Cultural Relativism and Technology

[Update: Now I am older and wiser, I don't necessarily any-longer agree with everything I wrote here, but I'm not going to delete it (yet). If you also disagree, let me know.]

I was talking to a couple of friends of mine about politics the other day. The conversation ended in a disagreement about whether or not one ought to adhere to principles of cultural relativism. That is, whether it is fair or legitimate to criticise the practices of members of another culture from the inescapable perspectives of ones own. I was arguing against cultural relativism but in the course of the discussion some arguments were raised which I hadn't considered before and which made me stop and reconsider my position.

My purpose in writing this is partially in order to get my thoughts in order and partly in the hope that the discussion can continue, 'cause it's one that interests me. I wish to wear my ignorance of many relevant topics on my sleeve and, as always, I'm completely open to the prospect of changing my mind.

My feelings were that open criticism of other cultures should be permissible. I felt that if we had carefully examined our own reasoning and motives, we ought to be allowed to criticise the practices of others, even if we understood that those practices may be the product of another culture and its historical context.

Interestingly, in our discussion we did not arrive at this point of disagreement via one of the common examples of undesirable "foreign" cultural practices. Rather, it was while considering whether or not the UK's current Coalition Government can possibly be composed of people who think they're "doing the right thing" whilst obviously damaging their country. Can people with distorted views of the world have equal abilities to fairly govern, compared to those with a more balanced view of a country's population? Can we criticise people like Michael Gove or George Osbourne as doing "evil things" when their actions may be a product of their privileged background? We never came up with an answer to this, but I think they're still interesting questions.

Returning to the main question of criticism of aspects of other cultures. The first possible issue with such criticism was put to me in the form of the unintended, negative consequences of cultural imperialism. The example was this: When the British Empire first came to Bengal they were appalled by the non-widespread practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. When the British tried to "educate" the indigenous population about the wrongness of this practice, they instead succeeded in initially strengthening an association between it and a threatened culture, thereby actually perhaps increasing incidences of it.

This is not good in any way — a foreign and powerful empire enters a country and arrogantly attempts to assert its own ideals on the indigenous population who (understandably) react negatively and defensively, against everyone's interests. But is it reason to suggest that criticisms of the practice were illegitimate or unfair?

To me, this seems to be a problem of botched implementation. It was not the fact that the British disapproved of the practice of widow burning which caused this reactionary response. The response seems more likely due to the attempt by a military empire to enforce alien principles and laws on the population. I don't believe that this example shows that a cultural relativist, non-critical response to things we see in the world is the best one. I think we ought to be able to disentangle the legitimacy of the criticism with the crude attempt to implement change.

The second issue with free criticism of other cultures was more subtle. What if there are cases where the criticism itself has a similar effect to an attempted implementation? If I remember correctly, the example described to me was that of the changes to Thai culture in the days of the British Empire which occurred even though Thailand was never subjected to colonial rule. I have to admit that I don't fully understand or remember the details of this, though I'd like to become more educated. They are certainly both relevant to this discussion and fascinating in their own right. As far as I understand, though, some of the changes to Thai culture may be attributed in part to the disapproval of an empire with a mighty army on the doorstep of Thailand, even if that empire didn't specifically wield its executive power.

This is, I think, a more interesting problem. If our speech has a direct effect on world events, ought we to restrict it? This seems like a tricky issue and one which may be relevant today and certainly has been relevant in the past.

However, I don't think that this concern alone is a good enough reason to subscribe to a cultural realist philosophy. While these issues may have been pertinent in the past, I don't think they are still so pertinent today and will indeed become less-so over time. We now live in a world of pervasive technology where all public speech may exist to some degree in a global context. It is conceivable to have an internationally-transparent, instantaneous, free dialogue in public in ways never-before possible. No longer ought small communities to feel silently under threat from other cultures.

Suppose we voice criticisms of, say, violence against women in the name of tradition somewhere in the world from the perspective of our (relatively) sane and secular culture in the UK. Then either our criticism does not reach the ears of those who might react to it, or else it does so but the other culture has the automatic right-of-reply afforded to them by global media. If they feel threatened they may reply from the grass roots or via cultural spokespeople. Scholars from such a culture may debate scholars from ours on the relative merits and demerits of community-sanctioned murder. The fear of cultural imperialism is no longer legitimate if the potential "victims" have as much of a mouthpiece as the "imperialists", if they wish to use it. It would seem to me to be immoral to restrain our condemnation in cases where there is so obviously a "right culture" and a "wrong culture".

On the contrary, I think that to subscribe to cultural relativism is to dangerously limit our freedom of speech and our academic and moral integrity. I think it would uncontroversial for me to say that self-censorship is the most invisible and subjugating kind. I think that cultural relativism, at its worst, amounts to the concerns of sensitive and well-meaning people being held to ransom by oppressors who wish to place themselves beyond the criticism of those they don't already oppress. I think this is unacceptable in the time of enlightenment global transparency which we now live.

What do you think? Am I arguing from ignorance, perhaps missing key examples which make what I say redundant? Am I naïve or over-optimistic in my assessment of the degree to which the Internet and global media nullify the threat of insidious cultural imperialism? Am I pontificating incoherently? I'd love to know your opinions.

SaveSave

17 thoughts on “Cultural Relativism and Technology”

  1. Ah, thanks for that link, I'll check it out for sure :)Re evangelism. I guess I'd say (1) applies to me but not (2). And (1) not because I think I have magical access to some Absolute Moral Truth, but only that my moral statements are based in reason and observation of the world and ought not to be dismissed out of hand. I don't think I have access to Absolute Scientific Truth either, but still happily correct people who say false things. Does this make me a scientific evangelist? I don't know exactly what you mean by (2). I think moral education is important "righting wrongs" is too, but I think this about faulty science also.Re emotivism. I agree that "no you don't" isn't a meaningful response. But I think "no it isn't" is, and may form the starting point for a dialogue which examines both party's rationality and observation just as any decent scientific or political dialogue would. Maybe this dialogue ends in fundamental differences in premise, but this the case in *any* dialogue, and doesn't invalidate it — some people's worldviews are inconsistent and some people are willing to change their minds.Case in point — methinks we have fundamentally different views of what morals are, and that's fine :) I enjoy the debate! I'm definitely interested to read that critique of Harris, 'cause while I'm not a Harris disciple, I'm certainly a fan ;)I'll let you know what I think :))

  2. ethics is the diplomacy of power. it cannot be derived logically. we might like certain ethical positions. for example, i like your ethical positions. but that's the same as my preference for certain foods i grew up with. so i guess i subscribe to cultural relativism. now cultural relativism is often thought to imply the ethical imperative of not imposing one's own preferences on others. but this is just another preference, like pizza. (and it's another example of a preference i like.) however, the weaker party *never* has an equivalent "mouthpiece": it wants to please power. ethical rhetoric (no matter how well-intentioned) serves to disguise or legitimise the fact that we are imposing our preferences. the alternative is to have others' preferences imposed on us.

  3. ethics is the diplomacy of power. it cannot be derived logically. we might like certain ethical positions. for example, i like your ethical positions. but that's the same as my preference for certain foods i grew up with. so i guess i subscribe to cultural relativism. now cultural relativism is often thought to imply the ethical imperative of not imposing one's own preferences on others. but this is just another preference, like pizza. (and it's another example of a preference i like.) however, the weaker party *never* has an equivalent "mouthpiece": it wants to please power. ethical rhetoric (no matter how well-intentione​d) serves to disguise or legitimise the fact that we are imposing our preferences. the alternative is to have others' preferences imposed on us.

  4. Great post, and a very interesting area for discussion and debate!

    I think we are still another 5-10 years from true democratisation via the internet; remember that the internet is still the preserve of the wealthiest 20% globally, and not all of that chunk of people have unrestricted access to information, nor the necessary competence to wield said information when in possession of it. Yes, I realise that my pointing this out could be seen as parochial, or worse a form of "cultural imperialism" which you allude to above...

    Education; free will; compassion; an acknowledgement that different cultures develop at different paces and emphasis different disciplines; consensus between all parties affected by an action, over and above morality and rules of thumb: these are probably more important than technology. I do, however, believe that tech can be a force for good. Prove me right, humanity!

    1. This is a great point and probably a major shortcoming of my argument. Perhaps there are groups of people who are aware of "foreign disapproval" but interpret this as their culture being under threat from imperialists because they don't have the resources to realistically engage in dialogue. This is almost certainly the case. And I don't think it at all parochial to point out.

      I completely agree that education, compassion, informed consent, etc. all ought to be fundamental cornerstones of any moral discussion. What I worry about is that there are various groups (tax-dodging super-rich and woman-abusing ultra-religious are two which spring readily to mind) who don't subscribe to even these values and refuse to engage with dissenters who hail from different cultural backgrounds. What I worry about more is that there are moral, engaged people who don't feel able to criticise perceived evildoers because they fear being seen as culturally imperialist or view such criticisms as inherently illegitimate. Perhaps they're right to do this (cf. your point), but I at least hope that democratisation via the internet will eventually nullify this fear.

  5. Niko, that seems very cynical of you! And I disagree ;)You reckon that ethical positions are just types of personal preferences? This is not what I experience in my own ethical positions. I constantly reassess my moral worldviews based on observation, reasoning and discussion with those who do and don't share them. I do none of these things with my preferences for pizza topping — to do so would make no sense. I also sometimes spot inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the ethics of others (and sometimes myself), but never anyone with an inconsistent or hypocritical preference for milk in their coffee. I think to reduce ethics to mere preferences or emotional expressions is to miss a key aspect — that I (and I assume others) *really do* modify their ethics based on observation, dialogue and rational thought.For example: it is my inability to find any evidence of significant difference between humans and other (higher) animals which leads me to be a vegetarian. It is my view that to fund the meat industry without access to such evidence whilst still being ethically opposed to the murder or torture of humans is *inconsistent*. Of course, my reasoning is up for debate as is the science which may produce or fail to produce evidence of such a difference. So I admit I may be wrong or mistaken or stupid, but I don't think this is an arbitrary preference.Ok, I accept that we need a premise. We cannot derive ethics from observation and thought alone.A guy I talked about in my replies to Marios above is a guy called Sam Harris. He's probably most famous for being one of the "four horsemen" of "new atheism". But he's currently researching into (neuro)scientific bases for ethics. I don't have any idea as to the quality of his science, but his philosophical arguments interest me.To paraphrase them: He says that the one premise we must accept is that "the worst possible suffering for all humans and animals for all time ought to be avoided". This seems to be a premise I'm willing to accept. He says that if someone weren't to accept this premise, then when they say the word "ought", they're talking about something different to what we think they're talking about. He then says that we should realise that ethically-charged terms like "suffering-avoidance", "well-being", "flourishing", etc. aren't abstract or arbitrary, but may actually (or at least potentially) be measured with the tools of science; specifically human and animal neuroscience. In this way, we, as a global community of scholars, can begin to map out a high-dimensional landscape where various actions, attitudes and cultural practices will allow us to navigate to (perhaps local) maxima of these real, measurable, physical criteria.His actual argument is more subtle and nuanced than this, of course.Now, I don't agree with everything he says, but I think that this is much closer to my understanding of the way rational people actually consider their own actions. At least it is closer than just throwing up our hands and saying that everyones ethics are preferences and therefore fundamentally incomparable. This doesn't seem to me like something people ever actually do outside of meta-ethical discussions like this one.Harris' conclusion is controversial, sure, and I don't necessarily agree with it 100%. But his thinking at least seems joined-up to me.Having said all that, your point about weaker parties having weaker mouthpieces is absolutely true. This is a real problem with what I've said and ought to be carefully considered when our ethical expressions pertain to unbalanced groups of people (in either sense of the word).But I don't agree that ethical rhetoric is necessarily an imposition of preference in disguise. I think it is possible to discuss our ethics in public as (for example) scholars or thinkers or ostensibly rational, engaged creatures without the sole purpose being to wield power. When I enter into an ethical debate I'm equally as willing to change my mind in the face of facts and clearer thinking as I am hopeful to convince my opponent; just as I strive to be in all my discussions.

  6. Niko, that seems very cynical of you! And I disagree ;)You reckon that ethical positions are just types of personal preferences? This is not what I experience in my own ethical positions. I constantly reassess my moral worldviews based on observation, reasoning and discussion with those who do and don't share them. I do none of these things with my preferences for pizza topping — to do so would make no sense. I also sometimes spot inconsistencies​ and hypocrisies in the ethics of others (and sometimes myself), but never anyone with an inconsistent or hypocritical preference for milk in their coffee. I think to reduce ethics to mere preferences or emotional expressions is to miss a key aspect — that I (and I assume others) *really do* modify their ethics based on observation, dialogue and rational thought.For example: it is my inability to find any evidence of significant difference between humans and other (higher) animals which leads me to be a vegetarian. It is my view that to fund the meat industry without access to such evidence whilst still being ethically opposed to the murder or torture of humans is *inconsistent*.​ Of course, my reasoning is up for debate as is the science which may produce or fail to produce evidence of such a difference. So I admit I may be wrong or mistaken or stupid, but I don't think this is an arbitrary preference.Ok, I accept that we need a premise. We cannot derive ethics from observation and thought alone.A guy I talked about in my replies to Marios above is a guy called Sam Harris. He's probably most famous for being one of the "four horsemen" of "new atheism". But he's currently researching into (neuro)scientif​ic bases for ethics. I don't have any idea as to the quality of his science, but his philosophical arguments interest me.To paraphrase them: He says that the one premise we must accept is that "the worst possible suffering for all humans and animals for all time ought to be avoided". This seems to be a premise I'm willing to accept. He says that if someone weren't to accept this premise, then when they say the word "ought", they're talking about something different to what we think they're talking about. He then says that we should realise that ethically-charg​ed terms like "suffering-avoi​dance", "well-being", "flourishing", etc. aren't abstract or arbitrary, but may actually (or at least potentially) be measured with the tools of science; specifically human and animal neuroscience. In this way, we, as a global community of scholars, can begin to map out a high-dimensiona​l landscape where various actions, attitudes and cultural practices will allow us to navigate to (perhaps local) maxima of these real, measurable, physical criteria.His actual argument is more subtle and nuanced than this, of course.Now, I don't agree with everything he says, but I think that this is much closer to my understanding of the way rational people actually consider their own actions. At least it is closer than just throwing up our hands and saying that everyones ethics are preferences and therefore fundamentally incomparable. This doesn't seem to me like something people ever actually do outside of meta-ethical discussions like this one.Harris' conclusion is controversial, sure, and I don't necessarily agree with it 100%. But his thinking at least seems joined-up to me.Having said all that, your point about weaker parties having weaker mouthpieces is absolutely true. This is a real problem with what I've said and ought to be carefully considered when our ethical expressions pertain to unbalanced groups of people (in either sense of the word).But I don't agree that ethical rhetoric is necessarily an imposition of preference in disguise. I think it is possible to discuss our ethics in public as (for example) scholars or thinkers or ostensibly rational, engaged creatures without the sole purpose being to wield power. When I enter into an ethical debate I'm equally as willing to change my mind in the face of facts and clearer thinking as I am hopeful to convince my opponent; just as I strive to be in all my discussions.

  7. Marios, I use "significant" as a shorthand and to cover my ignorance.One could ask whether there was a "significant" difference between people of different enthic origin or a "significant" difference between people of different sex. The word "significant" here is a short hand for various possible formulations of a question which science *may* answer.When I say "significant", I probably mean things like "capacity to experience" or "sentience" or "sapience", which are questions for neuroscience which may be answered eventually (unless I'm mistaken about the nature of these questions — they seem entirely scientific to me).Whether or not science may be a discourse about values is precisely what we're disagreeing about :) Traditional thought like Hume's Fork may say it's not, but I'm contesting this. I don't think there's a necessary is-ought violation.You asked about my criterion for higher animal. I don't have a strict criterion — I'm not highly trained in biology, zoology or animal neuroscience and so don't feel qualified to arbitrate. I tend to think that slime molds aren't but that pigs are. In my doubt, I err on the side of avoiding protein taken from the animal kingdom (leaving aside for now other ecological reasons for doing so). As always, my discovering new science may lead me to alter my views and actions.

  8. if you don't ever want to be cynical, you will find yourself shying away from certain important facts and insights.i say: accept what might seem a difficult truth, but remain optimistic and philanthropic .as you say, we do reflect on and redefine our ethics. but so we do for other cultural preferences including those for food and music.you can strive for a higher standard of ethics personally. but fundamentally you can't derive ought from is, so you are making a choice rather than finding a truth. at a personal level, these choices define us and our roles. so they tend to be heavily influenced by where and when we were born, what our parents thought, and who we are currently most trying to impress. at a global and historical level, you will find that ethics, down to the details, reflects power relationships. so we say "all men are created equal". however, why don't we say "all animals are created equal"? very simple: we can control animals, but we have realised that we cannot in the long run control people.you say you are a vegetarian, because you don't see a "significant" difference between us and higer animals. but of course there are differences and similarities between humans and other animals, just as there are differences and similarities between humans and vegetables. democracy is the ethical reflection of the insight that different groups of people have similar mental and physical powers (so an oppressed class will rise up and start a revolution eventually). meritocracy is the ethical reflection of the insight that different individual people have different powers (so the strong and smart will take a bigger piece of the cake).this is not to say that ethics should be abandoned. i think ethics, though it is the diplomacy of power, serves a positive function. the utilitarian perspective you mention (harris) makes a lot of sense to me, and it helps frame ethics as an optimisation problem. the investment of thought and emotion is not for naught. i also think there is real historical progress. this is just all true at the same time.

  9. Very good points, Niko. I think we are probably almost in agreement on everything!One point I want to press you on, though:I know it's technically impossible to derive an "ought" from an "is". However, in real life we routinely, systematically and cognisantly use incorrect derivations. One example: roughly all of science is based on inductive reasoning which is, as Hume showed, flawed. Even further, we tend to assume and act on the fact that there exists some external world which bears some resemblance to that which our senses and instruments detect, even though Descartes showed this is ill-founded. I think the logical inability to derive "ought" from "is" should be viewed in a similar way.While it is philosophically ill-founded, we would never get anywhere if we only used the reasoning technically allowed to us by Descartes and Hume. In order to function in real life we must tacitly acknowledge that we're brushing some technical details under the carpet.Just as we cannot derive the consistency of the world from any fact and yet do so all the time, we cannot derive ethical propositions from facts and yet do so all the time.We, as a community of thinkers, seem to take on general agreement that the world is consistent and that we are not all dreaming or in the Matrix. We do this for purely pragmatic reasons. Similarly, I think it would be pragmatic to take on general agreement that suffering of sentient creatures ought to be avoided, for example. From here, all terms like "suffering", "sentient", etc are for science to examine and map out. From here we may make real and robust progress using the tools of science to critically examine behaviours and perspectives and how they relate to the suffering or well-being of sentient creatures.At any point someone can come along and say "suffering should not be avoided!", and although we can't use logic to disprove them, we can treat them as we would treat someone who says "we are all in the Matrix!" or "daemons cloud your eyes!" (whom we can also not use logic to disprove).In a sense, this ignoring of fringe and unpragmatic ideas is the "diplomacy of power", as you put it. But I think such a position has more philosophical weight than such a label seems to lend it. What I'm saying is that ignoring Matrix Theorists when it comes to science is just as much a diplomacy of power as ignoring sadists when it comes to ethics.What do you think about this? :)An interesting adjunct to this: I think the fact that it is uncontroversial to dismiss the Matrix or the daemon yet controversial to dismiss people who (I claim) have "wrong" ethics is itself a manifestation of this diplomacy of power. I think there is political motivation to be moral relativists where there is no such motivation to be systematic hyper-sceptics (to coin a phrase).

  10. 'One example: roughly all of science is based on inductive reasoning which is, as Hume showed, flawed.'Not in the natural sciences (including the social sciences bar sociology) - we use the hypothetico-deductive method (a la Popper).

  11. Very good points, Niko. I think we are probably almost in agreement on everything!One point I want to press you on, though:I know it's technically impossible to derive an "ought" from an "is". However, in real life we routinely, systematically and cognisantly use incorrect derivations. One example: roughly all of science is based on inductive reasoning which is, as Hume showed, flawed. Even further, we tend to assume and act on the fact that there exists some external world which bears some resemblance to that which our senses and instruments detect, even though Descartes showed this is ill-founded. I think the logical inability to derive "ought" from "is" should be viewed in a similar way.While it is philosophically​ ill-founded, we would never get anywhere if we only used the reasoning technically allowed to us by Descartes and Hume. In order to function in real life we must tacitly acknowledge that we're brushing some technical details under the carpet.Just as we cannot derive the consistency of the world from any fact and yet do so all the time, we cannot derive ethical propositions from facts and yet do so all the time.We, as a community of thinkers, seem to take on general agreement that the world is consistent and that we are not all dreaming or in the Matrix. We do this for purely pragmatic reasons. Similarly, I think it would be pragmatic to take on general agreement that suffering of sentient creatures ought to be avoided, for example. From here, all terms like "suffering", "sentient", etc are for science to examine and map out. From here we may make real and robust progress using the tools of science to critically examine behaviours and perspectives and how they relate to the suffering or well-being of sentient creatures.At any point someone can come along and say "suffering should not be avoided!", and although we can't use logic to disprove them, we can treat them as we would treat someone who says "we are all in the Matrix!" or "daemons cloud your eyes!" (whom we can also not use logic to disprove).In a sense, this ignoring of fringe and unpragmatic ideas is the "diplomacy of power", as you put it. But I think such a position has more philosophical weight than such a label seems to lend it. What I'm saying is that ignoring Matrix Theorists when it comes to science is just as much a diplomacy of power as ignoring sadists when it comes to ethics.What do you think about this? :)An interesting adjunct to this: I think the fact that it is uncontroversial​ to dismiss the Matrix or the daemon yet controversial to dismiss people who (I claim) have "wrong" ethics is itself a manifestation of this diplomacy of power. I think there is political motivation to be moral relativists where there is no such motivation to be systematic hyper-sceptics (to coin a phrase).

  12. 'One example: roughly all of science is based on inductive reasoning which is, as Hume showed, flawed.'Not in the natural sciences (including the social sciences bar sociology) - we use the hypothetico-ded​uctive method (a la Popper).

Leave a Reply to Nikolaus Kriegeskorte Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *