Separating Cultural and Ethical Relativism
These days, cultural relativism has a bad reputation in many quarters. It conjures images of a world where anything goes. According to this domino theory of norms, if people open themselves to the possibility that other cultures may have valid, if different, ways of life, the next thing you know, they’ll be "doing it in the streets."
In academic debate, calling someone a relativist is a mild form of verbal abuse. When academic concepts achieve such shorthand status (the refined grunt), it’s probably wise to unpack them—take them out and look at them a little more carefully: shirts here, pants there, and so on.
In that spirit, I’d like to look at relativist and universalist traditions in my field, anthropology. I begin with the relativist position, as it was defined by people like Franz Boas in the 1920s and ’30s. Relativism was formulated in the context of ethical issues; it was meant to be an answer to the Nazis and their racism, anti-Semitism, and eugenics. The idea was roughly this: Human differences, which ideologies such as Nazism attributed to race, should be understood as cultural.
Behind this position was the idea of the plasticity of human nature, the ability of humans to acquire any one or more of a vast array of languages and cultures. The parable or metaphor the early relativists used was this: Except for the accidents of history, we might well have all been born in Tibet. Our genetic makeup would be the same, but we would speak a different language and adhere to a different culture. In this view, culture is the stuff you learn after birth.
Ruth Benedict, a prominent anthropologist of the time, said all cultures are "coexisting and equally valid patterns of life, which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence." In her view, and in the view of American anthropology of the time, each culture is self-contained, autonomous, separate but equal. Each makes sense in its own context, and all you have to do is know the context to understand what the people are doing and why they’re doing it.
Today we might use the term incommensurable for the relativist view that all cultures are equally valid. You can’t, they argued, have a scale of human cultures: excellent, good, not so good, fair, medium, below medium. It’s just too complex a task.
Now let’s consider an anthropologist who is usually portrayed as a universalist, Clyde Kluckhohn. Kluckhohn argued that ethical relativity is really a special case of cultural relativity. This being so, he concluded that Benedict’s doctrine of cultural relativity—coexisting and equally valid patterns of life—precludes moral criticism of any cultural practice, including slavery, cannibalism, Nazism, or communism. If you adopt Benedict’s position, Kluckhohn suggested, then you can’t be critical of evil as you notice it in the world around you, whatever your favorite examples of evil may be.
To replace Boas’ and Benedict’s relativism, Kluckhohn proposed a set of ethical and cultural universals that, to my ear, are surprisingly void of content. He drew one example from Benedict’s book, Patterns of Culture, in which she contrasts two Native American groups: the Kwakiutl of the Northwest Coast, whose culture encourages exhibitionism and the Zuni of the Southwest, who by contrast prize restraint.
These are really different ways of giving meaning to one’s life, of displaying one’s identity, of being in the world. To Kluckhohn, this vast difference revealed a universal–prizing the norms of one’s culture. But how could that not be true? A people either prizes their own norms or they don’t have any norms.
Similarly Kluckhorn argued that the variety of human moral standards contains a universal. He said, "Morality is as genuine a human universal as is language. All cultures have moral systems." I would think that’s fairly true, except that I don’t feel especially enlightened. To say that we all have moral systems and then not to say what the moral standards are is not very substantive. Thou shalt not kill—is that a universal? Addressing that question would be getting into a more interesting and more difficult discussion—because I’m not sure what the universals would be.
At the same time Kluckhohn was looking for cultural universals, he was also something of a relativist. He said many different values in human cultures are not so much ethical as they are matters of taste. The fact that the taste of other peoples does not coincide with our own does not make them stupid, ignorant, or evil. If somebody speaks a different language than you do, if they button their shirts from the bottom up instead of the top down, that doesn't mean they’re deranged. That, I think, is a key relativist tenet.
Kluckhohn even went so far as to say, "In a world society, each group can and must learn from other cultures, can and must familiarize itself with divergent value systems even when it prefers, in the last analysis, to hold in the main to its own traditional norms." That’s another clear relativist position: insisting on the imperative to learn from other cultures. So although Kluckhohn held a brief for universals and argued against ethical relativism, he also had a fairly strong need for relativity.
Kluckhohn was writing in the 1950s. What is happening to relativism in anthropology today? Here, my analysis proceeds from an assumption of committed anthropology, of scholars working with a sense of ethics—of right and wrong, or good and evil. This committed anthropology has disrupted the relativist notions inherited from the 1920s and '30s for two broad reasons.
First, the idea of separate but equal cultures no longer seems accurate. Cultures are not separate; they are not confined to their own individual museum cases. They exist side by side in the same space. Also, we’ve noticed that there are inequalities between cultures—relations of dominance and subordination. Take, for example, settler colonialism, the system we had in America. Relationships formed in the colonial period and after created inequalities, which a committed anthropologist would have to critique.
Second, in contrast with Kluckhohn, we see ethical relativism not as a special case of cultural relativism but as a different notion. I, for one, would regard myself as a cultural relativist; I would not regard myself as an ethical relativist.
To explain this distinction, we have to begin by returning cultural relativism to a rather modest doctrine. It’s gotten inflated and become a kind of bogeyman. But the core notions of cultural relativism are the urgency of studying and learning from other cultures and the belief that because somebody has a different form of life, they’re not deranged, or evil.
Here, Clifford Geertz's recent work is instructive. Geertz calls a human being an "unfinished animal," by which he means that humans are not genetically programmed to do what we do. He assumes that bees are genetically programmed to make honey and birds are genetically programmed to make nests, but humans are genetically programmed only to acquire language and culture. For example, we can look at plans and make a house, but that’s something learned after we are born; it's not built in.
In this view, we are not fully human at birth. We haven't got all the stuff we need to cope in the world, to be social, to be moral, to be thinking, to be creative. The crux of Geertz's argument is that human nature is realized only in culture. Human nature is the capacity to become Javanese, for example. In Java, Geertz tells us, they have a saying: "The person is not yet human." But the way they say it is: "The person is not yet Javanese."
The virtue of Geertz's position is its lack of parochialism. Relativism in this sense argues for engagement, for dialogue between cultures. This is not the kind of easy cosmopolitanism that implies enormous privilege—the capacity, for example, to spend three days in the Bali Hilton. It’s a deeper form of knowing that entails some recognition that I am one among others. I'm not the center of the universe.
This argues against ethnocentrism, against what could be called cultural imperialism, (imposing a set of norms on people who might not want to inhabit those norms), against projection (laying something you see inside yourself on somebody else). The effort in relativism is to determine what that other person is actually thinking.
We can see the productiveness of relativism when we are trying to expand the discussion of concepts we think are important—love, for example. We can look at other cultures and ask, Do they have a notion of falling in love? When we do, we see that love is not a universal; it’s not even widespread. But other cultures may have something that's kind of like falling in love—romance, say. That’s probably one of the categories you could find to look at.
Our own imagination is limited by the culture we have grown up in, but if we actually go elsewhere and look at what other people do, we can expand our world and challenge our own notions.
The caveat in all this is: To understand is not to forgive. Just because you come to terms with how something works in another culture doesn't mean you have to agree with it; it means you have to engage it.
That's the sense in which I'd separate cultural and ethical relativism. I don't think that in order for me to hold a position as ethical, it needs to be universal. In this way, the relativist position becomes emancipating. It means I'm free to think what I think because I'm not going to wait for a consensus of the whole world, of every form of life, every language, every culture. But I want to be challenged by what other people are doing, saying, thinking—by their ethical systems.
To illustrate, in the late 1960s, I lived with a Filipino hill tribe called the Ilongots, who were headhunters. Do I think headhunting is a good idea because I worked for years trying to understand it? No, I don’t. Am I horrified by it? I used to be; it gave me lots of bad dreams, but then something happened.
One day, I went to Manila to get my mail, and I found I'd been called for the draft. I opposed the war in Vietnam, so of course I was not thrilled by this news. When I went back to the Ilongots' household where I was living, I told my hosts what had happened, partly because I needed somebody to talk to about it.
But I also had an ignoble motive. I imagined that maybe this situation would make the Ilongots think better of me; maybe they would think, This guy has an opportunity to kill people, and that's great. I could not have been further from the truth.
I mentioned the draft notice, and they said, "This is terrible. Don't worry. We'll take care of you. They'll never find you here."
"Wait a minute," I said, "I thought you guys were in the business of killing."
"No, no," they answered, "we've seen soldiers." In June of 1945, they really saw soldiers when the Americans drove Japanese troops into the hills where the Ilongots lived. The tribe lost a third of its population during that time.
At first, I jumped to the conclusion that, having seen the carnage, they didn't approve of war. But when I talked more with them, I came to realize that they were as horrified of modern warfare as most of us would be of cannibalism or headhunting. It was a kind of moral horror.
Because I picked up this reaction, I kept pursuing the issue. Finally they said, "Well, what we saw was that one soldier had the authority to order his brothers to sell their bodies." What they meant was that a commanding officer could order his subordinates to move into the line of fire. That was absolutely inconceivable to them. They said, "How can one person tell others to give up their lives, to put themselves so at risk that it's highly likely they'll lose their lives?" That was their moral threshold.
That experience really knocked me off my moral-horror pedestal. So now, although I do not think headhunting is a good idea, I no longer have the same horrified reaction to it I once did. I realize that some things we do and take for granted can inspire other people's abhorrence.
This poem, which I wrote about my experience with the Ilongots, is another way of framing the issue:
A Filipino from the mountains
and I decide to call each other brother.
He asks how I can ask if he's taken a human head.
He's fed me, held my hand on treacherous trails.
I apologize, he's right, never believe war stories.
He pauses and recalls long ago, the time of the Japanese.
Yes, they beheaded some stragglers, helping us medikano.
Downstream, he reveals more recent deeds,
pointing to the house where he took a head, he says,
"Family deaths cling to me like vines to a tree.
Grief slows my steps, bleaches my cheeks.
Throwing away the victim's head
rids me of rage." I'm silent.
He takes my hand, a rough spot on the trail.
"Only red hornbill earrings, a sign
you've taken a head, will let your beauty shine."
I'm called to report for a physical.
He offers me protection.
Soldiers will never find me in these hills.
He shudders. He saw an American officer
order his men to move into the line of fire.
"It's not human, no man would command
his brother to sacrifice his body."
The Lucie Stern Professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford University, Renato Rosaldo is the author of the forthcoming book Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy (Beacon Press).
This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 11, N. 1 Winter 2000.