I think of myself as a cultural relativist, but I am constantly irritated at my fellow culture relativists and the debate they wage with their antipodes, the various kinds of moral absolutists. I have a list of complaints, but I will hold back the full thesis, and content myself with merely two of them.
1. The wrong enemy. There has been a long and, to my mind, futile hunt and peck debate between the relativists and the absolutists concerning the universality of this or that custom or norm. Relativists like to point to things like the fact that the pharaohs of Egypt married their sisters, and absolutists like to point to the universality of the incest taboo. This debate was waged to an extent in the ancient world, but in modernity, it was the discovery of America, and the difference of the Americans, that kickstarted it in the seventeenth century. Seventeenth century writers loved to list the odd beliefs and customs they found among the Americans, and from these lists sprang the science of anthropology. From these lists sprang, as well, modern historiography, as the discovery of American difference led to a re-reading of the classics, and the discovery that the ancients were not the civilization that the European humanists took them to be. Lafitau, remarking that the beliefs of the Iroquois reminded him of nothing so much as the beliefs of the ancient Greeks, was on to something. That something was: European civilization was, at its root, un-European. In fact, looking around at the vast majority of the European population (which consisted of peasants) and the folk beliefs that flourished in villages and courts, Voltaire joked that the territory of the savages began twenty five miles from Paris. He was exaggerating – savages inhabited the streets of Paris and the halls of Versailles as well. It was not just the Nahuatl who believed men could change into beasts – this was a belief solidly upheld in court in Rouen in the 1690s.
However, cultural relativism is not the thesis that there is no universal norm. It is the thesis that there is no society that upholds and follows an absolute norm. In fact, cultural relativism gets its strength from the universality of normative structures. What the relativist observes is that those structures are not coherent, but conditioned, hinged, in a double bind one with the other. Characteristically, a norm binding on individual members of a collective does not bind a collective itself, which may well demand that the individual make an exception of every norm in the service of the collective. On the blog, Crooked Timber, a few weeks ago, there was a discussion of universal norms stemming from a post in which one of the Crooked Timber writers proposed that no society condones torturing to death infants for pleasure. This was a curiously conditional absolute – why was the “for pleasure” included? Because of course the ruling class in collectives routinely demand that the members of the collective go to war with other collectives, and in so doing they demand that children be tortured to death – as they were in Hamburg and Hiroshima, in Stalingrad and Falluja, for instance. The justification for bombing and warfare is, however, serious – seriousness is the real legitimating foundation of the collective’s norms. Here, of course, in modern liberal republics, we run into a little logical problem, in as much as the collective is supposedly ruled to the end of allowing people to pursue their happiness – and it seems that a roundabout case could be made that babies are then tortured to death for the pleasure of the collective. But there is no real need to make that torturous case about torture – all the relativist claims is that the structure of excuses, of the temporary suspension of norms as a norm, is universal in all collectives. There are, then, no morally homogenous collectives. All collectives have hinged norms, structures that code other structures and, in effect, annul the absolute condemnations that run through those structures.
2. Judge not that ye be not judged. There is, in liberal societies in which cultural relativism has flourished, a tendency to say that the moral of cultural relativism is that you cannot judge other cultures. This idea quickly leads to the idea that cultural relativists have to accept Nazis, slaveholders, etc.
Once again, this confuses the cultural relativist argument. In fact, the conflicting structures that the relativist observes are all based on judgment. A collective holds to its identity by judging, differentiating itself. The relativist does not conclude from this that we need another absolute at another level, a trans-cultural one – for there is nothing in that other level which would “solve” the problem of hinged structures. Far from claiming that the individual can’t judge other individual in other cultures, the relativist claims that the individual can’t help judging other individuals in other cultures. A collective will use the idea of absolutes to create exceptions for absolutes – this is how social logic differs from logic.
Interestingly, absolutes are socially overdetermined. The absolute can introduce a vital, unstructuring moment into the collective. From Socrates to Rousseau, from Jesus to Mohammed, there arise representatives of the popular perception that the permanent state of exception claimed by the ruling class of the collective is wrong. These figures stage their protest on behalf of the absolute, and thereby create a kind of anti-social community – a sort of expropriation of the charisma of the powerful. In this moment of protest, a dream emerges – the dream of a morally homogenous, non-hierarchical community. This is one of the great prods to the softening and humanizing of culture. As a relativist, paradoxically, I am all for these instances of unstructuring, as long as they are not completely successful. For the dream of the morally homogeneous community, when it isn’t futile, quickly turns monstrous, as it purges those who threaten that homogeneity. Most of the time, the unstructuring moment succeeds not by converting the collective, but by weakening its inhumanity. The pacifist, the civil rights advocate, the seeker after truth – I have tremendous respect for these righteous figures, who have modified the horror of life. Relativism, by contrast, has spawned only one doubtful prophet – Nietzsche. On the other hand, the recherché de l’absolu, which has spawned thousands of prophets, has spawned no wits – save Chesterton, who is an odd case. The wits largely fall into the relativists camp.