The inherent weakness of cultural and subjective relativism

One of the challenges in critical thinking is overcoming barriers to our way of thinking.  These barriers can mostly be categorized as follows:

1) Barriers erected because of how we think

2) Barriers erected because of what we think

Of interest to me today are two ideas that fall into this latter category.  When we say that something is “right” because it is right in a culture, we are being cultural relativists.  When we say that something is “right” because it is right in the mind of a person, we are being subjective relativists.  These two hinderances are both saying the same thing: there is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about actions; what is right is only a product of the culture and what we think is correct.

In a liberal, democratic, pluralist society, this sort of position seems quite appealing.  We want to consider everyone’s opinions from all cultures, and we don’t wish to enforce our opinions on someone else just because we hold a different opinion.  Still, I think it is very clear that just because someone holds an opinion does not make it right, and we can balance arguments amongst different cultures (or subjective perspectives) by comparing the reasoning that supports these arguments.

The most classic example of a challenge to relativism is that of the Holocaust in World War II.  If cultural or subjective relativism were true, then we are not  in a position to challenge the morality of what the German Nazis did to the Jewish people and those who support them.  After all, exterminating Jews was right in the mind of Hitler, and it was deemed appropriate by the German culture of the time.

Similarly, the cultural relativist would say that we have no grounds to challenge the morality of slave-holders, since they were largely following convention at the time.

And yet our intuition screams to us that neither the German Nazis nor the US slave-holders were behaving morally, and you would be hard pressed to build a case that they were doing so in light of all the rights and liberties we consider so important today.

The reason I bring this up today is a discussion I was involved in about Iran’s approach to civil liberties.  Here are some statements from Monday that are relevant:

Iran has barred single women from working for a state firm that operates a huge gas field and petrochemical plants on the shores of the Gulf, the Fars news agency reported on Monday.

“Oil Minister (Masoud Mirkazemi) has emphasised that single women should not be present in Assalouyeh,” the deputy director of the Pars Special Economic Energy Zone Company, Pirouz Mousavi, said.

It should be noted that Iran has formally said that single men will be unable to work in the future as well, although it is interesting that the phasing out of single women has happened first.  I imagine this can be explained by two factors: 1) Iran’s typically misogynist theocracy, 2) Most of the workers in the Iranian oil fields are single men, and sending them all home would be crippling to the industry.  The basis for this policy is a supposed religious imperative that all people must get married and start a family.

My objections to this action were immediate.  Not only does it hamper religious and personal freedoms of all people who wish to be irreligious or unmarried (as is, unfortunately, to be expected in Iran), it has also been applied in a way that targets women first and foremost.

The counter-objection I was met with was that of cultural relativism.  “Sure, that infringes upon our ideas of rights and liberties, but they have a very different definition of those in Iran and it’s none of our business.”  To this I reply: utter nonsense.

I do not believe in relativism for the reasons I outlined above.  While I do not wish to compare the methods through which this sort of relativism is carried out (there’s admittedly a huge difference between killing Jews and firing single women), it is a very core idea of relativism that I wish to challenge: the idea that what is truly right can only be determined by the individual or culture in which an action is taken or a belief is formed.  To me, an argument using cultural relativism to support Iranian theocracy is just as weak as an argument using cultural relativism to support German Nazism.

There is also a slightly obscene unspoken suggestion here, as well, which is that all Iranian citizens support such a policy.  The near-revolution that surrounded the Iranian election earlier this year showed a strong counter-current of young people, particularly young females, who were aspiring for a more secular, liberal democracy.  It has been countered that if these people are really unhappy, they should just leave Iran, but I think that is far too simplistic.  Iranian women are generally far under-educated, far more poor, and far behind the cultural zeitgeist of basically ever developed country.  Not only would the culture shock be tremendously difficult to overcome, an Iranian refugee would also lack the resources to make such a move happen.  Imagine the time, effort, and resources it would take in your own life to pick up and move to another country, and that’s not even accounting for the tremendous difficulty of leaving family and friends behind.

Let’s broaden the scope a little bit.  In Iran, an LGBT individual can be sentenced to death.  Same goes for an apostate, or someone who has left the Islamic faith.  Does any person who falls into either of these two categories deserve the punishment just because it is right in Iran?  Any person I would consider sane would say no (though they may be insane for any number of other reasons!).

I have nothing but respect for a multi-cultural and diverse community.  I encourage every person to speak their viewpoint loudly with the understanding that they will have to defend that viewpoint.  I believe strongly in a free market of ideas, where everyone can put forth their views and the best will ultimately win out, no matter how arduous the process may be.  However, let’s not equivocate listening to ideas with accepting ideas as true or right.  Certainly some areas are so grey that finding an absolute is difficult (and sometimes unimportant), but there is no room for subjective or cultural relativism when we’re talking about the absolute, universal, and fundamental rights of every single person on this planet.


Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: