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Old July 13th, 2018, 01:28 PM   #1

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The Self-Contradiction of Cultural Relativism


An essential characteristic of postmodern relativism is the intrinsic ´performative self-contradiction´. This means that relativistic statements as a performative act are in contradiction to their content. Examples:

(1) Cognitive relativism: "There are no absolute truths; rather, each culture has its own truth", in short: "truth is relative to culture".

(2) Moral relativism: "There is no absolute binding morality; rather, each culture has its own moral standards that cannot be judged by the standards of other cultures", in short: "Morality is relative to culture".

This is objectionable:

Cognitive relativism claims the validity of truth only within the framework of a particular culture. Now a statement about the moral system of a culture A by a representative of culture B (philosopher, anthropologist, etc.) is only meaningful under the condition to make a true statement, since the claim to validity on truth is an essential element of a statement (exception: a lie, which fakes this claim). Thus the relativist contradicts what is said by him, since the claim that every culture has only relative standards is a statement of truth about every culture. The proponent assumes that he has absolute knowledge about the relativity of all cultural value systems, even if he has never heard of the South American tribe of the Guarani, for example, and does not know their system at all, so he cannot judge whether this system is perhaps an exception to the claimed rule (principle of fallibilism: the refutation of a hypothesis can never be ruled out).

The real self-contradiction, however, is, as already said, the claim to the absolute truth value of one's own statement, whose content claims the exact opposite, namely that true statements are culture-relative. The consequence is that a truth-relativizing statement is only true in the context of a certain culture, i.e. does not include other cultures. But it is precisely this inclusion that the relativist achieves with statements such as "all values are relative (i.e. limited) to a certain culture".

A resulting dilemma for postmodern relativists is their view that no culture can be attributed a superiority over another, thus opposing to cultural philosophical tendencies that consider Occidental//Western culture superior to past cultural levels and the rest of the present world. Typical representatives of the evolutionary position were the founder of anthropology, Edward Tylor, and his successor James Frazer. They believed to recognize common patterns (universals) in the diversity of cultures, which point to a fundamental unity of humanity, whose diversity owes itself to coincidental developments in different places at different times. Accordingly, every culture, including early historical and contemporary gatherer/hunter cultures, can be explored and understood in principle, as if they were only certain forms of a basic mentality common to all human beings. The relativists claim, however, that each culture has developed its value and belief systems independently of others and cannot be analyzed and evaluated using generalized ´universal´ patterns. In the anthropological field, the counter-reaction against the universalism of Tylor, Frazer and others began by Bronislav Malinowski in the 1930s and was continued by E.E. Evans-Pritchard and currently Clifford Geertz, Nurit Bird-David and many others.

As already mentioned, the relativistic dilemma shows above all in the fact that from the point of view of the relativists no culture has to be considered superior to another, but that this point of view is evaluated by its representatives as an important philosophical achievement that is superior in truth to other positions such as the evolutionary one of Tylor or Frazer. This is precarious enough in terms of the relativity of statements of truth, but it is not yet a contradiction within the same cultural framework. However, the self-evaluation of relativism becomes such a thing when one considers that precisely those cultures which the relativists want to save from evolutionary universalism do not know the cultural principle of relativity at all, but regard their respective systems (especially their religions) as absolutely binding. From the relativists' point of view, these cultures should therefore be classified as philosophically/morally/cognitively inferior, since the principle of cultural relativism is unknown to them.

Another example is human rights, which are defined as universal, i.e. valid everywhere on this planet, including territories where they are not legally recognised. It would be absurd if human rights only applied until the territorial borders of a state or a tribe and were overridden behind them by the application of local moral principles that deviate from them; on the contrary, they apply everywhere where there are humans. Strangely, the relativists see it differently when they claim that every culture has a right to its own value systems, which must not be measured against the criteria of Western morality. At the same time, every relativist would of course hurry to assure that he or she fully supports the ideal of human rights.

Last edited by Tammuz; July 13th, 2018 at 01:31 PM.
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Old July 13th, 2018, 02:20 PM   #2
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Another example is human rights, which are defined as universal, i.e. valid everywhere on this planet, including territories where they are not legally recognised. It would be absurd if human rights only applied until the territorial borders of a state or a tribe and were overridden behind them by the application of local moral principles that deviate from them; on the contrary, they apply everywhere where there are humans. Strangely, the relativists see it differently when they claim that every culture has a right to its own value systems, which must not be measured against the criteria of Western morality. At the same time, every relativist would of course hurry to assure that he or she fully supports the ideal of human rights.
There's no evidence at all that this is true.

And "western morality" is vague anyway. There is not some specific standard of conduct or ethics which western countries all adhere to.
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Old July 13th, 2018, 04:33 PM   #3

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I adhere to human rights philosophy. It's bred into the bone, so to speak. In fact, I'd say a silver lining of U.S. history is the slow, fitful, as yet incomplete recognition that these rights should apply to everyone without exception. But I do see them as a choice rather than an inherent truth of the world. The rights I possess exist only to the extent others recognize them.

The danger of extreme relativism is that we would overlook great wrongs in the name of cultural tolerance. The danger of extreme absolutism is that we would use what might we have to impose our values on others. Perhaps there's a middle way between the poles.

I think the primary insight of the post-modernist philosophers is that our evaluations of things are always done within a cultural frame of reference. We can't step outside of our own perspectives. The best we can do, imo, is try to broaden our perspectives as much as possible and judge only when circumstances force our hand.
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Old July 13th, 2018, 04:42 PM   #4
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Unless you categorize "truth", who is proposing that the laws of physics are relative? Don't answer "Einstein". He only modified Newtonian mechanics. All measurements of a certain type are approximations. That doesn't make them untrue. Moreover I daresay 2+3=5 in any culture that uses numbers though they may use different symbols.
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Old July 14th, 2018, 12:40 AM   #5
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The danger of extreme relativism is that we would overlook great wrongs in the name of cultural tolerance. The danger of extreme absolutism is that we would use what might we have to impose our values on others. Perhaps there's a middle way between the poles.
I do not see any "middle way". I think the correct thing to do is to leave groups alone to work out their issues or problems in their own time and in their own way. It does not mean you have to agree with them about their practices or beliefs of course. But the best thing to do is to just leave those people to themselves.

There are some things that I see as either clearly being "great wrongs" or just minor cultural deficiencies in certain specific western cultures, but not only do I not have the power to change those things or impose my own values on those cultures, I do not even have a mindset of thinking that I must interfere (rather than leaving those groups to try and change on their own) just because I personally find those things objectionable in some way.
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Old July 14th, 2018, 12:53 AM   #6

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I agree that different societies have to work things out for themselves in their own way, and that outside interference generally brings more problems than benefits; but one doesn't have to be a moral/cultural relativist to believe that.
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Old July 14th, 2018, 12:56 AM   #7

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It is just the come back of superstition. Nothing else.
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Old July 14th, 2018, 01:17 AM   #8
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I believe this is a very deep and fascinating argument about human culture....who will never come to a final conclusion (since it's REALLY deep). I can tell that relativism can be used as a tool to promote ethnic-nationalistic ideas (see the Nouvelle Droite psudo-intellectuals promoting a sort of "stick with your own kind since we don't share same values" attitude) as well as true open-mindedness. The human rights credo can be taken for granted in modern democracies, yet it can be used as a tool for corporate funded imperialism. I believe style is more important than substance, and many times it comes out that some philosophers's sophistic blababbering is less useful than the average man's common sense (no wonder, universities should be filled in a way or another....).

Last edited by Lm1985; July 14th, 2018 at 02:07 AM.
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Old July 14th, 2018, 06:29 AM   #9
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In reality the idea of cultural "equality" is absolutely absurd, it may sound nice in practice but it's simply not the truth. For example it's like communism, it may sound nice that everyone will get to live in an equal Utopian society, but has it ever been achieved? No it has not and it's cost the lives of roughly 60-100 million people depending on who you ask and that's because true equality cannot be achieved. Just for example if all cultures are equal and no culture is superior to another then you mean to tell me that Graeco-Roman culture is equal to that of Australian Aboriginal Culture? Maybe in somebody's eyes it may be the case but in mine it's nonsensical.
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Old July 14th, 2018, 07:09 AM   #10

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Lm1985 View Post
I believe this is a very deep and fascinating argument about human culture....who will never come to a final conclusion (since it's REALLY deep). I can tell that relativism can be used as a tool to promote ethnic-nationalistic ideas (see the Nouvelle Droite psudo-intellectuals promoting a sort of "stick with your own kind since we don't share same values" attitude) as well as true open-mindedness. The human rights credo can be taken for granted in modern democracies, yet it can be used as a tool for corporate funded imperialism. I believe style is more important than substance, and many times it comes out that some philosophers's sophistic blababbering is less useful than the average man's common sense (no wonder, universities should be filled in a way or another....).
I agree with this 100% ... reminds me of how Bush claimed that the invasion of Iraq would liberate women from Islamic oppression.

Now on the other hand, cultural relativism stems largely from the historical lessons that teach us that "civilizing missions" almost invariably cause damage, but that doesn't imply that such missions cause damage of necessity. Medicine might be taken as an analogy, for example, where we know of a practice that has caused more harm than good throughout most of human history but, when handled with the right level of delicacy and performed by the right individuals with the right motives, has potential to relieve quite a lot of suffering. We arrived at that point with medicine only recently; in the case of "civilizing missions" I sort of doubt we will get to that point before they become pretty much unnecessary.

Edit: I'm going to add that I agree with the OP on issues of hard relativism. There's a great deal of logical inconsistency there. But the empirical history lessons of "civilizing missions" are still very much relevant today and imo it's the case that these are more important than theories of morality with logical consistency, whether relativist or not. If you ask me, people should keep their reasoning behind cultural relativism arguments to empirical observations and history lessons rather than morality/logic/philosophy (which is incidentally what postcolonialism usually does), otherwise the glaring contradictions just tend to make them look less credible.

Last edited by Nickname; July 14th, 2018 at 07:21 AM.
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