7 A Cultural Critique of Cultural Relativism

By Li, Xiaorong | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, January 2007 | Go to article overview

7 A Cultural Critique of Cultural Relativism


Li, Xiaorong, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


ABSTRACT. This chapter explores a certain line of critical analysis according to which one can proceed to undermine the claim that judgments approving freedom, and standards upholding human rights, are culturally relativistic and cannot possibly have any universal validity. This exploration begins with a scrutiny of common assumptions about the nature of culture itself. The author tries to demonstrate that common misunderstandings of culture have provided ammunition to cultural relativists. Seeking clarity helps strengthen the philosophical objections to normative cultural relativism. The author refers to such a line of analysis as the "cultural critique of cultural relativism."

I

Introduction

THE RECOGNITION THAT CULTURE has an ethical significance need not undermine the plausibility of universal moral values and ethical principles. The fact that cultures are different and particularistic does not entail cultural relativism. To support these two propositions, I will begin this chapter by discussing the controversies surrounding the troubled relationship between culture, on the one hand, and the claim to universal moral principles, on the other. More specifically, I will examine those arguments that seek to undermine the philosophical efforts to defend these universal principles. I shall argue that a careful scrutiny of common assumptions about culture helps to clarify certain misunderstandings that have provided ammunition to cultural relativism in the past, and it also helps to strengthen the philosophical objections to normative cultural relativism. In what follows, I shall refer to this line of analysis as the "cultural critique."

II

The Trouble with "Culture"

THE UNIVERSALISTIC PRINCIPLES of human rights prohibit, for instance, certain customary practices (e.g., honor killing or female circumcision). However, without being cultivated into a cultural capital in the form of particular customs or habits, such universal ethical norms as "equal respect for humanity" or "equal treatment of all as free and autonomous human beings" cannot be realistically implemented without the implementer using some highly coercive force that undermines the very norms that he or she seeks to implement. Also, the ideas upholding the human rights principles have evolved as integral parts of specific cultural traditions. These traditions, in turn, differ significantly from those traditions in which the above-mentioned customary practices (e.g., honor killings), as well as the ideas behind them, have evolved. Just as basic human rights principles protect freedom of expression and thought, they must also allow for cultural diversity and promote pluralism. Thus, the culture factor cannot be ignored or put on the back burner in any serious ethical thinking. Critical analysis of substantive ethical proposals benefits from a scrutiny of common assumptions about "culture," and it also benefits from an assessment of the extent to which culture is relevant to ethics.

"Culture" is generally spared the kind of careful scrutiny that such concepts as "personhood" or "human rights" are subjected to. Cultural relativists and universalists alike typically assume that "culture" is a self-evident or commonly agreed upon concept. "Culture," "tradition," or "community" are often used interchangeably as if they refer to the same thing. Moreover, an individual's understanding of these concepts informs, to a large extent, his or her substantive views about the relevant ethical topics under consideration. This normative ethical thinking, therefore, must begin with a rigorous analysis of how culture, tradition, and community are, or should be, understood. For example, it must begin by considering how, if at all, different cultures can commensurate or cohere with each other, or how their values and moral norms can be criticized and evaluated according to commonly held standards.

To avoid any lengthy digression into matters of definition, I shall argue below that what I term the minimalist consensus view about culture is the most promising alternative in clarifying these and other matters of normative importance. …

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