Alan Kirker


March 28th, 2022 by

If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably – after careful considerations of their relative merits – choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best” (Herodutus; c.480 – c.429 BCE).

Theologian Hans Küng, referencing sociologist Emile Durkheim, states primitive religions have a core of reality nested not in some divine power, but rather in the notion of kinship; both with nature, expressed through totems of animals, plants and natural phenomena; and with each other, expressed in the notion of clan. Early nature-bound traditions thus defined a template for moral behaviour in these contexts, and importantly, Küng adds, throughout the whole long history of humanity, “no people or tribe has been found without any traces of religion” (1984, p. 49).

Anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict states culture evolves around a central mode of behaviour, which yields a set of “core values” (1934). Some of which, antithetical to what one’s own culture might consider rational, are instead the cornerstones of another’s societal structure, as in the case of magic practices on certain south east Asian islands, exemplified in one society,

“built on upon traits which we regard as beyond the border of paranoia. In (this) particular tribe the exogenic groups look upon each other as prime manipulators of black magic, so that one marries always into an enemy group which remains for life one’s deadly and unappeasable foes. They look upon a good garden crop as a confession of theft, for everyone is engaged in making magic to induce into his garden the productiveness of his neighbours …” (1934, p. 3).

Philosopher James Rachels explores the challenges of cultural relativism; that different cultures have different moral codes, where what is correct by one culture, can be seen as abhorrent by another, and vice versa. Such templates take the form of folkways and mores passed down through generations which contain the powerful “authority of ancestral ghosts”. The fundamental error of this view, according to Rachels, is that “right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture”, and which if we are to take seriously, would need to admit that waging war, taking slaves, or destroying an ethnic minority are rational, and that such behaviour can remain inoculated from criticism. Moreover, fundamental notions of moral progress, including basic rights and equality, could be called into doubt (1986).

Despite its shortcomings, the theory of cultural relativism has utility insofar as it warns us many of our moral standards are solely societal peculiarities, and we should not assume that all our preferences are based upon some absolute rational standard. Rachels suggests this view can thus lead us to be more understanding in our views towards others across the cultural divide:

“It is an attractive theory because it is based on a genuine insight – that many of the practices and attitudes we think so natural are really only cultural products. Moreover, keeping this insight firmly in view is important if we want to avoid arrogance and have open minds” (1986, p. 20).

Benedict, R. (1934), A Defense of Ethical Relativism, from Anthropology and the Abnormal, in The Journal of General Psychology, Issue 10, 1934, (pp. 1 – 8 ). [PDF document] Retrieved March 2022 from

Herodotus (N. D.), Herodotus the Moralist, [HTML document] Retrieved March 2022 from

Küng, H. (1984) Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem, translated by Edward Quinn. Garden City, United States: Doubleday & Company Inc.

Rachels, J. (1986), The Challenge of Cultural Relativism, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Ninth Edition (2019), (pp. 1 – 21). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. [PDF document] Retrieved March 2022 from


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