By looking at a canonical article representing academic philosophy’s orthodox view against cultural relativism, James Rachels’ “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism,” this paper argues that current mainstream western academic philosophy’s fear of cultural relativism is premised on a fear of the racial Other. The examples that Rachels marshals against cultural relativism default to the persistent, ubiquitous, and age-old stereotypes about the savage/barbarian Other that have dominated the history of western engagement with the non-western world. What academic philosophy fears about cultural relativism, it is argued, is the barbarians of the western imagination and not fellow human beings. The same structure that informs fears of cultural relativism, whereby people with different customs are reduced to the barbarian/savage of the western imagination, can be seen in the genesis of international law which arose as a justification for the domination of the Amerindian (parsed as “barbarians”). It is argued that implicit in arguments against cultural relativism is the preservation of the same right to dominate the Other. Finally, it is argued that the appeal of the fear of cultural relativism is that, in directing moral outrage at others, one can avoid reflecting on the failures of one’s own cultural tradition.
Comment: Introductory reading to be used for students at undergraduate or graduate level claiming that current mainstream philosophy’s fear in the Western academic environment of cultural relativism is based on an intrinsic fear of the racial 'Other'.