The concept of values and the role of values in social life and morality are controversial today, I believe, for two main reasons. The first reason is the widespread acceptance of the social science principle of cultural relativism.* The second reason is the collapse of the philosophical distinction between fact and value. These ideas undercut today's popular understanding of values. The concepts of cultural relativism (or relativity) and the fact-value distinction originated in Europe in the nineteenth century as intellectual strategies in the ideological, philosophical, and scientific disputes of that time. Cultural relativism was deployed against religion, scientism, racism, and ethno-nationalism. The concept of the fact-value distinction was a response to Darwinian naturalism. The collapse of the distinction between facts and values, beginning in the 1970s, and the concept of cultural relativism are central to post-modernist ideology that became popular in academia.
In the following discussion of cultural relativism, a complicated principle, we focus only on questions of values. The fact-value distinction will be discussed in a later article. I label cultural relativism a principle, rather than a fact, because it has not been universally verified. Rather, it appears as an operative procedure of anthropological investigation with significant empirical support. Cultural relativism is also widely accepted in other social science disciplines.
The concept of cultural relativism claims that all values arise individually within specific cultures and that no values are universally shared across cultures (except by borrowing). This claim means that a prominent value in Western culture, for example, that is shared with passionate commitment among its members might be unknown in another culture, such as an Amazon River basin native people. For instance, one society might strongly value individualism and reward unique achievement; but a different society might have collective values and enforce conformity. The claim also means that people share notions of what is good and bad, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, for example, only within their culture. There is no idea of good and bad that meaningfully transcends all cultures and is shared in the same way with the same meaning by all peoples irrespective of their cultures. For example, what is murder in one culture is not murder in another culture, but, perhaps, demonstration of group leadership potential. What is rape in one society is not rape in another, but, perhaps, courtship. What is genital mutilation in one society is not genital mutilation in another, but perhaps a spiritual ritual demonstrating holiness.
Cultural relativism implies a judicial principle: Values and behavior of one culture cannot be judged from the perspective of the values and behavior of a different culture. For example, in one society, for a man to kill his father's oldest brother might be an acceptable means of establishing tribal leadership and draw much admiration; it cannot be condemned as murder simply because in a different culture such an act would be murder.
The claims of cultural relativism rests upon two assumptions. The first assumption is that there no common human nature shared by all human beings. By human nature is meant a substantive constitution of mind and body that is uniform in all humans across racial, ethnic, cultural, and political groupings. If human nature were to exist, some values would arise out of it, as humans operationalized their human nature in living in diverse conditions; and these values would the same for all humans. This notion is denied by the principle of cultural relativism.
The concept of human nature lies behind the opposition of the anthropologist, Clyde Kluckhohn, to cultural relativity, as expressed in this quotation:
"Contrary to the statements of ... exponents of extreme cultural relativity, standards and values are not completely relative to the cultures from which they derive. Some values are as much givens in human life as the fact that bodies of certain densities fall under specified conditions. These are founded, in part, upon the fundamental biological similarities of all human beings. They arise also out of the circumstance that human existence is invariably a social existence. No society has ever approved suffering as a a good thing in itself. As a means to an end (purification or self-discipline), yes; as punishment--as a means to the ends of society, yes. But for itself--no. No culture fails to put a negative valuation upon killing, indiscriminate lying, and stealing within the in-group. There are important variations, to be sure, in the conception of the extent of the in-group and in the limits of toleration of lying and stealing under certain conditions. But in the core notion of the desirable and nondesirable is constant across all cultures. Nor need we dispute the universality of the conception that rape or any achievement of sexuality by violent means is disapproved. This is a fact of observation as much as the fact that different materials have different specific gravities."**
The second assumption concerns language. Advocates of cultural relativism claim that the human ability to use language, create abstract symbols, and construct meanings is not determined by human biology or brain structure. All humans freely invent the mental world in which their consciousness lives (so to speak). All the phenomenological contents of consciousness, such as values, are completely enveloped in the freely invented mental world. This mental world is "culture." Humans shape their culture to meet their needs according to whatever intentions and goals they have. As a result of this freedom, human beings are divided into many groups, each sharing a unique culture. The enormous number and diversity of human languages and sublanguages are proof of the diversity of cultures and strong support for the notion of cultural relativism.
Advocates of cultural relativism believe that the capacity to create culture is equally shared among all humans. Regardless of the level of technological or political evolution of their societies, all cultures are equally complex and equally innovative adaptations to the environments in which their constituent societies must exist.
In the 1940s and 1950s, many social scientists refused to follow advocates of cultural relativism in arguing that no values transcended cultures, that is, that there are no universal values. The Kluckhohn quotation (above) makes it clear that the notion of human nature is crucial to the scientific credibility of universality of values, or at least some values. (We are not discussing religious concepts of human nature.) In the 1970s and following decades, advocates of post-modernism strongly attacked the concept of human nature. From their point of view, because culture is a language-construct, it is logically and as a matter of fact free from human biology.
A second attack on the notion of human nature and universalism of values was provided by the existentialists, notably Heidegger and Sartre, whom we have briefly discussed in our previous article. The philosophy of these thinkers greatly influenced the literary theorists who promulgated post-modernism. For both philosophers, values are produced within the context of social negotiation and verbal dialog between persons. Sartre called this context a "situation". Situations are not dependent upon human biology. It is the "human condition", or "human situation", not human nature, to which all values are relative.
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Definitions Not Used
- 3. Popular Definition
- 4. Social Science Definitions
- 5. Philosophical Definition: Existentialism
- 6. Cultural Relativism
- 7. The Fact-Value Distinction
- 8. Collapsing the Fact-Value Distinction
* Wikipedia discusses the anthropological principle of cultural relativism in a useful article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_relativism) with references.
** P. 418, Parsons and Shils, eds., Toward a General Theory of Action.