The Challenge of Cultural Relativism by James Rachel

Paper Info
Page count 3
Word count 862
Read time 3 min
Topic Sociology
Type Essay
Language 🇺🇸 US


Cultural relativism is a rather controversial approach to ethics that states that no universal moral norms are uniform for every human on the planet. Essentially, it dictates that different cultures have different opinions on what is right and what is wrong, thus providing a variety of ethical dilemmas. In his essay, James Rachels discusses cultural relativism, its history, and, most importantly, plausibility and logical correctness. This work evaluates Rachels’ main claims and argument, offering an analysis of his essay.

Analysis of Rachels’ Argument

Providing a brief historical background for the emergence of cultural relativism, Rachels gives a comprehensive example of what exactly this approach dictates and what place it takes in the ethics’ overall system. He states that while the main cultural relativism argument might sound plausible and logical, it inherently is not, as rational analysis shows. Rachels uses dialectical logic to show that, while the premises for the cultural relativism argument might be true, the conclusion it comes to is false, as it operates on people’s beliefs rather than objective facts. Essentially, Rachels (1999) states that “the fundamental mistake in the cultural differences argument is that it attempts to derive a substantive conclusion about a subject from the mere fact that people disagree about it” (18). He also emphasizes that this mistake should not be overlooked, as it provides a logical argumentation for the whole concept of cultural relativism.

Rhetorical Strategies and How They Appeal to the Audience

The first and, perhaps, most powerful rhetorical strategy Rachel applies is the narrative approach in the first part of his essay. By presenting the historical premises of cultural relativism, he describes its main concepts in an efficient and interesting way, immediately drawing the audience to it. Insights into various cultures provide a necessary context, allowing the reader to understand and emphasize the text. Another rhetorical strategy Rachel uses is the comparison and contrast. By comparing two argument examples that use the logic of cultural relativism, he shows the innate error of it, which is easy to miss at first glance. This creates a very specific appeal for the audience, as such strategy offers the reader a tool with which they can effectively dissect further arguments and analyze them rationally.

Evaluation of Major and Supporting Claims, Their Persuasiveness, and Contribution to Rhetorical Appeals

The major claim Rachels presents lies in the statement that if different cultures have different moral values, then these values themselves are not objectively true. The author (1999) writes that “after all if right and wrong are relative to culture, this must be true for our own culture just as much as for other cultures” (19). From there stems a certain point – societies cannot judge each other for their practices, as they simply have different opinions on them. This implication is disturbing, as Rachels himself states because it can be used to justify, for example, the genocide of Jews during the II World War. The claim makes one of the strongest points of the whole essay, as the author discusses various consequences of such an approach.

Rachels then provides the first supporting claim for his argument – he states that if cultural relativism is applied, the beliefs of the majority in a concrete society become the standards of ethics for this society. One can then simply consult with their social group’s beliefs to determine right and wrong for themselves and act without any other regard. This claim mainly contributes to the rhetorical appeal of pathos, as Rachels also provides a heartfelt example of the consequences of such an approach. Another supporting claim provokes a lot of thoughts – as Rachels states, if one cannot criticize other society’s ethical values, it would also stop them from criticizing their own. The author claims that the relativity of “right” and “wrong” would become imperative, and thus, morality will be overlooked. It is a strong point of persuasion and adds to the logical appeal of Rachels’s rhetoric.

Identification and Evaluation of Rachel’s Audience

Seeing as Rachels presents his arguments in an easily understandable way, showcasing his claims with vivid examples and strong narration, it is clear that his audience should not be limited to only scholars and academics. The author discusses in depth the potential and limitations of cultural relativism, offering not only a critique of it but also outlining its strong points. His work might be recommended for high school, college, and university students, as it provokes a thoughtful assessment of cultural relativism and ethics in general. While a regular audience of news magazines might not fully engage with the essay and its ideas, perhaps, it could interest people who are concerned with the current state of society.


The main critique of relativism states that the principle of cultural relativity will weaken morality since, in this case, there are justifications for any manifestation of it, including such extreme forms as racism and Nazism. However, while outlining and supporting that particular fear, Rachels offers a different perspective in his essay, rationally analyzing cultural relativism as a whole. His ideas and argumentation remain especially relevant today, as the ambiguous nature of morality concerns philosophers’ minds in light of globalization and the world crisis.

Work Cited

Rachels, James. “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism.” Adapted from The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels, 1999, pp. 15-29. McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Cite this paper


NerdyBro. (2022, December 23). The Challenge of Cultural Relativism by James Rachel. Retrieved from


NerdyBro. (2022, December 23). The Challenge of Cultural Relativism by James Rachel.

Work Cited

"The Challenge of Cultural Relativism by James Rachel." NerdyBro, 23 Dec. 2022,


NerdyBro. (2022) 'The Challenge of Cultural Relativism by James Rachel'. 23 December.


NerdyBro. 2022. "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism by James Rachel." December 23, 2022.

1. NerdyBro. "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism by James Rachel." December 23, 2022.


NerdyBro. "The Challenge of Cultural Relativism by James Rachel." December 23, 2022.