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Normative cultural relativism is a moral theory that sees moral rights and wrongs to be necessarily dependent on a particular society, culture or community’s moral norms. Thus, one can simplify it to a simpler statement whereby a normative relativism ‘tells us how we ought to act’. Furthermore, this view is commonly associated with arguments that oppose moral universalism, and relativists’ ‘insistence that we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own’. In this essay, I will define relativism in general, before concentrating on normative cultural relativism, its merits as proposed by and the opposing view expressed by Xiaorong Li, before discussing my position based on the merits of both arguments.
In order to successfully discuss normative cultural relativism, one has to discuss relativism in general, cultural relativism in particular. As such, Relativism is generally agreed to, despite it being widely used to describe equally wide concepts, describe views that argue that right and wrong, one’s justification (and the process of justification) are results of different experiences and are thus restricted to those who share similar experiences. As such, one’s understanding of someone else’s views are only relevant in so far as one applies the required ‘framework’ and therefore, views cannot be analyzed and understood independent of the circumstances, experience and vantage point, provided by said experience, that brought forth said views themselves (Baghramian & Carter, 2018). This understanding of relativism explains why this argument, in this case specifically cultural relativism, is both controversial and relatively popular in our current globalized, interwoven world. Proponents of cultural relativism praise it as a way to defend tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. Conversely, opponents of this viewpoint target its supposed incoherence and lack of critical intellectual permissiveness (Baghramian & Carter, 2018).
Moral, or normative, cultural relativism declares that the norms people follow to set their moral/ethical rights and wrongs, are best understood by applying their experience, cultural context and environment in which they take form. It goes further than cultural relativism in that, as a normative theory, it views interference and arguments passed by individuals outside the community to be wrong. According to Westacott (2019), this was originally tabled as a way to oppose ‘unconscious ethnocentrism that may lead social scientists to misunderstand the phenomena they are observing’. Thus, whilst ritualistic inflictions of pain may look like a punishment with no aim other than deterrence, they could actually be seen as serving a different purpose by these communities. Furthermore, cultural relativists would argue that an act that is morally right, or expected, in one culture could simultaneously mean, or be seen as meaning, something completely different in another culture. As such, one cannot apply their own culture in order to understand said acts due to their ‘different situational meanings’. Thus, since the meaning of each act differs, depending on the variables discussed prior, this makes it impossible for two distinct communities/societies to be in conflict (Westacott, 2019).
Xiaorong Li argues that recognizing the importance culture in forming an individual/community’s moral values and ethical principles does not undermine the existence of universal moral values and ethical principles (2007). Xiaorong notes the universalist view of human rights proscribes some customs and traditions, such as honor killings, female circumcision and self-flagellation, and that this view is unrealistic insofar as implementing them universally would essentially go against these same views. Furthermore, said author notes that these universalist views have developed within certain cultural traditions (i.e. Western traditions have moved away from still-practiced customs that would be antithetical to current western norms), cultures that are distinct to those that still carry out these customs and that have evolved separately. Thus, because the current human rights principles protect freedom of expression and thought, they should allow cultural diversity and pluralism that has become prevalent in parts of the world because the cultural factor in shaping one’s values and principles cannot be ignored when attempting to partake in serious ethical discussions (Xiaorong, 2007). Because an individual’s understanding of cultural relativism and universalism is shaped by their understanding of the concepts of culture, tradition and community, one has to first clearly define those terms and concepts in order to assess that understanding.
As such, Xiaorong (2007) argues in favor of a ‘minimalist consensual view’ of culture. This view, which holds that culture is a form of informal knowledge that is inherited, and which forms the traditions that one learns and practices through socialization within a distinct community. This view combines the consensual traits of what Xiaorong views as the ‘classic’ and ‘contemporary’ schools; whereby culture is not as definitively bound and homogeneous, like the classicists argue, but neither is it as influenceable, heterogeneous and porous as the proponents of the contemporary school posit. As such, the view of culture espoused by Xiaorong maintains the definitive body that is counter-intuitive to the contemporary school’s view because their argument that culture is a ‘borderless, changing and internally divided body of knowledge would be too undefined and amorphous to be a “body” at all’ in addition to putting a historical element to culture that is absent to the contemporary school (Xiaorong, 2007). In addition to defining culture differently, Xiaorong (2007) posits the existence of ‘paradoxes of culture’ of which three are clearly defined: culture can be both unique but allow overlap and compatibility with other cultures, culture can be both uniform whilst internally it can allow for individualization within a community. Finally, culture can have its own history and origin whilst permitting self-criticism (impossible in the traditional normative cultural relativist view) leading to possible transformation and integration of foreign cultural elements.
Whereby, normative cultural relativists argue that a culture’s independent origin and history makes it impossible for cross-cultural moral principles to exist. Whilst traditional normative cultural relativists overemphasize cultural uniqueness and our inability to compare across different cultures, traditional universalists often deny its existence. Thus, knowledge’s uniqueness requires there not being a copy somewhere else but overlapping knowledge and traditions can occur whilst maintaining said uniqueness and can be commensurate. Similarly, cultural unity is not a necessary condition within a community for it to exist despite individual differences in interpretation and actions, because adversity (especially external) can produce the kind of unity that is proof of that community’s existence despite the fluidity of an individual’s cultural identity (Xiaorong, 2007). This allows, according to Xiaorong, cross-cultural interactions because an internally divided group can find common ground with external actors. Finally, Xiaorong’s (2007) third paradox (recognizing historical distinctiveness whilst allowing transformation) does not agree with the view that changes necessarily imply that culture has durable reality and that is ephemeral/illusory. In defining culture in those terms, the author forms two concepts that marry to form one’s culture: cultural communities and cultural traditions. A cultural community is defined as one that shares an identity that allows social transmission and debate of knowledge that is identifiable whilst allowing fluidity, comparison and individuality. Similarly, cultural traditions are formed by the paradoxes discussed prior. Thus, tradition as understood by Xiaorong (2007) is the complex set of rules, customs, symbols, practices and more that clash and compete leading to changes despite that community’s inherited set of beliefs and shared experiences.
Through this lengthy discussion of what constitutes culture, tradition and community, Xiaorong (2007) attempts to understand culture’s role in ethical standard setting, how it shapes it and whether/how it competes with other players when justifying moral actions and judgments. He argues that his interpretation of culture has a dual role in shaping one’s views: simultaneously capable of explaining different positions due to internal debates/conflicts arising from culture changing over time, and that culture is shaped and influenced by external factors associated with one’s own culture and those of others outside the cultural community one identifies with. This understanding leads to his conclusion that culture cannot be the cause for one’s moral decisions due to the aforementioned roles it plays in shaping an individual. This is because the composing elements of culture (which have been found to be used interchangeably with culture itself by Xiaorong), cultural tradition and community, do not provide the cause for one’s moral value because individuals sharing those two (tradition and community) are more profoundly impacted by their individual experiences rather than either two components of culture. Therefore, despite two individuals being raised under a similar traditional interpretation of Islamic law, their personal view on central tenets of their shared tradition might differ when it comes to the amputation of thieves or underage marriage because other more important impetuses (greed, survival instinct, carelessness, selflessness, …) exist outside what one’s culture may demand. Similarly, belonging to a community, as understood by Xiaorong (2007) cannot be linked to an individual’s actions because cultural communities have a diverse range of norms and experiences that may or may not align with the one’s community in general.
Finally, Xiaorong (2007) circles back to the normative element of cultural relativism, which implies that culture is impossible to study, evaluate and critique because no argument for or against any particular culture would be valid under this prism. Whilst descriptive cultural relativity allows understanding of a culture by external elements, normative cultural relativism forces one to accept moral rights and wrongs to be formed solely based on the individual’s own rights and wrongs. He notes that despite the destructive consequences of past external interventions in forcefully setting moral standards for another community (colonialism, imperialism, the War on Terror, …), the normative cultural relativists’ view that one ought not to judge differing moral views is committing the ‘naturalistic fallacy’: ‘arguing from “is” to “ought”, or from observed states of affairs to normative principles or general laws’.
This essay explored normative cultural relativism as understood by a Westacott and a detractor (Xiaorong Li), in order to understand what it entails in relations to an individual’s moral norms and ethical principles. As noted beforehand, normative cultural relativism is defined so broadly as to allow individual philosophers to shape in such a way as to fit their understanding of the world and how it shapes an individual’s actions and judgements. As such, when one is to understand this theory as tabled by Westacott (2019) it has failed to convince me of its central importance to the formation of an individual’s moral and ethical norms for its definition is both too broad (failing to identify what counts as traditions and community precisely) and too restrictive (failing to faithfully place factors such as individual experiences or allowing internal debates to play a role). Thus, Xiaorong’s argument against normative cultural relativism are best, especially when considering its defined parameters in regard to defining culture itself.
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