Saturday, 31 October 2015

An Alternative to Cultural Relativism - Part 1

Happy Halloween everyone! Last year I scared some liberals by expressing my opposition to cultural relativism in this controversial post. It became my most popular post, until another (widely re-blogged) article, which liberals would also consider racist, surpassed it. 

This (somewhat abstract) post is the first in a two part discussion of cultural relativism. It will put forward philosophical views which will then by applied in the second post, which will deal more closely with real life issues. I hope this series will cause just as much controversy as the last did.

The term “cultural relativism” refers to the belief that whether an action is right or wrong depends on what a particular culture says about it. Cultural relativists believe that otherwise objectionable practices can be excused if they are part of the "culture" (whatever that means, liberals often make it mean whatever they want) of those performing them. Cultural relativism is a type of moral relativism, the belief that there is no such as a “universal” morality and that the moral acceptability of an action is determined by whether those performing it believe that is it morally acceptable. Everything is permitted by moral relativism, except confidently asserting a moral viewpoint, which is seen as an oppressive attempt to “force your morality” onto other people.

Cultural relativists try to give moral relativism a progressive veneer. They assume that the cultural or ethnic background of a person completely determines their moral viewpoints and since they believe that viewing an action as acceptable makes it acceptable, they oppose all criticisms of cultural practices. They label such criticisms as racist or “Western centric”. In this post, I will propose a philosophical alternative to cultural relativism, one which is consistent with fighting against racism. Those who feel it is not are free to tell me why, though past experience leads me to think that they would rather stay on their own sites and complain about me instead.

In Defence of Moral Universalism

According to this philosophy website, there are two alternatives to moral relativism (and, by extension, cultural relativism), moral absolutism, the view that no aspects of the situation (or "context", as the site puts it) are relevant when determining the morality of an action, and moral universalism. I adhere to the second. In fact, hardly anyone is a consistent moral absolutist, except perhaps liberals, who believe that all consensual acts are good and all actions which are not consensual are bad, regardless of the context, consequences or specific nature of the acts. 

Most people agree that the scenario in which an action takes place influences whether the action is right or wrong. For example, killing someone is wrong is almost all cases, but many would agree that it is okay to kill someone who is suffering from a painful, terminal illness and thus wishes to die. Consent alone does not make killing acceptable (most people would object to assisting the suicide of a healthy person who had no good reason to end their life), but a drastic situation can. This is called "situational ethics" and is consistent with universalism (see the next section for more information about situational ethics).

What is not consistent with moral universalism is the belief that right and wrong vary arbitrary depending on what time and place you are in, or rather, whose rule you are under. While proponents of moral universalism take the situation into account when deciding what is right or wrong, they also think for themselves (by applying reason and a concern for ethical values) and do not rely on the dominant ideology of their society (or its "culture") to make such determinations for them. 

Supporters of moral universalism recognise, for example, that neither crossing a border into a state which permits slavery (and justifies it on the grounds of "culture" or "tradition") nor travelling back in time to a period where slavery was common throughout the Western world, magically makes slavery morally acceptable. In such cases, we would simply be living in a society where many people had the wrong stance regarding slavery, one which reinforced a brutal, and usually racist, hierarchy.

If a person is born into such a society, that also does not make it acceptable for them to practice slavery. It may make them believe that slavery is acceptable (though many who lived in societies which practiced slavery, including slaves themselves, recognised that it was wrong and fought to abolish it), but rejecting moral relativism leads one to recognise that beliefs about morality are not always correct. A person who has a wrong stance with regard to a certain moral issue is not necessarily evil overall, but a wrong viewpoint is a wrong viewpoint, regardless of the characteristics of the person proposing it.

I take the stance that we should oppose systems in which some exercise power over others and fight for their abolition, regardless of when, where or how such systems came about. This radical approach falls within the category of moral universalism. Such reasoning would enable one to show solidarity with (and perhaps even take part in) struggles which challenge the dominant cultures of their times, including movements against slavery, genocide and male dominance. However, taking such stances requires critical thinking, as well as a willingness to come into conflict with those in power. 

Unfortunately, modern day liberals, including cultural relativists, have neither. Their belief that “culture” must be respected at all costs and that society decides what is morally acceptable would have encouraged them to take the side of the reactionaries (who fought to maintain their “cultural traditions”) during these historical struggles, though what they would have actually done cannot be known.

Moral Universalism and Situational Ethics

Sometimes it can be tricky to distinguish situational ethics from cultural relativism, since cultural norms may be part of a situation. For example, suppose a couple lives in a society where the only way for to ensure that their daughter has enough food, water and other essential resources is to compel her to marry a rich man. Suppose also that men in this society refuse to marry any female who has not undergone a particular body modification (such as female genital mutilation). It is understandable that the couple would encourage their daughter to undergo harmful procedures, if the only alternative was allowing her to starve to death. In this situation, the couple would be applying situational ethics, not cultural relativism (though whether or not they were doing the right thing would still be debatable). 

On the other hand, there are some who justify dangerous and unnecessary surgeries through blind appeals to culture, tradition or religion without any rational arguments or regard for the effects of their practices on women and girls. This sort of thinking is an example of not only cultural relativism, but authoritarianism, but is nonetheless defended by liberals who claim to oppose authoritarianism. In any case, if one does not defend their actions through rational arguments (which usually address the consequences of possible actions) but instead appeals to their “culture” as an infallible, moral authority, they cannot claim to be applying situation ethics. They are practising either authoritarianism or relativism, not that there is much difference between the two (see this earlier post for more information about their similarities).

While I would not heap condemnation upon those who perform oppressive practices on their daughters in response to challenging situations, it is important to struggle against the economic and cultural conditions which create such scenarios in the first place. There should be (and are) movements which fight for females to have access to education and jobs, such that they can receive an income without marrying. The idea that a female must modify her body in medically unnecessary ways in order to be a worthy sexual partner must also be resisted. Those in the West who believe in the rights of females should show solidarity towards local movements which strive to combat such practices in these ways, instead of the cultural institutions or social norms which necessitate them.

Are There Universal Values?

Throughout history there have been movements that have upheld egalitarian values in opposition to the hierarchical values which characterised the cultures they lived under. These daring movements (which include the movements against slavery discussed above, as well as movements fighting for the liberation of women, national independence or democracy) were motivated by common human values. Such values include equality, liberty, courage and benevolence (particularly towards the vulnerable). Some movements have even gone beyond promoting particular causes based on these values and developed broader political ideologies, (such as socialism, communism, anarchism and radical feminism) devoted to fighting for them on multiple fronts.

In spite of liberal instance that there are no universal human values or rights, these radical viewpoints are not confined to one culture, country, continent or race. The global spread of such movements (along with more moderate ones fighting against extreme human rights violations) is evidence against the cultural relativist assumption that cultural background completely dictates ethical and political thinking. 

There are things which the vast majority of human beings desire, including physical survival, positive interactions with other humans and freedom from tyranny, abuse or exploitation. According to liberals and relativists, pointing out such similarities is a "totalising" attempt to ignore or destroy human difference. Somehow recognising that people of other racial and cultural groups have things in common with you has come to be perceived as racist, while the belief that such people have little in common with you (apart from "diversity") is supposedly progressive. 

In reality, recognising the near universality of some traits does not mean believing that there is no variation among human beings at all or that all differences must be abolished. Only traits which pose a clear threat to human values, such as the desire to dominate and abuse others, should be combated. Morally neutral variations in personality do not need to be.

While it is true that not every human being on the planet values the same things, the similarities between modern societies, with regard to values like freedom and equality, stand out more than their differences. Even some of the most oppressive regimes have claimed to stand for these values. Dictators claim that they protect their people from (real or imagined) threats to their liberty (including communism, fascism and more recently, Islamic terrorism). Capitalists and conservative Christians insist that they treat those they dominate (workers and women, respectively) as equals by giving them "equal opportunity" to rise to power or "equal value" (so long as they conform to their subordinate role). Who are the ones that truly uphold such values? That is the part where critical thinking and rational debate are needed, or to put it another way, the part where relativists give up.


In summary, the best philosophical alternative to cultural relativism is moral universalism, which can be applied by putting forward a set of general moral values (such as liberty, equality and benevolence) and basing moral decisions on these values, while employing critical thinking. It is possible to oppose cultural relativism and adhere to universal ethical principles, while taking into account the specific situations that members of oppressed racial and economic groups face.

There is no need for anyone to blindly believe what their culture (which was probably created by a ruling class seeking to maintain its rule) tells them about what is right and wrong. The same basic values, employed in response to different conditions, can motivate people all over the world to fight for human liberation and against unnecessary hierarchies.
Thank you for reading my second attempt to address cultural relativism. Are you terrified by my dismissal of liberal, “diversity” worship? If so, let me know in the comments and if not, check out the rest of my blog for more ruthless rebuttals of liberalism. Either way I hope you all have had (or are having) an enjoyable (or at least, tolerable) Halloween.


  1. It's always bothered me how people (especially those on the political far-left) will always resort to "cultural relativism" all while claiming to hold some kind of universal moral standard (i.e. statements about all forms of domination being evil, but oh, we can't criticize cultures X, Y, and Z for their social hierarchies because [reason]).

    Personally, I think it's even more chauvinist for Leftists to resort to CR as an excuse not to address issues facing people "over there", because they're essentially saying that those people, in a sense, deserve all of the home-grown oppressions they receive. For example, whenever I see people on the far-left denying that, say, orthodox Islam is patriarchal, I can't help but think how their words implicitly shit on feminists from the Islamic World who are struggling against that very patriarchal control.

    I'm not a moralist by any means, but I am upset by the level of hypocrisy I see on a daily basis.

    1. In my experience it is not those on the far left who invoke cultural relativism (not explicitly anyway) to defend misogyny, it is the wimpy, moderate liberals (especially liberal academics), who seem to think it is impossible for anyone to disagree with it. I once had a tutor praise for my use of cultural relativism (after I had made it perfectly clear that I despise it) when I was in fact invoking situational ethics. They claim to be intellectuals and yet cannot understand such basic distinctions, it drives me nuts.

      If by orthodox Islam you mean traditional, reactionary Islam (as practices by the Taliban, for example) then in my experience radical leftists do not support those kinds of movements either. They usually do defend moderate Islam. While I support the right of Muslims to practice Islam so long as they do not cause significant harm to others, I think that practicing any religion, even in a moderate way, goes against the principles of radical leftism, which includes opposing blind submission towards power entities (such as governments, companies, churches and, I would argue, gods).

      I think the problem is that radical leftist movements are too easily influenced by liberalism nowadays (since it is the dominant worldview). In the past, radical leftists were far more opposed to religion, pornography and individualistic attitudes in general. As the real left declined, they probably felt pressure to try and draw liberals into the movement, thus they changed their positions to appeal to them. Thus I do not think we should be implying that the "far left" is the problem here. People who advocate wimpy, relativistic ideas (like cultural relativism) are not left wing enough in my view.

      If you oppose any behaviour at all, instead of preaching liberalism (which means saying that anything goes so long as you have consent) you are a moralist by my standards and there is nothing wrong or oppressive with that. In fact people who thinks moralists are wrong and oppressives are trapping themselves in an absurd paradox. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I think that the most elegant disproof of cultural relativism is this: that according to cultural relativism, rebelling against an unjust institution or an unjust law would be a great evil, and yet most people readily applaud such rebellion. Basically, the Schindler's List argument (which also applies to adaptationism, in a different way): why isn't everyone booing Schindler for rebelling against a cultural institution?

    Unless they define "culture" in such a way that only institution they think are just are able to apply for the label...

    1. "That according to cultural relativism, rebelling against an unjust institution or an unjust law would be a great evil, and yet most people readily applaud such rebellion. Basically, the Schindler's List argument (which also applies to adaptationism, in a different way): why isn't everyone booing Schindler for rebelling against a cultural institution?"

      You read my mind! Well actually we probably just think alike. I was going to make a very similar argument in the second part of the series. Since the dominant culture is created by the ruling class, cultural relativism implied support for foreign ruling classes.

      "Unless they define "culture" in such a way that only institution they think are just are able to apply for the label..."

      I think they define "culture" so that it suits them. They do not count slavery as a cultural practice even though its proponents believed it was. If a society admits to having a political viewpoint (all cultures have ideologies but only a few, including really reactionary cultures like Nazi Germany, but also cultures that claimed to be socialist, like that of the Soviet Union or Maoist China, admitted it) its culture does not count and is dismissed as propaganda. Cultural relativism is basically an excuse to defend oppressive cultural practices which liberals like (which often involve abusing the bodies of women, liberals probably feel that they must defend these practices because they already defend similar Western practices, like breast implants). Thus if a culture does something liberals do not like, such as telling women that their prettiness is not the most important thing ever (like the culture of Maoist China did, say what you will about Mao with regard to other issues, but I think he generally had the right idea with regard to beauty practices) it is condemnned as oppressive. It seems that cultural relativism is mostly an excuse to defend misogyny and as always, opponents of the Western mainstream (such as radical leftists) are excluded.

    2. Yes, I also think that the definition of "culture" is the elephant in the room insofar as cultural relativism goes. This is something that I've never, ever seen discussed, and yet it seems to be of prime relevance. Kinda like how utilitarians never discuss how to actually make inter-subjective comparisons, even though that's the basis of their entire method, and when you push them on it they say "well it's an approximation but it's obvious"! We all know what "culture" is, right? It's "obvious!" Well, the problem is, it's not. Unless we have a precise understanding of what "culture" is, the argument just doesn't work.

  3. Culture is the new religion… Just say “XYZ is part of my culture”, it instantly becomes holy and above criticism. I think people have resisted moral universalism because it’s often presented through the lens of religion-ie., this is always wrong/right because god/s says so. It's not really presented in a way that is rooted in rationality or reasoning. Here, you seem to be talking about a moral universalism that is rooted in critical thinking and analysis as opposed to blind faith.

    What’s interesting is that liberalism seems comfortable discussing right and wrong as it relates to the past, but not in the present.

    1. "I think people have resisted moral universalism because it’s often presented through the lens of religion-ie., this is always wrong/right because god/s says so. It's not really presented in a way that is rooted in rationality or reasoning. Here, you seem to be talking about a moral universalism that is rooted in critical thinking and analysis as opposed to blind faith."

      To be clear the view that actions are always right or wrong is called moral absolutism. Moral universalism does not allow people to use culture (social norms, laws, religion, time period or location) to get away with actions that are clearly wrong, but it does involve taking the situation and the consequences of an action into account.

      Any reasonable person recognises that moral absolutism is wrong (because the situation does not matter), but moral universalism is perfectly rational position. The kind of moral universalism I advocate is very much routed in a rational assessment of the nature and consequences of actions (including what they do to the person commiting them). Of course, relativists generally hate reason (and having to think), so unsurprisingly they reject it.

      "What’s interesting is that liberalism seems comfortable discussing right and wrong as it relates to the past, but not in the present."

      I think they feel comfortable denouncing people and movements that are no longer around, because they are not going to get upset with them. Thus they do not need to be "respected" (and the mistakes of past groups are an excuse to denigrate their modern day equivalents). Relativism is many cases a matter of cowardly diplomacy (diplomacy towards the powerful that it, those with less power are treated like garbage). I am not terribly diplomatic. I prefer honesty whether people like it or not.

  4. "To be clear the view that actions are always right or wrong is called moral absolutism."

    Right and your article and the philosophy link did a good job of explaining the difference. I think I was trying to say that they’ve always been presented to me as interchangeable and basically the same thing. Does the concept of moral universalism have an image problem? Are people rejecting it in favor of cultural relativism because universalism and absolutism are conflated as being in the same?
    My suspicion is that if moral universalism were discussed as separate from absolutism, religion, and complete uniformity between all humans then it might really grow as an ethical standard and replace (or at least challenge) cultural relativism.

  5. Successful scientist is often interested in a wide range of people. Their original spirit may come from their erudition. Diversification will make people a fresh perspective, and too long a narrow field of study is easy to make people stupid.
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  6. What do you mean when you say socialism? What you write is important so I think you should be careful not to be so vague, you know "socialism" can mean many things nowadays.

    1. Do I really need to define a term I used only once in the article (and have defined elsewhere on this blog) and that was mentioned simply to make a point about the universality of values like equality and liberty? I define key terms that are important to the topic in question, not every single word I use in the article.

      But if you going to insist on defining every word used, I must ask what you mean by "important". Do you that what I write likely to influence a large number of people and have a significant impact? Unfortunately, I don't think so, not at this point at least. Perhaps you mean simply that I am dealing with important topics. That is true, but I do not think it would make my blog particularly important.

      However, since there is really no harm in doing so, I am going to state that when I use the term "socialism", I am referring to an economic system in which the means of production and distribution are under the democratic control of the people whose labour enables them to function and the direct, conscious purpose of economic activity is to meet the needs of the people. I am not talking about reformed form of capitalism is which the basic goal of most production is still to bring about exchanges and generate profit, but the companies that do so are strictly regulated. I am a revolutionary socialist, not a reformist (though technically a utopian socialist would still be a true socialist, reformists are not because they do not truly want to create socialism, they want to regulate capitalism, while still having capitalism be the dominant economic system).