Anthropology Culture Relativism Essays

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Different cultures believe different things.  One doesn’t need to be an anthropologist to see that the morality, ritual, and religion vary more and more the further you travel, no matter what direction.  In fact, these differences are what define these groups of people.  And not only are these values what organize the lives of… well… everyone, but they are also what lay the meaning behind those lives – whether political, cultural or religious in origin.

So what do we do with this fact?  What should we conclude?  How should we treat this difference?

Easy off the bat answer: Cultural Relativism.  Though originally the phrase was coined for a different use, it’s come to signify the idea that every culture’s moral beliefs and rituals are no more true or false, better or worse than anyone else’s.  What is right or wrong is whatever that culture says is right or wrong.  Nothing more.  And because of this what we need is tolerance, acceptance of the equal value of others’ beliefs, and humility in the fact different peoples believe different things.

Now I’m all for tolerance and admitting my passionately held values could easily be incorrect.  But I just cannot see how any of those conclusions can lead to, or even can co-exist with, Cultural Relativism.

Why might one be a Cultural Relativist?  Below I bring up common arguments for Cultural Relativism and then provide counter-arguments.

1. So many cultures disagree about so many different things.

If the world is full of anything it is passionate disagreement.  And because of this it’s easy to wonder if there is any truth behind our moral claims.  And since everyone seems to be honest when they make these claims, it seems arrogant to presume that any out of the multitude of nearly identical shouting voices is THE right one. 

However, the fact that disagreement exists says absolutely nothing about whether or not there is any truth behind the matter, whether or not one voice among the multitude is closer to the truth.  For instance, people disagree about the causes of cancer – does that mean cancer has no cause?

All that the existence of widespread, honest and heartfelt disagreement tells us is that this shit is really hard to figure out.  Nothing more.

Further, there is more agreement that disagreement.  Like so much in all of the other sciences, though the disagreements we have about morality are salient, we have a vast resource of agreements behind us.  And again like in the sciences, crazy opinions always lurk around somewhere, but people across the board are social animals who place enormous value in giving respect to those who’ve earned it; love among spouses, children, family and friends; in keeping one’s promises; in protecting the innocent, and so on.

2. Without God, all is permitted.

All laws need a legislator.  So if there is no one up there making the rules, then there are no rules.  The presence of ‘moral rules’ is nothing more than what the powerful in each culture have declared or what people, for whatever reason, have simply made up.

I’ve never found this argument to make any sense.  First, you have the Euthyphro Dilemma.  I won’t go into the details, mostly because I’ve already written a post on this.  But, basically, either God has reasons for making the moral rules He does, like human legislators in the analogy, or He doesn’t and makes them up arbitrarily.  If they are arbitrary, then that doesn’t explain the force behind their value.  We don’t think it right to keep promises because some Deity willy-nilly decided that would be ‘right’.  If God had reasons, on the other hand, for commanding this or that, then it is those reasons and not God, or any kind of other legislator, that supports morality.

Looking back at the shortlist of moral values I list above, we can see what kind of things those ‘reasons’ are.  Harm, freedom, love, respect, suffering, reputation, and so on are important in and of themselves.  It is, for example, the intrinsic value of friendship that supports the virtues that surround it – like trust and compassion – and not that some arbitrary legislator happens to declare friendship to be ‘good’.  For a bit more detail, I wrote a long post here on the grounding of ethics without god.

3. It’s important to be tolerant of others’ beliefs.

If you claim morality is absolute then you are being intolerant of other people’s beliefs.  This leads to imperialism, conflict and maybe even worse: genocide.

But this argument rests on absolute moral claims themselves!  Cultural Relativism would certainly say that the person from a tolerant culture ought to be tolerant.  But it would also say that a person from an intolerant culture ought to be intolerant.  And with the very same force that we in our culture might be required to be tolerant, others should be intolerant.  What is right for each is simply what their respective cultures says is right – and yours arbitrarily says to be tolerant.

Instead, to believe that all people should be fair and tolerant instead of genocidally intolerant is to claim that there are universal values outside of a culture’s beliefs.  It is only the person who rejects Cultural Relativism that intolerance is in itself bad and who instead would promote tolerance everywhere.

Tolerance is about how you treat other people.  It isn’t about what you believe about their beliefs.  So if I kick someone I disagree with out of my store or petition such people be jailed then I’m being intolerant.  If I believe they are wrong, or even tell them I disagree with them, all I’m being is truthful.  I’m stating a fact about our disagreement.  Disagreement itself does not imply disrespect for those you disagree with.

4.Different people in different contexts need different moral codes.

We can’t all have the same moral code because everyone lives in a different world with different demands, expectations, histories, symbols, and problems to overcome.  We need to respect the fact that people live different lives and not impose our rules on others or judge them by what works for us.

Again so true!!  And this does bring up a certain kind of relativism, but certainly isn’t Cultural Relativism as discussed above.  The specific rules and norms at the ‘highest’ day to day level of practice do, and ought to, vary culture by culture.  They are only either true or false depending on whether you are talking about this context here or that context there.  However, what makes a set of norms better than another in a given context might be specified at a broader and more ‘fundamental’ or ‘basic’ level.

Think of the classic anthropological distinction between collectivism versus individualism.  Some cultures thrive better as the first, while others value, and rightly so, the latter.  What provides the difference is the kind of values and rules the cultures need to flourish.  In the collectivist culture it might be the case a closer community and deeper inter-dependent bonds are necessary for anyone to be able to flourish or for the group to survive.  However, in another context, where each man and woman might be able to survive more independently, individualism and valuing competition leads to an explosion of creativity, entrepreneurship and invention.

The surface level dispute between individualism and collectivism is relative.  However, it is relative not to the culture but to the environment that culture is currently in.  The values of survival, flourishing, creativity and so on are universal and ground whether this or that moral strategy is best.  It is simply that different contexts mean different norms are needed in order to access or create these universal goods.

It is only because there is some underlying root to morality, whatever it may ultimately be, that we can understand progress.  If morality, as Cultural Relativism argues it is, is nothing more and nothing less than what a particular culture says is right or wrong, then MLK, Ghandi and other social reformers are very simply immoral.  They disagreed with the central norms of their culture, i.e. what was in fact ‘right’.  So they were ‘morally wrong’ for protesting.  Only if we agree that they were all tapping into something more basic and common to humanity that is valuable can we say that they were right.  Only then can we say they fought a good fight; one that others, whether they agreed with these social reformers or not, should have also fought.

Paul Chiariello (Chief Editor, Rutgers & Yale University) Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology and has been running around the world ever since. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philosophy Curriculum for Camp Quest, Inc.  Paul has a MSc in Comparative Education from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on ethno-religious identity and conflict, and has spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship.  He has also worked with research organizations at the UN and in DC, as well as schools abroad in Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.
Tags: collectivism, culture, ethics, Ghandi, individualism, MLK, morality, relativism, religion

Stocking 1982 analyzes the emergence of American cultural anthropology, the rise of Franz Boas and his students, and their lasting influence. Kuper 1999 offers the most comprehensive overview of American cultural anthropology, though from a critical, social anthropological perspective dominant in Britain. The best overview of major French thinkers on the question of cultural diversity from Montaigne to Lévi-Strauss remains Todorov 1993, which provides a good companion piece to overviews of cultural relativism that largely focus on the United States. Shweder 1984 traces American cultural anthropology’s roots in German Romanticism. Hatch 1983 and Fernandez 1990 examine anthropology’s and especially Boasian anthropologists’ relationship to cultural relativism. Renteln 1988 provides a short but comprehensive overview of more general approaches to cultural relativism within and beyond anthropology.

  • Fernandez, James W. 1990. Tolerance in a repugnant world and other dilemmas in the cultural relativism of Melville J. Herskovits. Ethos 18.2: 140–164.

    DOI: 10.1525/eth.1990.18.2.02a00020E-mail Citation »

    A close reading of Herskovits’ work on cultural relativism by one of his last students. Argues that cultural relativism was not an abstract philosophical issue but a practical and political one and that Herskovits considered cultural relativism as both a scientific method and a tool to fight injustice. Also examines some of the specific impasses that arose for Herskovits between his commitment to objective science and to political and social justice. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hatch, Elvin. 1983. Culture and morality: The relativity of values in anthropology. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Gives a critical overview of Boasian cultural relativism, including some of its epistemological, methodological, and ethical impasses. In addition to a historical overview, also argues for a new iteration of cultural relativism that overcomes what Hatch considers its earlier problems.

  • Kuper, Adam. 1999. Culture: The anthropologists’ account. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Though often critical of cultural anthropology, and especially of cultural relativism, provides a comprehensive account of the development of the culture concept from its evolutionary civilizational sense to its contemporary, plural meaning. Examines the work of the Boasians, David Schneider, Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins, and recent poststructural anthropology.

  • Renteln, Alison Dundes. 1988. Relativism and the search for human rights. American Anthropologist 90.1: 56–72.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1988.90.1.02a00040E-mail Citation »

    First half of the article is useful for outlining the various versions of cultural relativism in philosophy and anthropology. Provides a brief but comprehensive historical overview of the different approaches and ensuing debates. Latter half of the article takes up the question of contemporary human rights, arguing that cultural relativism is compatible with cross-cultural universals. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Shweder, Richard A. 1984. Anthropology’s romantic rebellion against the enlightenment, or there’s more to thinking than reason and evidence. In Culture theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion. Edited by Richard A. Schweder and Robert A. LeVine, 27–66. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Locates anthropology’s celebration of local context, its commitment to local rationalities, and its notion that primitive and modern are coequal within a longer genealogy that stretches back to the German Romantic movement.

  • Stocking, George W., Jr. 1982. Race, culture, and evolution: Essays in the history of anthropology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    A classic text by the leading historian of the discipline charting the emergence of American cultural anthropology. Gives a good sense of the theoretical and political stakes in the development of Boasian anthropology and its culture concept against the racial theories popular at the time.

  • Todorov, Tzvetan. 1993. On human diversity: Nationalism, racism, and exoticism in French thought. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Excellent overview of French thought from the Enlightenment onwards on the unity and diversity of the human species and its values. Particularly useful for defining key terms, including ethnocentrism, humanism, scientism, cultural relativism, universalism, and exoticism. Shows how ethnocentrism underpins certain forms of both universalism and cultural relativism. The author also offers his own theory of a universalism without ethnocentrism.


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