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The Great Debate Over Cultural Relativism

January 26, 2010
Multiculturalism is Dead?

Graffitti in Ottawa, courtesy Flickr user "lechampiondumonde."

It’s always fun to think about political questions that cut across traditional left/right divides, and one of the most interesting is the clash between universalist and relativist views of human nature. Is there one ideal political and social model that is best for all humans, or are different models ideal for different societies? Are at least some rights and ethical rules universal, or do these moral fundamentals vary across cultures?

The universalist camp might be taken to include both right-wing neoconservatives, who are typically eager to impose democracy and capitalism everywhere, and left-wing proponents of universal human rights such as the signers of the Euston Manifesto. Relativists include right-wing nationalists like the British National Party and left-wingers who decry “cultural imperialism” (nice example here), all of whom take it for granted that different nations and cultures will prefer to live in substantially different ways. Of course there are ideological fault lines within each camp, but the issue really is one that cannot be reduced to a simple left/right dichotomy. It also happens to be of critical importance to the foreign policies of Canada and other nations. The greater our conviction that our own values are universal, the more energetically we are likely to promote them abroad.

The other day the Guardian website published, apparently by coincidence, two thoughtful commentaries that touched on opposite sides of this question. Nick Cohen’s piece was mostly about US foreign policy under Barack Obama,  but dripped with disdain for the relativist position in general. Of Obama, Cohen wrote:

He comes from an ideological culture which calls itself progressive, but is often reactionary. Many from his political generation use the superficially leftish language of multiculturalism and post-colonialism to imply that human rights are a modern version of imperialism which westerners impose on societies that do not need them. Scratch a relativist and you find a racist and although they do not put it as bluntly as this, their thinking boils down to the truly imperialist belief that universal suffrage or a woman’s right to choose are all very well for white-skinned people in rich countries but not brown-skinned people in poor ones.

At this point I should disclose that I consider myself a fairly thorough-going relativist. When scratched – well, I bleed. I don’t really mind being called a racist, though, since the term is used so loosely and carelessly these days that it has become almost meaningless. I could just as well sneer that Cohen is a racist for holding the truly imperialist belief that the social and political customs developed by white-skinned people in rich countries are obviously superior. Or whatever.

I’d rather call to my defence John Hooper, who noted the high levels of fiscal corruption that prevail in Italy and scratched his head over the paradox that Italy is nevertheless a tolerably prosperous place. As he put it:

Perhaps the correlation between wealth and propriety in public life is destined to join other confidently proclaimed truths on the garbage dump of historical experience. It used to be said democracies could not survive hyperinflation. But then along came the counterproof of Israel in the early 1980s. You still hear the odd pundit insisting economies cannot grow beyond a certain point without their politicians being forced to accept democracy. But you hear that a lot less now that the world’s second largest economy is run by a communist party that shows no sign of relinquishing its grip on power.

In other words, there are radically different ways to make a society work economically, despite the trumpetings of the Marxists of the left and the market fundamentalists of the right. And if there are many roads to a high gross national product, why should there not be many roads to a high gross national happiness? More than two years of residence in China has convinced me that this country is anything but a cesspool of misery, despite the government’s tight controls on many aspects of society.

As I see it, the universalist impulse is based on a simple failure of imagination. Having grown up immersed in a specific culture with certain fundamental assumptions about what constitutes the good life and the good society, it can be hard to believe that large numbers of people who do not share those assumptions exist anywhere. But in a world where Canada regularly descends into political hysteria over the odd sponsorship scandal or dubious cash payment to a former prime minister, while Italy cheerfully basks in “its tolerance of graft and illegality”, perhaps it’s time we stopped pretending that every family in the global village needs or wants to live by the same house rules.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    January 29, 2010 12:56 pm


    Yes, I’m serious. Any traffic you wish to send our way will be much appreciated, of course.


    I stand corrected. All this time, I’ve been convinced Obama was the Eggman. 🙂

    A premise is just anything that one assumes to be true. Premises that concern nature, such as “all walruses have wings”, can generally be investigated and tested at least in principle. After all, one can look at walruses. I would suggest that the only really untestable premise, when it comes to investigating the empirical world, is the existence of constant laws of nature. And if you’re not willing to accept this particular premise at least as an operational assumption, life becomes pretty much impossible.

    In the case of moral premises, the situation is very different. How on Earth do you test a premise like, for example, “it is always wrong to steal”? Some might think that robbing from the rich to give to the poor, or stealing a gun to prevent a murder, are perfectly justifiable actions. It’s possible to have rational debates about the consequences of following or not following a proposed moral rule, but people are quite likely to disagree about which set of consequences is most desirable (even if they agree about which moral choices will lead to which consequences). Forget about walruses – searching for an objective answer to such a dispute is like asking whether unicorns have wings.

    The only sensible course of action is to try to reach a subjective consensus among the interested parties, and it shouldn’t surprise us that different consensuses (consensi?) have emerged within different societies. There’s no need to search for a broader consensus among societies except with respect to a limited number of issues (climate change is a good example) that are inescapably global in scope.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    January 28, 2010 8:43 pm

    A great article – you raise so many points that I’ll have to ponder and yes, b/c of my many foibles, will undoubtedly have to parse, too. But your legendary patience should see me in good stead. I really like the way you draw us from the conceptual to your own personal experience as a Canadian in China – I never tire of learning more about your experiences there. Tell us more! A second installment! Too bad you can’t come out for some of our Cultural Olympiad events (shameless plug for my post this month – see list of flaws). With the greatest respect to the other post on this article, i think it’s too easy a draw to refer to the inevitable “daily outrage” re violence against women, the world over,when examining cultural practices, although of course this is an important part of the debate.
    Perhaps b/c i feel so much as to be defined first, about gender, and sex, and culture and b/c i am essentially lazy, that i veer more to discussions about socio-economic distinctins regarding the cultural shibboleths of “race/ethnicity.” So, Italy. Recently, provinces, regions/cities there have been enacting a series of disturbing, irrational but interesting rules, regulations against “foreigners,” especially “brown-skinned ones.” (Naples? hah. irony). One of my many unfinished, on-going projects is to explore the role of the Gypsy/Roma in Europe and the ages old paranoia/exclusion from the idea of what is European culture, of those of us who are Arayan (sp?), Semitic, but not white. My point here is a relativist one, of course. To be prosperous, to be happy, everywhere/ anywhere is linked, inextricably, not only to one’s personal disposition and responsiblity and sense of self, but to a range of socio-cultural-economic-historical factors, events, traumas. So, any prescription for a “model” Right or Left, East or West, must needs be relative. What say you?

    • corsullivan permalink*
      January 29, 2010 12:00 pm

      So, any prescription for a “model” Right or Left, East or West, must needs be relative. What say you?

      Yes, I’d agree enthusiastically with this. The only caveat is that there is such a thing as human nature, in that some basic drives and moral preferences have been more or less hard-wired by evolution into the structure of the human brain. I wouldn’t be surprised, for example, if something like the famous “Golden Rule” (do unto others as you would have others do unto you) is understood and accepted by a large majority of people in virtually all human cultures. Of course, the range of “others” to whom this rule should apply is something that individuals and cultures can, and do, disagree on.

      I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on the Roma, whenever that on-going project of yours begins to come to fruition. It’s a little ironic that, as members of a people that traditionally spoke an Indic language, they can claim to be Aryans with much more legitimacy than any blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian.

      Anyway, yes, I’ll try to write more about China in the future. On Sunday I’m off to spend a few days in Shenyang, a fair-sized city in what is now Liaoning Province and was once part of Manchuria… I’ll see if inspiration strikes.

  3. January 26, 2010 1:18 pm

    From the news yesterday, here’s a tale from a village on the globe where they want to live by different house rules:


    A 16-year-old girl who was raped in Bangladesh has been given 101 lashes for conceiving during the assault.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      January 27, 2010 12:33 pm

      Thanks for that link. The story is a little bewildering, since I haven’t been able to find an explanation of what the village elders who ordered the flogging were actually thinking (although there’s a bit more detail here, and an indignant editorial of Bangladeshi origin here.)

      Presumably their reasoning was either that she was probably lying about the sex being non-consensual, that she had acted immorally simply by putting herself in a position where rape was a possibility (e.g. being alone with her attacker) or that she should have disclosed the incident before getting married. Whatever it was, “receives 101 lashes for becoming pregnant” is probably a bit of a distortion, though I suppose not bad as newspaper headlines go.

      That’s not to say, of course, that any of the possible reasons for flogging her and pardoning her attacker are particularly good ones by Western standards. However, the elders’ decision may start to seem more reasonable if you start with radically different premises about, say, the relative importance of discouraging rape versus discouraging female promiscuity. And while I’m fully on board with Western premises in this case, I’m not arrogant enough to think they’re written into the fabric of the universe. I don’t think we should be shy about explaining our Canadian perspective to any conservative Bangladeshi villagers who may want to listen, but I would draw the line at actually pressuring them to change their attitudes.

      • Wes permalink
        January 28, 2010 12:26 pm

        No. Those premises don’t make it seem any more reasonable. Premises don’t exist in a vacuum. Reason involves questioning your premises from time to time also. It is true that idiotic conclusions follow logically from idiotic premises. For instance:

        All walruses have wings.
        Barack Obama is a walrus.
        Therefore, Barack Obama has wings.

        The conclusion follows logically, but that does not mean that someone who gave this argument is being reasonable. Their premises are ridiculous and wrong. And the same goes for the Bangladeshis who think that “preventing female promiscuity” is more important that than preventing rape. Their premises are based on bigotry, ignorance, superstition and sexism. It’s not arrogant to point this out.

        One of the problems with epistemological and ethical relativism is that it almost always treats premises as things that are never question and, in fact, impossible to question. This is BS. All I have to do is challenge the premises on which these elders based their ridiculous conclusions. I’m not under any obligation to claim that there’s anything “reasonable” about giving a teenage girl lashings for the “crime” of being a rape victim.

      • Hal permalink
        January 29, 2010 4:26 am

        Holy cow! Are you serious?!! (In case the answer is yes, I’ve already copied your comment and its url to show people from time to time that such attitudes do in fact exist.)

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