Western Values and Cultural Relativism

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A thought provoking talk hosted by the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung fur die Frieheit entitled ‘The Shift of Power from West to East’ attempted to address and challenge how emerging powers and global trends are influencing the Western world’s ability to consolidate its values.

“Who runs or owns the world today?” began guest speaker Mr. Rolf Timans, Directorate-General of External Relations for the European Commission and head of unit for Human rights and democratisation.  A most poignant question as all present were provoked to thinking about those phenomenons which are influencing the distribution of power, and more importantly for the talk, the faltering power of the European Union (EU).

Mr. Timans practised caution when reflecting on the topic, believing the title to have been inaccurate since the shift for him is more from South to North. Furthermore, “Western values” can be better encapsulated as “universal values”; universal standards of human rights formed the platform of Mr. Timans’ speech as he outlined cultural relativism, religion, individual and social actions as key arguments which the West would need to confront if hoping to encourage universal human rights.

Cultural relativism was acknowledged by Mr. Timans as influencing the way nations perceive and prioritise human rights. Religion was also considered a hindrance to the application of human rights, specifically when looking at the laws of Saudi Arabia as a poignant example. The distinction between the individual versus the prerogative of societies and attitudes which guide them is a division that needs to be addressed, should universal human rights hope to be maintained.

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What is Cultural Relativism?

Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human’s beliefs and activities should be understood in terms of his or her own culture. This principle was established as axiomatic in anthropological research by Franz Boas in the first few decades of the 20th century and later popularized by students. Boas himself did not use the term as such, but the term became common among anthropologists after Boas’ death in 1942. The first use of the term was in the journal American Anthropologist in 1948; the term itself represents how Boas’ students summarized their own synthesis of many of the principles Boas taught.

Cultural relativism involves specific epistemological and methodological claims. Whether or not these claims necessitate a specific ethical stance is a matter of debate. This principle should not be confused with moral relativism.

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