Saturday, October 31, 2009

02 On Cultural Relativism

Relativism is always attributed to others and almost always as a criticism. Like skepticism it has a bad name for some reason. And today we'll talk about cultural relativism, which is more or less equivalent to moral relativism.

One of the interesting aspects of it is, that it is quite new: a product of the 20th century. Of course before the 20th century we find traces of relativistic thinking, but that tends more to skepticism.

At the beginning of the 20th century most people were convinced that that our Western moral values were superior to the moral values of other cultures.

Few thought all moral values had equal or relative validity, or anything of that sort. So we sent out missionaries with mirrors and beads to convert the pagans.

But then came the anthropologists. They were fascinated with the diversity of cultures, and they produced detailed empirical studies of them—especially “primitive,” non-Western ones.

And with them came cultural relativism, the conviction that saying that Western civilization was superior to other "primitive" cultures was sheer respectless arrogance and cultural imperialism.

We find scientists like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead on our Path. Ruth Benedict, an influential American anthropologist who lived from 1887 to 1948, specialized in the study of native American cultures.. Margaret Mead studied South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures.

In 1947, on the occasion of the United Nations debate about universal human rights, the American Anthropological Association issued a statement

declaring that moral values are relative to cultures and that there is no way of showing that the values of one culture are better than those of another.

Or to quote Ruth Benedict herself: "Most organizations of personality that seem to us abnormal have been used by civilizations in the foundations of their institutional life.

Conversely the most valued traits of our normal individuals have been looked on in differently organized cultures as aberrant. Normality, in short, within a very wide range, is culturally defined.

It is a point that has been made more often in relation to ethics. We do not any longer make the mistake of deriving the morality of our own locality and decade directly from the inevitable constitution of human nature. We do not elevate it to the dignity of a first principle.

We recognize that morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits. Mankind has always preferred to say, “It is a morally good,” rather than “It is habitual,” and the fact of this preference is matter enough for a critical science of ethics. But historically the two phrases are synonymous.

The concept of the normal is a variant of the concept of the good. It is that which society has approved. A normal action is one which falls well within the limits of expected behavior for a particular society." (1934)

Important words of an anthropologist which resound in the statement of 1947. Cultural relativism and along with it, moral relativism, was put on the map.

In moral philosophy we can look at moral relativism from different angles. The first one is the empirical:

As a matter of empirical fact, there are deep and widespread moral disagreements across different societies, and these disagreements are much more significant than whatever agreements there may be.

The second one is the meta-ethical one: The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.

And the third angle is the implicit normative idea of relativism, that we ought to be tolerant with respect to other opinions and moral ideas.

As you see, cultural relativism is not just a simple observation of anthropologists. We still are allowed to ask, whether they are right or wrong, or to what extend.

To be continued next week…

The Discussion

[13:18] herman Bergson: So much for a start :-)
[13:18] Gemma Cleanslate: it is really easy to agree with all that isnt it but then comes the questiong of "truth " again
[13:18] herman Bergson: yes...
[13:19] Gemma Cleanslate: back to square one
[13:19] herman Bergson: Next lecture I will elaborate in these three ways of looking at cultural relativism...
[13:19] Repose Lionheart: seems like a good corrective to cultural absolutism...
[13:19] herman Bergson: all look plausible, untill you begin asking questions
[13:19] Gemma Cleanslate: yes lol
[13:20] Repose Lionheart: yes
[13:20] herman Bergson: But to reveal one secret.....
[13:20] herman Bergson: the end of the discussion is that a number of philosophers support a 'mixed' theory...
[13:21] herman Bergson: the idea that some moral standards are absolute and some relative
[13:21] Gemma Cleanslate: lolololol
[13:21] Repose Lionheart: that seems reasonable...
[13:21] Gemma Cleanslate: oh dear
[13:21] Myriam Brianna: Oo
[13:21] herman Bergson: Yes Repose....I think so too....
[13:21] Repose Lionheart: i love ambiguity
[13:21] Repose Lionheart: grin
[13:22] herman Bergson: the closer you stick to the human being as biological organism the more universal are his traits, I would say
[13:22] herman Bergson: The more you get involved in culture (especially religions) the more relative it all becomes
[13:23] Repose Lionheart: ahhh...i see
[13:23] Kurk Mumfuzz: is there not another angle that can exist within the context of a single culture, and that being situational or conditional relativity...? the notion that normal or routine situations my dictate a certain mode of behavior and other circumstances might allow an entirely different response...? this is not insignificant as much conflict within our culture -- i.e. the polarities -- comes from this...
[13:23] herman Bergson: One problem of our way of thinking is that we LOVE binary is either absolute or relative
[13:24] herman Bergson: If you 'd said it in less words, Kurk, what would you have said then :-)
[13:25] Kurk Mumfuzz: not ok to kill somebody in a "civilized" setting... but might be ok in self defense...
[13:25] Kurk Mumfuzz: ㋡
[13:25] Kurk Mumfuzz: within the same culture...
[13:26] Repose Lionheart: moral obligations contend
[13:26] herman Bergson: but that happens all the time, doesnt it?
[13:26] Kurk Mumfuzz: yeah... so is killing ok...?
[13:26] Gemma Cleanslate: no that is the problem
[13:26] herman Bergson: But that is one of the arguments in support of all weapon possesion in the US...You have to be able to defend your life
[13:27] herman Bergson: Last time I asked the question ...does justified killing exist?
[13:27] Gemma Cleanslate: some say it does some say it does not
[13:28] Repose Lionheart: true
[13:29] Kurk Mumfuzz: well, there is the notion that ethics defines a mode of behavior... may have arisen originally as the prescriptions for survival... so it could go both ways...
[13:29] herman Bergson: Yes....some who tend to support some kind of objectivism in ethics are inclined to believe that there are universal standards
[13:29] oola Neruda: when the culture is divided on a subject then what is the norm?
[13:29] herman Bergson: for instance the preservation of your own life
[13:29] oola Neruda: not even situational... just outright different beliefs
[13:29] herman Bergson: yes oola, when a society is divided on that subject.....
[13:29] herman Bergson: you really get in trouble with moral relativism
[13:30] Repose Lionheart: maybe there are "universalish" standards (grin again)
[13:30] herman Bergson: somehting like that, yes, Repose
[13:31] herman Bergson: This brings up this idea of tolerance which is often associate with moral relativism...
[13:32] herman Bergson: should we tolerate that a group in society thinks that killing is justified.... for instance if it as the death penalty?
[13:32] Gemma Cleanslate: good question
[13:32] Gemma Cleanslate: like here in the usa
[13:32] herman Bergson: exactly
[13:33] Kurk Mumfuzz: that would introduce a number of issues into the discussion to examine justice and just treatment...
[13:34] Repose Lionheart: too much "moral relativism," and greater or lesser degrees of "tolerance" can't be evaluated...
[13:34] Kurk Mumfuzz: and yeah, those would be cultural assumptions...
[13:35] herman Bergson: yes....and accepting relativism doesnt seem to be satifactoy as an explanation
[13:35] Kurk Mumfuzz: exactly...
[13:35] Repose Lionheart: agreed
[13:35] Gemma Cleanslate: who are some of the philosophers that we have studied that advocate relativism
[13:35] herman Bergson: Next lecture I'll give an analysis of the three standpoints I mentioned
[13:36] Gemma Cleanslate: trying to recall
[13:36] herman Bergson: there are so many pros and cons related to them
[13:36] Repose Lionheart: sounds very interesting!
[13:36] Gemma Cleanslate: yes
[13:37] herman Bergson: Well I'll reveal in advance already that I am a bit biased.....:-)
[13:38] herman Bergson: I think that this mixed approach, which is of recent date, makes a good chance to stand a test
[13:39] Gemma Cleanslate: i hope the time change will fill the class again
[13:39] herman Bergson: So, I guess I now can thank you for your interest and participation....
[13:39] Gemma Cleanslate: ♥ Thank Youuuuuuuuuu!! ♥
[13:39] Kurk Mumfuzz: ㋡
[13:39] herman Bergson: not much controvery yet , I guess ㋡
[13:39] Repose Lionheart: Thank you!
[13:39] Gemma Cleanslate: not yet!
[13:39] Gemma Cleanslate: lol
[13:39] Repose Lionheart: nope...
[13:40] Gemma Cleanslate: early dismissal
[13:40] herman Bergson: welll..then....class dismissed :-)
[13:40] Gemma Cleanslate: ♥ Thank Youuuuuuuuuu!! ♥
[13:40] Repose Lionheart: Thanks, everyone!
[13:40] herman Bergson: PARTY TIME .....Visit Gemma and Qwark today at 3 PM
[13:40] Kurk Mumfuzz: thank you, all... ㋡
[13:40] Gemma Cleanslate: oh yes
[13:41] Gemma Cleanslate: lol
[13:41] Repose Lionheart: oh...
[13:41] Gemma Cleanslate: hope he makes it by 3!!!

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