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On cultural relativism
and some other forms of relativism

David Alvargonzález

Original Spanish version appeared in El escéptico, la revista para el fomento de la razón y la ciencia, n. 3, 1998-1999: 8-13: «Del relativismo cultural y otros relativismos». Also published in El Catoblepas, n. 8, October 2002: 13.

This paper discusses the ethical and epistemological implications of cultural relativism. An initial analysis identifies two possible sources of cultural relativism – the ideology rampant in current liberal democracies and what I term as «environmental fundamentalism». It then moves on to discuss cultural relativism in relation to such universal ethical values as the basic human right of survival and the right to physical integrity. The paper ends by pitting itself against epistemological relativism and by upholding the universal character of scientific theorems.

1. By way of preface, this paper deals with a philosophical theory concerning cultural relativism. In it, I do not understand a philosophical theory to be either a scientific truth or an opinion. Opinions, if we are to heed Plato, are part of the phenomenal world, the world of appearances, the world which philosophical theories themselves seek to rectify. Opinions imply a certain chaos while philosophical theories always denote a certain order, a certain system, a reasoned classification of opinions.

2. Space constraints here limit any attempt to relate the origins of the ideas of «ethnocentrism» and «cultural relativism», although this history is of great importance to my argument against relativism. The argument, therefore, must unfold in media res, with cultural relativism taken as a given within a wide spectrum – from ethnology, cultural anthropology and linguistics to philosophical analyses and practical contexts such as ethics, politics, aesthetics, medicine and religion, among others.

As a starting point, I will use the definitions of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism as they appear in Harris’s popular anthropology handbook Culture, People, Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology, whereby cultural relativism is the «principle that all cultural systems are inherently equal in value and that the characteristics of each must be evaluated and explained in the system in which they appear». According to this principle, «each cultural pattern is regarded as being intrinsically as worthy of respect as all the rest». Ethnocentrism, in opposition to cultural relativism, is «the belief that one’s own patterns of behavior are always natural, good, beautiful or important, and that strangers, to the extent that they live differently, live by savage, inhuman, disgusting or irrational standards».

Such definitions obviously contain an implicit defense of cultural relativism and a condemnation of ethnocentrism. They are underlain by Levi-Strauss’s successful proverb to the effect that whoever calls another a savage is a savage him/herself. As their research goes, this leveling of all cultures becomes not only a methodological research principle – a rectifiable assumption – but even further, is taken as the most mature, elaborate anthropological insight. As an idea, though, cultural relativism is not limited to operating within ethnological or anthropological fields, and indeed extents itself into worldly philosophy and political practice. In these contexts, the success enjoyed by this idea seems pegged to the sizeable practical implementation of two ideological nebulae that serve as a model for the relativistic pattern: first, the ideology of tolerance associated with neoliberal democracies and second, the position held by environmental fundamentalism.

3. At present, most developed countries have implemented a liberal democracy in which citizens are equal before the law and enjoy the same rights and the same political duties. Each citizen has his/her own «inner self» and may vote according to his/her «conscience»; all votes are equal and all opinions, by their mere issuance, are respected, even when resulting from hallucinations, delusions, or ignorance. In these political systems, tolerance becomes a fundamental virtue, including the tolerance towards ignorance and absurdity, which might more appropriately be called «patience» rather than «tolerance». Liberal democracies – including the British and Spanish «crowned democracies» – are thus skeptical, as they do not advocate any particular philosophy. Such an absence of opinion may, at certain levels in the political establishment, border on the cynicism expressed by Frederick II, when he said, «My people and I have come to an agreement: they say what they please and I do what I please».

By transposing liberal democratic principles into the international or intercultural field and by exchanging «individuals» with «cultures», the principles of isonomy (equality before the law) and isegory (freedom of expression) are immediately transformed into the principle of cultural relativism. Internationally, all peoples and cultures have the same rights (including, of course, the right to continued existence and the right to preservation of identity), and «all cultural systems are inherently equal in value». Individual consciences exist in democracies, and are equal one to another in opinion, vote, and myriad other ways. Analogously, the contents of each culture in the intercultural arena are equal and «any cultural pattern is as intrinsically worthy of respect as others». Here, as with Frederick II, the non-interference principle may be interpreted as the philosophy characteristic of neocolonial, predatory empires, developed as they realize that indirect rule brings more advantages than traditional colonialism. This stands particularly true if such a colonialism seeks itself to form an empire, a civil empire as opposed to Sepulveda's heril empire – the former understood as an empire of citizens as opposed to the latter’s empire of slaves. Any emperor of one of these predatory liberal democracies may very well follow Frederick in saying, «I have reached an agreement with the satellite countries: they have their own cultural identity, and I plunder what I please."

Again, space constraints limit even a minimal discussion of this ideological nebula supporting liberal democratic political systems. Aware of the current reach of this ideology, I believe it suffices to say that, even while accepting liberal democratic principles as the principles of any political society, it is still hardly clear that such a model could be applied to the relations between cultures, ethnic groups or countries.

Cultural relativists reference an additional ideology in their arguments – environmental fundamentalism, a discourse advocating the conservation of all living species. For biologists, calls to conserve all species are easily understood from a professional standpoint, as each extinct species means one less phenomenon of study in their field. However, from a physician, politician, or other practitioner’s standpoint, eradicating certain species dangerous to man is an equally desirable goal. While it cannot avoid the fact that we are heterotrophic, omnivorous organisms, environmental fundamentalism nevertheless assumes that all species and all biological traits share equal value under the optic of the principle of biodiversity. Most commonly, environmental fundamentalism seeks to conserve all species in their current state, thus rejecting the well-known fact that biological evolution is impossible without extinction.

Once again, certain parallels may be drawn with the culturological situation. By substituting «species» for «cultures» and «biological diversity» for «cultural diversity», environmental conservationism then becomes cultural conservationism, linked to relativism. As with biologists, an anthropologist’s interest in conserving ethnological cultures and avoiding their contamination and change may be understood professionally as an attempt to safeguard their field of study from abatement. The Convention on Biological Diversity provides clear evidence for drawing such a parallel, as it seeks to provide equal and continuous protection to plants, animals and indigenous cultures and knowledge. In the following, I look to show the serious consequences inherent to the move made from the biological conservationist model to the culturological context without discussing the conservationist model or its validity.

4. Two statements best define the core of cultural relativism, as I have defined it above. The first posits «all cultural systems as inherently equal in value», while the second regards «each cultural pattern as being intrinsically as worthy of respect as all the rest». I will later argue that both are false. First, though, I must note that the apparent clarity of these statements lies in their calculated attempt towards ambiguity, as evidenced by their failure to recognize the myriad understandings of the word «value»; «value» may be «truth value», «moral value», «ethical value», «economic value» (exchange value), «aesthetic value», «religious values» («sacred» vs. «profane») or a variety of others. Again, space here restricts analyzing the modulations of cultural relativism and their mutual relationships in each of these contexts. As such, I will limit myself to challenging two situations offering the clearest view of cultural relativism’s untenability.

Transferring the equal value of all cultures and the respect for all different cultural patterns into the field of ethics constitutes the first situation. As periodically reported and publicized by Amnesty International, many cultures continue to incorporate female genital mutilation, ranging from ablation and excision to infibulation, as a standard practice. The people of these cultures – the Kikuyu, Bambara, Mandinka, Soninke, Halpulaar and others – believe this practice to be an indispensable part of their cultural identity. They consider attempts by Western organizations to combat female genital mutilation as an act of cultural imperialism, an encroachment aimed at destroying their identity.

This cultural pattern, as cultural relativism would have it, is as intrinsically worthy of respect as any other and, for its mere existence, has some value and enriches global cultural diversity. In its wake remain 135 million women worldwide who have undergone female circumcision. Often extending beyond the procedure itself, these mutilations frequently subject their victims to chronic infections, intermittent bleeding, abscesses, kidney disorders, cysts, seriously damaged sexuality and added complications in childbirth. A variety of reasons are employed to justify these mutilations, but certain «arguments» transverse many different cultures – the clitoris is the masculine part of woman's body and must be removed to avoid confusing women and men; if the clitoris touches a man's penis then he will die; non-mutilated female genitals are ugly and bulky, growing and hanging uncomfortably between the legs; if a child's head touches the clitoris during childbirth he or she will die and non-maimed women are barren and unable to conceive.

It seems clear that this cultural practice, in any discussion on ethical rights, infringes on the victim’s most basic human rights of her own survival and to her physical integrity. That said, condemning female genital mutilation for ethical reasons naturally implies understanding basic ethical individual rights as universal. Grounding itself on the supposed logical structure of these rights, such an understanding sees no contradiction with their originally Western genesis, with their birth in a Western culture which invented both philosophy and, as a consequence, rational ethics as a discipline in that philosophy. For if these rights are ethically universal, then all cultural norms which violate them are iniquitous and undeserving of respect – they become a sort of anti-value. As such, any appeal to tolerance to defend these unethical practices seems backwards: universal ethical principles require an intolerant position on this issue. Otherwise, these millions of women become something like ants and nothing like human beings, as if they were animals in a reserve, even if this reserve is but a «cultural reserve». Viewing them as such would be tantamount to putting ourselves in «God’s point of view», as Leibniz said in a different context. Respecting these people, then, respecting the two million women who await their mutilation each year obliges us to repudiate such cultural norms and requires our intolerance towards them.

While I have chosen this example for its particular relevance, plenty of other examples abound. The ethnographic and ethnohistorical record is fraught with a variety of cultural patterns which directly challenge each human person’s basic ethical rights and are subsequently indefensible – female infanticide (with 100 million young girls missing in Asia alone), ritual human sacrifice, cannibalism, harmful bodily mutilations, and culturally-sanctioned slavery, among too many others. Such cultural patterns provide the most resounding anthropological evidence available to buttress a rejection of the skeptical (relativistic) position concerning ethics, and to argue in favor of certain basic universal ethical rights and obligations common to all human beings.

Further, it must be noted that these ethical standards frequently clash with the moral standards current to many groups and cultures. From my point of view, ethical standards are inherent to the individual taken in the abstract, regardless of the culture or group to which he/she belongs, whereas moral norms are the special rules of a given culture or group, itself taken as a whole. To borrow from Ibn Hazm’s work on the classification of sciences, ethical norms are «common to all cultures,» while moral norms are specific «to each culture.» Ethical and moral standards sometimes coexist peacefully and may even coincide, but they may equally be at odds. As an example, the universal ethical norm to respect and preserve a person’s physical integrity enters into conflict with certain moral norms linked to rites of passage in some cultures. The cultural relativist may arguably solve this conflict by espousing the particular, emic morality of a given culture, while the non-relativist assumes that universal fundamental ethical principles safeguarding a person’s life and integrity may only be discarded on very exceptional occasions, such as when group survival requires risking some members’ lives.

5. Cultural relativists offer the following solution to this objective conflict between ethical and moral standards: given that any ethical reasons are highly dubious, an indiscriminate priority must be extended to respect each culture’s moral standards, thus defending a sort of «ethical contextualism». With this in mind, I find that the most compelling reasons to reject cultural relativism are not ethical – in spite of their evident importance – but mainly epistemological, as the overriding weight of the latter necessarily bears on the former.

Cultural relativism becomes epistemological relativism once all cultures and cultural patterns are given to hold equal truth value. For epistemological relativists, all cultural norms are equally true when viewed emicly from the internal point of view of each culture. In this, each culture is a sui generis, consistent world incapable of being translated into another without consequent loss: such is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis generalized from linguistics into the entire pattern of culture. In the new ethnography, cultural relativism is thus often associated with the emic point of view, with particularism (with its revival under the label of «postmodern anthropology») and with nominalism, whereby categories such as magic, science, myth and others are mere Eurocentric names. Its advocates claim that no universal truths may be considered valid across all cultures; in this sense, relativism is one of the possible modulations of epistemological skepticism, a kind of Pyrrhonism. Particularistic, epistemological relativists suppose that each culture is completely isolated from others and deny the possibility for cross-cultural comparisons, since, they defend each culture is a «windowless monad», so to speak. Such a defense, such a «cultural Megarianism» persists even in the face of its continual contradiction, imposed by the reality of cultural diffusion.

The scope of epistemological relativism, though, is even greater than that of cultural relativism, as it touches not only on all different cultures – thus postulating that all cultures are real in «their own way» – but reaches even into the confines of the knowledge within a given culture – thus positing, for instance, that religion and science are both true «in their own sphere». Even further, it reaches into the different historical periods within a given culture, particularly into the different phases of history and prehistory of the sciences, therein establishing that every theorem is true only in its «historical context». Thomas Kuhn, in his famous theory about paradigms and scientific revolutions, has (perhaps unintentionally) played a very important role in spreading this contextualism and relativism throughout the history of science. Speaking to this is his philosophy on scientific change, wherein paradigms follow one another as if they were different fashions, incommensurable one to another just as cultures, from particularism, are impossible to compare. Scientific theorems, as he understands them, are only true within a paradigm and a historical moment; that is, they are only true from an emic perspective. In his sociological theory of scientific truth, scientific theorems are merely the result of consensus among a community of experts, a consensus furthered by the fact that champions of the old paradigm die earlier.

Karl Popper’s falsifiability, with its fostering of a scientific, conjectural, tentative and fragile truth, has also paved the way for epistemological relativism, spreading the idea that science is but a set of theoretical hypotheses and that these hypotheses occupy the same place in our society as the belief in magic held in pre-state societies. The limitations of his philosophy of science blatantly manifested themselves in his statement on biological evolution, in which he called it a metaphysical theory, much to the delight of creationists who saw their fatuous biblical speculations elevated to the same rank as the synthetic theory of evolution. In this regard, the importance entrusted to Kuhn and Popper’s philosophies by anti-scientific cultural relativists and postmodern philosophers must not be understated: both have become instruments promoting distrust in the universality of scientific truths. Hence, postmodernists implanted with the seed of doubt feel exempt from studying and thus following the latest scientific advances.

Again, this paper effectively limits even a minimal discussion on the different possible philosophies regarding scientific truth. Speaking only of my perspective, though, my work is grounded in the tenets of a materialist philosophy of science which affirms the universality of scientific theorems. In it, indispensable parts of our current reality – the atom, quantum technology, molecular biology, the cell and biological evolution, whose consequences prove decisive to our present – are made through the sciences. Relativism has no place here, for modern theorems are not imposed socially, politically or by force of a generational change, but rather etch their place in reality by their sheer power over prior ones. What is more, this greater power can be assessed objectively, since these new theorems cover more events and materials than prior ones, either correcting the latter or containing them as specifications. As such, the history of scientific theorems has indeed seen a progress and breakthrough from which there is no reverse. This philosophy, hence, rejects doubts about everything; it rejects what Pyrrhonian epistemological skepticism did early on and what Descartes continued doing in the seventeenth century before the consolidation of the Scientific Revolution.

But even Descartes had apply a tourniquet to occlude his doubt when facing the overriding firmness of mathematics. Three centuries later, we too must bring our philosophy to grips with a multiplicity of highly developed sciences, with certain, incontrovertible theorems which constitute a large part of our present reality.

No sorcerer can make it rain by using his magic and his raining stones, no sorcerer can stop lightning, and no sorcerer can calm the seas. Even if the sciences do have limits – as Emil du Bois-Reymond’s ignoramus et ignorabimus postulates – magic is not a viable alternative to science, since magic is but a semblance of knowledge, an erratic pseudo-knowledge satisfied with its random hits and unfazed by its equally random misses. Classifying it this way accounts for its fully-dispensable character, even if it remains embedded in our own culture as a vestige of some archaic institution.

Nor does contact with the clitoris cause the death of a male or unborn child. Women are equally fertile if they are not mutilated. Moreover, the universal scientific theorems of biomedicine provide us ample awareness of all the complications and dysfunctions stemming from female genital mutilation. The cessation of such archaic cultural patterns must be viewed as an etic and worthy goal, even when a victim’s emic will – which should be gently educated against her ill-grounded awareness – expresses otherwise. As insinuated above, my ethical judgments are not independent from the epistemological relativism discussion; in this example it is clear that condemning these mutilations is partly based on an indubitable biomedical truth affirming the harmful and fully expendable character of these cultural practices. In this case, ethical judgment may indeed be passed, given that biomedical truth is not only valid in Western culture – quoad nos, to use Aquinas’ terminology – but is universally valid, quaod se. This quoad se validity of scientific truths implies that even though science was born in the very specific Greco-Roman culture, it still is «common to all cultures.» Universal upon its constitution, science is not part of that culture, since «culture» always implies a particular culture. Indeed, many have spoken of a sort of «universal culture» but I cannot accept that either it or any «universal language» actually exist. We may speak of a «culture of synthesis» or a «general, encyclopedic knowledge» or even a «Davos culture», but these are still obviously particular cultures. Such claims, though, as I have repeatedly mentioned, require a further defense that space limitations here disallow. In light of this, let it suffice to say that further conclusions drawn from these claims have been thoroughly developed elsewhere.

Annotated bibliography

Amnesty International, 1997: What is female genital mutilation? AI Index 77/06/97. Vast compendium of information with details about mutilation practices. May be of interest for women still defending indiscriminate cultural relativism.

Gustavo Bueno, 1992-1994: Teoría del cierre categorial, 5 vols., Oviedo: Pentalfa. Gustavo Bueno, 1995: Qué es la ciencia, Oviedo: Pentalfa. Exposition of a materialist philosophy of science with a presentation of scientific truth as synthetic identity. My paper here employs some of the tenets of this philosophy to argue against relativism.

Gustavo Bueno, 1996: El mito de la cultura, Barcelona: Editorial Prensa Ibérica. Essential reading for any serious discussion on the idea of culture.

Gustavo Bueno, 1996: El sentido de la vida, Oviedo: Pentalfa. The first chapter distinguishes between ethics and morality – a distinction I have used when discussing the conflict between ethics and morality.

Clifford Geertz, 1973: The Interpretations of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc. A foundational text for postmodernist anthropology.

Marvin Harris, 1988: Culture, People, Nature: An Introduction to General Anthropology (5th ed.). New York: Harper & Row. Highly informative handbook on cultural anthropology, based on the principles of cultural materialism. The authoritative definition of cultural relativism mentioned in the text is taken from Chapter 7. Provides a clear view of the significance of the emic/etic distinction in anthropology, which I too have used.

Thomas S. Kuhn, 1957: The Copernican Revolution. Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Thomas S. Kuhn, 1962: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thomas S. Kuhn, 1977: The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Representative selections of Kuhn's position regarding the history and philosophy of science.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1955: Tristes Tropiques (trans. by John Weightman and Doreen Weightman, 1973, as A World on the Wane). Classic critique of ethnocentrism and defense of cultural relativism.

Karl Raimund Popper, 1934: Logik der Forschung. English translation in 1959 as The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Popper’s seminal text on scientific truth and its relation with falsifiability.

Karl Raimund Popper, 1976: Unended Quest; An Intellectual Autobiography, London: Routledge. Includes Popper’s diagnosis of biological evolution as a metaphysical theory.


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