A note on “cultural relativism”

As you know, some of my past posts about some modern characteristics of Chinese people mat have been offensive. While I believe it’s often quite uncivilized and harmful (and I think you’d be surprised at how many Chinese in China will affirm what I have said because it is so obvious to anyone who has been here for a long time), some people may reply that “outsiders” such as myself can’t judge them because different cultural values are incommensurable and judgments using one set of values can’t be applied to judge another set of values.

This seems like the classical argument from the view of cultural relativism. I have never found cultural relativism persuasive. There are devastating flaws to this view. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think there are things (values, mores, institutions, beliefs, etc) that are culturally incommensurable and relative. Just that you can’t blanket deem all judgments from one culture of aspects of another “inapplicable.” I will show how we can separate the ones that are relative from the ones that have a more universalistic standard of truth. But first, my objections to relativism and then some examples of things that I do think are relative.

Objections to cultural relativism

My first objection is simply self-reflection. Once we realize that many of our posts at HH are critical of some American and western values, beliefs, mores, institutions, etc, and moreover, we do so from a self-proclaimed and decidedly nonwestern perspective. Cultural relativism would undermine these perspectives, many of them I think are sound criticisms of western incivility.                

Chinese criticisms against Japanese atrocities likewise would be undermined. Must we admit that Imperial Japanese barbarity was in fact “correct” from their own cultural perspective in a relativistic sense and that our values against their mass murder, rape, occupation, etc, don’t apply to them since Imperial Japan had a different culture than modern Chinese (or American) culture? In fact, all criticisms from those of one cultural milieu to another across space and time would be undermined. Americans would have to admit that Nazis crimes against humanity were really correct from their perspective which is decidedly different from modern American culture or any other modern culture for that matter.   

Some may object to this line of argument by saying that the Japanese had no right to infringe their cultural values of imperialism on others even though they were correct (in a relativistic sense) to hold their beliefs in mass murder, rape, etc. But this just pushes it one step back and faces the exact same problems. By saying that they had had no right to infringe upon others their beliefs that what they were doing was correct, aren’t you likewise infringing your beliefs of what their “rights” are on them? To say that they have no right to infringe upon others their own cultural attitudes, you have made a universalistic claim on what their rights are.

Related to the above point, relativism is self-contradictory. To even say that all cultures are not culturally commensurable is to make a judgment from one cultural perspective of all others. Now it seems to me that cultural relativism is a product of a very western perspective (rather a postmodernist one), and thus it is itself infringing against cultural perspectives that are not postmodern and relativistic. So in reality, no arguments from detractors of relativism are even necessary for it refutes itself.

Closer to home, ought not the whole world criticize modern American culture for its rampant consumerism for such consumerism impacts not only Americans but the world in negative ways by destroying the environment and causing global inequalities and other injustices and you can make a good case that it also places much value on the wrong things? Consumerism is as American as apple pie and Apple Inc. If cultural relativism is true whereof can any such criticism get off the ground?

Cultural relativism also seems to collapse into a much more singular relativism. This is because cultures are not discrete entities but overlapping, dynamic, mutually influencing things. Chinese culture is composed of many cultures; each one with elements of others and differences as well. It’s a family resemblance. Hakka culture is different from Hui but there are many similarities as well. Cantonese culture is quite different from Shanghainese (and there are many similarities too) and there are many sub-Cantonese and sub-Shanghainese cultures and likewise with any major Chinese subculture and for those subcultures, there are sub-sub-cultures and so forth. Likewise, Japanese culture is influenced by Chinese. Where you draw the line between one culture and the next seems hopelessly arbitrary. There seems to be no principled reason to proclaim relativism for cultures and yet not do so for singular persons. But if truths are relative to individual people, all rational debate is pointless. There’d be no point to try to convince anyone of anything since whatever they say is true according to their own perspective (including the doctrine of universalism and relativism too! Thus relativists who try to convince others of relativism’s virtues make the very same mistake they claim universalists do and thus they refute themselves…again). If every viewpoint is “true” from “its own perspective” then nothing is false. But where there cannot be falsity, there cannot be truth as well and thus this undermines the notion of truth itself as Wittgenstein showed. It’d be incoherent to even speak of truth (even of “true” from some particular perspective) for truth necessarily depends on standards of evaluation not subject to individual whim.    

Other side of the coin

Here are some things that really are relative. For example, breast feeding in public or public nudity. In some countries, this behavior is stigmatized or considered rude. But in others no such sensibilities exists. Loud talking, public cursing, slurping noodles, etc are also things which seem to be in this category among many others. With regard to these things, you may want to respect the local culture when in certain countries and not offend the locals. But you can make a good case that one culture has no right to impose cultural standards on others. There seems to be no good reason to impose one’s own cultural sensibilities on others.

The space of reasons

And this gets us to how we can distinguish between the two kinds of cases. There’s a heuristic we can use. We simply ask if there are good reasons behind any cross-cultural judgment. In the case of some cases, such as a militaristically aggressive state (say, one that was motivated by a dogmatic religious values or some other aspect of an aggressive militaristic culture), there are indeed, very good reasons to criticize the behavior of such a state even if that behavior is caused by the cultural motivations of some particular culture. We know that wars cause death, sickness, destruction of all that is valuable in all human cultures. These things are naturally bad for humans. There are good reasons to try and avoid deaths, sickness, destruction of a country’s infrastructure, subjugation and oppression, etc. These good reasons are grounded in objective facts about human nature. Some things are just harmful to people irrespective of the culture they come from. Thus judgments against such behavior have some degree of culture-independent objectivity. On the other hand, critical judgments against some activities such as loud talking, public nudity, noodle slurping, etc, seem to have no conceivable good objective reasons. Whether a people practices these activities seem not to harm them in any way that can be objectively verified. They are simply harmless cultural quarks with no good objective culture-independent reasons to denounce. They are accidents of history and their practice or non-practice does not harm (nor benefit) the society in which they are manifest even if they irk, nauseate or even infuriate people of another culture. No objective fact about human nature makes them harmful thus cultural sensitivity and tolerance should apply. 

Now the question is Are there good reasons to stop public spitting and defecation, running red lights, queue jumping, and dishonesty? Are these practices like rampant consumerism and belligerent militaristic behavior or like public breast feeding and noodle slurping? The question rather, is whether there are good reasons to criticize and try to curtail these behaviors. If there are good reasons, reasons that people from different cultures ought to heed, they are not culturally relative but universal (at least between those cultures that it would benefit from adopting these considerations). I argue that all of the practices I highlighted have good reasons for curtailing. They are disadvantageous to public health (public spitting, urinating and defecating) or to public safety (running red lights, jay walking) or detrimental to social order and economic stability or inefficiency (dishonesty, line cutting, ignorant superstitious beliefs). The fact that these things are detrimental is objectively verifiable through medical and socio-economic scientific methods (indeed, the Chinese government knows of their harm and tries to curtail many of the ones I’ve mentioned).  

Now you may understand why I’m no cultural relativist. Anyone who has taught an intro to philosophy class knows how common and ill-conceived cultural relativism is (especially among our postmodern influenced youth) and how easy it is to dismantle. I know that Confucian culture is far more ethical and natural than Judeo-Christian culture. As I’ve argued in the past, one has to wonder why the west has contributed to the greatest crimes in human history (both on its own people and on others), bar none. China, even when it had been the richest and most technologically advanced country on earth, showed no signs of colonizing anyone while European nations often did little else when they (using Chinese technology such as gun powder, crossbows, metal working, compass, clocks, etc) got the chance to. Over the last 40 years, China is, again, strong yet shows little to no signs of aggression like the US does on almost a daily, year after year, basis. There are good reasons to adopt Confucian values over those of Judeo-Christian ones; just open up the Bible and the Analects and compare to see those reasons for yourself. While there is much to be admired and inspired about some aspects of Christian culture, much of it is barbaric especially compared to Confucian culture and ought to be abandoned.

One can also apply this heuristic to think about the west’s often impetuous attempts to get the rest of the world to adopt its consumerist, free-market economic system or its notions of democracy [sic]. Are there good reasons others ought to adopt them (or even answer the question of their being coherent notions) or is it all just dogmatic ideology, built on phantom, culture-centric/specific assumptions? Perhaps there are even good reasons that the west ought to abandon them in favor of alternate ways of thinking and doing things. The fact that debates between modern western values and institutions and those of China often rely on slogans, the persistent evasion of giving any fundamental reasons by the proponents of the western side gives good evidence that it is the later.

I’ve so far taken a middle path approach which denies the excesses of both ends of the extreme: that of both cultural relativism and pure universalism. The truth is that some things are relative while other things are more universal and moreover they are universal because of facts about the commonalities of humans and societies. Of course, there are also likely things that are hard to tell which side of the divide they are sitting in a border-vague region with only weak or indeterminate or conflicting reasons supporting but such is the case with everything. Reasons come in degrees of strength, not always in absolute truth values. There will always be some hard questions. Such is the human condition. The reliance on cultural relativism is but an intellectual lazy excuse to stop further needed reflection. It prevents people from thinking about the space of reasons.


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