University of Kansas, Fall 2004
Philosophy 160: Introduction to Ethics

Cultural relativism writing assignment and sample papers

Below is a writing assignment on cultural relativism, followed by two sample papers responding to the assignment. Comments on each of the two papers are also provided below. You do not have to write a paper on this topic yourself; the first writing assignment of the course will come a bit later, on a different topic. The purpose of this document is, simply, to help you to start thinking about what is involved in writing a good philosophy paper, by having you examine two papers written on a topic with which you have recently become familiar.

Here, then, is a writing assignment on cultural relativism:

“You will have noticed that the author of our book, James Rachels, is not very sympathetic to cultural relativism. Partly because of this, your assignment is to write a paper of not more than five pages in which you (1) explain the meaning of cultural relativism, (2) explain one of Rachels’s objections to it, and (3) offer the most effective response to that objection (that is, defense of cultural relativism against Rachels’s objection) that you can think of.”

The two sample papers that follow are quite different from one another. The first is only of acceptable quality, and thus would get a C. The second is of outstanding quality, and thus would get an A.

First read the paper called “Cultural Relativism,” keeping the foregoing assignment in mind. After reading the paper, review it in conjunction with the following comments on specific aspects of the paper, which help to explain why it would get a C:

  1. The paper’s title is bad; it should be more descriptive.
  2. Just in the first two paragraphs, the author sends some confusing signals about what his position is. At the end of the first paragraph (lines 15–17), the author implies that he’ll be defending cultural relativism against Rachels’s objection; but at the end of the second paragraph (lines 42–43), he says that cultural relativism is illogical. Although these two positions are not quite contradictory, they are sufficiently contrary to be very puzzling to a reader.
  3. The paragraph on p. 3 (lines 51–66) is not relevant to the author’s argument. If the author is trying (as suggested by his first paragraph) to attack Rachels’s objection to the cultural differences argument, then other objections that Rachels offers (which seem to be the main concern of the paragraph on p. 3) are irrelevant. The assignment says to deal with one of Rachels’s objections, not mention all of them.
  4. The paragraph going from p. 3 to p. 4 (lines 67–79) has some pretty good ideas in it, and it goes some distance towards refuting Rachels’s analogy between morality and geography. It should be developed more fully, though. (You should read this paragraph especially closely; we’ll be spending some time on it in class.)
  5. The paragraph that is entirely on p. 4 (lines 80–89)—like the paragraph that is entirely on p. 3, which I criticized above—is not relevant to the author’s argument. The fact that cultural relativism may or may not provide important insights does not bear on the soundness of Rachels’s analogy between morality and geography.
  6. On the whole, then, the author makes some promising moves towards attacking Rachels’s analogy between morality and religion (see especially point 4, above), but the author covers that topic too quickly. Instead of dealing with that topic in sufficient depth, the author devotes space to irrelevant aspects of the chapter, apparently thinking that he should go for breadth rather than depth. But the author would have been much better off devoting more space to the the insight that bears on Rachels’s objection to the cultural differences argument, and less space to other aspects of cultural relativism.
  7. The author’s writing also needs work: many of the sentences are awkward or unclear.
  8. In order of most serious to least serious, then, the three deficiencies of the paper are (a) devoting too little space to the author’s reply to Rachels’s objection to the cultural differences argument and too much space to irrelevant aspects of cultural relativism, (b) confusing the reader about the purpose of the paper, as explained in point 2, above, and (c) awkwardness and lack of clarity in the writing. These, as I said, are serious enough to make the paper deserve a C.

After you have examined the first paper in conjunction with the foregoing comments, read the paper called “The Cultural Differences Argument and Geography: Is This a Relevant Comparison?” After reading the paper, consider the following points, which help to explain why it would get an A:

  1. In the first two pages the author does a nice job of clearly summarizing cultural relativism, the cultural differences argument, and Rachels’s objection to this argument. This leaves the author plenty of space for a thorough critique of Rachels’s objection.
  2. The critique the author presents, from the top of p. 3 to the middle of p. 4 (lines 47–83), is very well done. The author takes one point—the claim that geography is not comparable to morality—a develops it in great depth. Note that the author’s point here is similar to the insight found in the paragraph that goes from p. 3 to p. 4 of the first sample paper. But here, the author develops it fully, instead of gesturing at it so briefly, as the author of the previous paper did. And the author of the second paper doesn’t waste space on irrelevant issues, as the first author did.
  3. Starting at the middle of p. 4 (line 84), the author anticipates a response that Rachels might offer, and she replies to this response. This is a good idea in principle—to try to figure out what someone you’re arguing against might say, and then refute that possible objection. In this paper, what the author says she anticipates that Rachels might say in response is reasonably clear, but her response (in the next-to-last paragraph of the paper) is not very clear. This could use some work.
  4. There are a few problems with the clarity of the author’s writing, but nothing major.
  5. On the whole, then, the author did well to develop her main point (that geography is not analogous to morality) in such depth. The lack of clarity in the next-to-last paragraph (noted above, in item 11) would result in a small deduction, as would the occasional lack of clarity in other parts of the writing, but the paper would still get an A, based on the depth in which its main point is developed.