Thinking across Cultures

By Donald M. Topping; Doris C. Crowell et al. | Go to book overview

18
Cultural Relativism and the Virtue of Tolerance

John C. Bishop

The University of Auckland


DESCRIPTIVE AND NORMATIVE THESES OF CULTURAL RELATIVISM

The term "cultural relativism" may be used to refer to two importantly different theses. In its first use, it refers to the claim that human understanding and evaluation of the natural and social world varies fundamentally relative to cultural context. This is the descriptive thesis of cultural relativism. Initially, it may seem obviously true: Surely it is a simple matter of observation that beliefs and values vary from one culture to another? In fact, however, the question of the truth of "descriptive cultural relativism" is a difficult one. For one thing, the observable differences in worldview and moral practice amongst cultures might arguably result from adapting to different cultural contexts the very same fundamental beliefs and values. Indeed, given sufficient ingenuity, for any pair of apparently opposed beliefs or values, it is always possible to hypothesize a fundamental belief or value of which they are just different contextual expressions. For example, if one culture values individual freedom and another group solidarity, could they not both be interpreted as fundamentally valuing human self-realization--but one in a context where self-realization can be achieved only by subordinating the individual to the group, and the other in a context where it does not? Thus, to settle the question of the truth of descriptive cultural relativism, we would need a way of evaluating such hypotheses to determine whether or not the claimed "agreements at the fundamental level" are genuine. This is, then, a substantial methodological issue which will need to be dealt with if the truth of descriptive cultural relativism is to be properly assessed.

That said, I shall nevertheless here assume that descriptive cultural rela-

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