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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Repost: cultural relativism

Cultural relativism: a moral standard that which maintains that cultural norms are good simply because they are cultural norms, and a person cannot judge the norms of one culture by the standards of another.

 A standard that is, in my view, complete bullshit. And if you thought a little more about what its logical implications are, I suspect you'd agree with me. That is because in order to maintain it consistently you would have to agree that you have no grounds to judge the morality of things like female genital mutilation, child rape, foot binding, and slavery, because these have all been cultural norms. A cultural norm is simply what has become the norm within a culture. And norms are sometimes really, really messed up. But a cultural relativist may not say this, because projecting your cultural values and norms on another culture is wrong! 

Really? What about the people who are suffering because of those norms? Are you doing them any favors by refusing to judge the people harming them? What if they didn't sign up to be subjected to this crap, and would just as soon not be treated as property, not be raped, not be mutilated, and so on? What if they would be better off living by your cultural norms, which lean more toward treating people as equals? Maybe your cultural norms are not just norms for the sake of it, but because some very compassionate and insightful people thought and then fought for a very long time to ensure that the weaker members of society are not subjected to the things that pass as norms in other cultures. Maybe cultural norms are not all created equal. 

Regarding the rural Ecuadorians-- maybe encouraging them to spend their time, energy, and resources on developing and practicing medicine which actually isn't medicine at all is not doing them any favors. Maybe, if they knew what real medicine was and had access to it, they would not be flattered by the fact that you considered their previous cultural practices so charming that you didn't deem it necessary to help them understand what actually works as medicine and what doesn't. After all, they're long-lived and generally happy! Why not just let them keep slaughtering small animals if it makes them feel good? That's just as good as modern medicine! I'm sure when one of them gets cancer he/she is perfectly fine bathing in bat blood and listening to incantations instead of having the tumor removed.

Of course most people are not, in fact, consistent cultural relativists-- they pick and choose the ways in which it is okay to impose their cultural norms on other societies. Even if they wouldn't support invading another country to stop women from being put to death for having pre-marital sex, they won't hesitate to condemn the practice. That's what a moral person does...condemn barbarism, wherever it takes place. The only people who are done a favor by the refusal to condemn are, of course, the barbarians.

I apologize for my vehemence here....I really do. And to be clear, I am not saying that members of any culture should go around trying to force other cultures to be like theirs. I'm saying that the idea that a person should not come to moral conclusions about behavior that goes on in a culture other than his/her own is not only gravely mistaken but dangerous, and immoral in itself. Human rights are called human rights because they belong to all humans, not some of them depending on what culture they happened to be born in. The people who define cultural norms are the ones with the power, and the ones with the power are very often wrong. We should feel no compunction about saying so, whether they're powerful in our own culture or another. -- Source: http://forum.myextralife.com/topic/40129-witchcraft-occult-devil-worship-andor-black-magic/page-3#entry645415

3 comments:

  1. This is not quite what people who advocate cultural relativism mean by the term. Cultural relativism means that you judge a given belief or practice within the cultural context in which it occurs, rather than presuming that your own culture's standards automatically apply. If people are doing something in the hope that it'll cure cancer, and it doesn't cure cancer, then clearly it's failing within the very context in which it is being practised, so even a cultural relativist should regard it as a failure.

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  2. I'm thinking mainly of cases like this, Daniel.

    Some people who advocate cultural relativism by that name may not mean what I say, but it's undoubtedly the case that plenty who don't use that name mean it.

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  3. Manifestation on the other side of the political spectrum: Conservatives who denounce cultural relativism and moral relativism of liberals, and then defend the founders who were slave holders in light of the fact that it was a different time and people thought about slavery differently back then.

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