People have long considered how different patterns of behaviour and use of language in human beings suggest that they perceive the world different ways.
In The Mind, by R. L. Gregory, there’s a chapter, “Perceptions, Cultural Differences,” which explains a peculiar phenomenon, the theory that awkward translations prove that the Greeks saw colours differently from the way we see colours today, and that there might be differences in perception between those who live in the West, from people who live in the East.
The theory is not just about visual perceptions. It also encompasses the most fundamental issues about how we perceive and understand what goes on around us.
We See Our World Through Different Models
In his article, “Why We Can’t Agree,” in Philosophy Now, Howard Darmstadter uses extreme examples from the animal kingdom to demonstrate how living things use models to deal with their immediate environment and survival.
“A wildebeest on the African plain – aware of much in its environment, unaware of much else. The presence of suitable grasses, the whereabouts of predators, and the actions of other wildebeest, get its attention, but wind currents, the flights of birds, and the doings of small mammals are of no concern.”
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The eagle, soaring way above the fleeing wildebeest, will, clearly, have a vastly different model in order to deal with her own survival. Again, the human hunters on the ground will be looking for signs indicating edible plants or game, while a geologist’s model will focus on rock formations, overlooking signs of animal prey.
What is Cultural Relativism?
So, how can we know whether we are right or wrong? Should historical figures be judged within the context of their culture at that time? In other words, should we refuse to make allowances for actions that we would find morally reprehensible today? Should we disparage other cultures whose rituals and practices repulse us in present times?
The cultural relativists would say “No, no, no! Definitely not.”
The website All About Philosophy displays an article “Cultural Relativism” which defines the term as follows:
“Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs, customs, and ethics are relative to the individual within his own social context. In other words, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are culture-specific; what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another, and, since no universal standard of morality exists, no one has the right to judge another society’s customs.”
The cultural relativists certainly do believe this, and where our senses of justice and empathy are not challenged, we, too, might think this is perfectly acceptable. However, it might take an exceptional ability to look at the bigger picture without being disturbed by the underlying detail. Can we take this theory on board without a qualm of conscience?
How Cultural Relativism Challenges our Sensibilities
Cultural relativism is just a small step away from cultural ethics.
The cultural relativists believe that truth is variable and cannot be absolute. This belief discredits ethical issues of right or wrong. Everything is — quite simply — as it is! Cultural norms are a matter of opinion, and one culture cannot be less worthy than another — not even if that culture practises human or animal sacrifice.
“Cultural Relativism” in All About Philosophy mentions an event in January 2002. President Bush described terrorist nations, collectively, as “an axis of evil.” This incensed the cultural relativists. The West, they felt, had no right to cast a judgement on Islam. Even suicide bombings could not be described as evil. They were, simply, a result of a human culture.
Steven Pinker, in “Culture Vultures” in The Blank Slate, says that sometimes we view the development of culture in the wrong way. He notes that, “the best explanation today… depends on seeing a culture as a product of human desires rather than as a shaper of them.”
There is a good reason for this.
Maps have to Simplify — and All Maps Distort
It is useful to look at our Model as a sort of map. The main point is that the model by which we choose to live our lives, should be the one that is most useful to us. On the other hand, we must accept that sometimes things don’t work out as we have planned.
As Howard Darmstadter points out, “People in different situations with different needs may opt for different, and conflicting, models. We must each settle for those simplifications that suit our particular circumstances, accepting that occasionally the roast will burn, the investment sour, the article be rejected… No one map or model can get it all right.”
We must be aware that, apart from differences in perception, we also have psychological limits in the way our personal models operate. From time to time, our own models will prove defective. Although these models may prove effective for us in most situation, occasional defective experiences do not affect our overall perspective. But, imagine how much more defective our models might be for a different person in a different situation operating under a different model.
In a small group or tribe, slight differences may not cause major problems. It is dealing with models in a global society where others needs conflict strongly with our own that exacerbates the disagreement.
An Analysis of Cultural Differences
It might be helpful to remind ourselves of the background against which philosophy measures the challenging implications of cultural relativism.
Arab culture historian Albert Hourani explains in the “Introduction” to The Lebanese in the World,
“A culture is not a symbolic pattern, preserved like a butterfly in amber. Its place is not in a museum but in the practical activities of daily life, where it evolves under the stress of competing goals and other competing cultures. Cultures do not exist as simply static ‘differences’ to be celebrated but compete with one another as better and worse ways of getting things done – better and worse, not from the standpoint of some observer, but from the standpoint of the people themselves, as they cope and aspire amid the gritty realities of life.”
It is easy to see where difficulties arise, as cultures compete among themselves. Some may do better than others. We may applaud diversity but at the same time, we must acknowledge our discontent if another culture works better than ours by achieving more material success.
No Llamas or Alpacas in Mexico!
Sometimes, success is partly due to excellence in science, art or technology, but it can also be assisted by geographical elements. An example that Pinker cites is the huge landmass of Eurasia which stretches in an east-west direction, making it much easier for crops and animals to survive and for trade to prosper because it enjoys a steadier climate along a similar line of latitude.
Landmasses such as Africa and the Americas, however, run north to south.
Pinker says, “…llamas and alpacas domesticated in the Andes never made it northward to Mexico, so the Mayan and Aztec civilizations were left without pack animals.”
This is why Eurasian countries invaded and conquered so much of the world… not because Eurasians are cleverer or cannier, “but because they could best take advantage of the principle that many heads are better than one,” says Pinker.
The Big Problem for Philosophy
The big problem is that we cannot always convert other people to our own way of thinking. We cannot persuade them to adopt our model when their wants and needs are so different from our own. Darmstadter states, “A multi-model understanding tells us that such differences may make conversion unlikely.”
He concludes his article “Why We Can’t Agree” on a note of hope. He claims that we must not give up on conversation, that we must keep on trying.
We can still look for “…mutally beneficial accommodations that are possible even when models differ.”
Steven Pinker says – almost – the same thing from his own viewpoint, or “model.”
“...our understanding of ourselves and our cultures can only be enriched by the discovery that our minds are composed of intricate neural circuits for thinking, feeling, and learning rather than blank slates, amorphous blobs, or inscrutable ghosts.”