NOTES on M. J. Herskovits (1895-1963): An Ethical Relativist


Melville Jean Herskovits is an anthropologist who was born in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1895, and who died in 1963. He believed in cultural relativism; that is, he believed that good and bad, right and wrong, are relative according to the culture that you live in. What a culture believes is right is in fact right for that culture; also, the same thing can be both right and wrong at the same time — right for one culture, but wrong for another culture. Cultural relativism is compatible with ethical relativism.

Ethical relativism is the opposite of objectivism (aka absolutism), which believes that right and wrong do not vary and are not a matter of opinion. According to objectivism, if one culture believes that an act is right and another culture believes that the same act is wrong, one of the cultures is mistaken.

As an anthropologist, Herskovits was aware of the existence of cultural diversity. No one can deny that cultures are very different; certainly the Inuit (Eskimo) culture is very different from the culture of middle-class people in the United States. However, this by itself is not enough to establish ethical relativism. So, what is Herskovits’ argument for cultural relativism?

Evaluations Vary with Different Definitions

Herskovits begins his argument by stating that “evaluations are relative to the cultural background out of which they arise.” For example, different cultures will evaluate polygamy very differently. People in the United States are monogamous, meaning they have no more than one wife or one husband. However, in the West African culture of Dahomey, a single man can have many wives. Many Americans will evaluate this polygamy as morally wrong; however, the Africans evaluate this polygamy as morally right.

One point made by Herskovits is that such a polygamous arrangement has some advantages not apparent at first to outsiders. For one thing, it is a successful arrangement. Children are born and raised in these polygamous relationships, which is certainly a main goal of the family. Also, the women do have some measure of freedom, since each woman has her own house, moving into the husband’s house for a few days only when it is her turn. These women also gain prestige according to the size of the collective, and so a woman will often provide money or gifts to help her husband acquire another wife.

Herskovits writes, “Thus polygamy, when looked at from the point of view of those who practise it, is seen to hold values that are not apparent from the outside. A similar case can be made for monogamy, however, when it is attacked by those who are enculturated to a different kind of family structure. And what is true of a particular phase of culture such as this, is also true of others. Evaluations are relative to the cultural background out of which they arise.”

Attitudes Result from Enculturation

So where do our attitudes toward such things as monogamy and polygamy arise? According to Herskovits, our attitudes come from our culture. These attitudes are instilled in us by the culture in which we live. For example, why do Americans believe that polygamy is morally wrong? They learned it from the people around them — in Sunday school, for example, or from their parents. All of us are enculturated, meaning that, according to Herskovits, all of us acquire our ethical beliefs from the culture in which we live. Enculturation is cultural conditioning.

Norms and Normality Vary

What is considered normal varies from culture to culture. Herskovits has done much research among blacks in Africa and has discovered that “possession” — having a god enter and take over your body — is considered normal in some African cultures. In these cultures, the most well-adjusted citizens are those who are occasionally possessed by a god; if you do not occasionally become possessed by a god, then you are less well adjusted than those who do.

A Defense of Relativism

If ethical relativism is correct, then what happens to morality? Does it become meaningless? After all, cultures vary considerably in what they consider right, so if there is no objective right and wrong, why bother trying to be moral? Herskovits attempts to respond to this charge.

First, Herskovits points out that values do exist in each culture. In addition, he points out that the anthropologist attempts to understand each culture’s values. An advantage of this approach is that it leads to tolerance.

We can object to this, however, because isn’t there a limit to tolerance? Just how much are we willing to tolerate? Are we willing to tolerate slavery in a culture which believes in it? Are we willing to tolerate genocide by Nazi Germany if the Nazis sincerely believe that the “final solution” is morally right because they sincerely believe the Jews are inferior? Are we willing to tolerate rape by males of a culture that believes rape is a sign of manhood? Understanding and dialogue are virtues; however, tolerance can sometimes be a vice.

Second, Herskovits draws a distinction between absolutes and universals. He writes, “Absolutes are fixed, and, in so far as convention is concerned, are not admitted to have variation, to differ from culture to culture, from epoch to epoch. Universals, on the other hand, are those least common denominators to be extracted, inductively, from comprehension of the range of variation which all phenomena of the natural or cultural world manifest.”

An absolute would be a moral law that is not relative according to culture, place, or time. For example, an example of an absolute moral law would be, “Rape is wrong” or “Human life is valuable” or “Genocide is wrong.” Herskovits denies the existence of absolutes. However, he does believe in universals. For example, Herskovits believes that each culture has a morality, enjoyment of beauty, and some standard for truth. Law and education are also universals of each culture. However, what is considered moral, beautiful, true, lawful, and a good education will vary from culture to culture.

We can object to this, however, because doesn’t the existence of universals reveal the existence of absolutes? If every culture has a morality, enjoyment of beauty, some standard for truth, laws, and education, doesn’t each culture believe in the absolutes that morality is good, beauty is good, truth is good, law is good, and education is good? Variations in such things as what is considered moral may mean that not every culture has discovered the truth about morality yet. After all, cultures vary in what they have discovered about science, yet we don’t consider science to be relative.

Third, Herskovits makes a distinction between cultural relativism and individual relativism. If each individual decided what is right and wrong, good and bad, then the result would be social chaos. However, Herskovits believes that each culture decides what is right and wrong, good and bad, thus giving each culture a measure of stability.

We can object to this, however, because Herskovits doesn’t give his reasons for accepting cultural relativism and rejecting individual relativism. Is his reason that cultural relativism has a measure of stability, while belief in individual relativism would lead to instability? If so, what would Herskovits say about reformers such as Martin Luther King? Wouldn’t he have to say that Martin Luther King was a radical who was upsetting things and ought to have stayed quiet and accepted the values of racist, Jim Crow America?

Walter T. Stace makes an excellent, pragmatic attack against relativism.

Note: The quotations by M. J. Herskovits that appear in this essay are from his book The Science of Cultural Anthropology (Alfred A. Knopf, 1947, 1948).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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