What is Cultural Relativism ?

First I should say, as always, that I use blogs to write about things I know nothing about. So let me try to understand what cultural relativism might be.

Basically it begijns with the idea that should not judge other cultures. I think the origen might be with Herder who I try to translate “There must be no comparison. Each nation contains within itself it own happiness” or something like that. Substitute culture for nation and try to understand what he might have meant.

1. According to cultural relativists disrupting a culture is the worst crime.

That is CR might be an absolute ethical doctrine in which the objective moral truth is that no choice within a culture is as bad as an outsider attempting to fight a culture.

This is coherant but it is not relativist and I doubt that anyone believes it.

2. Each of us belongs to a culture somehow and our duty is to act according to it’s mores.

This has the fault of 1 which is that it might be the sum total of objective moral truth but that is not relativism and why would anyone think such a thing. Finally my culture tells me to be open minded and think for myself exploring what I might gain from other traditions. That means I can’t be at type 2 CR without logical contradiction. Finally how are people assigned to cultures.

3. We should choose a culture to obey and obey it.

All the faults of 2 but the last plus how to choose.

4. We can’t prove that one cultures moral principals are better than anothers. Therefore they are all equally valid. This applies equally to all views of right and wrong not just those of a “culture”. It also applies to purely hypothetical moral beliefs that no one has ever held. It is, I think, a confusion of knowledge and truth. From the obvious fact that we can not prove something right or wrong, it is concluded that there is no fact of the matter no moral truth. This obviously doesn’t follow. There is an excluded middle “everything that is true can be proven”. This is definitely false as has been proven (Godel’s theorem). Who ever thought such a silly thing.

Sad to say this is the well known distinction between ontological objectivity and epistimelogica objectiviity.

5. In fact the cause of our beliefs about right and wrong is our upbringing in a culture not God speaking to us or our deducing the catagorical imperative using neutral logic or anything like that.

I certainly agree with this. However, my belief in certain moral principals survives the conviction that I believe them not because they are true and their truth was made manifest to me somehow but because my mother and father thought they were true and they well etc back a million years. So ?

It seems to me that cultural relativism is either a moral imperative like any other except that no one would accept it as the be all of right and wrong or it is a confusion of the concepts “proven” and “true”

the amateur anthropologist

20 years ago I had an Idea. Maybe someone who knows something about the field can tell me what is wrong with it in 20 seconds (including maybe someone else had the idea 40 years ago).

This thought was stimulated by reading Structural Anthropology a collection of essays by Claude Levi-Strauss. There are two questions. One is why are some cultures monogynous and others polygynous ? The other is why do the Bororo divide their tiny villages into 3 endogamous clans ?

OK first question. Why in some cultures men can marry more than one woman and in others only one ? One possbile explanation is polygyny occurs when the gender ratio is many women for each man. This can happen if lots of men get killed by other men. So women share husbands or go single wasting their uteruses (the Moll Flanders problem described by Daniel Defoe some time ago).

Could be the explanation, but I would like to talk about another. Levi Strauss was very interested in a very simple mathematical model which pointed out that hunter gatherers typically live in tiny groups (have too to avoid killing off all the game within walking distance). Someone else (really some two else) calculated that these groups were about as small as could be sustained given risk that a generation would be all male or all female and thus the last (he didn’t explain this model very clearly and I didn’t look it up). OK see how much worse this problem is if monogynous. If people live in small groups and are mostly endogamous (must have some flow with other villages/bands to avoide inbreeding but I assume this is pretty low). If each man is allowed to get only one woman pregnant, the number of woman who reproduce each generation is the lesser of the number of woman and the number of men. If each man is allowed to get as many women pregnant as are available then the number of women who reproduce each generation is the number of women. Polygyny might be required in people who live in small mostly endogamous villages to deal with random fluctuations in the sex ratio.
Continue reading

Suspicion and divided loyalties

Perhaps the most damaging effect of 9/11 and all that has followed will be its role in making divided loyalties one of the most dangerous things a person can have. From the beginning, while the ruins of the World Trade Center were still burning, any effort to hold non-trivial positions about terrorism and Islam were attacked. People opposed to the war in Iraq were branded as terrorist supporters, people unimpressed by a programme of reform in the Middle East imposed at the end of a gun were castigated, people who asked questions about whether there was more to things than “they hate us for our freedom” were branded as traitors.

Tariq Ramadan wrote a piece in Wednesday’s New York Times which must be read in this light. The key paragraph – the statement of where he stands – appears at the end:

I believe Western Muslims can make a critical difference in the Muslim majority world. To do this, we must become full, independent Western citizens, working with others to address social, economic and political problems. However, we can succeed only if Westerners do not cast doubt on our loyalty every time we criticize Western governments. Not only do our independent voices enrich Western societies, they are the only way for Western Muslims to be credible in Arab and Islamic countries so that we can help bring about freedom and democracy. That is the message I advocate. I do not understand how it can be judged as a threat to America.

But it is not that hard to see the threat in it. To encourage western Muslims to at once see themselves as having a place in the West and a role in the Islamic world is tantamount to asking them to divide their loyalties. To all too many people right now, divided loyalties are a synonym for treason. The charge of divided loyalties is an old one, and a very damaging one. It was once the most mainstream charge that people made against Jews. To see it revived today – against Muslims in Europe, against Mexicans in the US by the likes of Samuel Huntington, and yes, against Jews in many countries – is very, very troubling.
Continue reading