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.