Another Form of Cultural Relativism
These questions were debated in Athens during the 4th century BC. The Greeks were aware that other cultures had different values. They asked what is true by nature and what is true by convention? The Sophists argued it is all relative and there are no objective truths. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle disagreed. Except for the last two centuries, the absolutist version of truth has dominated Western history.
Ethical truths, however, aren’t adopted by simple acts. Character is a lifetime achievement. One can’t jettison one’s character and be another person by a simple act of will. Character has to be cultivated. Culture – a character of a society – is also fixed at any given moment. It often takes generations to change a culture. Today, this truth is often forgotten.
John Kenneth Press, in his book Culturism, does an excellent job of describing the significance and intransigence of culture. Not everyone wants to be free as our President claims; indeed, many will fight against it with every fiber in their body. Others might find the idea appealing but they will readily give up the fight and submit. Facing the fact that culture limits the actions of those in another society is just facing the fact that the ability to act contrary to character is severely limited.
Press is right descriptively but what does he do with this knowledge? For Press, it is all convention. This is how people are and this is how people have to be, given their character and culture, therefore this is what is right for them. Good does not stem from human nature; it comes from cultural conventions and it is for the people of that culture. Each culture has a right to preserve their cultural identity.
I couldn’t’ disagree more. The human mind is man’s tool of survival. Cultivating the habits of character to grasp and understand reality – i.e. reason – is required for survival and flourishing. Reason, therefore, isn’t good by convention but required by our nature. Close you eyes, turn your mind off, and wish for the best; and you’ll die. Diminish your ability to understand the world around you and you’ll be engaging in a spiritually unhealthy practice that endangers your physical well being.
It is true that other cultures don’t hold reason in high regard. To the extent that they reject reason, implicitly or explicitly, they diminish their ability to deal with the challenges of life and in the long run suffer because of it. Just as physical health requires the achievement of certain values so does mental/spiritual health. The mind isn’t superfluous to one’s well being. Neither is one’s character.
Ironically, Press is advocating that we go against our core cultural values. Absolute truth, based on reality and knowable by human reason, is an idea that goes back to the Hellenic philosophers. But merely rejecting “our way” isn’t my complaint with this gentleman’s work. As he notes, we have an evolving culture. However, the question of how we should evolve should be answered with objective reality-based evidence. Our health, wealth, and survival depend on it.
We should be proud of the strengths of our culture but proud because they are objectively better and demonstrably so.