Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Is It All Relative?

In his book, On Cannibals, Michel de Montaigne writes, "Each man calls barbarian whatever is not his own practice...[because] we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in."

Yet by living with a Filipino headhunting tribe, Stanford University anthropologist Renato Rosaldo gained a new perspective on the opinions and practices of his own country, as he describes in this Issues in Ethics. "Of Headhunters and Soldiers: Separating Cultural and Ethical Relativism" is an excerpt from his talk for this year’s Markkula Seminar Series, which focused on cultural relativism.

Another look at ethics and culture is provided by "The Extra Mile" and "Strangers into Friends," two articles by a Jewish and an Arab woman drawing parallels between the concept of hospitality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This ancient virtue is then examined as a possible means toward establishing peaceful relations between the peoples of the Middle East.

Finally, "The Best Interests of the Child" looks at whether cultural differences, among others, should have a role in determining child custody. Highlighting the Elian Gonzalez case, the authors argue that children’s right to a relationship with those who have nurtured them supercedes differences of nationality, ethnicity, wealth, and other factors.

This Issues in Ethics follows in the publication’s tradition of finding a theme—in this case cultural and ethical relativism—in articles on disparate subjects. The next Issues in Ethics will take a different tack, focusing on a single subject from a variety of different perspectives. With a grant from the Kemper Foundation, we are beginning to develop materials on the special ethical dilemmas faced by start-up companies. Please check our Web site, the Ethics Connection ( to weigh in with your thoughts on this important issue, as we prepare cases and articles for a fall publication.