The Weekly Doubt | Issue 9

The Weekly Doubt | Issue 9

Cultural relativism

Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual person’s beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual’s own culture. This is true, to a point, but often it translates as “We cannot pass judgement on people of other cultures, no matter what they do, because we can’t understand it.”

Cultural relativism works if you are talking about, for example, how in one culture it is traditional for a bride to wear white while in another culture they wear red. One isn’t better than the other. It’s like trying to say that your favourite thing to do – snowboarding, which I think is cold, boring, and horrible, is not as good as my favourite thing to do – reading, which I think is warm, interesting, and comfortable. I like my hobby more, obviously, but it doesn’t mean one hobby is better than the other. We like different things. That’s fine. If your hobby was setting dogs on fire, that’s not fine.

It does not work if you are talking about cutting the clitorises off girls. Can wellbeing be measured? Is a child better off with their body in tact, or with part of it cut off because of the sexual repression of their society? If you believe you can’t make a moral judgement on this, there is no point in having a definition of good and bad at all. Tolerating cruelty against vulnerable people or animals is not open-minded, it’s cynical.

In his book “The Moral Landscape” neuroscientist Sam Harris points out how the concepts of physical and mental health are difficult to define, and how they change over time. The average life expectancy in some ancient cultures was around 30, now it is around 80 in the developed world. Perhaps in the future it will be considered unfortunate if you can’t run a marathon at 200. Yet we know that physical health doesn’t mean you are constantly vomiting in agony. Similarly, there are many kinds of food, and no one thing that is the best food for everybody. But we do know the difference between food and poison. 

Would New Zealand society be better if we broke the toes of every third child? Would it be better if we infected everybody with tuberculosis? Would we be generally better off if we made some of our children live in the dark? I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say no, our society wouldn’t be better with these things. 

This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2016.
Posted 12:10pm Sunday 1st May 2016 by Wee Doubt.