In earlier discourse on the character and nature of culture, it was determined that culture serves as the foundational basis for the majority of our thoughts, perceptions, beliefs, and values. We are conditioned by the culture we live in to accept its norms and follow its standards. As such, we can consider ourselves the products of our culture; everything we have learned and experienced is gained and perceived through a lens which has been taught to us and shaped by our local environment – the society which has been produced off of cultural standards. In this way, we are fundamentally different in our perception and understanding of reality, of existence, than people from other cultures, because the differences between them are manifest in different values, beliefs, norms, and ideas. These differences are natural and indeed should be expected, as different opinions on the same subject will produce different resulting actions. Yet it is important to remember that there is no inherent ‘better’ opinion, as all cultures are equally the product of historical development and the process of accumulating and refining thought, and though they might arrive at different conclusions there is no way to empirically and objectively rank or provide value to those conclusions.
Cultural relativism, as this philosophical perspective is often termed, can be considered an ’empty’ philosophy in that, it is argued, it does not provide any tangible benefit or forward contribution to understanding reality. It posits that values and norms cannot be judged against each other, as they are the unique product of unique circumstances anynm nd don’t hold any inherent value above or below one another. Accordingly, philosophies cannot be judged for merit, and thus no philosophy can be held to a higher standard than another. This, in turn, makes choosing and defining philosophies to guide our own lives a difficult, if not impossible task – if all philosophies are of the same merit, then why choose any over the other? It is also a dangerous proposition – if all philosophies are of the same merit, then the ones which have manifested themselves in destruction and repression, such as Nazism and racism, are equally valuable as those which have brought about peace and freedom, such as humanism and liberalism.
Perhaps viewing the world through a relativistic lens makes it difficult to differentiate between philosophies in terms of ‘value’ and ‘merit’, but it opens the philosopher to a much wider understanding of the world of knowledge and the understanding of experience. It is a philosophical tool in the philosopher’s toolbox which enables him to remove the subjective judgments we levy upon philosophy, such as what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, and instead focus on the nature of that thought and its explanation for the universe’s phenomena. By doing so, we are able to understand the world as it is seen through the eyes of all humankind instead of the world as we see it through our own cultural and philosophical perceptions. When we consider other philosophies and hold them to a higher or lower regard than our own, we are essentially making it impossible to sympathize with, and thus understand, the perspective held by those who hold that other philosophy. They hold those beliefs for the same reason and through the same process of cultural conditioning that we hold our own; in essence, though the philosophies are different, the fact that belief is held is universal. Considering the universality of belief and applying an understanding that we ourselves exist in just one of many cultures producing their own unique perspective on the world is integral to cultural relativism, and is integral to expanding our own ontological understandings.
I also reject the notion that cultural relativism is a ‘conversation stopper’, a ‘dead-end’ philosophy which posits nothing but narrows the capacity of the philosopher to approach, understand, and judge the world. As I just explained, if anything it makes the world of knowledge a broader and richer place, as all philosophies regardless of what they are can be seen in the same light and understood to the same degree. It also teaches us a vital and, in these current times, perhaps necessary lesson: not all logic, not all explanations, and not all systems apply consistently across different cultures. As different cultures hold different explanations for and perspectives on things, we cannot expect our own to mesh well into theirs. We cannot expect others to accept or even understand our logic and reasoning behind things if they are born and raised in a culture which is different in its approach to them. We equally cannot expect our forms of politics and governmental systems, themselves the product of culture and philosophical thought, to apply to other cultures. In an era of burgeoning liberal democracies and spreading liberalism in the form of capitalism, we should be wary of expecting our democratic form of government to work perfectly in another society. This is not to say that other societies are unprepared for democracy or, if they reject it, are inherently wrong or bad; rather, this means that we live in a culture designed and conditioned to accept and be able to operate under such a system, but not all necessarily are. This is just one of the countless differences in cultures across the globe that we have come to recognize.
Lately, I have come to appreciate the relativistic mindset more and more. Coupled with an interest in philosophy and history, it has broaden the scope of my introspection and reflection on existence and has enabled me a wider perspective on the development of human thought. By regarding each culture and the beliefs they hold as unique, and regarding every belief as inherently equal in value and merit, has shown to me the breadth of human understandings on the universe and the ways in which different perceptions, often diametrically opposed, can arise to answer a single question. Relativism has also made me less arrogant in my own beliefs; if I can recognize that my values are only mine by virtue of the environment in which I was raised, I can be more receptive to listening to, understanding, and perhaps even accepting different perspectives. It is through this that all human knowledge has been shared and developed.