Re: SOC: cultural relativism

From: Dan Fabulich (
Date: Sun Jul 30 2000 - 15:23:09 MDT

Greg Burch wrote:

> Dan, I think you're in fact expressing the very mistake I was
> describing in the rest of my post. The problem arises from mixing
> the VALUE of individual autonomy with the OBSERVATION of cultural
> determinism. Let me return to the example of the Taliban oppression
> of women. The "compost-modernist" recognizes that there's
> oppression going on, but is paralyzed from acting to do anything
> about it because 1) he can't step outside of the view that the
> Taliban mullahs are oppressive because "that's what their culture
> dictates" and 2) condemning the oppression is an act of "cultural
> imperialism" based on Western values.

I was quite unclear.

There really are two kinds of post-modernists. There are relativist
post-modernists, whom, I think, are making a mistake, (the same
mistake as the modernists, actually) and there are sollipsist/
ethnocentrist post-modernists, whom I think are exactly right.

The relativist post-modernist is making a mistake because he thinks
he's not being sollipsist/ethnocentrist. He thinks that by embracing
relativism, he's embraced all cultural positions, or no cultural
position at all; that he's somehow above all questions which are
culturally determined. He might have delusions that from this
position, and from this position alone, he can treat persons from
various cultures from a truly unbiased stance.

He can't. The moral relativist can't pull himself up and out of the
games we mere humans play; in his attempts, he simply embraces new
cultural values. Worse, his attempts at bootstrapping himself beyond
values leaves him with a completely ridiculous set of values from
everybody else's perspective. This might have been his first clue to
come down from there and work with us.

With that having been said, I think the modernists make the same
mistake. They think that they have found the values which are
transcendently right, rather than the values which are culturally
determined or which they happen to accept. The modernist, just like
the relativist, believes himself to have found a skyhook that will
lift him out of his own skin and into the realm of Truth. While this
is not necessarily a huge problem, it becomes a problem when he goes
on to try to pull everyone else "up" to where he is by illegitimate

Now, thus far, in the stories I've told, you might think that this has
been a tale of people going awry because they've embraced sollipsism
and ethnocentricism without realizing it; that, if only we could stop
being sollipsistic, our problems would be solved.

To buy into an argument like this is to be tempted by imaginary
skyhooks. Rather, what we've learned instead is that you CAN'T stop
being sollipsistic, and that this is *OK*. We can only endorse those
beliefs which jive with our own beliefs. We endorse our own beliefs
only because they are ours. We act like modernists only because the
difference between acting on our own beliefs *because they're ours* and
acting on our own beliefs *because we think that they're transcendently
right* yields very similar results.

As far as we're concerned, we shouldn't be culturally imperialistic
simply because we believe that we shouldn't be culturally
imperialistic. As I said before, we're morally obligated to respect
the autonomy of others *BECAUSE* that's what OUR culture dictates;
and, as far as we're concerned, our culture takes precedence over the
beliefs of other cultures, which might differ.

> > Under this kind of ethnocentricism, we are morally obligated to
> > respect the autonomy of others, because that's what our culture
> > dictates; if we believed otherwise, we'd be wrong.

> Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Taken out of the
> context of this discussion, the above quote is unassailable: Of
> course we are "morally obligated to respect the autonomy of others",
> but the object of that respect is the individual, not a culture per
> se or an ethnicity. I have no respect for oppressive Muslim
> fundamentalists or tribalists that perform female genital
> mutilation, and I have no respect for the cultures that engender
> such behavior. As Nadia points out, respect for the purely
> aesthetic traditions of a culture is one thing -- one can't condemn
> people for preferring one set of culturally pervasive tonalities in
> music over another, for instance. But a cultural preference for
> brutality is quite another thing.

This is right, but only because I think so. ;)


      -unless you love someone-
    -nothing else makes any sense-
           e.e. cummings

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