The Paradox of Cultural Relativism

Posted Oct 19, 2002
Last Updated Oct 30, 2011

The idea of cultural relativism is a useful concept in everyday life. It keeps differences of opinion from turning into ideological wars. Whenever someone criticizes a type of music and lauds another, they may dance to a different tune than I would. Using the premise of cultural relativism, I can refrain from being offended.

On another level, though, cultural relativism turns into an ideology that does not logically stand. When speaking about the merits of differing societies, there are standards to which judgments of value can be made. A die-hard cultural relativist must say that there is no qualitative difference between the culture of Nazi Germany and the current civilization in which we live. Such a belief is logically untenable, although it may seem so to someone who has not evaluated the premises of cultural relativism.

On the social side there is a very prominent reason to choose one culture over another—if the choice is available. Most humans prefer to have freedoms to pursue courses concomitant with their inner desires and dreams. Many social orders tend to restrict personal freedoms to the point that the only decisions open to a person are which way to turn the eyes as the rest of the body complies with the routine set before it by government. Such restrictions are not conducive of human happiness.

Other cultural setups can burden people with customs and beliefs that are barbaric and superstitious. In a culture where it is taboo to ask questions concerning the social order, no form of progress is possible. Many cultures enslave all women in their domain, causing much personally agony to so many people living in those cultures. If the cultural relativist is right, no woman would ever mind going to live in such a culture because it is just as valuable as ours. But I don’t see women lining up to go live in those cultures, though I have heard of women from those cultures saying they would never go back.

The premise of cultural relativism defeats itself if taken to the extreme. Whenever a cultural relativist admonishes people to see all cultures and ideas as equally valuable, he is showing a bit of a paradox in thought. Is it logical to say, "You should change your belief” while also saying "All beliefs are equal”? If all cultures and ideas are equal to a cultural relativist, he should see no reason why anyone should be a cultural relativist: to him, believing something else should be just the same. Anytime an avowed cultural relativist uses the word "should” it makes me shudder.

I can see the use of relativism when speaking of the arts, such as music and paintings, but not in terms of the actual order of human organization. I can see the possibility of one group liking Pepsi just as much as another likes Coke, and on this ground see the use of cultural relativism. But when speaking about social orders and human conditions, I doubt cultural relativism can be a guiding principle. Instead, we should see that there are good things in cultures we can learn from and incorporate in our lives; we can also explain to others what is good about our culture. Otherwise, we should just never think about changing anything, since any change would be qualitatively equal to what we already have. To the cultural relativist, there can be no better future.

Relativism & Judging

Essays concerning cultural relativism and judging.

  1. The Paradox of Cultural Relativism
  2. The art of judging


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Jan 24, 2010

Hey Shawn,

Although I agree that both relativism and universalism do not stand on their own (especially in a deeper intercultural context), I don't think you took the right approach. I think your article presupposed the existance of a number of western ideological dichotomies which do not exist universally -- like your concept of "progress", or cultural progression. You're defining this term within the context of your own culture. Tricky, I know! :)

I know this article was written quite a while ago, but I'd recommend you check out Philippe Descola's criticisms of universalism and cultural relativism, and then Eduardo Viveiros de Castro's work on perspectivism. Tania Stolze Lima does some good ethnographic work in the same field -- all pertaining to amazonian cosmology, but still, would bring you a bit more up to speed on current anthropological theory.


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