Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism is the notion that the beliefs and practices of a culture can only be understood or evaluated within that cultural tradition.  In his book, Culture and Conduct, Richard A. Barrett quotes Elizabeth Thomas, who is describing the extraction of a small Dodoth girl’s teeth by her relatives in Uganda.

“Akral held the girl tightly, Akikar expertly hooked out the lower teeth with an awl.  They were second teeth, deeply rooted, and as they came, cracked loudly, and the smell of blood filled the air.  The little girl screamed that she was dying and vomited red foam.”


This horrifying act was done in the interest of “beauty.”  Women are thought by the Dodoth to be more attractive if their lower front teeth are missing.  Barret goes on to say:

“Because most people in most societies find their own culture a satisfying way of life (indeed, most think it is the “natural” and best way), and since most are willing to defend it against all outsiders, anthropologists tend to become defenders as well.  They cannot help but perceive that the culture affords rewards, satisfaction, and security for those who have grown up within its confines and are familiar only with that way of life.”


Tell it to the little Dodoth girls!


Of course it is true that people living in any culture can find satisfaction in it if they have known no other!  Human beings are wonderfully adaptable, even in horrific circumstances.  In New Guinea or someplace else you might find a little-known people who mutilate children when they reach puberty, people who are head-hunters and cannibals.  Enter the missionaries—or perhaps the cultural anthropologists—and then the loggers, plantation owners, diamond hunters . . . . whatever.  The “barbaric” practices of the native peoples are eradicated and they lose their traditional means of gaining prestige, of protecting themselves from evil spirits, of establishing a sense of self-worth, of making a livelihood:  in short, of almost everything that makes their lives worth living.  The intruding Western culture can offer little to replace all this. What it does offer them is the opportunity to live in horrifyingly unsanitary conditions in seas of tar-paper shacks, and—if they are lucky—to get jobs as busboys on the cruise ships. The bastardized form of Western religion that replaces the complexity of their original culture can offer them very little.  They should have been left alone, for the benefits to them of all of this are difficult to see, and the human loss is intolerable, but this does not mean that all customs are equally good, all beliefs equally good, all cultures equally good.


Cultural anthropology preserves its objectivity by practicing what it likes to call “subjective understanding,” but as Nietzsche says: “understanding kills action.”  The traditional sources of value are themselves undermined by cultural relativism, for if we accept the values claimed for every social practice, then our doing so is the only value that we have.


So, what should we do?  We may have inherited a set of beliefs as to what is good and a set of habits which guide us, but how do we know that they are any more “right” than those we find in other parts of the world.  The material success of our culture does not guarantee the validity of our ethics, nor does the fact that our beliefs are so imbued in us that we think that they are obviously right:  the Dodoth feel the same way.  Where do we find values in a universe of chance?  Apparently, we must discover them in ourselves.


Philosophizing is of no help.  Sartre tells us that existence precedes essence, that we are free and responsible for what we do.  Fine!  But what should we do?  Kant tells us that we should act as if we are willing the principle which justifies our actions to be a natural law.  Fine!  But what should we do?


The principal Confucian virtue is called jen, and it is frequently translated as “benevolence,” “mutuality,” or “charity.”  Its meaning is hinted at by the structure of the Chinese character used to represent it:  a man and the number two joined together.  I think that “empathy” is at the heart of its meaning, and that empathy must be the beginning of any system of ethics.  Ungrounded words have no power to move anyone (except preachers, philosophers, ideologues, and their converts), and a useful system of ethics must be created around real human feelings, not abstractions.  No one who has empathy could accept a concept of beauty that requires mutilation—or bulimia.  No one who has empathy could destroy a culture that gives people’s lives meaning unless she can replace it (in their eyes) with something demonstrably better.


The average American lives at a level of material comfort (warmth, food, mobility, medical treatment, etc.) that only the nobility would have enjoyed in the past.  We are incredibly lucky, and we should feel that.  We know that millions of people are living in poverty, plagued by disease and famine.  They are unlucky.  But good luck should not breed smugness and selfishness, and unluckiness should not breed resentment and alienation.  Rich or poor, if we empathize with others and are strongly aware of the role played in human life by good and bad luck, we should know how to act.  We should try to live our lives in such a way as to further the development of the kind of world we would like to be born into, anywhere, at any socio-economic levelThat is, we should try to minimize the role played by chance in making people’s lives intolerable, wherever they may be.


In practical terms, this means that we should support efforts to create a world free from discrimination, poverty, ignorance, and disease, a world free from ghettoes, tribalism, and violence.  And this means that we should be concerned with reducing the human population, with reducing pollution and the uncontrolled consumption of resources, and with the protection of the environment.  The usual notions of “good works” and “acts of charity” are fine, but they are band-aids, not cures.


All of which brings us back to cultural relativism, for one of the major barriers to improving the quality of life around the world lies in the diversity of cultures and in their competing values.  I would take it as axiomatic that the best cultures are generally the ones which are most open and which place a premium on reason and verifiable truth.  Diversity, per se, is only beautiful for its cosmetic advantages.  Any culture that is inclined to pray or call in a shaman when a child is ill is worse than one that calls in a doctor with scientific knowledge.  Any culture that refuses to educate women is worse than one that makes education available to all.  Any culture in which religious leaders control shouting mobs is worse than one in which they don’t.  Any culture that believes in rapture or some mythical future and uses this as an excuse not to better the world is worse than one which doesn’t.  Any culture motivated by selfish materialism to the extent that it loses sight of other values is worse than one that isn’t.


Our Western culture is the most open in many ways, and at one level it does place a premium on the objective truths of science.  Thus, it is potentially the best, however awful it may be in many regards.  There is no doubt that its emphasis on freedom—as well as its material success—makes it attractive to people around the world.  But because, its potential is limited by the potential of its average citizen, I’m afraid that its very openness dooms it to the selfish and self-indulgent mediocrity we see around us



Barrett, Richard A.  Culture and Conduct, 2d ed.  Belmont, CA:  Wadsworth Publ. Co., 1991.