Moving From Cultural Relativism to Cross-Cultural Values

A Missionary Preaching to Natives%2C on the lava at Kokukano%2C Hawaii%2C sketch by William Ellis - Moving From Cultural Relativism to Cross-Cultural Values
William Ellis’ 1825 sketch of missionaries preaching.

Where does identity come from? Are you a product of your culture, or are you an independent moral agent?

There is a constant tension in the world between the concept of “culture” and the concept of “universal human rights.” How can both be respected when they conflict?

The authors of a forthcoming paper in the journal Neuroquantology argue that relativism in support of cultural practices has had the upper hand for too long. They define cultural relativism as an “anthropological approach that subscribes to the principle that all cultures are of equal value, that an individual’s beliefs and actions need to be appreciated through his or her own culture and thus studied from a neutral point of view.” This concept was then linked to religion, where one culture tried to impose their views on another, or propagating an ideology that one group is “chosen” to the exclusion of others.

In rethinking this approach, the authors attempt to lay the scholarly groundwork for a cross-cultural morality—one that has no room for genocide or child abuse.

“(S)omewhere beneath the layers of the contextual formation of values, emerges the sound of something fundamental, something even basic: the awareness that humanity is inextricably related and therefore inherently connected to all existing cultures,” they write. “As Bugental (1984) shared, ‘the failure of our species to recognize and value that unity is one important root of many tragedies which we have brought upon ourselves … too often we choose sides.”

Theirs is not the first attempt to develop a universal system of human values—and the authors Stanley Krippner (faculty member at Saybrook University), Daniel B. Pitchford (faculty member at Saybrook and a member of The New Existentialists), Jeannine A. Davies, and Kishor Adhikari (a faculty member at Christ University, India) go over the history of the manifestos of the American Humanist Association and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, as well as responses to that document.

In all, the authors suggest, cultural relativism is a well-intentioned attempt to respect cultures on their own terms, but must take a back seat to evidence—both logical and scholarly—that there are universal answers to universal questions about morality. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., they note that “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust,” and suggest that “(A)chieving or even subscribing to a neutral point of view when actions or law collide with what is understood as ‘just’ is not necessarily appropriate or even condonable.”

“Rethinking Human Values” will run in the next issue of Neuroquantology.

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