Academic journal article Counseling and Values

Should Universalism Trump Cultural Relativism in Counseling?

Academic journal article Counseling and Values

Should Universalism Trump Cultural Relativism in Counseling?

Article excerpt

Certain cultural customs and practices are viewed as abhorrent by many people, yet contemporary American counselors rarely criticize any specific culture. In this article, the authors explore why counselors abstain from such criticism. Furthermore, the authors demonstrate that universalism, often regarded as a politically incorrect and an academically archaic philosophy, is manifestly prevalent within the world's religious and political realms, as well as within the counseling profession. The authors assert that universalism should be prevalent within the counseling profession and that it can be integrated with multicultural principles. Finally, the authors suggest a procedure for identifying universal principles and practices.


Recently, the world witnessed a disturbing clash between cultures. A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published an article titled "Muhammeds ansigt" ("The face of Muhammad') that consisted of 12 editorial cartoons, most of which depicted the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and an explanatory text (Rose, 2005). Because the Qur'an condemns idolatry and because insulting Muhammad is seen as criminal behavior, Danish Muslim organizations responded to the cartoons with public protests. The situation escalated, triggering violent demonstrations and exhortations by some Muslims in various parts of the Islamic world to murder the cartoonists. Much of the rest of the world seemed to call for mutual respect, tolerance, and peaceful dialogue.

Other examples of contemporary culture clashes abound. For example, many people are horrified by so-called "honor killings" that are not uncommon in many Middle Eastern countries. In some honor killings, young girls are told by their parents to kill themselves or else be killed by family members for what most would regard as inconsequential flirting with boys. Other cultural practices that many in the rest of the world consider shocking include female genital mutilation, bride burning, slavery, and torture.

Although most American counselors and other mental health professionals recoil at the thought of those practices, they nevertheless are hesitant to condemn the customs or practices of other cultures in the world. As counselors, we routinely admonish ourselves: Who are we to condemn another culture? Who are we to say what is (or should be) true for all humans? Throughout history, dominant cultures have sought to oppress other cultures under the guise of universalism. Being aware of this history, counselors do not want to fall prey to that kind of insensitivity and arrogance.

Since the 1980s, multiculturalism and constructivism have been dominating forces within the arenas of counseling research and practice. We value these perspectives in the profession and appreciate the importance of counselors' cross-cultural sensitivity and the multicultural counseling competencies (Roysircar, Arredondo, Fuertes, Ponterotto, & Toporek, 2003; Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992). We also believe certain values must be affirmed as universal or as superseding all specific cultural values. In this article, we describe the philosophical and cultural forces within the profession that influence American counselors to refrain from condemning customs or practices of other cultures. These forces include ideas within the contemporary paradigms of existentialism, humanistic psychology, constructivism, postmodernism, and multiculturalism. A philosophy that runs counter to some of these more recent perspectives is universalism. A universalist perspective does demand an evaluation of all cultures from a global perspective. We present manifestations of the philosophy of universalism across three spheres of human endeavor: religion, world politics, and the counseling profession. We conclude with the argument that, in spite of some of the multicultural ideals and values that may challenge the universalist perspective in the profession, universalism does and should dominate counseling's professional values and practices. …

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