Cultural Relativism

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Principles Series
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Apr 3, 2022 01:48 PM
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Are you or are you not a cultural relativist? To me this becomes one of the more defining questions that you can ask someone these days, though it’s best done indirectly.
First, a definition: what is cultural relativism? Cultural relativism is a broad belief that no culture can be better or worse than another, they are only different. Such a belief has its ties in post-modernism but is intimately tied to a number of very tangible issues.
Naturally, this ties to the thought around Friday’s post contrasting India, China, and Japan. But before we get to that we have to explore more clear cut cases.
At the extremes, it’d be hard (though not impossible) to find a relativist so steeped in it that they’d say that the Aztec culture, notably involving mass human sacrifice (by some estimates up to 20,000 people per year) is equivalent to any of today.
Keep it to modern times, and it’d be similarly tough to say that North Korea “is really just a different culture doing things their own way,” but you will find people who get close to this. Or more often, they will deflect the conversation by pointing to a lot of the bad things that the U.S. or other Western cultures have done over the years.
Bronze sculptures in North Korea of their Supreme Leaders
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But the case against cultural relativism can’t be made on the extremes alone. As someone might say, “Yeah, North Korea is a mess and is awful, but broadly, there are tons of right ways to do culture that are all equivalent once you remove the couple bad apples. Every country or culture does some bad things.”
And it’s that last line that relativists tend to rest on in order to provide backing. The statement is obviously true and would seem to throw a wrench in a claim of such an idea of better or worse cultures.
But the “everyone does bad things” claim is a Motte & Bailey! It’s an easy-to-back claim that is used to cover more extreme ideas, i.e. cultural relativism. Obviously even the best cultures or best people have messed up more things than they can count. But even though all people, societies, and cultures do bad things, the good ones have a record of correcting those wrongs and/or doing other good things.
The case against cultural relativism is even more clear when you look at singular issues. Sure, if you look at war proceedings, maybe the US doesn’t look that great. But when you compare individual freedoms in the US vs. China, there’s a clear winner. And if you look at women’s rights in the US vs. Saudi Arabia or Iran, there’s also a clear winner.
Of course, this judgement does get much tougher on the margins. The right approach to cultural comparison should reflect a good deal of uncertainty and nuance about the issues and what makes one culture better. But it also shouldn’t be afraid to declare a right and a wrong or a better and a worse when one does exist.