The following is the text of a presentation on culture and values I gave earlier today to the Inter Club Council at Diablo Valley College. I'm posting it here because I think makes the important metaethical point that inter-cultural dialogue concerning ethical matters makes little sense unless we assume values are objective.
Hi, my name is Jason, and the subject of my presentation is culture and values, specifically as they pertain to the relations between people of different cultures. But before we can see how they are related, we must first know what they are. Speaking roughly, a culture is a collection of customs, beliefs, and attitudes which are shared by a community and passed down largely intact from generation to generation. Values are similar in that they also include beliefs and attitudes, yet they differ in that they might either be confined to a single person or never passed down. Values could exist without culture, but the converse is not true, and hence they can be personal in a way that culture cannot. Culture and values are closely related insofar as they share a normative aspect. To say that something is normative means that it concerns not just what is the case, but also what should be the case. One can believe many things about what is, such as that grass is green or that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but only beliefs about what should be count as values. Our values can encompass anything we treasure, hope for, or regard as ideal. They are important because they are the principles we use to guide our thought and behavior. They determine not only what we do, but also who we are. The identity of a person or a culture is largely defined by the set of values they accept. This is especially true for cultures because every culture must have a set of behaviors it regards as permissible and another that it regards as taboo. Cultures need rules to determine who is part of the “in group” and who is part of the “out group”, otherwise there would be nothing to distinguish one culture from another. Whether or not one counts as part of a culture depends on whether or not one abides by these rules.
Now that we have some understanding of what culture and values are, we can ask ourselves what we should think about circumstances where the customs, beliefs, and attitudes of one culture conflict with those of another. In today’s ever shrinking world we are increasingly likely to encounter people of other cultures whose values are different from our own, and the question of how we should respond becomes increasingly more significant. In my opinion, the two main stances you can take are what I will call multiculturalism and cultural relativism. Though you might suppose these to be the same, I will argue that they are actually incompatible. Broadly speaking, I would say that multiculturalism is the idea that no single culture should be dominant because different cultures are valuable in their own right, and each has something positive to contribute to society. The presence of diverse perspectives and traditions promotes solidarity and mutual understanding, which helps prevent a society from becoming narrow-minded and intolerant. I would say that cultural relativism, by contrast, is the idea that no culture or cultural practice is inherently better than any other. It stands in opposition to objectivism, which holds that at least in some cases one culture’s practice can be better or worse than another’s. I think cultural relativism is accepted by many because they believe it subverts the claims that nations with imperialistic ambitions have often used to justify the subjugation of foreign peoples. Such nations have typically held their actions are justified because their culture is somehow superior to others, perhaps because they are more intelligent, more technologically advanced, or because they alone enjoy the favor of the gods or God. Whatever the reason, their actions are no less appalling. Cultural relativism seems attractive because it promises to do away with such rationalizations. If no culture is better than any other, none can use their alleged superiority as a pretext to oppress another. Yet I think those who embrace cultural relativism fail to see that their view entails they are in no position to condemn imperialistic societies. After all, these societies have a culture too, it just happens to be imperialistic! What’s to stop a member of such a society from saying that their actions are justified after all because imperialism is a part of their culture? Their culture might not be better than any other, but it is also no worse. So who are we to criticize them? If we reject objectivism because of the bad behavior it can be used to justify, we should reject cultural relativism for precisely the same reason.
However, I don’t think objectivism necessarily has the bad consequences its opponents attribute to it, so long as we distinguish it from a superficially similar position which I will call cultural chauvinism. Objectivism requires only that some cultural practices are better or worse than others, and is quite compatible with one culture’s being better than another in some respects and worse in others. Cultural chauvinism, on the other hand, is the belief that your own cultural practices are the better ones. This distinction is important because objectivism allows, as chauvinism does not, for the possibility that your way of doing things may be the one that could use some improvement. Objectivism thus supports the values of reflection and self-doubt, and through them an openness to the ideas of others. All of these are essential if one wants to live in a truly multicultural society where people of different cultures can effectively communicate with and learn from each other. Chauvinism and relativism leave no room for these virtues, the first because it refuses to consider the worth of another culture’s perspective, and the second because it holds that the members of each culture need only look within their own minds to find the truth. These perspectives would also seem to make the notion of moral progress an impossibility, for the value of a cultural practice would be just as relative to a time as it was to a place. Are we really prepared to say that the abolition of slavery, the institution of women’s suffrage, and the success civil rights movement reflect nothing more than a change of cultural taste? On neither of these views is there any need for different cultures to learn from each other. So contrary to what you might expect, I think that it is only on a presumption of objectivism that learning from other cultures makes sense. Once we realize that we each possess but a small fragment of the truth we will be motivated to engage people of other cultures in an earnest dialogue. In that event those of each culture can modify their views in light of the others’ experience to the improvement of all.