Introduction to Philosophy
Prof. Walter Edelberg
Philosophy 100
UIC Fall 2000
 
Study Questions on James Rachels, “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism”


1. At the top of page 537, Rachels writes, “But there is no such independent standard; every standard is culture-bound.” When Rachels says this, is he (a) asserting his own view, or (b) describing someone else's view in order to discuss it? (This is the sort of question you have to ask yourself very often when reading philosophy.)

2. What is cultural relativism? (It's often called “moral relativism.”) Does this view say that no moral beliefs are objectively and absolutely true? That only some moral beliefs are objectively and absolutely true? Or that all moral beliefs are objectively and absolutely true?

3. One argument for cultural relativism is the cultural differences argument. In its most general form, what are the premises of this argument? What is the conclusion? Why, exactly, does Rachels think this is a flawed argument? Does Rachels think his criticism shows that the conclusion of the argument is false? Why or why not?

Remark. One way of trying to show that a given claim is false is to show that it logically entails other claims that are obviously false, or at least highly implausible. Here's an example of such reasoning: “It's false that there is a natural number greater than all the others, because this would entail that for some number n, n is greater than n + 1.” Similarly, one way to show that a given statement should be rejected is to show that if you accepted it (and were logically consistent), you would also have to accept certain other unappealing statements that follow from it. Rachels tries to use these methods to argue against cultural relativism in the section, “The Consequences of Taking Cultural Relativism Seriously.”

4. Rachels argues that cultural relativism logically entails certain other propositions that he regards as highly implausible. That is, he thinks that if you accept cultural relativism (and are logically consistent), then you will have to accept certain other implausible propositions. (a) What are these other propositions? (b) Is Rachels right in thinking that cultural relativism entails them? (c) Are they as implausible as Rachels claims?

Remark. Suppose that a particular theory is based on certain evidence (as, for example, cultural relativism is based on the varying moral beliefs of peoples in different places and different times). Suppose that you reject that theory (as, for example, Rachels rejects cultural relativism). Then you need either (i) to explain that evidence in some other way (as Rachels attempts to explain the variety of moral beliefs without appealing to cultural relativism), or (ii) to reject the evidence altogether and explain why it is unreliable.

5. How does Rachels explain the variation of moral beliefs across cultures without appealing to cultural relativism? What factors does he think contribute to these moral beliefs, and how?

Remark. At the beginning of the course, I mentioned that one goal of the course was to explore the territory that lies between philosophical dogmatism and philosophical egalitarianism. The methods described in the two previous remarks are examples of methods that one uses in the territory that lies between those two extremes. The method of paradigm examples is a third example (even if some of the people we have read don't use that method very skillfully). We have seen yet other examples in play, even if we haven't isolated them.

6. Does Rachels think that no moral beliefs are objectively and absolutely true? That only some moral beliefs are objectively and absolutely true? Or that all moral beliefs are objectively and absolutely true?