The Failure of Cultural Relativism


The other day I happened upon a link to an article in “Foreign Policy” concerning the oppression of women  in the Middle East. In the article an Egyptian woman explains how she was abused by both government officials and protestors. She points out that in the Middle East women simply do not have rights. But then she makes a statement that flies on the face of the modern sentiment:

When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness…Call out the hate for what it is. Resist cultural relativism and know that even in countries undergoing revolutions and uprisings, women will remain the cheapest bargaining chips.

What struck me as odd was the person who left the link said, “I don’t post this to ignore how women are treated in America…” The comments he received were along the lines that we need to stop worrying about what other cultures do, that it is simply how other cultures act. To try to tell these cultures that they’re wrong is an attempt to dominate and that is somehow wrong.

Cultural relativism is a very convenient belief at cocktail parties and cultural studies classrooms, but it has serious ramifications when it hits the real world. To put it concisely, cultural relativism cannot survive as a legitimate belief because it doesn’t accurately describe the world. There is no correspondence between its central teaching (that morals are subjective to the cultural mores) and the reality we live within.

Ignoring all the logical inconsistencies with cultural relativism, we must realize that it does two things: (1) it prohibits cultural diversity and (2) creates an arbitrary standard of morality.

First, cultural relativism arose out of a desire for multiculturalism, or the belief that all cultures are equal and should be judged on their own merits, not by other cultures. But this inherently ruins diversity because it has no approach to nations with different cultures. The United States stands as a prime example of the failure of cultural relativism. In a nation with multiple cultures at some point a law has to be passed that will implement one culture’s (or cultures’) view(s) over the other culture(s). In America, all the recent battles over the right of homosexuals to marry, or abortion, or other “cultural war” items has shown the failure of cultural relativism; at some point, one culture must win out.

Secondly, cultural relativism creates an arbitrary standard of morality. It is arbitrary because how can one really dictate what a “culture” is? Is a culture artificially determined by a nation’s borders, or is it more organic to people in a specific area? It is difficult to define exactly what a culture is, so how can one tolerate a culture? If the majority of people in a southern state declare they don’t want homosexuals to marry, can we really say they are wrong? How is that being tolerant of their culture? If certain tribes in Afghanistan or Pakistan want to kill women for “honor,” then who are we to judge such actions?

If cultural relativism is true then saying, “honor killings are wrong” is no different than saying “I don’t like frog legs.” Your cultural preference is different, but it holds no real moral weight; just as you would’t judge the French for liking odd foods, you shouldn’t judge some cultures for having an odd way of treating women. Such a sentiment, however, flies in the face of human nature.

We want to say that some actions are wrong irrespective of culture, we want to say that some things are simply always right and some things are simply always wrong. We want to say these things because universal moral laws do exist. Just like the laws of nature are universal, just like math is universal, so too are some moral codes universal. That we must debate over them, that some can deny them, and so on says more about our psychological state than they do about the codes themselves. If a man said he could defy gravity and he meant it, we would question his psychological state; we’d never question whether or not gravity exists. If a man said that 2+2=0 and meant it, we would question his intelligence; we would never question whether or not he was right. If a man says that all morality is subjective and relative to the culture, we should question his psychological state; we shouldn’t question whether or not universal morals exist. They do. The debate is over what is universal and over what is not universal.

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