PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday January 21, 2015




[3.] Moral-Cultural Relativism.


[3.1.] A Rough Statement of MCR.


We have already encountered this theory:


moral skepticism (df.): the view that there are no objective truths about which actions are right and which actions are wrong, i.e., no moral judgments are true (or false) independent of what people think, feel or believe about morality.[1]

·         One may be a moral skeptic about all morality (“full blown” moral skepticism) or just about specific issues, such as infanticide (“limited” moral skepticism).


The theory that we will now consider is a form of full-blown moral skepticism. It begins with full-blown moral skepticism and adds more ideas to it to make it more specific.


Your textbook calls this theory “cultural relativism”. I will call it moral-cultural relativism (MCR).[2]


According to MCR, whether an action is right or wrong is a matter of the beliefs and attitudes that people have in the society within which the action is performed. This theory says that whatever behaviors are believed to be right or wrong by the members of a society are right or wrong within that society; i.e., morality is relative to culture.


[We will see a more detailed statement of MCR below.]


What does it mean to say that one thing is relative to another?  It means that the one thing depends on the other in some important way. For example,


MCR says something analogous about morality: whether a given action is morally right or morally wrong is relative to the culture of one’s society; more specifically, morality is relative to what people in one’s society believe about morality.


Why is MCR is a form of full-blown moral skepticism?

·         If morality is nothing but what people in a given society believe about right and wrong, then there is no such thing as objective morality—no such thing as morality apart from what people think about it; and that is exactly what full-blown moral skepticism says.

·         MCR adds the idea that morality depends on culture, or more specifically, that it depends on what people in a given society believe about morality.



[3.2.] An Illustration of MCR: Polygamy.


polygamy (df.): having more than one spouse or mate at a time; more often than not, this involves one man having multiple wives.


·         Polygamy is thought to be morally permissible in some societies (and in some segments of American society) but is thought to be morally wrong in others.

·         It is still practiced by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). An estimated 37,000 members of this church reside in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, South Dakota, and British Columbia.[3]

·         FLDS members living at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas made headlines in 2008, when the Ranch was raided and 462 children 17 years old or younger were taken into custody. Officials feared that many children were being subjected to sexual abuse.

·         The president of the FLDS, Warren Jeffs, was convicted in Texas in 2011 of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 15 and 12, whom he had taken as wives. Prosecutors presented evidence that he had 78 wives, 12 of whom were younger than 15 years old. Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.[4]


According to MCR, there is no truth of the matter about whether forced polygamy involving underage girls is right or wrong universally, just like there is no truth of the matter about whether UWG is on the left or the right of I-20, universally. According to MCR, whether polygamy is right or wrong depends on the society in question. In some societies, it is morally permissible; in others it is immoral; and that’s all there is to it.



Stopping point for Wednesday January 21. For next time:

          as always, study today’s lecture notes;

          continue reading EMP ch.2: pp.17-21 (sections 2.3 and 2.4).


Heads up: your second response paper, on EMP ch.4, is due one week from today.


Another heads up… your first exam is scheduled for Monday February 9. I will post a study guide soon.



[1] Many different theories have been labeled “moral skepticism”. See Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “Moral Skepticism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>, accessed January 15, 2015. What Rachels calls “moral skepticism” is labeled skepticism about moral truth by Sinnott-Armstrong.


[2] Sometimes, MCR is referred to simply as “cultural relativism”—this is how your textbook refers to it. But the name “cultural relativism” is used to refer to a number of different theories. Most of these theories claim that something is relative to (dependent on) one’s culture or society. But not all of them refer specifically to morality. One claims that standards of evidence (what counts as good or bad evidence) are relative to one’s society; another claims that all truths (not just moral, but historical, scientific, etc.) are relative to one’s culture.

A theory called “cultural relativism” that is prevalent in anthropology has nothing to do with morality: “[T]he essential point of cultural relativism may be stated simply: in studying another culture, do not evaluate the behavior of its members by the standards and values of its own culture. . . . To anthropologists, relativism is a methodological principle that refers to an outlook that is essential for maximum objectivity and understanding when studying a people whose way of life differs from their own” (James Peoples and Garrick Bailey, Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, 10th ed., Cengage Learning, Stamford, CT, 2015, p.15). It is unfortunate that this view is called “cultural relativism”, since it does not say that something is relative to something else!

When you hear someone refer simply to “cultural relativism,” you should ask: exactly what theory do you mean? What does the theory say is relative to culture: morality, standards of evidence, truth, or something else?


[3] The Primer: A Guidebook for Law Enforcement and Human Services Agencies who offer Assistance to Fundamentalist Mormon Families, August 2009, URL = < >, p.18; accessed January 20, 2015


[4] Lindsay Whitehurst, “Warren Jeffs Gets Life in Prison for Sex with Underage Girls,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 9, 2011; updated August 11, 2011. URL = < >, accessed August 30, 2011.

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