Re: SOC: cultural relativism

Date: Sat Jul 29 2000 - 07:11:23 MDT

In a message dated 7/24/00 2:06:30 PM Central Daylight Time, writes:

> So, the advocates of multi-culturalism seek to include other (useless to
> traditions, not to somehow morally equalize them. The part that is hard
> us to get over is that we really DO think our lives are richer, more
> educated, simply BETTER!! The problem is, how to let the people involved
> make their OWN judgements on what THEY want. That way the 'superior'
> are chosen, not enforced.

Like most Westerners in our time, I was formally educated in an academic
system dominated by more or less explicit "political correctness" (although,
being of an advanced age, this intellectual substrate wasn't as pronounced in
my school days as it seems to be now - we also used to have to walk uphill
three miles both ways to and from school). Whether you call it "moral
relativism" or the less rhetorically charged term "multi-culturalism," I've
had to struggle with some inherent contradictions in what can fairly and
neutrally be called this "post-modernist" stance, and I'm the first to admit
that the roots of that contradiction lie in the mentality of the earlier age
(the classic liberalism of the Enlightenment) that I've come adopt as the
default viewpoint of my personal philosophy. As you correctly identify, that
contradiction lies in the value we place on an individual's autonomy or right
to choose their own way in life, an absolutely fundamental value of classic
liberalism and modern libertarianism. But the resolution lies in revisiting
and reviving that value.

Consider the intractable contradiction for the "hard core multi-culturalist"
in facing something like the treatment of women in Afghanistan: What
viewpoint is "privileged" (to use the post-modernist term) to criticize the
Taliban's prohibition on women taking part in public life? Returning to the
roots of Western modernism, this conundrum is solved without significant
inconsistency: The Taliban are simply WRONG in their "culture" because they
are infringing the individual autonomy of half the population in their
country. The modern cultural relativist, though, has inherited an
intervening intellectual heritage that dictates the primacy of "culture" over
the intellectual. Although there are plenty of antecedents for the notion
before Marx, it was Marx who enshrined the primacy of culture in the
post-Enlightenment period.

The problem arises when we mistake "IS" for "OUGHT". The scientific mind-set
of the Enlightenment lead to a critical view of society and human behavior
that yielded the observation that in fact people ARE heavily influenced in
their values and behavior by the culture in which they grow up and live. The
paralysis of post-modernist cultural relativism arose from abnegating the
possibility of moral judgment and thence the denial of the possibility of
moral action. The contemporary cultural relativist denies the existence of
any "privileged" cultural viewpoint, but espouses the primacy of culture.
Having abandoned the MORAL foundation of individual autonomy, the cultural
relativist can't resolve the paradox you identify, Nadia. In fact, the most
radical post-modernists deny the existence of the paradox at all, claiming
that it arises from making what they call the "mistake" of accepting any
particular viewpoint as "privileged".

Ultimately, this "paradox" is a false one, and arises from a mistaken
conflation of description and prescription. Post-modernist "sophistication"
is nothing more than the stubborn refusal to acknowledge this error.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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