Culture, News & Events · Theological Reflection

Burning Widows: A Case Study Against Cultural Relativism

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.

Sati

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.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Burning Widows: A Case Study Against Cultural Relativism

  1. Objective morality, is in itself subjective. Different people read the Bible and come up with different conclusions all the time. That’s how people ended up on opposite ends of the racism and segregation battles holding up the Bible to back up their side while using it to tear down the heretics on the other side. Some people read the Bible and believe it says that God wants them to have as many babies as possible; others worry less about having babies and worry more about taking care of the orphans and kids who are already here. Everyone sees it differently.
    Looking at the new drug page you linked, my first thought that was: “that’s hardly a surprise; I’ve been told all my life that women must submit to men, how women must be modest for the sake of their weaker brothers, etc. Biblical morality hasn’t really improved the situation for anyone.”

    1. Hi Jamie, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that many people read the Bible and come up with interpretations on the opposite side of the spectrum on all kinds of issues, but that doesn’t mean objective morality is subjective. It is our perception of it that is subjective. That’s a massive difference.

      Do you believe there are objective moral standards that exist apart from us, and it is our job to discover them (even if that means disagreeing with others about what those standards are)?
      Or do you believe that morals are simply subjective, and that it is up to us to make them for ourselves?

      1. The problem is as such: moral codes were written in the Bible thousands of years ago. It’s author, God, cannot be e-mailed, reached by a letter, phoned-in in order to update that moral code with today’s problems. Whatever God’s objective morality is cannot be discerned from subjective readings of an ancient book that doesn’t always speak to our modern issues. The Bible, after all, gave permission for slavery to have happened, and Christians, having read the Bible, believed that’s what God wanted. It only took other Christians who read the Bible and came up to the opposite conclusion to challenge their point of view. Whichever side was right, that agreed with God’s objective morality couldn’t reach him for a confirmation that they read their Bible right and the other group was a bunch of heretics. So how can people say they trust the objective morality of the Scriptures if it can only be understood through the subjective morality of the humans who teach it?

      2. Hi Jamie, yes, people disagree about what the Bible says on many topics, but once again, that’s a question of epistemology. People who disagree on what the Bible teaches about slavery (to use your example) both believe objective morality EXISTS, but they disagree about its content. That’s very different to subjective morality, in which there is no “right” position to be argued about at all.

        You asked, “how can people say they trust the objective morality of the Scriptures if it can only be understood through the subjective morality [sic] of the humans who teach it?”

        Your reasoning is, “because people disagree about the content of objective morality, objective morality does not exist.” Or, “because we can’t perfectly know X, X does not exist.” But your conclusion does not follow from your premise. Following the same logic someone might argue, “because people disagree about the best way to conduct a scientific experiment, there is no best way to conduct a scientific experiment.” It is a false inference, confusing epistemology with ontology.

        Shouldn’t we rather say, “because people disagree about the best way to conduct a scientific experiment, we should do our best to discover the best way?” (i.e. “because people disagree about X, we should do our best to discover X”)?

        So yes, I agree, we do not perfectly know God’s objective moral truth because of our subjective limitations, and so people disagree about the details of it. But we ought to do our best to discover and live by it.

        Let me ask you again:
        Do you believe there are objective moral standards that exist apart from us, and it is our job to discover them (even if that means disagreeing with others about what those standards are)?
        Or do you believe that morals are simply subjective, and that it is up to us to make them for ourselves?

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