Sunday, December 30, 2007

UDK article on cultural relativism

Originally Titled: Cultural Relativism abandons moral progress
Titled in Print: Ethnocentrism forsakes Morality
University Daily Kansan
March 5, 2003

Anthropology is not my cup of tea. I’ve taken one anthropology course in my time at the University of Kansas and I’m still enrolled in it, but my experience with the course tells me that the discipline is not suited for me.
The instructor warned us in the first few days of class not to come into the course with notions of measuring the African nations that we would study because comparisons were meaningless.
I realized that Anthropology had moved away from its traditional status of chronicling the details of other cultures, to having some sort of ethical fervor behind it. Moral language was used to describe other cultures, and the phrase “It’s right for them,’ was heard on occasion. It is now not only a standard of the field not to criticize other cultures, but a tenet that it is morally wrong to do so.
This is a common view in contemporary American society. Traumatized by accusations that we are cultural imperialists, many academics have embraced the idea that all other cultures are immune to critique and put moral weight behind the idea that each social grouping is just as good as another. The Kansas was even accused of ethnocentrism for a “Tongue in Beak” article recently, for which it apologized.
Underlying the claim that we should not criticize other belief structures is a fundamental world view that all systems of belief are equally valid. This is fallacious reasoning, and it must be rejected. We must reserve the right to use any means, even one as volatile as humor, to critique other cultures.
If we accept that all cultures are equally valid, we are committed to positions that I’d be afraid to see people support. German anti-Semitism in the 1930’s and 1940’s, including Hitler’s “Final Solution,” are merely expressions of a different, yet equally valid, moral code. Some African cultures whose reliance on spirits and witchcraft to heal disease, while rejecting the biological basis of health, result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and that’s OK. We could even posit a society that smiles on the practice of serial infant-raping, and we’d be unable to argue against it.
This form of cultural relativism doesn’t allow us to criticize others. It also denies us the ability to criticize ourselves.
When we act as though all beliefs were of equal validity, then we lose the concept of progress. If we cannot compare two contemporaneous societies against each other, then why can we compare them over time? The elimination of slavery on the basis of race becomes simply dry and dusty description, rather than moral progress.
Ethnocentrism is a bad thing. We shouldn’t assume that our own culture is somehow better than another. Argument will be required to show that certain aspects are better if, indeed, they are, and that’s questionable. This position does not entail, though, that we are forbidden to examine the practices of others.
Some people would accuse me of being a cultural imperialist, but note that there have been no claims that American culture is the best in all regards. We had N’Sync, ‘The Bachelor’ television series, and so much advertising that, according to National Geographic Magazine, young children can name more brands of beer than they can U.S. Presidents. And that’s not to mention the state-sponsored terrorism we carry out regularly.
At some point, people need to realize that no one’s beliefs are 100 percent correct, and that everyone, including this author, are fair game for criticism.
Just because we are all fallible doesn’t mean we are all right.

1 comment:

Ecclectic Essayist said...

The topic of this essay is one of my seriously prominent pet peeves. For reasons which elude me, the scourge of cultural relativism has pervaded academia and spread the message that making normative judgments about other cultural contexts is unacceptable, since moral judgments arise out of the cultural context of the person making them, as opposed to the context which is being judged.

Simply on the surface, this argument flies wide of its intended mark, since in no way is someone who criticized another culture trying to assert that the people of the culture he is criticizing, themselves, view their own practice as immoral. That they believe it to be perfectly acceptable is fully consistent with a claim that it is in fact unacceptable.

Nevertheless, the argument, even if assumed to show what it intends to show with its internal logic fails because it has faulty premises. Morality does arise, in part, through culture, but science has long ago proved that human minds and human morality are not issues of tabula rasa. We do not enter the world a clean slate upon which the environment can write whatever the hell it wants. Our biology and our evolutionary past provide a fairly large amount of information to a newborn infant, and it is that information which is the underlying basis for much morality.

Thirdly, the cultural relativist fails on another level since they are asserting that no trans-cultural normative standards exist, while simultaneously announcing a trans-cultural normative standard that says that it is immoral to criticize other cultures.

There are dozens of other responses to cultural relativism that I could list. The idea has been so thoroughly debunked in philosophy that entry-level students in ethics read about it in their books as a cautionary example. Nevertheless, some disciplines in academia have failed to keep abreast of developments in the disciplines which study precisely the issues on which the cultural relativist makes pronouncements.