To a universalist, “objectionable” practices abound. Foot binding in China, practiced for centuries to make women more “attractive,” is one. Female genital mutilation is still practiced widely in Middle Eastern countries. Often referred to as female circumcision, it comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organ, whether for cultural, religious, or other nontherapeutic reasons. Another example should be added, if only to avoid the impression that different norms exist only between ethnic or cultural groups: abortion as murder, a position held vehemently by the pro-life camp in opposition to the pro-choice camp in the United States. We should also take note that all examples cited entail the female body and sexuality. Is this purely coincidental? Can we avoid taking a stand on the ethical issues they bring?
Before deciding on whether we agree with relativism or universality, let us witness an imaginary debate between relativist Dr. R and universalist Dr. U. At the end, we will be better informed on where we stand on the issues. Here, we need to make explicit a distinction between two related, but distinct, issues of this debate, the cultural and the ethical . At stake is the question: Is human dignity universal or culture specific?
Dr. U: Misguided cultural or religious pluralism can corrupt into moral relativism, a curious and dangerous position denying that there are irreducible standards for human conduct. Moral relativism poses a threat to ecumenicity, which affirms universalistic values and principles. Thus, tension exists between the embracement of diversity and the threat that this embracement may pose. Indiscriminate admittance of cultural or religious beliefs and practices may be as deadly as embracing the Medusa.
Dr. R: Universalistic doctrines of morality disregard cultural diversity. In contrast, ethical relativism allows any culture to define what it regards as right or wrong. As a cultural relativist, I reject the idea of universal norms, simply because there are no norms accepted in or common to all cultures. As an ethical relativist, I refute the idea that cultural values may be ranked on primitive-to-advanced or bad-to-good dimensions. In particular, I reject the notion of a pathogenic culture or subculture in which its social pathologies or mental disorders are rooted in some of its cultural norms. Cultural relativism leads to ethical relativism: There is no way to reach consensus across cultures; or to decide if one set of norms or values is better, or worse than another.
Dr. U: We may stand our argument on its head, and affirm general, culturally invariant principles by challenging ethical relativists to negate them: Can you name a single culture that rejects appropriate behavior, and affirms deviant behavior, defined according to its own norms? Alternatively, can you think of a single exception to the universal principle that all cultures affirm appropriate behavior, and negate deviant behavior, according to its own definition of what is appropriate and what is deviant? Similarly, it is both possible and necessary to formulate general, higher-order ethical principles according to which lower-order principles may be judged.
Dr. R: You are treading toward the issue of ethical relativism . Universalistic doctrines of morality disregard cultural diversity; in contrast, ethical relativism allows any culture to define what it regards as right or wrong. Throughout history, universalism has sometimes assumed the form of absolutistic doctrines, which have not served humanity well. The rise of relativism parallels the decline of the absolute.
Knowledge is power; absolutistic knowledge is tyrannical power. The institutionalization of absolutistic knowledge confers upon its possessor absolutistic authority and control over others. Absolutism should prod us to become aware that knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing.
Dr. U: To say that absolutistic doctrines have not served humanity well sounds like a universalistic, not relativist, statement!
You imply that any set of values is as good as another for humankind when you reject the idea that some cultural norms may be pathological and hence pathogenic. In so doing, you remove the motivation for cultural change for the better. But cultures do change and benefit from intercultural fertilization. Take foot binding, for instance. Chinese people now look back on it as a backward practice that oppressed women. The world is moving toward the idea that there are fundamental values, such as human rights, even if consensus on defining those values has not been achieved.
Are cultural relativists simply amoral or immoral as well? Cannibalism is repugnant, but not evil or pathological. But female genital mutilation, which violates the rights of women to health and sexual fulfillment, flies in the face of the idea of progress. Violation of human rights, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other forms of terrorism are plainly heinous. To deny that some cultural norms may be unethical or pathological opens the door to condone all these practices. Beware that ethical relativism may be used inadvertently to silence critics and paralyze action in defense of human dignity.
Dr. R: By documenting cultural variation, cultural relativism provides ammunition for ethical relativism, which promotes toleration, if not acceptance, of cultural values that diverge from one’s own. Tolerance of diversity is what the world needs more of.
Dr. U: Extreme cultural relativism can amount to incommensurability, the absence of common conceptions and perspectives. Incommensurability means that there is no common ground, and hence no possibility, for communication or mutual understanding between divergent cultures, leading to misunderstanding, even mistrust. Not an appetizing position to take at all.
Dr. R: Not all cultural relativists take such an extreme position. Ethical relativism champions diversity and counters uniformity. It has a rightful place particularly in this age of globalization when the identities of many cultures are under threat.
In 2008, the Australian government made a historic apology to the Aboriginal people for a six-decade policy of forced resettlement. In the early 1900s, thousands of mixed-race children were taken from their families and sent to live in orphanages, mission homes, or Caucasian households. Now, this is truly the mark of a civilized nation. Will the Government of the United States apologize to African and Native Americans?
Dr. U: I’m for it. But note that you have raised ethical relativism to universal status: Acceptance of cultural diversity is a universal principle. This contradicts relativism, which disallows universal principles!
Dr. R. I have no problem with accepting ethical relativism as a universal principle. Each culture is free to define for and by itself what is good and what is bad, except to disallow other cultures the same privilege.
Dr. U: Embodied within your refined version of cultural relativism is a universal principle: All cultures are equal. There is simply no way to escape from universality. Consider now the logic of self-application in the case of ethical relativism. You assert that there is no way to decide if one set of values is better or worse than another. Ethical relativism is a set of values, and so is universalism. Then, on what grounds can you negate universalism and affirm ethical relativism?