A Dialectic on Cultural Relativism

In this kaleidoscopic world, cultural diversity is a phenomenon that is standard to every institution and organisation. Adorned with a plethora of societies and people dressed in almost every colour on the palette, communicating in different languages, and following all sorts of customs and traditions, the world certainly is a beautiful place to live in. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you are bound to encounter differences and unfamiliarity in the form of people and the cultures they manifest. With every nook and corner characterised by its own uniqueness, diversity has certainly become an undeniable reality.

While we are always taught to appreciate and embrace this diversity, we must also be cautious of its potential to cause morally problematic situations. Consider for instance, how would you feel if someone sticks out their tongue at you? I am sure humiliated would be the answer. But, what if I tell you that it’s the way people greet each other in Tibet. This would certainly change things a little bit, however, still, the whole idea of sticking out your tongue to greet others would seem unnatural or rather weird to you, something you’ll never dare to do to out of fear of embarrassment, unless you’re from Tibet of course! This becomes very troubling. With divergent practices exclusive to each culture, often questions pertaining to the “ideal conduct” are raised. One may, in fact, be inclined to ask “Is there an ideal way at all?” And this is where the theory of cultural relativism steps in.

Humans have always been very intimately linked with the culture they’re brought up in, to the extent that their choices, tastes and behaviours resonate with the spirit and essence of their culture. Especially with respect to actions and demeanours, culture is believed to exercise a profound influence on the lives of people. Therefore, it is quite natural for them to cling onto their own cultural standards and view other cultures with suspicion. Activities like the recreational use of cemeteries in Denmark, or the Greek practice of pretending to spit on a married couple for good luck, or the exhuming of dead bodies by Trojan tribes, long-ringed necks in Thailand, foot binding in China, etc. might seem a little strange to hear at first and even impel us to pass a negative judgement. But, according to the idea of cultural relativism, such judgements would be wrong and irrational, as they are evaluated on the basis of our own cultural sense and sensibilities, which fail to cover the moral codes of other cultures. According to the theory of cultural relativism, the conception of good and evil, right and wrong, is relative to cultures and so there can never be any universal moral code of judgment. In other words, we can’t asses other cultures by employing our own cultural standards.

This becomes immensely important, given the phenomenal rise in ethnocentrism and intolerance. With culture assuming supremacy over our lives in governing our views and judgements, often acceptance of others becomes a little challenging. In the face of such strict cultural conditioning, it would seem the theory of cultural relativism is our only way out to advance towards a world characterised by harmony and brotherhood. This seems to make cultural relativism an impeccable theory. But is it so?

Consider a world with strict cultural relativism. Here, there shall be no cross-cultural judgements; humanity would function on the principle of tolerance, almost to the extent that everything would be approved. All cultures, with their boons and banes, would be embraced blindly, without any reservation. As a result, if a culture commands its male members to rape women as a traditional custom, then cultural relativism would be able to do very little about it. And this is where the theory takes a problematic turn. Blind acceptance of practices paves way for certain evil tendencies to proliferate, and since no culture is immune to defects, the theory would essentially place the entire humanity under a grave threat. For example, women in parts of Africa are robbed of sexual pleasure by the age-old barbaric custom of female circumcision. But, because of cultural relativism, it becomes almost impossible to eradicate this ill practice. While the theory does leave some scope for intra-cultural judgements, very seldom are people seen raising voices of dissent against their own cultures, given it is something that pulsates through their veins. Like any other theory, cultural relativism is not a viable solution for all situations. However, before rejecting the theory completely, it’s also important to appreciate certain aspects of it, so that one can find a more nuanced version.

The solution here could be perhaps to design a new relativism altogether, one which is based on respect, not just for the culture as a whole, but also for individual subjects belonging to the culture. This new relativism can have a separate mechanism to address the issues of members, who get victimised in the name of cultural customs. With people’s participation (and not interference) in a peaceful, rational dialogue, the seeds of change can be sown in any culture to do away with the inherent ferocity in it. Whatever be the case, it is difficult to deny that cultural relativism promotes an atmosphere of tolerance and amity. By eliminating the views of dogmatism surrounding one’s culture, it makes a person more grounded and open to greater acceptance by others. Further, it strengthens the intercultural relationships and builds a world based on the principles of universal brotherhood. With communities being able to understand and empathise with each other, the world certainly becomes a better place. Of course, cultural relativism like any theory is harmful at its logical extreme, but so long as it is caveated with a spirit of earnest dialogue, critique, and individual respect, it works as a theory that makes a better world.


Namya Tewari

Hi! I'm a student of philosophy who loves reading nerdy stuff and hoarding books. I'm greatly inspired by the works of Kahlil Gibran and aspire to write like him one day. And did I forget to mention, I daydream about the impossible. Yes that's it!

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.