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Does the concept of cultural relativism promote international understanding, or does it hinder attempts to have international agreement on acceptable behavior, such as human rights?

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Cultural relativism, a concept that anthropologist Franz Boas developed in the early twentieth century, promotes understanding distinct cultures on their own terms, and thus fundamentally supports efforts at international understanding. Contextualizing any given culture’s traditions and behaviors involves looking at all customs, not just any specific one. Human rights, a concept developed more recently, maintains that there are universal principles that guarantee rights and cannot be denied to anyone. Universality as a key component of human rights has been contrasted to relativism through emphasizing the negative qualities of controversial customs, often concerning race, gender, and LGBT rights. An example often featured in this debate is female genital cutting, including its most extreme forms, which is practiced in some African societies. Proponents of relativism, however, point out that similar customs, such as male circumcision, that occur in Europe or the U.S. are less likely to be critically examined from within their own societies. Claims of universality may mask ethnocentrism, including cultural biases, religious restrictions, or political agendas, and thus fail to support international agreement.

Donnelly, Jack. (1984). Cultural relativism and universal human rights. Human Rights Quarterly 6( 4): 400-419.

Englund, H. (2016). Human rights. In F. Stein, S. Lazar, M. Candea, H. Diemberger, J. Robbins, A. Sanchez & R. Stasch, eds., Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology.

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Cultural relativism is not an absolute nor monolithic set of beliefs. Cultural relativists can believe in a set of universal human rights that should not be violated, but can allow for specific exceptions due to local standards. This is because many recognize that culture is not the only factor in determining how rights are expressed and protected in the political sphere. For example, China is often cited as an example of a country that does not uphold the Western conception of human rights, because free speech, for example, is generally not held to be important in Chinese culture. Yet there are other reasons why speech might not be protected that are related more to political power realities than culture. So cultural relativism does not necessarily have to be a barrier to agreement on human rights. In fact, cultural relativists are usually quick to recognize abuses of human rights in their own cultures, and in this way might promote change. It also goes without saying that, while firm positions on human rights may be morally satisfying to take, adopting a position of moral superiority does not always achieve the desired end. Cultural changes that have occurred in the realm of human rights have often accompanied economic change (such as globalization) than any kind of prescriptive approach. So while cultural relativists may reject some aspects of universal human rights, they are not necessarily a hindrance to them.

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The concept of cultural relativism does not really do either of these things.  On the one hand, cultural relativism does not make one culture more likely to understand the other.  At the same time, it is not as if the concept of cultural relativism prevents accords on issues such as human rights.

Cultural relativism is the idea that no one culture’s ways are morally better than another’s.  In such a view, Saudi Arabia is not better or worse than the US because of the way it treats women.  It is simply different.  China is simply different because it does not believe in free speech.  This does not promote cultural understanding because it simply paints other cultures as fundamentally different from us.  They are, instead, portrayed as so different from us that they do not even share our most basic values. 

At the same time, it is not as if all countries would agree on human rights if only the idea of cultural relativism did not exist.  Instead, we would have a system where all cultures believed that their own view of human rights was fundamentally correct.  They would have no reason to agree on human rights at all.

Thus, cultural relativism is neither as beneficial or as detrimental as some believe.

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