Thursday, April 09, 2009

Cultural Relativism

Today is my birthday and that of Tom Lehrer. One of my favorite songs of his is "In Old Mexico" where he sings of a visit to that country. At one point in the narrative, he is waxing poet about a visit to a bullfight in the style of Hemingway, only with that classic Lehrer snark.

"I hadn't had so much fun since the day my brother's dog Rover got run over.

Rover was killed by a Pontiac and and it was done with such artistry and grace that the witnesses awarded the driver both ears and the tail."
He clearly calling something that is a part of Mexican culture cruel and barbaric.

Cultural relativists look at such proclamations as intolerant. Cultures have lenses and trying to make sense of another culture through your own lens will fail to give its rituals and practices full meaning. Any judgment rendered would then be ill-informed. As such, we should not try to judge the practices of other cultures since there is no morally neutral standpoint to occupy.

At the same time, shouldn't morality by extra-cultural? Human rights seem not limited by national border or cultural region. Where is the line between respect for different ways of being and protection of the innocent?