem best to say that each person is part of several distinct cultures at once. Each of them influences his opinions. Sometimes these influences would lead to contradictory opinions; in that case, he may be under stronger influence from one culture than from the others, leading to his accepting it and rejecting the others; alternatively, both influences may be equally strong, resulting in his being torn and undecided.

The hypochondriac lesbian dominatrix in me feels that gay marriage should be accepted: the Catholic in me disagrees. The influence of my lesbian friends might trump that of my Catholic family, or vice versa; or I might go see a shrink because I am nonplussed. But in any case my views are directed by the complex of different cultures that I am a part of.

The clue is that "culture" is not a thing with clear boundaries, but rather a fluid continuum, just like religion. Consider Wittgenstein's insight that what constitutes a "game" is best compared to a family of internally related things, rather than a group of things that all share a fixed set of properties. Similarly, "liberal" denotes a group of people, but they probably do not all share the same properties. Some might merely be economic liberals, while others are only socially liberal. What defines culture is not quite comparable to a mathematical definition.

  • Note that the version of the Cultural Relativist Thesis that is involved in the question is the one whereby the norms of one's culture determine what is right and wrong, not the much weaker, and surely true claim that one's opinions are influenced by one's culture. Saying that each of the cultures in which you are involved contributes to your opinions and that you decided amongst them is open to the weaker reading. But, the version I asked about seems not to admit of that; on that stronger thesis, it seems that there is a fact about what is right and if you chose otherwise, you are in error.
    – vanden
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 14:19
  • @vanden: I think a theory of cultural relativism would say that anyone's judgement that a certain action is absolutely wrong (or the converse) is just another opinion, though a strong one. To the person whose morality we are analysing, it may seem that this action's wrongness is a universal truth, and that she is not at all influenced by the various communities she is a part of; but the theory says that her absolute moral conviction can nevertheless be traced back to them. Or is that not your point? Perhaps a reference to the version of the Cult.Rel.Thesis that you have in mind would help.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 3:13

Cultural relativity is more easily understood if you realize that it isn't about "right" and "wrong" but about "appropriate" and "inappropriate". The appropriate reaction among one group of people may not be the same for another. It all depends on the group. The amount of influence a culture has on someone determines their concept of appropriateness. For instance someone strongly influenced by fundamentalist Christianity may oppose gay marriage and prostitution, despite living in Holland.

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