Richard A. Shweder, A Logical Argument for Relativism
From Thinking Through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural
Shweder, in this quote from his book of essays on culture, summarizes the
problem of multiple, coexisting, closely-interacting cultural systems. His
solution to the problem is to accept relativism and to be accepting of the
contradictions different cultures have relative to one another.|
Consider the following four propositions. Each will seem plausible to
some readers, yet taken together they are incompatible. One or more of them
must be rejected, but which?
The four propositions are mutually incompatible. Accepting any three entails
rejection of the fourth. Here one is presented with a fateful choice, for
rejecting first one and then another of the four can resolve the inconsistency
in a variety of ways.
- We, the members of our ethnic group, are rationally justified in our
conception of things; for example, that when you are dead you are dead,
that virtuous people can die young, that souls do not transmigrate, and
that authors have a natural inalienable right to publish works critical
of revealed truth.
- They, the members of some other ethnic group, have a different conception
of things; for example, that the spirits of your dead ancestors can enter
your body and wreak havoc on your life, that widows are unlucky and should
be shunned, that a neighbor's envy can make you sick, that souls transmigrate,
that nature is a scene of retributive causation and you get the death you
deserve, that a parody of scriptural revelation is blasphemous and blasphemers
should be punished.
- They, the members of that other ethnic group, are rationally justified
in their conception of things.
- If others are rationally justified in their conception of things and
that conception is different than ours, then we cannot be rationally justified
in our conception of things. Conversely, if we are rationally justified
in our conception of things and that conception is different then theirs,
then they cannot be rationally justified in their conception of things.
[After discussing the ramifications of rejecting any one of the first
three propositions, Shweder concludes that only "one logical possibility
remains: rejection of the fourth proposition." The rejection of this
fourth proposition is the essential element of a "relativistic"
approach to studying culture.]
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