According to James Rachels, what lessons can be learned from cultural relativism?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Rachels's main point about cultural relativism is that there are many aspects within it that are commendable, but this does not mean that we "have to accept the whole theory."  Rachels concludes one element that can be learned from cultural relativism is that many actions, beliefs, and behaviors are culturally relative.  Rachels cites the examples of Herodotus' retelling of the Callatians who eat their dead.  Rachels' point is that outside of our own cultural repugnance at such a practice, it is relative because their practice communicates the same love and respect that we display in our own culture when we honor those who have died.  When Rachels says, "What of it," in expressing the supposed cultural disdain for eating the dead, he means it as a lesson that can be learned from cultural relativism.  Namely, this lesson stresses that our own cultural frame of reference is the dominant idea that guides our thinking, as Rachels cites from Herodotus: 

For if anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations of the world the set of  beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably, after  careful consideration 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.

This becomes one of the basic lessons that can be learned from cultural relativism. Our own prejudices and predispositions are intrinsic to our being.  We must recognize this when we examine and assess other cultural practices and beliefs.  Rachels is not saying that this means complete validation of the theory, but it does bear importance in how we judge and what we believe to be valid.

The other lesson that Rachels suggests can be learned from cultural relativism is to keep tolerance and understanding in our thoughts.  As we understand our own cultural points of reference which dominate our individual paradigms, Rachels suggest that a lesson of cultural relativism is our own thoughts might change over time or through the experience of seeing our beliefs challenged. Rachels believes that the need to "keep an open mind" is a lesson from cultural relativism.  What our own society considers abhorrent and repugnant might become socially acceptable over time or might change through our interactions with others.  Rachels uses the example of homosexuality as evidence of the need to "keep an open mind."  Rachels feels that this becomes another valuable lesson out of cultural relativism, allowing us to "accept without going on to accept the whole theory."

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