As a college professor, I can testify that few ideas have more widespread acceptance among today’s youth than the idea that any claim to value or worth, good, better or best, is culturally constructed and varies widely from culture to culture. In my introduction to ethics class—taught at three different institutions over ten years—the students answer questions on this subject with an automaticity and certainty that betrays long drilling in the public schools, with support from popular media of all kinds.
The train of thought works like this: (1) We know for sure that people have widely diverse opinions about such matters and there is especially huge variance from one culture to the next. (2) It is absolutely abhorrent to think that one culture might be superior to another, even on just one narrow question. (3) Therefore, there is no culturally independent truth about any matters of value. (4) Therefore, such matters are merely arbitrary cultural constructs. (5) Therefore, they have no binding force on individuals, and (6) they can be changed or done away with just as arbitrarily as they were created.
A cheap and easy victory can be gained here by pointing out the self-contradictory nature of the whole thought process. (2) rests on an implicit animus condemning cultural colonialism. The animus itself is implicitly treated as objectively good and universally binding. (6) rests on an implicit triumphal attitude regarding freedom and individual self-expression, which again is exempted from being treated as itself a mere cultural construct. Indeed, there is some evidence that the prevalence of this thoroughgoing cultural relativism is waning as various social justice issues have come to the forefront of public consciousness. Advocates of these causes are coming to see that they need to make absolute moral claims to back the fervor of their language and demands. Anecdotally, I have seen in my own classes—and several colleagues have confirmed—that students are more likely today than they were ten years ago to think that the principle, “Racism is wrong,” is absolutely true rather than being a mere cultural construct.
Nevertheless, this shift is largely restricted to the moral sphere, and even within this sphere, the shift is restricted to matters of public justice. Questions of beauty, private conduct, or health, for example, are still understood to be nothing more than artificial cultural opinion, usually with the added pathos of tyrannically enforced cultural oppression. Students rarely reflect that rebellion against cultural norms is one of the most widely praised and enforced cultural norms we have: march to the beat of a different drummer, do your own thing, think for yourself—just like everyone else.
Apart from the cheap points we can score by pointing out internal contradictions, a much deeper critique can be leveled against the truth of the claim at the very foundation of the whole mindset in step (1). When pressed on the type of disagreements between cultures that they know about, most people will cite rather superficial examples connected to the external appearance of cultural customs. A popular favorite is to remember that it is polite in some cultures to belch after a meal while in our culture such behavior would be considered rude. Such external differences, however, hardly betray a real disagreement about the value of gratitude to the host.
Beyond such surface-level customs, however, we sometimes notice more deep-rooted differences in the way we prioritize values between cultures. For example, many cultures put the value of work lower on the scale than the value of family and long meals, while others emphasize a more rigorous work schedule. (When such an example is brought up, the odds are ten to one that the person bringing it forward implicitly thinks the former, foreign, cultures have it right and that the example is actually meant as a critique of the workaholic nature of our own Americanism, which of course would require a culturally independent objectivity of value—but we can ignore that for now.) We will return to the question of value prioritization in a later essay, but for now I want to point out that such differences in prioritization do not really involve much substantive disagreement about the values themselves. Just about every culture thinks that a good work ethic is an important element in a good life—objectively. Just about every culture thinks that family relationships are something that we should highly prize—objectively.
In order to establish the non-universality of most foundational values, professors of freshmen anthropology must go to the obscure corners of the globe to find that one tribe with a population of six thousand who do not value family at all or that one small group deep in the rain-forests who sincerely believe that murder is just fine. It is telling that such lengths must be taken to find cultures that differ on such points, but even so, the differences are frequently overstated. The cultures that are sincerely pro-murder, frequently restrict its acceptability to certain groups, such as outsiders or the elderly. Hence, even in the most extreme cases we can find, there is often a core of agreement about the basic value of life. Furthermore, we can find one group that may not value family, but they do agree about the value of life and many another values, while we must search for another small group that disagrees about the value of life but agrees about family. Here again, even in the most extreme cases of cultural difference, the degree of agreement and overlap vastly outweighs the degree of difference. Nevertheless, when we encounter such difference in a freshmen anthropology class, we are primed to be impressed and shocked by the difference while taking for granted the agreement—and this is usually just what the professor is hoping for.
C.S. Lewis famously argues in his masterful short book The Abolition of Man that when we step back and examine the data from all world cultures, both across the globe and throughout recorded history, we find a definite and extensive core of moral wisdom. He documents, for example, such teachings as the respect for parents, the value of life, or telling the truth in sources as varied as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Norse sagas, Indian vedic literature, the Bible, or Medieval philosophy. Using the Chinese term, Lewis calls this core of wisdom the Tao, and he argues that the argument for relativism on the basis of disagreement about the Tao is greatly exaggerated.
But are there any seeds of truth in this attitude of cultural relativism? The defenders of objective excellence should be happy to acknowledge two central truths: First, the cultural relativists are right to point out the wide variety of surface-level differences in many cultural customs, and they are also right to point out that we easily mistake these customs for objective standards of excellence. People do unreflectively think that a belch after a meal is a sign of objective rudeness. This is important because the pursuit of real excellence must move beyond the surface displays (although we will examine in a future post why surface displays do have their place). We can become caught up in the cultural signs of military valor, for example, rather than pursuing real courage. When a culture goes too far in this direction it becomes sick.
Second, we should happily acknowledge that we are deeply formed by our culture. We would have a very difficult time coming to an accurate knowledge of many objective values—let alone a fruitful practice—without a culture surrounding us to encourage, instruct, and yes, even discipline. But this is a feature not a bug. We are a social species, and we require community for every aspect of our flourishing. We must simply admit that the thorough pursuit of excellence can only take place within a culture, conditioned by that culture, based upon what that culture has previously accomplished. None of this, however, means that such a culturally conditioned pursuit is arbitrary, merely subjective, or oppressive to the freedom of individual expression.