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March 25, 2013 / compassioninpolitics

Why ethical and cultural relativism makes a terrible debate argument

The following is my contribution to a thread on relativism on Cross-x. (link)

The big impact to cultural relavism is cultural diversity or cultural survival.

The problem is that value is itself culturally relative.

This is the core problem with all arguments around the issue of relativism… a system of relativism you have no real goal or purpose. As a metaphor: your goal (at best) is to have all the colors…not to have a masterpiece.

Also at its core…its a philosophy that eats itself… cannabalizes the basis of making progress and value claims in the first place.

This is a pretty through refutation of the basis of relativism by Peter Kreeft of Boston College. You can read or listen to his essay on ethical relativism here.

Technically I guess he’s taking on ethical relativism…but cultural relativism shares most of its core components & assumptions & worldviews.


The idea of don’t offend culture, however while sounding liberal, is actually an incredibly conservative & static philosophy.

It serves as a way for dictators, genociders, and oppressers of women to sweep their evils under the rug. Essentially defending every possible evil in history.

Thats something to put on a bumper sticker as a relativist “I helped Pol Pot kill more people”
Its actually just the choices and culture of the people in power and with the guns. Period.

You functionally don’t know what their culture is–until the people get to vote.
And theres’ no sense of these cultures having a chance to have a dynamic future.

Nick suggests you do this:
“Delve into the anthropology literature. A lot of people there talk about “culture-boundness” or “ethnocentrism” (both of which refer to a failure to understand and respect cultural relativism) as being essentially racist. Other authors say that these lenses preclude effective anthropology/international engagement which is how you can turn framework arguments (if relevant to your aff).”

But that means you should probably give up your advocacy of cultural relativism. At least to make a coherent argument.
But wait……when when the North said no to slavery…that was racist???? Really??? I think its more racist to leave it be.


It goes back to the metaphor of the painting….it just cares if all the colors get on the painting…..not if its actually an excellent or meaningful painting.

And it ultimately neglects the value of “shared meaning”–and sets up a false dichotomized choice between completely subjective and completely objective. Post-the signing of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Man… seems pretty empirically denied.

You can’t make judgements about others….undercuts the judgement that you just passed on me about making other. Also, whats the value that protects? Guess what thats culturally relative too. Cultural relativism is the ultimate straight-jacket on excellence, progress, justice, and freedom. It only means freedom to dictators and evil doers. Its the rationale for staying out of the genocide of the Jews in the case of hitler, and any other international tragedy. I think there is a Havel card that makes this argument.

Not to mention that mathmatic universals and scientific universals suggest the existence of universals in the universe. Ie 2 + 2 always equals 4.

Also, it begs the question of debate itself.
• What makes debate valuable or meaningful?
• What makes education valuable or meaningful?
• Why should the judge provide fairness?

99.9999999% of humans want protection & probably want their basic needs met. Those are universals. Also, 99.99999% want fairness and believe its important.

Also, most, say 9% to 99% would want to be saved by a police officer or lifeguard or doctor if they were dying. Thats pretty freaking universal.

And remember: cultural relativism just means freedom for the powerful–no actual value for the individual in this case. (I think this is a point which is not lost on Nietschians)
And I would add that as a general rule that states or dictators don’t have rights…..only individuals can have rights.

The alternative to having fair mechanisms of justice is violence or anarchy.

Not sure what these say–but perhaps it can guide you in making a more nuanced argument–Stanford on Relativism & Ethical Relativism:
• Ethical Relativism Link
• Relativism Link


Part I:

Inevitability & semi-universalism:
• All civilizations create taboos.
• Pretty much all individuals create taboos.

Utilitarian and survival value:
• Those individuals which exercise self-control at a basic level are key to survival. See the research on GRIT.
• Also, civilizations and social groupings need norms for survival. Otherwise you don’t have fairness, freedom,
• They are the precondition for everything we value

As we all know freedom requires limits on freedom. The right to swing my arm ends at your nose. We have rules of the road and
stop lights which actually further the overall cause of freedom.

Another example: classroom in typical American elementary If one person misbehaves….this distracts the overall efficacy of the group project in learning together. (This assumes a teacher-centric learning model–but lets face it thats the norm and will be for at least the next decade–probably longer–even as they shift toward a sherpa or mentor or coach type role–they are still in one sense at the center–even if from a pedagogical perspective they are moving perhaps to the margin)

Part 2:

First, without ethical accountability, fairness, and justice–there is no such thing as civilization, as freedom, and fear is probably pretty massive.

Here’s the Pepsi challenge-multiple, choice–pick where you want to live:
A. Dictator without any ethical calculous
B. Dictator (or non-representative system) + Humanism
C. Democracy + Humanism

And your argument still didn’t come to terms with the idea that businesses have the same problem. Without ethical norms you replicate the problems of 2008 every minute of every day. Which creates true systemic risk which innocents suffer the problems from.

And a cultural relativist can say nothing about the Vietnam war. It was just the US being the US in one respect or presidents being presidents (lest we ascribe a universal identity to the West and essentialize).
Ethical norms about the problems of Agent Orange or violations of the norms of war (ie the ethics of war–the means we use) provide a tangible ethical response.

And when the Vietnamese tortured our troops we had an ethical reason for accountability.

Your rhetorical move that power is everywhere (which overall seemed somewhere between Foucault and perhaps some of the french psychoanalysts given your referencing of taboo) seems.

Also, you can say taboo or standard all you want. But when they perform a particular virtuous task (aka social benefit in the flesh) or under a virtuous motive–they take on a different
realm entirely. There are good taboos and bad taboos. Taboos against genocide, torture, and killing innocents are all pretty good ideas. They are virtuous taboos.
Step on a crack and break your mothers back is a taboo, but I don’t have to defend that as an ethical or virtuous norm.

Your philosophy lends itself to rhetorical and ivory tower flights of fancy. You don’t have historical record of it working at scale. We have the US as a record of government working versus failed experiments with socialism & anarchy. Plus modernity works, violence is going down & lives are longer which means people have greater range of options for creating meaning.

Part 3:
I’m not seeing the flip flop. Cultural relativism eats itself. Values are critical for survival. I did want the debater to educate themselves in terms of finding a nuanced approach to this problem (ergo the Stanford links).

In terms of research, I would suggest anthropologists, Waltzer, as well as a read over of the Stanford links I provided. I don’t think the Stanford links will provide cards to cut….instead they might provide a framework or a cursory framework for understanding the rest of the research.

——–Part 1:
Not an argument. Mumbo-jumbo. Plus if anything this argument is tied to the supposed shift. But you haven’t demonstrated or really impacted the shift. (no link & no impact).
And in the context of a regular discussion there isn’t much of an impact to a shift–except if there is via direct contradiction (aka by cross applying one part to the other).

Part 2:
Where is the straw person?

You conceded my argument. Ethics & accountability = good.

The taboo is against non-consensual sexual activity.

Part 3:
Three answers back:
1. Consensual interference isn’t hierarchical interference. Check your social contract or Constitution
2. Also applying the golden rule also checks back.
3. Also voting with your feet checks back. The US has an immigrant “challenge” not a people leaving problem.

4. Your theory is flattens the universe by making dictatorships and democracy the same. It destroys the nuance and distinctions with make a real difference in peoples lives. And your theory is uniquely limited because it assumes all power and all hierarchy = bad–specifically without looking at the context or degree, much less how it applies PRACTICALLY in the REAL WORLD.

Four different warrants all proving the same thing (technically 2)
1. Consensual coersion & flat out coersion is different.
2. Schools are different than prisons.
3. And democracies are different from dictatorships.
4. And the accountability of a Constitution beats leaving in without rules or accountability.
a) Even Zizek in these situations says we can use the letter of the law against itself.
b] Empirically & historical proven….Martin Luther King and civil rights. As well as the Amendments to the constitution and progress of justice in the US since our founding.

And gut check….where exactly are you living? what government is best for education and debate? Oh yeah….you’re not a performative contradiction at all.
Also, remember values are the precondition of meaningful goal directed activity….particularly in groups.

And we are at a loss without “value talk.” Values express something meaningful in the human experience. Its the way we can resolve disputes (ie our justice system)

The fairness issue is biological. Thats Johnathan Haidt (spelling is off). I’m pretty sure this NYT article makes a similar argument: http://www.nytimes.c…ngier.html?_r=0
NYT breaks off a little knowledge:
Studies have found that the thirst for fairness runs deep. As Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and his colleagues reported in the journal Nature, by the age of 6 or 7, children are zealously devoted to the equitable partitioning of goods, and they will choose to punish those who try to grab more than their arithmetically proper share of Smarties and jelly beans even when that means the punishers must sacrifice their own portion of treats.
In follow-up research with older children and adolescents that has yet to be published, Dr. Fehr and his colleagues have found a more nuanced understanding of fairness, an acknowledgment that some degree of inequality can make sense: The kid who studies every night deserves a better grade than the slacker. Nevertheless, said Dr. Fehr, there are limits to teenage tolerance. “ ‘One for me, two for you’ may not be too bad,” Dr. Fehr said. “But ‘one for me, five for you’ would not be accepted.”
A sense of fairness is both cerebral and visceral, cortical and limbic. In the journal PLoS Biology, Katarina Gospic of the Karolinska Institute’s Osher Center in Stockholm and her colleagues analyzed brain scans of 35 subjects as they played the famed Ultimatum game, in which participants bargain over how to divide up a fixed sum of money. Immediately upon hearing an opponent propose a split of 80 percent me, 20 percent you, scanned subjects showed a burst of activity in the amygdala, the ancient seat of outrage and aggression, followed by the arousal of higher cortical domains associated with introspection, conflict resolution and upholding rules; and 40 percent of the time they angrily rejected the deal as unfair.
And whens the last thing you heard someone say “I really am getting too much justice…..I really want less justice in my life.”
Or that guy is treating me too justly? Or I’m willing to give up my opportunity for justice?

If you want to read more about Jonathan Haidt, you can read here (which he makes an argument for a moral foundations theory with 5 so-called moral modules with fairness/justice/reciprocity being a core one, perhaps one of the most important): http://en.wikipedia…./Jonathan_Haidt

You’re making a bit of an is/ought fallacy. Haidt’s argument dances around that too, but perhaps not to the same degree your argument does. The point about fairness is aspirational, its the type of society we want to live in or the ideal society for humans. Also, the NYT answers this back–on an intrinsic level or very deep level. So the idea “people aren’t fair and dont empirically support fairness through their actions, ie. affluent, intellectual, physical, regional, ethnical advantages and others.” Is kind of irrelevant. And people are more fair than they are unjust–at least in Western cultures and civilizations.

Ok….your empirical argument isn’t dealing with ANY of mine.
1) And its just not historical. People generally play by the rules or else 50%+ of people would be in jail.
2) Its not experientially how I experience life. Most people treat me pretty well & vice versa. Most people are good 90 to 95% of the time.
3) Cross apply the NYT argument. And its just better than yours. First, its grounded in evidence about biology and human psychology. Yours is grounded in assertion. And it examines human psychology, personality, and identity on a far more fundamental and comprehensive level than ANYTHING you can assert or contrive.

And I still think your missing a bunch of arguments.

The only argument I hear you saying is “people aren’t fair.” But that misses the point of ethics & purpose & goals and idealism in the first place. Values bring us to a higher level, rather than merely a biological one.


I am a defense of three things a minimum–and they are mutually re-inforcing:
1. value, ethics, and accountability
2. social norms (minimalist defense)
3. institutional values, ethics, and accountability.

So when you say, you aren’t taking on hierarchical taboos. Check out #3.
Every time I say we need an institutional or group norm against something to check evil and provide security and survival, which are the precondition for freedom, autonomy, and creativity–thats a DA to your ethical framework.

Moreover, written and institutionalized hierarchy is far easier to
a) predict
b] resolve conflict
versus an unwritten rules. The analogy is your english teacher. Your english teacher can tell you her grading criteria or you can fly blind. In the case of subjectivity of individuals–without institutional rules–you can’t know what will be perceived as a violation. If radical subjectivity rains supreme–we can never know & its highly unpredictable.

That helps provide the rule of law. The lack of rule of law is a DA to your framework. A global Somalia with warlords and all is what results. That means hierarchy is inevitable–its just a question of if its
a) peaceful or violent
b] accountable or not (consensual or dictatorial)
c) open for amendment and progress

For more research see also: http://www.centerfor…
(not entirely thrilled with this link, but it does point to services provided by an institutional & hierarchical government.)

And the alternative is mob rule without any form of institutional check: http://en.wikipedia….wiki/Ochlocracy

You’re not answering the distinctions at the top about various types of coersion (institutional hierarchy).
Four different warrants all proving the same thing (technically 2)
1. Consensual coersion & flat out coersion is different.
2. Schools are different than prisons.
3. And democracies are different from dictatorships.
4. And the accountability of a Constitution beats leaving in without rules or accountability.
a) Even Zizek in these situations says we can use the letter of the law against itself.
b] Empirically & historical proven….Martin Luther King and civil rights. As well as the Amendments to the constitution and progress of justice in the US since our founding.

And gut check….where exactly are you living? what government is best for education and debate? Oh yeah….you’re not a performative contradiction at all.
Also, remember values are the precondition of meaningful goal directed activity….particularly in groups.

And we are at a loss without “value talk.” Values express something meaningful in the human experience. Its the way we can resolve disputes (ie our justice system)

(sorry there were some other arguments thrown in there for good measure)

Summary, humanist government via democracy, the social contract, the media, etc… provide.

First, you’ve never pointed to a strawperson.

And any strawperson is probably the result of one of two things:
1. Your language isn’t 100% clear and what you are defending isn’t particularly clear either (at least at various points). Your sentences tend to be 20 word jumbles of philosophy buzz words.
2. You don’t seem to be a 1 to 1 defense of cultural relativism. Exactly what you defend isn’t 100% clear.

To be fair, I don’t mean to be critical, but thats the nature of what we’re doing here.
i was never arguing that ethics or self-accountability were bad. my argument was that the hierarchy that defines morality and through extension, instinctive taboo stems from the individual and can’t be manipulated on a mass scale, as society is defined by its people. taboos check back.

This is like hyper-libertarianism bad 101. If the problem exists, self-accountability doesn’t work empirically. Second, government provides a mechanism for disputes that would otherwise be violent, escalate, and spin out of control–threatening both the personal security and the liberty of the group. Justice by anarchy or vigilantism doesn’t have the hope of being respected or fair compared to the government alternatives. And media & being able to vote them out checks abuses.

I’m not defending all taboos (anymore than you are defending all methods of self-control)–we need basic levels of taboo for security, productivity, civilization, freedom, and creativity.

Taboos solve other taboos. This is a DA to your ethical framework (PS the bold is all I’m defending & all I have to defend–which is to say part of the first sentence and the last two):

However, changing social customs and standards also create new taboos, such as bans on slavery; conflation of ephebophilia with pedophilia;[20] prohibitions on alcohol, tobacco, or psychopharmaceutical consumption (particularly amongpregnant women); and the employment of politically correct euphemisms – at times quite unsuccessfully – to mitigate various forms of discrimination.
Incest itself has been pulled both ways, with some seeking to normalize consensual adult relationships regardless of the degree of kinship[21] (notably in Europe[22][23]) and others expanding the degrees of prohibited contact (notably in the United States[24]).
Contemporary multicultural societies have established a number of taboos rooted in the perceived injustice and deleterious effects of modern history, particularly neocolonialism. Tribalisms (for example, ethnocentrism and nationalism) andprejudices (racism, sexism, religious extremism) are opposed at times reflexively despite the potentially high cost of diverse societies in terms of trust and solidarity.[25]

You can’t have it both ways. If you don’t like genocide…..but don’t want (so-called hierarchical) institutional norms against it……remember self-control control alone doesn’t solve–because genocide exists. Same goes for slavery or any other scourge of humanity.

Not to mention, institutional/hierarchical norms are necessary for the creation of the other goods and services of government which provide platforms for progress (aka justice system & transportation & research in science and technology).

Your stance is self-destructive to the extent that its like a turtle without its shell–it would get brutalized and die in 2 years instead of living 100 years with an institutional protection to its gooy, lumpy, and tender body.



Leave a Comment
  1. compassioninpolitics / Mar 25 2013 7:54 pm

    Here is an earlier post on this topic:

    The link at the bottom of that article should prove helpful.

  2. compassioninpolitics / Mar 25 2013 7:56 pm

    In addition & even better, I have a number of essays on here which make a number of what I think are compelling arguments:

  3. Nathan Ketsdever / Apr 19 2013 7:07 am

    I think I could also chase down some answers to Nietzsche and Schlag/Normativity or other justifications of normative values.

    * I might also think about writing about meta-ethics & Hume.

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