What right does a person in one culture have to tell someone else that their cultural practices are ‘wrong’? In our modern Western society, anyone who tries to do so would surely be shouted down as arrogant and ethnocentric.
This is because of a popular idea called ‘cultural relativism‘, which says each culture should be allowed to determine for themselves what is right or wrong. Most Australians would agree with the idea, even if they’ve never heard the name for it.
Cultural relativism flows out of the idea that there are no absolute truths or objective morality. If the material world is all that there is, then it’s up to us as humans to create morals.
And since there is no objective morality ‘out there’ in the universe, then societies can determine what is right and wrong for themselves. What is considered wrong in one culture (e.g. stealing) might be considered right in another.
Because of this, no-one has a right to say that someone else’s cultural practice is wrong. All practices of every culture are equally good and valid.
It sounds like a lovely idea in theory, doesn’t it?
Sati: Hindu Widow-Burning
Sati (or ‘suttee’) was a Hindu custom where widows were expected to be burned alive along with the corpse of their recently deceased husband. If the widow refused, she brought great shame on her family, and had to spend the rest of her life with a shaved head locked inside her family’s house, never allowed to remarry or go out in public.
By the time Christian missionary William Carey arrived in India in 1793, this custom had been practiced for centuries. It was deeply ingrained in the culture and its practice was widespread.
In 1802, Carey sent people out to document the practice of Sati in Calcutta (where he lived), and in a single year they recorded 438 widow-burnings in that city alone.
Understandably, William Carey was horrified by Sati.
But if cultural relativism had its way, he should have stayed silent. The practice of widow-burning simply feels wrong to him because of his cultural background, but he has no right to impose his morals on a different culture.
Thankfully for the women of India, however, Carey was no cultural relativist. He campaigned tirelessly against Sati, and it was eventually outlawed by the British government in 1829.
A Secular Dilemma
Cultural relativism presents a dilemma to the secular person.
Imagine you are a human rights lawyer working for the UN. You are presented with clear evidence that child-marriages in Yemen (or wherever else) are bringing great harm to girls and denying freedoms from women in that country.
Feminism (rightly) tells you this practice is harmful to women and therefore wrong. But cultural relativism tells you its not wrong – it simply feels wrong to you because of your cultural background, but you have no right to step in.
You believe in equal rights and opportunities for women, and think every country should adopt such a position. But aren’t you simply being ethnocentric, trying to impose your Western values on other cultures that don’t share your sentiments?
At this point you might say, “But what about universal human rights?”
The problem is, cultural relativism completely undermines the very possibility of universal human rights. If there are no absolute truths that transcend culture, any basis for human rights goes out the window.
You see, cultural relativism sounds nice in theory, but when faced with real-life examples like Sati, child-marriage, or Female Genital Mutilation, it quickly falls apart.
Societies can’t simply decide for themselves what is right or wrong.
There are absolute truths and morals that transcend culture.
And because of this, we – like William Carey – can have boldness to challenge immoral cultural practices, including those in our own culture.