Can we judge other cultures?

June 16, 2017

Or: do we have a right to judge other cultures? This is a question about relativism* that, I believe, underlies many issues and discussions nowadays. Is there such a thing as Truth with a capital T? Or is what we (i.e. westeners, atheists, white, wealthy) think is morally sound, is true, actually a mere product of our history and culture? And if the latter is true, what basis do we have to judge others, whose morals and truths are dependent on their particular history and culture? 

 

Sometimes, I imagine that if an alien lifeform* would enter into our society, they would be pretty shocked and perhaps even amused at some of the things we do, and with a grin on their faces wonder, "But.. why?". Closer to home, I am reminded of a scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta is talking about us Dutchies, and is perplexed that we put mayonaise on our fries: "I seen them do it, man, they fucking drown them in that shit." Now is mayonaise on fries not such an important principle, but it is an example of how I think something is completely normal and straightforward, seems very odd to someone who might not even be that different from me. Following this train of thought, it seems plausible that many of our beliefs and customs just happened to form in a certain way over time, rather than being True and Right and part of some kind of Master Plan.

 

Philosophers have very different views on this. One contemporary philosopher in particular, Richard Rorty, I find has an interesting theory. According to him, we need to accept that what we, in our society, believe to be true and just is justifiable as a product of our history and traditions, not a product of some profound reasoning that brought us to a universal, ahistorical truth. Therefore, he believes we can justify our notion of justice without needing that Truth with a capital T. In the old days, when white westeners on their high horses colonized the world and were spreading Truth and Justice and Morals (in the most hypocritical way possible), Rorty's view was not conventional. Nowadays however, it is more commonly accepted. 

 

Some criticism arises. Are we then being completely arbitrary in our view of what is good and true? Rorty would say: Well, first of all, I'm not a relativist, I'm a pragmatist*** -- and secondly, nobody is being more arbitrary than anybody else. This means that people with different views on justice, morality and truth, should try to find common ground with one another, which will hopefully lead to more tolerance. 

 

In this way, Rorty wants to deny arbitrariness, as well as any objective, universal standards of truth, knowledge or morality. Does he succeed? I'm not so sure. But what would happen if we would accept the arbitrariness of our virtues? Would it be worse than if we believe our virtues to be superior to those of others? I feel uncomfortable at the thought, but I'm not so sure that we would be worse off. What do you think? Are there certain principles that should always be uphold universally, or is everything relative to culture and time? 

 

*The doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.

 

**Like in the AWESOME and quite philosophical movie Arrival!

 

***An advocate of the approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.

 

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