Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Continuation of the Cultural Relativism Conversation… and lots of Questions

If I'm correct, the concept of cultural relativism claims that since each culture has its own values and practices, we should not make value judgments about cultural differences or assert our conceptions of morality on them. Each culture is a unique specimen of the historically formed collective personality of a people and consequently, rights of individuals are culturally specific.

If we consider something such as genocide or ethnic cleansing, however, it seems unlikely that even the staunchest cultural relativist would argue that this could be acceptable within certain cultural or traditional contexts. But as we saw in class, other practices such as female circumcision present harder questions of culturally relative morality. Where do we draw the line? When there is a choice between defending human rights and defending cultural relativism, should we choose to protect and promote human rights? How can an international body such as the UN do this without imposing their Western views of universal rights?

In addition to this question, I take issue with cultural relativism in that it seems to perceive cultures a black boxes—individual, specific, well-defined and exclusive societal organisms in which traditions and beliefs are uniform and universally agreed upon. Within “cultures”, there are countless amorphous sects, groups, and individuals whose opinions, experiences and belief systems are constantly changing, shifting and evolving.

The problem with cultural relativism, then, is that the supposed consensuses prevalent within cultures are exaggerated if not manufactured altogether. Differences of class, sect, caste, gender, ethnic origin and so on are present in all cultures. For example, the “norms”, beliefs and perspectives of Brahmin priests in Indian culture cannot reasonably be the same as that of the lower orders of Hindu society.

With this in mind, how can we designate specific “norms” to different cultures? In order for a practice or belief to be considered a norm, must it be upheld by the entirety of the society? The majority? The majority as dictated by a supposedly-democratic state? If so, then cultural norms are nothing more than what has been clearly established or institutionalized. Does this really represent and reflect the beliefs and practices of a “culture”?


  1. This is a good question, if social norms are questionable then it is doubtful that an entire society would individually and freely consent to them. But what if they did? What if you, an outsider, were the only person that had a problem with something like ritual sacrifice? You may have severe concerns about the savages eagerness to offer their lives to the gods and the community. Being rationally educated, you know their sacrifices are for naught. But what is morality really worth? Who are you to go in and tell them the gods they believe in do not exist? What good is actually produced from telling them that sacrifices do nothing? Personally, I find that being sacrificed can bring much meaning to one's life, one may perceive his death as meaningful. And let's be honest, with 7 billion people on earth, lives are fairly disposable. It seems to me that the world turns on practicality, not morality.

  2. Interesting post, Sarah! I think it is important to preserve the culture of each nation to avoid making the world the same without cultural diversity. However, things such as FGM is a purely harmful act to the person and performed simply to accept them into society, but that is a cultural norm. It seems as though in a culture and through the UN’s actions we will always decide how to take action, whether in a cultural or human rights context, based on the opinion of the majority, as you stated. The beliefs of the minority will be suppressed. Thus, we operate in a world that operates on the majority’s decisions but that seems to be a fair way of deciding. Even if that does not represent the minority’s opinions if the majority of the society holds such cultural norms such as FGM then it is something that still should be attempted to be stopped. As you mentioned, the caste system in India, it needs to be eliminated. It is a cultural norm that was developed by the majority many years ago that unnecessarily affects the people in India today. In both instances, the minority is being forced to participate in such rituals and norms so others, such as the UN, should intervene to protect the minority and enlighten the majority on their “wrongdoings.”

  3. Since class last week, I have been having a continuous debate with myself as to what side I am most situated on: universalism vs. relativism. Part of me wants to say conserve the nations of our country. Our social norms should no be imposed upon other merely because we are raised with different traditions and different modes of thinking. Yet, how can we stand by and allow blatant abuse happen without taking action. I think Manali presents a great suggestion, that we should leave the decision up to the UN. I also think the UN needs to take a more active role.. If there is a majority of votes from representatives from all over the world that agree we should step in to take action, it is done so on common grounds rather than the USA taking control.

  4. I think this is a very interesting post, and I too had problems grasping a concrete idea about cultural relativism in the past week. I think that Minali had a good point when speaking about the majority coming to create the cultural norms that are accepted, but even there I think problems can arise that would be held as human rights violations. I feel that this is a highly subjective debate, and personally I cannot come up with a definite solution to this problem of different cultures seeing other cultures as human rights violators. I think that it can be very hard to draw the line somewhere, and in the end toes will be stepped on no matter what. I think the best that we can do, in any culture, is to try and live and act in accordance with the Universal Document of Human Rights (if we have signed and accepted it) in a way that has the least amount of detriment to the highest amount of people.

  5. You seem to highlight one of the problems associated with cultural relativism; falling from the culture under consideration to its individual members. Although a culture may contain a variety of beliefs and opinions concerning other important topics, there are also social "norms" that have been established and accepted by all members in a particular group of people. Therefore, it would be irrational for an organization like the UN, who is faced with the task of preserving human rights on a global scale, to target individual violations of human rights. It must focus on larger issues within a group context. In addition, I imagine that it would be incredibly difficult for the UN to refrain from making value judgments about cultural differences and asserting its "Western" conception of morality on cultures with different (and seemingly unorthodox) practices. It would be beneficial for the organization to allow cultures with radically different views and opinions to have a greater influence on its decisions and activities.


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