Cultural Relativism and Universal Values

Maybe scholars debating on the subject of cultural relativism in splendid isolation in the university could benefit from the work done by colleagues who have taken the trouble to collect data from field works. For this reason, I offer below some of the insights on culture taken from scholars from a generation earlier. Presumably, they spoke with authenticity given their vast experience of first hand encounters with other cultures.

Cultural Relativism and Universal Values

Cultural Relativism may be the reigning paradigm in public discourse today. Nevertheless, the paradigm is assumed rather than argued for. Debates on cultural relativism tend to remain at the level of abstract discourse that are strangely devoid of evidence collected from empirical or comparative studies of diverse cultures.

Perhaps, writers today find it hard to compare cultures in a globalized world when there is so much inter-penetration of cultures. In contrast, anthropologists up to the 1970s were able to study ‘primitive’ cultures without having to shift through the ground evidence to clear away foreign influence. I have in mind works like Claude Levi-Strauss on Structural Anthropology, Cliffore Geertz on Javanese Religion, E.E. Evans-Pritchard on Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande.

It is also easier for scholars to debate on cultural relativism in seminar rooms than to immerse themselves for a period of time in a foreign culture to see for themselves if indeed cultures are really that relative.

Maybe scholars debating in splendid isolation in the university could benefit from the work done by colleagues who have taken the trouble to collect data from field works. For this reason, I offer below some of the insights on culture taken from scholars from a generation earlier. Presumably, they spoke with authenticity given their vast experience of first hand encounters with other cultures.


1. Cultural pluralism
With increasing communication links in our shrinking ‘global village’, it is common knowledge that people’s moral rules and ideas vary greatly according to different ‘ways of life’. It is only natural to ask if all these ‘ways of life’ or ‘patterns of culture’ (Kroeber, Benedict) are equally commendable, and if not, what are the reasons for criticizing or rejecting any of them? Perhaps the best known answer comes from Ruth Benedict who insists that there are ‘equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence [1]. As no Utopian society is possible, each community finds it necessary to select from among ‘human potentials’ those qualities that are most appropriate for its existence, from which “certain values will develop within this pattern, however ‘bad’ it may be” [2] Cultural and moral traits then are not isolated fragments of knowledge and as such must be evaluated holistically, all from the perspective of cultural relativism.

2. Cultural Relativism
According to Robert Redfield, “Cultural relativism means that the values expressed in any culture are to be both understood and themselves valued only according to the way the people who carry that culture see things” [3].

Melville Herskovits gives a fuller definition of cultural relativism as “a philosophy which, in recognizing the values set up by every society to guide its own life, lays stress on the dignity inherent in every body of custom, and on the need of tolerance of conventions though they may differ from one’s own. Instead of underscoring differences from absolute norms… the relativistic point of view brings into relief the validity of every set of norms for the people who lives are guided by them, and the values they represent” [4]

It is of important to differentiate the perspective of ‘cultural neutralism’, that is, the methodological presupposition that a culture can only be objectively understood in its own terms, from ‘ethical relativism’ which insists that all value systems and systems of behavioral norms are equal in dignity and validity. The former is to be welcomed as healthy corrective of ethnocentrism which approaches other societies from an assumed superiority, a view which is far from dead [5].

Cultural neutralism is certainly a valid sociological perspective but it does not necessarily lead to ethical relativism as noted by Morris Ginsberg who wrote “that neither Locke nor Spencer saw any necessary connection between the diversity and subjectivity of moral judgment” [6]. In the same manner, Dorothy Emmet distinguishes ‘hard’ relativism which sees moral principles merely as the result of something else, e.g. cultural experiences, economic and social structures, from ‘soft’ relativism, which, while according for the possibility that moral principles may be conditioned by some social forces, also insists that there are genuine moral elements in a culture which may themselves even influence their social context (c.f. Weber) [7].

The view of ethical relativism also suffers from a logical self-contradiction that “in denying the existence of absolutes it is in reality stating an absolute; or that by denying the existence of transcultural values, it is actually subscribing to one such value,” or “That if no cultural position is absolute because each is the product of an enculturative experience, cultural relativism, having being similarly enculturated, consequently cannot hold an absolute position” [8].

Finally, Clyde Kluckhohn also notes that the doctrine of ethical relativism is being abandoned as a result of its unfavorable social consequences. “If one follows our literally and logically the implications of Benedict’s words, one is compelled to accept any cultural pattern as vindicated precisely by its cultural status: slavery, cannibalism, Nazism, or Communism may not be congenial to Christians or to contemporary Western societies, but moral criticism of the cultural patterns of other people is precluded. Emotionally and practically, this extreme position is hardly tolerable – even for scholars – in the contemporary world” [9].

While the relativists have emphasized on the diversity of morals, in reality the similarity is far greater. They have erred in their failure to account for the causes of the variations, identified by Ginsberg to be due to:

(a) Variations in the range of persons to whom moral rules are held to be applicable;
(b) Variations arising from differences of opinion or knowledge regarding the non-moral qualities of acts or their consequences;
(c) Variations due to the different moral import of the ‘same’ acts in different social situations and institutional contexts;
(d) Variations due to differences in emphasis or balance of the different elements in the moral life;
(e) Variations arising from the possibility of alternative ways of satisfying primary needs;
(f) Variations due to differences of moral insight and general level of development, moral and intellectual [10].

In short the difference in morality may be reduced by recognizing that they are often different means to similar ends, different weightings assigned to common principles, or based on differences in social context.

There must be common principles underlying these variations and these have been put so well by Abraham and Mary Edel that we shall quote at length what they say:

“The patterns of human social interaction,… are complex answers, ways which have been built up over time, ‘experiments in living’… There is room for a wide variety in the kind of lives men build for themselves, but certain minimal standards must be met if these ‘experiments’ are to be successful at all. Each culture must provide patterns of motor habits, social relations, knowledge and beliefs, such that it will be possible for men to survive… And there are not only common requirements imposed by common problems, but common psychological processes and mechanisms through which they operate and on which they react… This common human nature sets the limits to the forms that any experiments in living can take, to the possible techniques of motivation, scope of sympathy, the effectiveness of sanctions.

Common needs, common social tasks, common psychological processes, are bound to provide some common framework for the wide variety of human behaviors that different cultures have developed’ [11].

3. Universal Values
Because of the similarity of human needs and psychic mechanism, the quest for universal values is not as daunting as it first appears. This is indeed attested by somewhat converging evidences from recent researches in psychology, psychiatry, sociology and anthropology [12].

Kluchhohn himself has collected a list of six such universal values:

(1) prohibition against murder (wanton killing within the sub-group); as distinguished from other forms of justifiable homicide;
(2) prohibition against stealing within the in-groups;
(3) prohibition against incest, and other regulations on sexual behavior;
(4) prohibition under defined circumstances, against lying;

(5) regulations and stipulations regarding the restitution and reciprocity of property;
(6) stimulation of mutual obligations between parents and children [13].

Ralph Linton adds a similar list which includes norms respecting reciprocity, fairness, parental responsibility, and filial obedience, as well as values regarding health, happiness and knowledge [14].

The bearing of these findings is of fundamental importance for the project of building a multi-racial and pluralistic society like Malaysia. Closer analysis of these values shows that they are clustered around the conditions of social co-operation and tolerance, without which any effort toward building common society will end up in failure.

This study also shows that the dichotomy between universal and particular values is false. Indeed, it is on the basis of these universal values that one may conceive of one’s own moral principles in a concrete way without making them completely culture-bound.


1. Ruth Benedict: Patterns of Culture (Rouledge and Kegan Paul, 1935), p. 201. Benedict has delineated two main types of patterns of culture:
a) The Apollonian culture orientated towards the group; it was conformist, and ritualistic with extrovert forms of behavior, e.g. The Pueblo.
b) The Dionysian culture orientated toward the self; it was self-motivated, aggressive, individualistic and non-conformist, e.g. The Navaho.

2. Ibid. p. 179.

3. Maria Ossowska: Social Determinant of Moral Ideas (Rouledge and Kegan Paul 1971), p. 108.

4. Charles Kraft: Christianity in Culture (Orbis, 1979), p. 49.

5. A good example of how one culture group seeks to impose its value on another is the recommendations of the Congress on National Culture (Kongress Kebudayaan Kebangsaan, 1971), viz:
a) That the base of national culture is the culture which is native to this region [i.e. Malay Culture]
b) That traits from other cultures which are pertinent should be absorbed to enrich the national culture
c) That Islam, as the official religion of Malaysia, would play its role in the formulation of national culture.

Source: Ismail Zain: Cultural Planning and General Development in Malaysia (Kementerian Kebudayaan Belia & Sukan, Malaysia, 1977)

That the congress is far from national is betrayed by the fact that only three out of fifty-two of the papers presented are written by non-Malays!

6. Morris Ginsberg: On the Diversity of Morals (Macmillan 1957) chap. 7.

7. Dorothy Emmet, Rules, Roles and Relations (MacMillan 1966), pp. 91-92.

8. Dictionary of Christian Ethics ed. Carl Henry (Baker, 1973), p. 154

9. Clyde Kluckhohn: “Ethical Relativity: Sic Et Non” in The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 52, p. 663.

10.Morris Ginsberg, Essays in Sociology and Social Philosophy (Penguin 1968), p. 240.

11. M. Edel and A. Edel: Anthropology and Ethics 2nd ed. (Ohio, 1968), pp. 31-32.

12. Survey of results by Clyde Kluckhohn in “Ethical Relativity”.

13. Ibid; also in his article “Values and Value-Orientation in the Theory of Action” in Towards a General Theory of Values eds. Talcot Parson and Edward A. Shills (Harper 1962).

14. Ralph Linton: “The Problem of Universal Values” in Method and Perspective in Anthropology (Uni. of Minnesota, 1954), pp. 145-168.