On Cultural Relativism and Enforced Change

Everything is Relative – but Relative to What? We are all used to hearing people say, “everything is relative”, by which they usually mean that, in their opinion, there are no standards of right and wrong, or of quality, and anybody can do anything they...

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Everything is Relative – but Relative to What?

We are all used to hearing people say, “everything is relative”, by which they usually mean that, in their opinion, there are no standards of right and wrong, or of quality, and anybody can do anything they like without fear of the consequences. There may be a case to be made for this point of view (though I doubt it) but one thing is clear: it does not follow from the statement “everything is relative”.

Something that is relative is relative to something. To say (if one is talking sense) that something is relative does not mean that it is uncertain or unknowable, it does not mean that it is subjective and anyone can make it up for himself. It means only one thing, which is that before it can be measured, we have to know relative to what it is to be measured.

Of all things that are relative, one of the most obvious and simple examples is speed. That there is no absolute speed is central to the theory of relativity. What we normally think of as speed, the speed of a motor-car or of a runner, is speed relative to the solid surface of the Earth. A particular motor-car, for instance, has other speeds. It is not only moving relative to the road; it is following the surface of the Earth in its rotation on its axis at a speed that varies, depending on latitude. It is accompanying the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, and it is accompanying the Sun in its movement relative to other stars. Speed can be calculated taking any or all of these into account, but we normally do not do so because we do not need to know them.

However, when we depart from the land and consider ships or aircraft, we find that they have two speeds that matter, in the case of a ship water speed and land speed, in the case of the aircraft air speed and land speed. Land speed is the speed at which an aircraft is moving across the Earth’s surface, and it tells us how long it will take to get to any particular place, its destination or a possible emergency landing place, for example. The air speed is the speed at which it is moving through the air immediately around it. It is air speed that determines whether an aircraft can fly or not. The stalling speed, below which it will fall out of the sky, is an air speed. The sound barrier, at which an aircraft not designed to go through it may well break up, is determined by air speed.

Since at the altitudes at which jet aircraft fly, winds of two hundred kilometres per hour are not unusual, air speed and ground speed may be very different, and if we measure one when we should have measured the other the results may be fatal. The use of ground speed when we wanted air speed can result in a stall or a collision with the sound barrier; the use of air speed when we wanted ground speed can result in miscalculating our time of arrival, running out of fuel, and a fatal crash.

So speed is relative, but once we have decided which speed we want, and what it is to be relative to, we can measure it with the utmost precision, and to choose the right speed for our purpose of all the speeds that there are can be a matter of life and death. All speeds are indeed ‘equally true’, but in a particular set of circumstances only one speed gives us the information that we want.

Of course, not everything can be measured as precisely as speed can. Things that cannot be measured precisely can also be relative. The term in fact says nothing about precision of measurement or exactness of knowledge.

Cultural Relativism

One of the most important areas in which the concept of relativity is raised today is what is called ‘cultural relativism’, which says, or claims to say, that all cultures are of equal value and none can be said to be superior to another.

How does this work? Let us take an extreme example. The Eskimos, in their traditional culture not only practiced infanticide of disabled or weakly infants, they also practiced the custom of killing the elderly (by driving them out into the winter cold to die). This custom is not only shocking to modern man; it would have absolutely scandalised the Old Testament Jews. (Honour thy father and mother that thy days may be long in the Lord), and would no less have scandalised members of most, if not all, traditional African cultures.

So, are we to regard the Eskimos as heathen savages, worse than almost anybody on Earth? “No,” says the cultural relativist. The Eskimos lived in such poverty, with such narrow margins of survival, that, like wild animals, they could afford to carry no passengers. If they had tried to care for their aged people as Old Testament Jews or traditional Africans did, they would all have perished. The value of social customs is relative to the circumstances of the people practicing them.

This argument is irrefutable, but it does not tell us that all customs are equally valid. It does not say that in the circumstances of the Eskimos, Eskimo customs were as good as African customs, it is saying that they were better – they were the only possible customs.

On the other hand, supposing that the Eskimos had achieved a level of affluence comparable to a traditional African tribe, could they justifiably have continued to kill old people? Supposing they moved into present day Canada and achieved present day Canadian incomes, if they were to persist in killing old people, what would one say of them?

Cultural relativism, properly understood, does not say that all customs are equally good. It says that the value of customs depends on circumstances which will include the level of wealth of the people practicing them, and also the climate in which they live. It would suggest (although this point requires further enquiry) that in any particular set of circumstances there is an optimum set of customs and, therefore, so far from implying that people are always and everywhere entitled to keep their existing customs, it seems to say that those who change their circumstances should change their customs in short order.

Let us take another example, very much from contemporary life. Let us consider the custom of sun-bathing. In Britain the Sun shines so seldom and it is so often cold, that occasions when it is possible to expose one’s skin to the Sun are quite rare and because of the high latitude the Sun is in any case very weak, so there is a real danger, even among fair-skinned people (much greater with dark skinned people) of a deficiency of vitamin D, which causes rickets in children and other kinds of ill-health in adults. Consequently, it is an extremely useful and beneficial custom for people to take every opportunity that the weather offers to expose as much of their skin as possible to the direct rays of the Sun. This is known as sun-bathing.

When fair-skinned people move from Britain to Australia or South Africa or from the north-eastern United States to the south-western States they encounter a situation where the Sun shines much of the time and is extremely strong. There is no possibility of anybody – even a dark-skinned person – getting less sunshine than in necessary for health, where the danger of overexposure to the Sun which can lead to acute sunburn (which can be fatal) and to skin cancer, is very serious.

The desirability of sun-bathing is relative to the strength and availability of the Sun. Those who move from a country of little and weak sunshine to one of much and strong sunshine must change their custom in relation to sun-bathing, on peril of their lives.

There is another rather amusing example from history that illustrates the same fundamental point but in a different light. When Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) came to the throne, all Russian men wore full beards and all those who could afford it wore long robes (kaftans) down to the ground. The Tsar, anxious to ‘modernise’ Russia, ordered his courtiers to dress like French courtiers, which meant knee-breeches with silk stockings, and clean shaving. Not surprisingly, among those who complied there was considerable incidence of frost-bite (which can be life-threatening) on the legs (formerly protected by the kaftans) and on their faces (formerly protected by their beards).

This again illustrates cultural relativism properly defined. What is appropriate dress depends on the climate. A custom that is suitable, possibly even optimal, in one set of circumstances may be life-threatening in another. The first example, the sun-bathing, tells us that those whose circumstances have changed often must, on peril of their lives, change their customs. The second seems to tell us that those whose circumstances have not changed must not change their customs.

Clearly we cannot accept the last statement in absolute terms, for it would imply that we can never find a better way of solving an existing problem than the one which we already have; and this is contradicted by a large part of human history. What it does tell us is that we have to be careful about changing customs and especially careful about imitating the customs of people whose circumstances are different from our own (or of imposing such customs on others). We must be particularly careful of assuming that if we imitate the behaviour of people better off than ourselves, we will become as well off as they.

Sometimes this will be true, but it depends on how cause and effect work. Obviously the Russians were not going to make St Petersburg warmer by wearing silk stockings. There can be three kinds of cases. The Japanese had a high savings rate and a high rate of economic growth. If a poor country imitates the Japanese and attains a high saving rate they will indeed have a high rate of economic growth. The Japanese eat with chop-sticks and had a high rate of economic growth. If a poor country takes to eating with chop-sticks, this will make no difference to their economic growth. The Japanese had a high rate of economic growth, they became affluent, being affluent they indulge in a great deal of overseas travel. If a poor country imitates them in overseas travel not only will this not help them to become affluent, it will help to ensure that they do not.


So, it all depends on circumstances. Everything is relative, or so far, so it appears.

Does it follow that those who have ‘entered the modern world’ – come, for example, from a tradition-bound countryside into a city – should forthwith abandon every aspect of their culture and adopt, in its entirety, the culture of those who have lived in the cities for a long time?

Until about twenty years ago, this view was widely held, and in fact the doctrine of cultural relativism as actually preached, as distinct from as we define it, was developed in opposition to this view. It was widely believed that culture changed as a country developed economically, that the United States as the most developed country, had the most ‘modern’ culture, and that the cultures of all other countries would approximate more and more closely to that of the United States as they developed. To the extent that they did not so approximate, they were ‘backward’ and a brake on progress. The people who held this view called themselves modernisers and they systematically made war on all forms of traditional culture, not only outside the United States but inside it as well.

This view is no longer tenable, at least in its extreme and simplistic form. By now the development gap between the United States and the countries of Western Europe and Japan has for practical purposes closed, and while their cultures have certainly become more similar than they were say a hundred years ago, they are not the same. There are even quite significant differences between countries of Western Europe. It is clear that, if there is such a thing as ‘modern’ culture, there is more than one possible model for it. So far from there being a correlation between the hall-marks of ‘modernism’ derived from the United States as a model of development and affluence, some of the richest and therefore most developed European countries (like Switzerland) are also the most traditional.

Then, again, the great majority of the people of India, not only the rural poor, whose conditions have not changed, but also the tens of millions of middle class people whose material conditions are not very different from those of people in Western Europe, have made it perfectly clear that they have no intention of abandoning the fundamentals of their culture and beliefs in favour of any Western or ‘modern’ model. This in spite of a long period of intense exposure to Western European culture, first under colonial rule and then under an extremely Westernised elite. I suspect that the same message is coming out of China, although it is not yet being heard as clearly.

There is another difficulty about asking people to adopt ‘modern’ culture, and it is a very serious one. When people choose to imitate models they choose things that are clearly successful, that have every appearance of working well, and ‘modern’ culture is very far from being that. If we look tot he United States as the model of modern culture, as used to be customary, we are looking at a society plagued with every kind of social pathology. While it is somewhat controversial as to what is and is not social pathology (in relation, for example, to birth out of wedlock) nobody surely would deny that violent crime represents pathology.

Not all economically advanced countries have the same culture, and not all have the same level of violent crime. There would appear to be alternative models and part of our problem is that we simply do not know enough to say what, if anything, the differences between these different cultures are relative to. Some people contend that cultures are crucially dependent on long tradition, that they are therefore incapable of export and imitation. These people would argue that so far from being a particularly ‘advanced’ culture, the United States is an example of ‘deculturisation’ caused by migration; that it is culturally impoverished, and that its social pathologies are attributable to this fact. Others would say that the pathologies are a price that is paid (presumably willingly, but that is questionable) for positive advantages that the American way of life has that the Swiss and Japanese lack.

We are not going to be able to solve this question. What is clear is that cultures are immensely complicated and we do not know enough to be able to engineer them. They are full of subtle and obscure linkages so that a change that is put forward as being ‘for the plain good of man’ (as Milton said of divorce) may cause great and quite unsuspected harm in another quarter.

In the evolution of Jewish law the sages, at the end of the Roman era, set themselves, as they said, to ‘put a fence around the law’, that is to set up a series of secondary prohibitions which would make contravention of the primary prohibitions of the law itself much less likely, or ideally, impossible. These are the rules of orthodox Jewish conduct which appear to outsiders to be completely arbitrary, and even silly, but if the law itself is important (and much of it obviously is), they may be serving a vitally important purpose. This sort of thing is not peculiar to Jews. All cultures contain apparently arbitrary taboos, the purpose of which is to defend really important taboos, to keep people out of temptation, or risk of doing things that are seriously damaging to themselves or others. It is precisely these defences which those who tamper with culture without care are likely to destroy.

Cultural Relativism vs Modernisation

So, what conclusions can we draw? We are not going to find a simple rule-of-thumb that will give us adequate guidance in this area. As so often in real life, we just cannot escape from the need to use judgement and discretion in solving particular problems. Clearly we cannot accept dogmatic (so-called) cultural relativism which asserts that all cultures are of equal value irrespective of circumstances, for this will retard useful and even vital changes and adaptations and will discourage people from imitating models of specially successful behaviour, which is one of the main engines of progress.

But no more can we accept dogmatic ‘modernising’ or an equivalent, which pretends that we know exactly where we are going and exactly how to get there and all we have to do is get there as fast as possible. We do not have the knowledge necessary for such an approach to be viable and it is extremely unlikely that we shall ever possess such knowledge. Customs and inhibitions may serve purposes that we do not understand, and changes are certain to produce unintended consequences. Change always has to be approached with caution and should, wherever possible, be gradual. This does not necessarily mean that it must be very slow. It means, as the word ‘gradual’ actually implies, step by step, a little at a time, so that it is possible to stop, to change direction, and, if necessary, to back-track quickly if unacceptable unintended consequences emerge.

Change Should Not Be Forced

Finally, it is desirable that decisions as to whether to change or not, and how and how far to change, should be taken by the people who will actually bear the costs and benefits of doing so, which means by the ordinary people concerned, not by governments or ‘experts’ or ‘vanguards’ or elite, who all too often either exempt themselves from the laws which they lay down or insulate themselves from the consequences, just as Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung did not go hungry when they created mass famine in their countries.

As far as possible, decisions to change cultural behaviour should be taken by individuals or the small groups in which individuals usually act. That some shall change and some not is desirable, for it allows the two approaches to compete and their respective merits to be demonstrated in practice. When it is inevitable that such decisions are taken by governments (and let us emphasise this should be as seldom as possible), they should be taken in the most democratic manner possible, and the door should always be kept open for back-tracking.

Disclaimer: This essay was extracted from O’Dowd’s 1999 occasional paper, “Liberal Reflections”, for the Free Market Foundation. The essay’s name was changed from the original “Everything is Relative – but Relative to What?” and the headings were inserted by Rational Standard editors.

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  1. Tim Crowe Reply

    Other things to think about are “relational concepts” (e.g. “race”) and consilience (knowledge complementarity = science that persists) that involve relativism. Although it might be a useful concept in some plant and animal species (like my beloved Helmeted Guineafowl – Numida meleagris), “Race” will always be untenable and ontologically unsound in Homo sapiens because its ‘essential’ evidence is not consilient.

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