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Who is (not) afraid of (cultural) relativism?

Nader N. Chokr


I examine the thesis of “cultural relativism” (in both its descriptive and normative version) in an effort to ascertain and impeach more perspicuously the reasons for the strong appeal it continues to exert today in a globalizing/glocalising world –and this, despite the fact that it has been shown repeatedly to be inconsistent, self-defeating and misguided. Because of its highly objectionable and deeply troublesome consequences, especially from an ethical and political point of view, it should be clear to anyone who cares to make such an assessment that we have good reasons for fearing relativism, and that such a fear (both as an emotional and intellectual response) is furthermore not only warranted but reasonable. My answer to the normative question of whether we should be afraid follows obviously from that. However, I believe that we stand to advance the debate further and thereby gain in our understanding of the issue by addressing the following question: “Who is (not) afraid of (cultural) relativism?” Taking my lead from Williams’ insightful analysis and recommendation, I argue essentially that though cultural relativism conjures up a general moral problem, it is in reality either too early or too late, and in our case, at this juncture of history, it is rather late. Only a movement away from cultural relativism and towards something like a “pluralistic, historically enlightened ethical universalism” can help us address the moral questions that we all face together in a globalizing/ glocalising world, and in which we now form a new moral and conversational community confronted with urgent problems and new challenges. For this purpose, I consider two possibly viable options, those of Williams and Nussbaum. After showing briefly why Williams’ case against ethical theory is far from being convincing or conclusive, and why his proposal of ‘reflection’ as an alternative is ultimately inadequate, I turn to Nussbaum’s bold, substantial, and timely proposal in an effort to ascertain whether it is ultimately a viable and defensible one. I conclude that, though still fraught with various problems and difficulties, it is nevertheless compelling and commendable –despite her critics’ claims to the contrary. In closing, I distinguish several ways to “justify” ‘ethical universalism’ and consider at least two variants of ‘pluralism’ in an effort to show further some of the real philosophical problems and difficulties confronting Nussbaum’s proposal, and more generally, the fundamental challenge we face today.
 : cultural relativism, fundamentalism, moral cosmopolitanism, fear, diversity, uniformity, globalization, glocalisation complexity, tolerance, pluralism, historical enlightenment, ethical universalism

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Notes de l'auteur

My deepest gratitude to Li Xiaolin whose “soul-music” enables me to go on, convinced that life is not a mistake. I would like to thank the editors of Tracés, especially Eric Monnet and Paul Costey, as well as an anonymous reviewer from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), Paris, France for their helpful suggestions and encouraging comments throughout the process leading up to the completion of this essay in its double (long and short) versions. A shorter and condensed version of this essay in French is already published in the paper edition of the review Tracésn012/1 (Chokr, 2007c). This version is slated for publication online at

Texte intégral

Introduction: why a different kind of question?

  • 1  I am here using Rawls’ expression (Rawls, 1996) without however endorsing his brand of ‘political (...)
  • 2  The notion, question and problem of ‘tolerance’ will be, as can be expected, at the center of my r (...)
  • 3  At this point, I am neither reinforcing nor justifying any of the perspectives, views or outlooks (...)

1As the world grows increasingly inter-connected and inter-dependent, and as we progressively come to recognize and draw the ‘consequences of cultural complexity’ (Chokr, 2006a, 2007a) that such a world entails and reveals, one could have expected to see a higher degree of ‘moral convergence’ between members of various cultures, or at least, a more substantial “overlapping consensus”1. Similarly, one could have expected the “cosmopolitan outlook” (that Kant, and long before him the Stoics talked about) and its underlying “moral universalisme”, to have gained more ground and become, if not widely accepted, at least more widely tolerated2. Instead, it is seen in some circles as the threatening expression of Western hegemony and cultural imperialism. As a result, we have been witnessing in recent years repeated affirmations of cultural distinctiveness and national identity, and vehement celebrations of provincialism, parochialism, particularism, sectarianism, nationalism, and fundamentalisms of various kinds –religious and secular. Needless to say, the specter of “cultural relativism” is writ large in all these affirmations and celebrations3. Cosmopolitanism and cultural chauvinism (or narrow-minded nationalism) are nowadays no longer opposites, it seems, but instead mutually reinforcing and defining of each other: as one does increase, so does the other. This is a hypothesis that can be easily confirmed by any well-informed observer of world affairs in the past decade or two.

  • 4  Putnam writes: “We all know that cultural relativism is inconsistent” (Putnam, 1983, p. 236); see (...)

2Why, one may ask, has the thesis of cultural relativism proven to be so resistant to the cold, rigorous and hard-edged ‘knife’ of logic and rational arguments? Is it because it seems, despite its apparent problems of consistency and coherence4, to convey some profound insights about the human condition and alert us to some real and difficult (perhaps even intractable) moral problems? Or is it because, though it is based on a deeply problematic and controversial way of thinking, it can nevertheless readily serve the personal, ideological and political purposes (even conflicting ones) of those who uphold it?

3Both sets of considerations must arguably be taken into account in any fair and meaningful discussion of this thesis. However, because of its highly objectionable and deeply troublesome consequences, esp., from an ethical and political point of view, it should be clear to anyone who cares to make such an assessment that we have good reasons for fearing relativism, and that such a fear (both as an emotional and intellectual response) is furthermore not only warranted but reasonable. I am mostly interested here in the fact that cultural relativism precludes in the final analysis any normative, critical judgment –either intra-culturally or inter-culturally. This is in my view the most damning implication of such a thesis from an ethical and political point of view. The voice of dissent and contestation is rarely if ever taken into account (see Benhabib, 2002, Wellman, 1963, 1975). My answer to the normative question of whether we should be afraid of relativism follows obviously from that.

  • 5  I am naturally aware that the latter question sounds more like an empirical question, perhaps bett (...)

4However, I believe that we stand to advance the debate further and thereby gain in our understanding of the issue by addressing another question, and that is, “Who is (not) afraid of (cultural) relativism?5 I submit that by trying to ascertain to whom it appeals or not, and more precisely, why it appeals to some people and not to others, and by focusing thereby on what is at stake between opposing camps, we can better understand some of the uses, or rather abuses of relativism. We might also thereby understand better the possible conflicts, divisions, and tensions that may subsequently emerge between them. Besides, by attending not only to the arguments and counter-arguments given by proponents and opponents of relativism, but also to their respective motivations, background assumptions, as well as their personal, ideological or political purposes, we can show more effectively why cultural relativism is untenable and unacceptable today, not even for the reasons for which it is often upheld by its proponents. In turn, we might be able to show how the challenge it raises can best be met and countered (Rachels, 1999, Renteln, 1985).

  • 6  To keep my discussion within manageable bounds, I will not seek herein to discuss all versions and (...)
  • 7  Unlike many writers today dealing with this subject, I am here taking a historically more informed (...)

5In my essay, I propose to discuss the thesis of “cultural relativism” (in both its descriptive and normative version)6 in an effort to ascertain and impeach more perspicuously the reasons for the strong appeal it continues to exert today in a world deep in the throes of the nth wave of ‘globalization’7.

6The approach I take is the one recommended by Bernard Williams in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy.

Rather thanseeking to knowwhether we should think in a relativistic manner, for logical or conceptual reasons, or whetherthis is impossible, we must instead ask ourselves what place we could reasonably find for a thought of this kind, and in what sense it responds more adequately to reflection (Williams, 1985, p. 160).

7This is precisely the leading question of my inquiry. However, I must quickly note that, given the character properly philosophical of my inquiry, I will not be able to dispense completely with a certain amount of preliminary logical and conceptual work.

8I believe however that, by heeding Williams’ injunction to the extent possible, and by situating our efforts within such an approach, we might be able to ascertain certain real and serious moral problems and difficulties to which we had not perhaps paid sufficiently attention. We might also come to better appreciate (the reasons for) the enduring and powerful appeal that it has exerted for more than two thousand years, and continues to exert today on individuals and groups of diverse philosophical, political and ideological persuasions, and this, regardless of the strictures placed upon them by purely logical or conceptual considerations. This appreciation of the peculiar “resistance” of relativism to logical and conceptual analysis might in turn give us a uniquely informed vantage-point from which to address (the question of) the “fear of relativism” (Scanlon, 1995).

9To clarify further my theoretical and methodological commitments, the following caveat is in order. Though I have taken up Williams’ recommendation and will be appropriating and using a number of his most insightful concepts and notions for my purposes, I do not intend however to situate my entire analysis squarely within the conceptual, theoretical and explanatory framework that his work seems to suggest. Williams has unquestionably offered us one of the most insightful, perspicuous, and nuanced discussion of moral relativism. Thus, I am favorably disposed to adopt a number of his insights and points in these regards as part of the background of my inquiry. However, I believe along with a number of sympathetic critics that his contribution is in the final analysis confronted with aporias, serious difficulties and tensions (see Nussbaum, 2003, p. 9-12, Scheffler, 1987, reprinted in 2002, p. 197-216). For one thing, it is arguably unclear, and thus it is a matter of philosophical debates, whether Williams (1985) can be viewed as attempting to see how (if) we can make relativism coherent or as defending outright some version of moral relativism. For another, it is doubtful whether this alternative proposal to ethical theory or to “the morality système”, to use his expression, will satisfice (i.e, satisfy and be sufficient) for the purpose of normative social and political criticism, which he obviously engages in and deems necessary. I will attempt to show why I entertain such doubts when I take up later on my critical examination of Williams’ view. I will consider, in particular, his alternative proposal based primarily on ‘reflection’ and his recommendation that we replace the ‘thin’ concepts favored by the “morality system” and its theorists with ‘thick’ concepts –of the sort that were prevalent in the ethical thought of ancient Greece.

  • 8  Among the relativists here in question, I would include all the self-appointed and elitist “guardi (...)

10In the end however, I agree with Williams on the following point. Though cultural relativism conjures up admittedly a general moral problem, it is in reality either too early or too late (Williams, 1972, 1981, 1985, 2002). In our case, and at this juncture of history, we must recognize that it is rather late in the day. In an increasingly globalizing/glocalizing, inter-connected, and inter-dependent world, we need to heed the consequences of “cultural complexity” and articulate a more appropriate conception of ‘culture’ than the one that typically serves to underwrite the relativists’ view (see Chokr, 2006a, 2007a, 2007b for a proposal of an alternative conception)8. If and when we do so, we would better be able to see the normative, pragmatic and political requirements imposed upon us all at this juncture to take our moral responsibilities toward one another more seriously than we have so far. We might then perhaps be more inclined to break down even further the walls of our “cultural prisons”, and reject the “comfortably numbing” yet “dangerous illusions” of a walled-in relativistic existence.

  • 9  What I mean to say here obviously is that the traditional formulation of the problem is outdated, (...)

11In such a context, I argue, the old debate between ‘cultural relativism’ and the ‘moral universalism’9 of yesteryears –with regards to human rights, for example– is in my view not only at a dead-end, but outdated, literally overcome and made irrelevant by the events, so to speak (Chokr, 2002, 2003, 2006a). It seems then that only a movement away from cultural relativism and towards something like a “pluralistic, historically enlightened, ethical universalism” can help us. We must address the questions that we all face together in a world caught up in the nth wave of ‘globalization,’ and in which we now all form a new moral and conversational community confronted with urgent questions as well as new and unprecedented problems. But, of course, the philosophical interesting and urgent question is how can we best make a case for such a perspective –which aims to be sufficiently respectful of cultural differences, while countenancing at the same time strong normative requirements and constraints for the purpose of social and political criticism.

  • 10  It may be worth noting, ahead of the forthcoming in-depth discussion of Nussbaum’s view, that the (...)
  • 11  Nussbaum disagrees in this regard with Rawls who has insisted on the “priority of right” in relati (...)
  • 12  Just as they have done already in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). See (...)

12A number of contemporary philosophers are attempting to articulate precisely such a view from their respective philosophical and political standpoint (see for example, Nussbaum, 2000, 2006, Pogge, 2002, Benhabib, 2002). The view I am inclined to uphold and advocate bears obviously some clear and strong affinities with Nussbaum’s in her effort to articulate and defend a “partial theory of social and global justice” anchored within “the capabilities approach” for which I also have great sympathies10. However, I seek to defend such a view without resorting for its ‘justification,’ as Nussbaum does, to a prior account of the human good based on a Marxian/neo-Aristotelian form of (internal) essentialism11. We are better off proceeding in a radically non-foundationalist and non-metaphysical manner, on purely pragmatic and political grounds. The “justification” for a pluralistic, contextually sensitive, and historically enlightened ethical universalism should therefore be based on historically contingent normative considerations which could be the object of an “overlapping consensus” between members of different cultural traditions around a “free-standing moral and political conception” of social and cultural justice and human development or flourishing. I contend more specifically that what they could agree upon are some basic and minimalist set of pragmatic conclusions, provisions, principles, or values upholding a certain open-ended, defeasible and ‘multiply founded’ basic proposition about what is right (and thereforealso good) for each and all human beings. They could do so, I believe, even if they may have to resort for their fundamental justifications to their respective and at times conflicting (philosophical, moral or religious) comprehensive doctrines or conceptions of the good life12.

Cultural relativism: thesis-arguments and counter-arguments

The thesis-formulation, clarification, preliminary problematization

  • 13  At a meta-theoretical level, I make some relatively unproblematic and widely accepted and reasonab (...)

13The thesis of cultural relativism here of interest, and that I intend to examine critically can be formulated as follows13:

(CR) Different cultures have different moral standards, and the standards by which the action and conduct of any individual are (can or should be) evaluated and measured are those of the community to which the individual belongs.

  • 14  Because the point is often made with respect to truth or justification (or both), it is useful to (...)

14Because such a thesis is easily confused with a number of moral claims, it might be useful to draw some distinctions for the sake of clarification, and setting up if only in a preliminary manner the problematic as I see it. It is one thing to note that (as in the first part of CR) that “different cultures have different moral standards” and subsequently assert that “there is a plurality of standards associated with different cultures, peoples –and one might even add, times and places. This may be called “descriptive moral relativism”. It is another to state that there is no single universally valid moral standard for all cultures, peoples, times and places. In such a view, a plurality of standards provides the only frames of reference against which the truth (or justification)14 of moral claims can be evaluated. Such claims, it is said further, cannot be evaluated unless and until a framework is specified. We may call this variant, “philosophical moral relativism. It is also sometimes referred to as “meta-ethical relativism” because it asserts in effect that “the truth (or justification) of a given action, behavior or judgment is indexed or relative to cultural and historical context of the community in which the action or behavior is carried out, or the judgment is made”. It is meta-ethical because it is a thesis about the conditions under which judgments are true or justified. Moral truth is relativized to a moral community. It is yet quite another to assert that we should be tolerant of those who use moral standards different from our own –because each standard is somehow appropriate for its own culture. Such a claim that we ought not to pass judgment on those deploying alternative frameworks is often dubbed “normative moral relativism”(see section 3 for details).

15Although these three different relativist doctrines are distinguishable from one another and can arguably be held consistently in different combinations, all three quite often go together. It must stressed however that only a view that allows different moral standards in a given area of concern to be in some sense equally valid is a genuinely relativist view. In order to ascertain whether there is a genuine difference in moral standards, and whether a given view is truly relativist, it seems that we must hold that there is an agreement on some facts –unrelated to the area of concern which is the point of/in contention. A universalist view, holding that there are (true) substantive universal moral principles, could well allow –as in the parametric universalism of Scanlon (1998)– that these principles yield different moral requirements when applied to different circumstances. However, it is not a relativist view, since it allows opposed moral judgments to be generated from a single universal standard due to different circumstances. Diversity of moral judgments in a given area of concern are traceable, according to a parametric universalist, to the different circumstances in which they are made, rather than to different moral standards.

16Anyone who holds that there are (objective) ethical truths must admit that the rightness or wrongness of an act is relative to the circumstances in which it is performed. Because people’s circumstances differ, what is (objectively) right for one person, might be different from what is (objectively) right for another. Even the most ardent defenders of moral objectivism or universalism must recognize that differing circumstances might well make some action or behavior right for someone and wrong for another. However, cases of “this is right for me, and wrong for you” do not and cannot obviously support in any straightforward way any form of ethical relativism.

  • 15  As I will show more explicitly in due course, such a view makes some objectionable assumptions abo (...)

17We could then understand cultural relativism in a similar way, as simply putting forth a special view about how moral right or wrong varies with the agent’s circumstances. It holds in effect that (objective) moral rightness and wrongness depend on the prevailing culture’s beliefs about given action by members of the culture in question15. In other words, if we want to know the objectively right answer to the question whether a given act is right or wrong, all we have to do is find out what the agent’s culture believes on that question: their beliefs determine what is objectively true or justified. In the end, it would seem that cultural relativism holds that what a culture believes about an act determines the truth about its objective rightness or wrongness in something like the way in which spatio-temporal location determines the truth about the weather conditions obtaining then and there.

18Though it seems obvious that we may or ought to be relativists about some things (e.g., etiquette, humor, culinary taste, standards of beauty) but not others (e.g., human dignity, flourishing, well-being, quality of life), late 20th century philosophical discussions of relativism have spent a fair amount of time simply trying to state the view coherently.

19The ethical relativist most familiar to us combines all three of the theses sketched out above in a way that best serves to illustrate the problem. Such a person begins typically with innocent observation of a diversity of moral practices, proceeds to infer that there is no single universal moral standard, and then confidently concludes that we should not judge the actions or behaviors of members of other cultures. Although this crude form of reasoning is obviously self-contradictory (the conclusion asserts a universal moral requirement the existence of which the premises deny), avoiding this kind of incoherence has proved surprisingly difficult –as Williams has quite rightly pointed out (Williams, 1972, 1985).

20Philosophers have also been concerned with the extent of defensible tolerance. For any moral outlook, to sincerely hold that outlook seems incompatible with regarding it as merely one among a number of outlooks, each different, but not better than others. How, for example, could morality have the “grip on us” that it does if it does not lead us to condemn those who, however distant from us in time and space, radically violate its deepest tenets? The normative relativist requirement of tolerance apparently can only be taken seriously by those who have no sincere moral convictions and commitments. Thus, we might say that the basic dilemma confronting a relativist is this: Either the “ought” in the claim that we ought not to condemn standards radically at odds with our own is relative “ought” from within our own standards or an “ought” tied to an absolute standard. The former is incompatible with sincerely embracing and living within a standard; the latter is incompatible with relativism.

21Does moral relativism lead then to moral skepticism? The latter holds that there are no goods grounds for believing anything is really the case from a moral point of view. Suppose what we morally ought to do is relative to the culture (or era) in which we find ourselves. Is this compatible with claiming that what we ought to do is what we really ought to do? Some philosophers, such as J. L. Mackie (1977), have argued that it is not. Moral beliefs, in his view, are beliefs about absolute moral standards of conduct. If what exists are multiple standards, each no better than the others for its context, then it follows that there is really nothing answering to our moral beliefs. Others, such as David Wong (1991) argue that moral beliefs are not about absolute standards but about prevailing standards, and therefore, in his view, there is something answering to these beliefs.

  • 16  This may explain at least in part why so many forms of universalism in the past have been misconst (...)

22Perhaps the most powerful consideration that has been mobilized in favor of the claim that there is a plurality of equally correct moral standards is that it provides the most satisfying explanation of existing differences over the question of whether something is the case –right or wrong. If relativism explains existing differences –differences that persists even against the background of agreement about non-contentious facts –then perhaps we should be relativists about the matter of contention. However, it does not follow from the fact that there are different moral frameworks for judging the rightness or wrongness of a given action or conduct that no single correct universal moral standard exist. The different frameworks might themselves be assessable as more or less close to some universal standard. Perhaps because of its complexity, it is simply difficult to understand or know the correct universal standard16. It may well be that the existence of different frameworks could be explained by the absence of a universal standard. But it does not follow from the fact that there appears to be different frameworks for moral judgment that there are in fact different frameworks. The parametric universalist in moral standards, for example, holds that diversity is a result of the application of a very general but universally shared standard to locally diverse conditions. If this view is right, then the (philosophical, meta-ethical, or cultural) relativist position that there is no such universal standard lacks its main support, as an explanation of moral diversity.

Arguments and counter-arguments

23Over the years, various arguments have been advanced in support of the thesis of cultural relativism. The main ones include: (1) an argument based on the observed fact of cultural diversity. (2) An argument based on the recognized fact of moral disagreements. (3) An argument based on the presumed functional role of morality in society. Finally, (4) an argument based on the obvious or apparent lack of convergence in ethics as opposed to the natural sciences. I examine next these arguments in turn and proceed to put forth some possible (grounds for) counter-arguments and responses.

Argument from cultural diversity

24Much of the appeal of cultural relativism stems, as suggested earlier, from the observation or affirmation that different cultures have different moral standards and moral practices from ours, but they nevertheless get along at least as well, or reasonably well, with their standards and practices as we do in ours. Other things being equal we have no reason to doubt the sincerity with which different groups hold their values. Nor, do we need to deny that truth plays a crucial role in moral discourse, reasoning and judgment within a particular moral community.

25Consider in this regard the following view suggested for example by Harman (1977). According to Harman, a statement S1 ‘x is wrong’ should always be interpreted as a shorthand for S2 “x is wrong in relation to moral framework, M.’ By uttering S1, I don’t specify the conditions under which it is true. Rather, it is the sentence and the context in which I state it that determine the conditions under which it is true. The context supplies the moral framework in which the sentence is to be evaluated. So, when I say for example that “‘fox-hunting is right”, or “widow-burning is wrong”, the truth of either claim is determined within the relevant moral framework or context. There is no objectively correct moral framework, but there can be multiple frameworks. The constraint on whether a statement is really to be judged true is only one of internal consistency within the particular moral framework. Given the complexity of the relations between principles and situations to which they apply, consistency may be an ideal which could only be recognized by a thinker with perhaps unlimited time and cognitive powers so that reflection can allow their beliefs, attitudes, and values to come into a stable equilibrium.

26In later works (Harman, 1996, 2000a, 2000b), Harman has elaborated his view so that it combines four claims: (1) There is a plurality of moral frameworks, none more correcte than any other. (2) Moral judgments are elliptical and stand for more complex judgments whose truth-conditions include one of these frameworks. (3) Morality should not be abandoned. (4) Even if relative, moral judgments can play a serious role in practical thought (1996, p. 3-19). The second claim is an important adjustment: relativism is, he argues, not a claim about “what makes sense” in our moral statements but a claim about their truth-conditions. What we saying for example when we state that the slaveholder is doing something wrong makes sense. It is just that we are saying something false because the slaveholder is not party to an agreement giving him the motivation to act accordingly. But the third claim runs into the relativist dilemma. What sort of “should” would we be invoking in saying that morality should not be abandoned? Suppose “morality” refers to some moral framework: we should have some “morality” or other. Then either there is some absolute framework that makes this “should” true, or there is no standard at all that makes this true. From within the point of view of one morality, it is not true that some other morality should not be abandoned.

Counter-argument: similarities beyond or beneath differences

27As suggested earlier, it may be too rushed to conclude from diversity and variability that there is no single criterion or standard. As Wong (1991), a proponent of moral relativism, remarks the argument from diversity does not support relativism in any simple or direct way. One may countenance and save cultural differences and diversity without resorting to cultural relativism. Does the fact that different communities affirm as true propositions that are contradictory entail that both must be in some way true, and hence support relativism? I don’t think it follows. Diversity is arguably no disproof that there are some beliefs it is better to hold than others. It may be regarded as true in one community that we inhabit a planet revolving around a star. In another community, the people may sincerely believe that we inhabit a sphere-like universe attached to the back of a giant tortoise. Furthermore, these beliefs about the nature of our world may be consistent with the other beliefs and attitudes held in their respective communities. The fact of difference may be better explained by the fact that some beliefs are wrong. As for the task of explaining why certain beliefs are false, this is arguably the kind of task characteristic of cases in which there is, and there should be, both diversity and dialogue.

  • 17  Various anthropological studies could be adduced in support of this point. One may focus in this r (...)

28The very same value may be expressed or realized in a different ways. Differences in practices may be superficial differences in the sense that it is the very same fundamental value which finds expression differently. In this regard, it might be worth pondering an experiment conducted by the Emperor of Persia, Darius, and reported by the Greek historian Herodotus (presumably one of the first recorded pieces of anthropological investigation). Darius wanted to know how much Greeks would need to be paid in order to eat the bodies of their (deceased) fathers. No amount of money could induce them to do such a thing for it was absolutely contrary to the traditional and proper way of treating the dead. Turning to a group from the east of the Persian Empire, Darius asked how much they would need to be paid in order to burn their dead fathers. While burning was acceptable to the Greeks, no amount of money could induce those from the East to do such a thing for it was absolutely contrary to the traditional and proper way of treating the dead. They could only treat the dead properly and with respect by eating them. This example, and others like it, in more recent times, of radically conflicting commitments on what counts as the right thing to do have become a common staple in discussions of moral diversity, disagreement and relativism. But what we can we safely conclude from such examples? From Darius’ experiment, I don’t think that we cannot safely conclude that values are relative, but rather that the value of respecting the dead can be realized in different ways. The variety of environments and contexts in which societies exist makes it unsurprising that fundamental or basic moral principles are implemented and expressed in different forms17.

Argument from the fact of moral disagreements

  • 18  The following issues may be mentioned in this regard: human sacrifice, slavery, pogroms, foot-bind (...)

29Another reason for the appeal of cultural relativism stems from “the fact of moral disagreements” (Wellman, 1975, Miller, 1992, Gowans, 2000). They seem to be widespread and often appear intractable concerning a number of past and contemporary issues18. The failure to settle moral disputes supports the view that there is no single moral truth or fact of the matter, which could force such a settlement. A community in which one practice is right just cannot agree by its own lights with one in which that very same practice is wrong. It is then claimed that we can understand why the dispute is irresolvable by appeal to relativism. The ways in which the relevant facts and states are assessed are just distinct.

Counter-argument: pluralism and/or universalism as a better response

30Does disagreement really occur if relativism is true? My hunch is that it does not. The appearance of disagreement may be explained, on a subjectivist understanding of relativism, as a clash of attitudes, as one person trying to get the other to stand (in relation) to the world as she does. However, if we assume that the opposing moral claims of different moral communities can each be true, then if your judgment is true (for you), what could get you alter it? We are in agreement about the facts or states to which the judgment is directed. By simply stating opposing views, we are of course disagreeing, but then there is nothing further to be said. Arguably the hallmark of genuine disagreement is an assumption on the part of the interlocutors that there is a single answer. One (or perhaps both) of us is wrong. If relativism is right, then it looks as if it is only by (somehow) moving into a different framework or moral community that I could come to understand the rightness or wrongness of a given practice or belief. If this is so, universalism might then offer a better account of real disagreement.

  • 19  Both pluralism and universalism are discussed further and in detail throughout. In the closing sec (...)

31One could also argue that pluralism explains the fact of disagreement better than relativism19. Pluralism is here taken to be the thesis that there is not a single dominant moral criterion or value (e.g. individual welfare, or the good of the community), and that there is an irreducible plurality of morally relevant considerations. There are therefore independent kinds of value, which can pull moral judgment in different directions depending on the context and the perspective of the person deliberating or judging. Disagreement reflects apparently ‘incommensurable’ and sometimes conflicting values and goods which frame deliberation and judgment to which moral communities respond.

Argument from the functional role of morality in society

32A third reason for the appeal to cultural relativism has to do with the functional role of morality. The function of morality is said to be, inter alia, to foster conditions of stability and cooperation making it possible to negotiate conflicts of interest between and within individuals. Those conditions can be realized by the adherence to, and application of different models of morality. Perhaps the most basic function of morality is the regulation and negotiation of conflict.

33A community committed, for example, to the values of dignity, humility, charity, compassion, and justice (including a notion of just retribution, and probably several others) has one normative framework in which conflicts can presumably be handled, resolved, or dissolved. The point however is that the very same problem (or set of problems) can be solved in many different ways. It is interesting to note that these values (as well as others) can be attributed to, and associated with Christian, Muslim, or Jewish communities, and possibly others –even if they are formulated and ‘cashed out’ in different ways. The fact that a given problem can be addressed in different, yet equally viable ways may lend support to the “overlapping consensus” view that I uphold –along with Nussbaum.

Counter-argument: other, more fundamental, role(s) for morality

  • 20  With regard to the distinction implied here between morality and ethics, and the proper and centra (...)

34The role of morality is not just to keep order or stability so as to facilitate co-operation and help resolve potential conflicts. This is presumably the role of the law. Morality is (and should be) concerned with the standards of good and right to which law and individual judgment ought to conform and aim. Whereas ethics is (and should be) concerned with the question of “how should we live?” individually and collectively20.

Argument from the lack of convergence in ethics

35Finally, another reason for the appeal of cultural relativism has to do with the lack of convergence in ethics as opposed to the natural sciences, at this juncture of our history. We have no reason to impugn people in general with irrationality when it comes to moral matters. Yet, if there were a set of moral truths against which all actions should be evaluated and which are accessible to persons in general, then we should expect some degree of convergence on these moral truths. Convergence will tend to eliminate diversity and we have no grounds for thinking that this has happened. If we contrast ethics with the natural sciences, we note that there has been a very high degree of convergence on belief on the fundamental structure of the physical universe. This contrast has been cited by some philosophers as good reason to be skeptical about moral knowledge and progress (Mackie, 1977).

Counter-argument: pessimistic and possibly unjustified conclusion

36It would unreasonable not to concede that, unlike scientific enquiry of the natural world, there is no appearance of a moral convergence or agreement in ethics. How can this observation be explained (away)? Is it because moral questions are particularly difficult? Is it because of our cognitive and affective limitations that we have no answer that is accessible to us? Or, is it because certain moral issues are essentially indeterminate or vague? I don’t think that it is a cognitive failing or an indication of relativism that we have not identified or converged on the determinate facts of the matter. While it would be flagrantly unreasonable to deny the lack of convergence in ethics, it may be arguably unjustifiably pessimistic to conclude that cultural relativism (or even moral skepticism) follows from the above premise. Even more strongly, I think we might deny that there has been no convergence on moral standards. It may be difficult for us to accept the idea of ‘moral progress’ in a world that has been marred by so much moral horror and tragedy –esp., during the 20th century. However, we can reasonably concede the following point. The widening acceptance worldwide that there are certain basic standards –e.g., such as most, though perhaps not all, of those contained in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see earlier note 10) which can serve to frame how we ought to act can somehow be viewed as an empirical ground for the claim that there is moral development. It can also be taken as an explanation for the contention that the world could be a morally much improved place. This is not the expression of a naively optimistic outlook, but rather that of a realistic yet hopeful pessimism calling desperately for a hyper-activist political and ethical stance.

The normative variation and its justification

37The observation or affirmation of cultural diversity is often conjoined with another idea consisting in objecting to (what is perceived as) Western hegemony and imperialism by upholding that it is wrong for Western culture to be intolerant of other cultures and impose its ways on them. But this idea does not imply cultural relativism, as its proponents often claim. It could even be shown that it is probably even inconsistent with it. The intended connection between ‘cultural relativism’ and ‘tolerance’ is arguably based on an argument for normative (cultural) relativism. Such an argument is concerned with practice and policy rather than questions of ontology, knowledge or meaning. It is about first-order moral judgments –the kinds that address directly and substantively questions of what is good, right, and virtuous.

38To be more explicit, such an argument maintains that
(NR1) One ought not to pass judgment on others who hold (substantially) différents values from one’s own.
(NR2) The actions generally approved in other cultures are objectively right for no other reason than they are generally approved in those cultures (cultural relativism)
(NR3) One ought not to try to make those others conform to one’s values because their values are as valid as one’s own.
A serious question confronting this normative version of relativism is whether it can be coherently stated, let alone defended. Let me briefly explain why.

39Consider the following line of reasoning:
(R1) Moral standards are relative to a particular culture or community: ‘right’ means ‘right for a given society’ (meta-ethical claim).
(R2) The rightness or goodness of an action is determined by its functional role for a given society or community (sociological and anthropological claim).
(R3) Therefore, one should not pass judgment on, one should respect, and not intervene in the life or practices of other cultures or communities (normative claim).
This is clearly an instance of the kind of reasoning mentioned earlier (section 2), which leads, according to Williams (1972), to a relativism in a vulgar and unregenerate form. The conclusion makes a non-relativistic claim: it tells us what is right to do in our dealings with other societies and cultures, and in doing so it employs ‘right’ in a non-relative and universalist sense, which is not permitted by R1.

40One can further impugn the defensibility of normative relativism by pointing out that it appears to entail paradoxically self-condemnation. Suppose in our community C1 the normative claim (R3) is accepted. What should we do when we see another community C2 intervene in the practices of some other community C3? If we criticize C2, then we seem to be breaching our very own principle, and so we must condemn ourselves. Yet how can we at once endorse a principle of non-intervention or tolerance while allowing to pass un-questioned and un-criticized the actions of those who violate it? The difficulty appears that normative relativism requires a sincere commitment to (R2) be supplemented with a kind of ‘do-nothing attitude’ or ‘quietism’ with respect to those who do not share that standard. Yet a failure to act in the face of a violation of the principle just casts the sincerity, commitment or seriousness with which it is held into doubt. The normative claim is here taken to be non-relative, and therefore universally applicable: this is clearly a self-refuting stance.

41Even if one is skeptical about the plausibility of normative relativism, the meta-ethical claim (R1) may nonetheless be a live option. Indeed, that would explain why it is true for me to say that C2 has acted wrongly in intervening in C3 and to criticize them for doing so. For, in our community, it is true that intervention is wrong. Equally, the people in C2 can insist that for them, by their moral standard or criterion, it is true that intervention is right (see Wong 1985, 1991 for a more positive view on normative relativism).

42Bernard Williams was interested in coming up with some way of stating normative relativism such that it is coherent and not vulnerable to self-contradiction. Recall that the self-contradictory ethical relativist view is the claim that, since there are no universal moral standards, no one ever ought to condemn the practices of other cultures. The main issue is whether philosophical or meta-ethical relativism can coherently constitute grounds for normative relativism. Coherent normative relativism requires recognizing the absence of an (external) vantage-point from which one can make meaningful evaluative comparisons between alternative moral frameworks. Such a vantage-point would result in what Williams calls a “real confrontation” between belief-systems –as opposed to a “notional” one (Williams, 1981, p. 132-143).

43The basic idea is this: The possibility of normative relativism arises only when some action or practice is the locus of disagreement between holders of two self-contained and exclusive systems. Two belief-systems, B1 and B2, are exclusive of one another when they have consequences that disagree under some description but do not require either to abandon their side of the disagreement. When groups holding B1 and B2 respectively encounter each other, this can result in a confrontation between them. A real confrontation between B1 and B2 occurs when B2 is real option for the group living under B1. In a notional confrontation, in contrast, B2 is not a real option. B2 would be a real option for a group living under B1 if two conditions are met. First, those holding B1 could “retain their hold on reality” by living under B2, in the sense that they would not, for example, need to engage in radical self-deception. Second, they could acknowledge their transition to B2 in light of a rational comparison to B1. If the conditions for real confrontation are not met for those holding B1 however, then there is only a notional confrontation with B2 and there is “no point or substance” to considerations of whether B2 might be a better or worse belief-system than B1. If a member of B1 does not regard the confrontation with B2 as real confrontation, then “the language of appraisal –good, bad, right, wrong and so on is seen as inappropriate, and no judgments are made” (ibid, 1985, p. 161). The suspension of such judgments amounts to adopting normative relativism about B1 and B2.

44The language of appraisal is appropriate with regards to B2 only if those holding B1 could “go over” to B2. The people (hoi polloi) who pursue the pleasures of so-called “low” culture may judge that there is little of value in a life crowded with the elites activities of “high” culture. It is a real possibility that they could learn to love and enjoy opera, for example, and lose their taste for country music, so they may evaluate doing so on their own terms. Those from the “low” culture could judge “high” culture to be boring, while those from “high” culture could judge “low” culture to be tacky, tasteless and lacking depth. However, Williams observes, “the life of a Bronze Age chief or a medieval samurai are not real options for us: there is no way of living them” (ibid, 1985, p. 161). They are too alien to permit us to make the same judgments between culture mavens.

  • 21  The pertinence of this point will become clearer when I turn in due course to my critical discussi (...)

45In this respect, however, Williams’ account (like Harman’s) fails to deliver what it set out to do –a coherent normative relativism. For, it is not clear in what sense it would not be “appropriate” to appraise these moralities as less morally enlightened than our own. If appraisals of B2 are inappropriate, then they must be inappropriate according to some belief-system B. Can B1, then, forbid the appraisal of other B’s? It is difficult to see how it could, if, as we assume, a belief-system requires and presupposes that it has a grip on the thinking of those within it that prevents them from taking an external view of it. Let us suppose that Williams thinks that “a real option” is an option that would be as good or better from a point of view external to both B1 and B2 –say, the point of view of human flourishing and well-being21. This would be to abandon relativism. For, according to the relativist, there is no B external to particular belief-systems such as B1 and B2, i.e, a universal standard from which one could judge that appraisal is inappropriate. To evaluate B1 and B2 in terms of “human well-being” would be to hold up such a notion as a universal standard. Alternatively, suppose that Williams is thinking (like Harman) that this is somehow “a soberly logical thesis”: it is just nonsensical to judge medieval samurai morals to be better or worse than our own. Williams himself denies this claim, by saying that the vocabulary of appraisal in such cases “can no doubt be applied without linguistic impropriety” (Williams, 1981, p. 141). But if we were to accept that this is a logical or linguistic impropriety, then he (like Harman) would have to explain how this could be so, given that it seems intelligible enough to say that their morals were worse in many respects than our own.

Normative (cultural) relativism versus Western hegemony and imperialism

  • 22  As if it has always been consensual, one and indivisible, and otherwise uncontested from within. T (...)

46Some proponents of cultural relativism often charge that among the ethical beliefs of Western culture22 isthat of its superiority and rightful supremacy over all others. They would presumably formulate such a belief as follows: Western values, ways and practices should be imposed on other cultures, and members of Western culture should blame, and interfere with, the actions of people in other cultures whenever these actions violate Western values.

47Let us assume for the sake of argument that cultural relativists are right that superiority and supremacy is a belief of Western culture. Then what they are telling us as members of Western culture is that it is (objectively) right for us to impose our ways on others and objectively right for us to blame and interfere with the actions of people in other cultures whenever our values condemn them. That means that cultural relativism does not support (NR3), or (R3) for that matter, but its contradictory.

48Besides, what account can a cultural relativist consistently give of the ethical principle stated in (NR1) above? If the principle is supposed to have trans-cultural validity, how can this be consistent with cultural relativism? If the principle is valid merely because it is one of our culture’s ethical beliefs, then it deserves no priority over the alleged Western superiority and supremacy. And then it looks as if (NR1) and the alleged Western superiority/supremacy taken together imply the falsity of (NR2), that is, of cultural relativism. In that case, cultural relativism is self-refuting for us Westerners (and, indeed, for the members of any culture whose ethical beliefs happen to be incompatible with cultural relativism). It follows from this that cultural relativism is totally incapable of combating any form of culturally entrenched (justification for) imperialism, racism, sexism, or ethnocentrism. For whenever we find these ugly propensities and phenomena built into a culture’s beliefs, cultural relativism is committed to endorsing them; and if cultural relativism is interpreted in such a way as to conflict with these beliefs, then it becomes self-refuting in that culture.

49In practice, cultural relativism is also used sometimes as a pretext for following whatever ethical beliefs one finds convenient. For instance, a Western-based multinational corporation operating in other parts of the world comes from a culture that believes that it is all right to seek and secure for oneself the highest profit one can within the bounds defined by the law. Cultural relativism could say they may do that –even if this means disrupting the traditions of that culture. But cultural relativism could also say that they need not blame or interfere with practices within that culture which might be considered wrong in their own culture. These practices could include violations of fundamental civil and political rights, repression of so-called ‘dissidents,’ censorship of media outlets, police-state terror directed against minorities, religious groups, or migrant workers who protest brutally low wages, miserable, unsafe, and precarious working conditions through which corporations reap much of their profits. So interpreted, cultural relativism allows these corporations to do whatever they like and deem expedient, or strictly in their business interests –very narrowly construed.

50The above analysis and results suggest that cultural relativism does not do justice to the actual views of those who really want to promote cross-cultural tolerance or oppose Western hegemony and imperialism. It looks like those views really consist in holding to certain (objective, trans-cultural) ethical principles about how the members of different cultures should act toward each other, such as that people should be open-minded and tolerant to all human beings, always treating them with dignity and respect. But those who presumably oppose ‘Western hegemony and imperialism’ are often embarrassed to admit to such principles because they obviously come from the modern, Western Enlightenment tradition. To do so would immediately expose them to the dreaded charge of ‘brain-washing’ or ‘ethnocentrism’ –the former, if one is a member of a non-Western culture, and the latter, if one is a Westerner. By contrast, cultural relativism’s principled stance of cross-cultural neutrality seems then to buy immunity from this charge. But cultural relativism itself is arguably a modern Western idea every bit as much as Enlightenment moral principles are. The only difference perhaps is that, as I have suggested, cultural relativism is actually hostile to cross-cultural tolerance and mutual respect, whereas certain other principles of Western Enlightenment do favor them.

  • 23  As suggested earlier (note 14), and as we shall see when I turn in section 6.2 to my discussion of (...)
  • 24  Levi-Strauss (1985) has argued that it may be an illusion that humanity can ever escape completely (...)

51We seem to end up in a paradoxical and somewhat perplexing position. This may be because we start somehow from the correct point that everyone’s standpoint is somehow constrained and perhaps limited by their cultural perspective, and then proceed by directly contradicting this insight in trying immediately to occupy a non-existent “sublimely neutral standpoint” above all such constraints and limitations. Wouldn’t it be wiser to align ourselves with some standpoint situated within a given culture, or rather and more accurately within a given “cultural complex” which, despite its inevitable constraints and limitations, at least makes an effort to be critical of itself and tolerant of other cultural standpoints? We may be reluctant to take this wiser course because it may be hard to identify and adopt such a standpoint23. We may realize that the biases and prejudices from which we start will undoubtedly lead us into misjudgments, mistakes and errors, probably culpable and morally objectionable ones. We may even be aware that by taking this path we can never hope altogether to escape the accusation of ethnocentrism, but we may resign ourselves to learn to live with it, as part of our human condition (Rorty, 1991, Levi-Strauss, 1985)24.

  • 25  Other reasons for its enduring, yet misguided appeal are provided in forthcoming section 4.

52Cultural relativism is found far more appealing because its empty gestures enable its proponents to announce their good intentions and repudiate their cultural biases and prejudices in the abstract, with a mere wave of the hand, as it were. It enables them to absolve themselves of cultural constraints and limitations in general without ever having to overcome any of them in particular. As we have seen, it even provides an endorsement for them, when that is needed. Could this be the reason why it has widespread appeal among the more sophisticated and elite members of both Western and non-Western cultures?25 In the case of the former, perhaps what proponents of cultural relativism really want is a justification and a license to behave like brutal and arrogant imperialists or oppressors while at the same time thinking of themselves as tolerant and humane cosmopolitans who have transcended all their cultural biases and prejudices. In the case of the latter, it would seem that proponents of relativism are typically the self-appointed and elitists “guardians of cultural purity and integrity”. They wish to maintain and legitimize their use and abuse of power within their respective communities, and seek to “justify” traditional beliefs and practices no matter how oppressive and unjust they might be. At the same time they claim to ward off the irrepressible incursions of Western cultural imperialism and other cultural influences in the name of dubiously and suspiciously construed notions of ‘cultural egalitarianism,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘tolerance.’

Problems, paradoxes, and other difficulties

53Even if cultural relativism lived up to its advertised claim and image as promoter of cross-cultural tolerance, it would still be extremely implausible because it seems to commit us to the objective rightness (in the context of a given culture) of all the moral beliefs and practices which have ever existed. Slavery was objectively right in ancient Greece and Rome, and even in the US not so long ago. Human sacrifices were objectively right for the Aztecs and other pre-Columbian, meso-american cultures: it was right to cut the heart out of the still living human sacrificial offering. That practice is wrong to us, and would have been considered wrong in medieval Europe or Japan, but not in other parts of the ancient world. The Indian custom of suttee, requiring a widow to burn herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, was also considered right in traditional India. The pogrom, or the periodic indiscriminate slaughter of Jews, which has long been part of the folkways of European Christian peoples in past centuries was also considered morally acceptable. Also objectively right is the genital mutilation of women, which is still practiced in a variety of cultures in Africa and elsewhere in Asia. And the list of examples can go on and on. Proponents of cultural relativism sometimes refuse to back down even when presented with the most outrageous and grisly of such cases. This should lead us to wonder if they would not be probably among the first to condemn these practices as strongly as anyone else, had they not backed themselves into this position by hastily adopting a philosophical stance without due reflection upon its full implications?

54Nevertheless, one must admit that the moral problems cultural relativism is trying to address are certainly real and serious ones. In some cases, it is simply not obvious what we should do or even think when confronted by practices of another culture that offend our moral sense and contradict our deepest convictions or intuitions. Some things that people do to one another in different cultures are, on the one hand, quite evidently the results of ignorance, wretched superstitions, myths, and poisonous ideologies, and the brutally unjust distribution of power and authority that are common and traditional in those societies. On the other hand, we can often see that in other cultures certain actions or practices have a different meaning, and we are quite aware that we somehow lack the conceptual resources to understand and evaluate the practices of alien societies. If we do nothing in the face of what is evidently (to us) evil or morally wrong, we completely forfeit our integrity. But if we act on the basis of convictions held from our admittedly incomplete and ethnocentric perspective, we run the risk of arrogantly setting ourselves up as infallible moral judges of people who may know more than we do about what is being judged.

55However, if traditional cultures in other parts of the world are changing so that they become more like modern Western culture in ways we approve, what should be our attitude? Should we applaud and support this process as the victory of moral progress, or should we deplore, regret and oppose these changes because they amount to the violent extinction of that culture’s “priceless, unique and distinct heritage?” What is objectionable about cultural relativism is that it pretends to have found a simple, general, tidy and unambiguous answer to questions where any answer fitting this description is almost certainly wrong.

Inadequate conception of ‘culture’ –a poor man’s anthropology

56The general criterion of right and wrong which cultural relativism proposes is not helpful at all because it is inherently unclear and impossible to apply in the real world. Cultural relativism tells us that the rightness of an act depends on what the agent’s culture believes about it. But most societies today are “a complex network of cultures and subcultures”, sometimes having widely divergent moral beliefs about important and controversial issues. For a given person in a given situation, how are we supposed to decide which culture or subculture the person belongs to? How many different cultures are represented in any given country today? Almost all countries are today multi-cultural societies. How many of us can be entirely sure what culture(s) or “cultural complex” we ourselves belong to? How many (or few) people does it take to set up a culture?

57In most cultures (our own, for instance), many ethical questions are the subject of endless disagreement and debate. This is arguably what got ethical relativism started in the first place. How are we to determine what the ethical beliefs of the prevailing culture are? What is the so-called “prevailing culture?” According to whom or which criteria does one characterize such a culture? Does this require an overwhelming consensus among the culture’s members, or is it a matter of simple majority vote? Or does cultural relativism imply that the most old-fashioned and ethnically traditional moral judgment or opinion is always the right one? It seems that wherever (or whenever) there is any intra-cultural disagreement at all, the effect of cultural relativism will be to support the so-called “dominant view” within the culture by de-legitimizing all dissenting views and drowning out all contesting voices without giving them so much as a hearing. Cultural relativism implies that on any moral question within a culture an opinion or a judgment is always necessarily wrong whenever it goes against traditional beliefs very widely held in the culture in question. This means that those individuals (or groups) who raise moral questions about entrenched and accepted practices are always in the wrong. It also means that any movement for moral reform within a culture, even if it eventually succeeds, must have been in the wrong at the time it got started, and therefore, it must always be wrong to try to reform any culture’s established and accepted moral beliefs and practices. This is clearly hard to countenance or accept from a normative philosophical standpoint.

58Cultural relativism seems to give plausible answers to ethical questions only in a culture (utterly unlike our own) that is homogeneous, unreflective, unchangeable and free of serious moral disagreements. Ironically, the very social and cultural complexities, mutabilities and controversies that could have made cultural relativism attractive render it in fact useless, unclear and implausible as an account of ethical truth, if there is one, and even counter-productive and dangerous from a normative, pragmatic-political point of view –esp. at this juncture of history.

Some other reasons for its enduring yet misguided appeal

59What other reasons could be brought up to explain cultural relativismes enduring (yet misguided) appeal to a diverse range of people, united only in the potential uses or abuses they can make of such a position for their respective, dubious and often conflicting, purposes? In this section, I am particularly interested in ascertaining further some of them. For this purpose, I examine the connection between such a thesis and four sets of relevant considerations in an effort to heed again Williams’ injunction. These are: (1) dogmatism/ authoritarianism vs. open-mindedness and tolerance, (2) traditionalism / conservatism vs. modernism / progressivism, (3) the quasi-universality of “bullshit”, and (4) ultimate intellectual defense mechanism and immunization against any criticism.

Dogmatism/authoritarianism versus open-mindedness/tolerance

60People are often attracted to cultural relativism because they think it expresses and supports attitudes of open-mindedness and tolerance, and that its rejection implies somehow a commitment to arrogant dogmatism and narrow-mindedness. The terms “relative” and “absolute” are taken to be opposites. Subsequently the opposite of "relativism" assumed to be ‘absolutism’, a term commonly associated with authoritarian and dogmatic connotations. Besides, dogmatism and intolerance seem to make sense only if the idea that “I am right and the other is wrong about something” is assumed. Otherwise, what are we dogmatic or intolerant about? But if everyone’s belief is equally true (because ‘true for them’), then there never could be any occasion to think that one is any more (or less) right than anyone else about anything. Consequently, it seems to follow that there could never be any possible reason for being morally outraged or for treating anyone with anger, hostility or disrespect if they hold a belief different from mine. It is hard to see how this could be squared with our condition and even daily experiences.

61If ‘absolutism’ is bad and ‘relativism’ is its opposite, it does not follow however, that relativism is necessarily good, or better. From a pragmatic point of view, one does not always avoid a bad thing by flying to the opposite extreme, since that might turn out to be just as bad or detrimental. In any case, it is not clear that relativism really is the opposite of dogmatism, authoritarianism, closed-mindedness, and intolerance. In fact, it may even be just another version of the same thing.

62Let’s explore this issue further. One can safely say that, by definition, relativism never declares any belief absolutely true or false. This may incline us to think that it is open-minded. But what is it to be open-minded? Isn’t it to be disposed to think that one is fallible, that one could be mistaken in what one believes, so that what one now think is absolutely true might upon closer examination or due reflection turn out to be absolutely false. This is presumably a thought that a relativist can never have, because relativists are convinced that at any time all their beliefs are necessarily true (for them). Are they not? One shows open-mindedness by leaving open the possibility of changing one’s beliefs (coming to disagree with and rejecting what one used to believe) when one is given good reasons to do so. But can relativists ever have any reason for changing their beliefs, since relativism says that at every point their beliefs are already true (for them)? To be sure, relativism does not actually give anyone (individual or group) a reason for not changing their beliefs. But if anyone Individual or group) just happen to change their beliefs, then relativism would presumably say that their new beliefs are just as true (for them) as, but no truer (for them) than, their old beliefs were. In effect, relativism would seem to imply that that the right attitude toward one’s beliefs is always one of total self-complacency.

63If relativism is anti-authoritarian, it seems to be only in the sense that it takes away any reason one might have for considering the opinions and arguments of others in forming one’s beliefs –for instance, the opinion of someone better informed and more experienced, or simply someone else’s opinion). Let’s recall again that what relativism says: our beliefs are all true (for us) no matter what anyone else may say or think. Thus, it effectively undercuts any reason anyone might have for being critical about their own beliefs. As noted earlier, relativism implies that one is always infallible in whatever one believes. This is not only closed-minded but arrogant. To say, in effect, that everyone else is infallible too does not diminish in any way the closed-minded arrogance of this view. It merely adds to one’s own dogmatism the provision that it is all right for everyone else to be just as dogmatic as one is.

64As I understand it, tolerance is the willingness to let others be different from us, and especially, to let them disagree with us, even if they are wrong. If one takes such a line of reasoning, then one must admit that relativism undermines or even cuts down on the need to be tolerant, since it denies that anyone is ever wrong. How does this make the relativist tolerant? Does successfully fleeing from every danger make one courageous? It is as if relativists cannot even conceive of actually tolerating those they think are in the wrong, and the closest thing to tolerance they are capable of imagining is the principled refusal ever to admit that anyone could ever be wrong about anything.

65But relativism does not altogether eliminate the need for tolerance because people can be intolerant not only of those whose beliefs they think are wrong, but also of those who differ from them in other ways (in skin color, race, sexual orientation, gender, customs and folkways, or emotional sensibilities) even when the difference involves no disagreement in beliefs. When the need for tolerance in all such cases does arise, relativism provides no reason at all for being tolerant rather than intolerant. If someone believes that it is wrong to hate people who differ from us, relativism tells that person that that belief is true (for her); but equally, if someone believes in persecuting others, then relativism tells her that this belief is also true (for her). In short, relativism is just as likely to encourage intolerance as it is to encourage tolerance. And this is precisely what we should have expected.

66By saying that every belief is true for the person who holds it, relativism is absolutely neutral between all pairs of opposed beliefs. But that entails directly that relativism is absolutely neutral between the belief in tolerance and the belief in intolerance. What this shows is simply that tolerance is not the same thing as neutrality. Tolerance, properly understood, requires some positive convictions about why, when and to what extent we should let people believe and do what we take to be wrong. It implies that there must always be a threshold of the intolerable, or a limit to what can be tolerated. Relativism can never support or even admit any convictions of this kind, because it cannot even admit that anything is ever wrong.

Traditionalism/conservatism versus modernism/progressivism

67Religious and political conservatives or traditionalists often attack ‘relativism’. When they are accused of maintaining their views dogmatically or intolerantly, their reply typically amounts to saying that all they are doing is maintaining that there is such a thing as “the truth”, and that it is right to stand by the truth. Alternatively, when their views are challenged, they engage in the rhetorical move of asserting that their dogmatically held opinions are true –as if this is sufficient to justify the dogmatic and intolerant manner in which they hold them. Obviously, it is one thing to believe that there is truth, and quite another thing to believe that one is in sole and certain possession of it. Even if their beliefs were true, this does not automatically justify forcing them down other people’s throats. But their entrenched bad habits and erroneous reasonings do probably encourage the idea that it is inherently conservative to believe in “truth”, and that ‘relativism’ is the right name for any view that is open-minded, tolerant, liberal and progressive.

68I would be prepared to contend that what the conservatives and traditionalists oppose is not so much relativism in the sense discussed here, but some other beliefs, namely the following views: (1) Traditionally accepted moral principles may not be correct; this is at least something about which intelligent and reasonable people may disagree. (2) Which moral rules and principles are correct is subject to change with time and circumstances. (3) Moral principles apply differently to different circumstances, so that what is right for one person in one situation can be wrong for another person in a different situation. (4) There are sometimes justified exceptions to even a moral rule that is correct in general. (5) Even if an accepted moral principle is correct, we should sometimes be tolerant of people who disagree with it and refuse to follow it.

69Each of these views might be described in some sense as “relativist”. It asserts that moral rules and principles should be considered “relative” to something [in (1) and (2), they are relative to the grounds or evidence for them, which may not, or may no longer, be sufficient; in (3), (4) and (5), to the conditions of their application, which may justify flexibility in applying them]. These forms of “relativity” do not however imply “relativism” in the sense discussed in this essay, and are even arguably inconsistent with it. For all of the views stated [(1)-(5)] presuppose that there is truth in moral matters, since they challenge traditional ideas about which principles are objectively correct, how certain we can be about this, whether moral truth can change, and how flexible we should be in adapting moral principles to different situations. Defenders of such views might want to remain vigilant and not let conservatives and traditionalists get away with the suggestion that they are vulnerable to the charges of incoherence and self-refutation that can be brought against relativism.

  • 26  In ancient Greece, Protagoras was well known for advocating very conventional views about how to l (...)

70As we have seen earlier, (cultural) relativism is itself a very conservative position26: it tends to lend uncritical support to dominant cultural views and practices. Those who want to question or criticize traditional practices, creeds and values at least have to admit that they might be wrong. But since relativism holds that everyone’s belief is already true (for them), it implies that there is never really any need for anyone to change their views about anything. One does not have to attack the very notion of objective truth in order to challenge traditional ideas about what it is, where it is to be found, or whose views have to be taken into account in looking for it –if that is our interest. On the contrary, it is only by presupposing that there is such a truth that you can legitimize challenges to mistaken ideas about what it is and how it should be sought. In fact, since objective or absolute truth is not truth for anyone in particular, this implies that everyone’s standpoint needs to be considered and possibly be taken into account in searching for it.

The quasi-universality of “bullshit” and relativism

  • 27  Following the republication of an essay by Harry Frankfurt, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Pr (...)
  • 28  Writing in the Times Literary Supplement (1996) on the Sokal affair, Paul A. Boghossian described (...)

71I examine next what some might consider to be a highly speculative and ‘unserious’ hypothesis27, namely, whether and in what sense there is a strong and substantial connection between the pervasive, ubiquitous, and quasi-universal presence of ‘bullshit’ in virtually all aspects of our lives and the strong and widespread appeal that (cultural) relativism exerts today. I believe such a connection is plausible, and I attempt to substantiate such a claim. In this regard, it is worth noting the suggestion (made by Frankfurt, for example) that a (more than superficial) connection could also be established between the so-called trendy and dominant movement of ‘postmodernism’ (itself viewed as a fairly advanced form of ‘bullshit’) and the appeal exerted by relativism (itself one of the articles of faith and core tenets of postmodernism). In this regard, it might be worthwhile entertaining a general hypothesis: Does relativism as a theoretical position thrive more in some periods of history than others? What features or characteristics, if any, distinguish such periods –even if, in the final analysis, what matters from a philosophical point of view is to determine if such a position can be justified apart from the appeal and attractiveness it may exercise? It should be obvious that this kind of hypothesis, entertaining or establishing a direct connection between “postmodernism”, “bullshit”, and “relativism”, raises larger philosophical problems, which are clearly beyond the narrow bounds of my present analysis. Nevertheless, the following questions could be entertained: Isn’t the academic world a producer of a particular kind of ‘bullshit’ that is as nocuous as the one we more readily associate with the media, advertising and marketing, politics or politicians? Isn’t postmodernism itself, without too many circumspections, at least in some of its (extreme and radical) expressions and formulations, a form of advanced and sophisticated relativistic “bullshit?”(Sokal and Bricmont, 1998)28.

72Much of what we are exposed to in mass or pop culture today is what we may call “bullshit”. There are obviously varieties and varying degrees of “bullshit” –some more substantial and noxious, with more ‘stench’ than others –relative to various domains, areas or spheres of activity. But generally speaking, one could say the following, in an effort to characterize different degrees of “bullshit”. There is “bullshit” when I say something to you that isn’t true, when I know it isn’t true (1stdegree), I know you know it isn’t true (2nd degree), and I know you know I know it isn’t true (3rd degree), but I know that if you hear it enough, it will probably influence your behavior, typically in my interests, or in some favored direction (4th degree). [This characterization is, I believe, compatible or in accord with Frankfurt’s take].

73A special kind of bullshit consists in making wildly exaggerated claims for something: no one believes them, but the “bullshit-artist” foresees that people will end up acting as though they believed them, if only just a tad. Another kind of bullshit consists in a transparently self-serving interpretation of the world, such as the contrasting versions of events narrated by openly self-advertised representatives of political parties, or by the ostensibly “right-wing” and “left-wing” debaters on those TV shows in which important contemporary issues are reduced to scripted, half-serious ‘shouting matches’ for the amusement and entertainment of the audience. Nobody expects the bullshit-artist to be objective or fair or even credible –indeed, he would not have even have gotten the job if what he is said could be taken at face value. The ability to produce ‘creative bullshit’ is part of the job description.

74As everyone recognizes, (almost) all political rhetoric, advertising and marketing today is one sort of bullshit or another –some may call it “spin” or “hype”. Nobody believes them, or even takes them seriously. Yet the politicians who spend their donors’ money are the ones who get elected, and the products that are advertised and marketed on TV are the ones that sell. It is even fair to say that everywhere we look we are invariably subjected to some Ad or marketing campaign.

75To be “bullshitted” is to be exposed to something that seems at first at least to pretend to be truth, but which you know from the start is less than truth. You reject it as truth, but then gradually come to accept it as less than truth, but also as not quite nothing either. Bullshit therefore works partly by numbing our mind, dulling our desire for truth, and by getting us used to filling our mind with what we know is less than truth, with what is self-consciously phony, a showy or glitzy but of course unconvincing imitation of truth. Bullshit does not function on the level of reality, but on the level of subjectivity –the perceptions of the recipients (or bullshittees) and the interests of the bullshit-artists (or bullshitters).

76The psychological result of constant and massive bombardment by “bullshit” (in its various forms and varying degrees) is inescapable. It may perhaps help us to understand what relativists might mean by “true for me”. Bullshit is something other than and less than truth, something designed to dull my desire and appetite for truth. It is something I don’t believe (yet eventually sort of believe), a substitute or ersatz for truth that functions effectively not because of its relation to reality, but because of its relation to our subjective susceptibilities to being deceived and manipulated at least partly with our own knowledge and consent. Bullshit puts itself forward as a sort of truth, which will affect our behavior as if we believe it, even though we really do not. Isn’t this one way in which the confused and self-contradictory notion of “true for me” might acquire a semblance of intelligibility? Paradoxically, as Jacques Bouveresse once put it, what is true does not always appear as such, and this could even be a detriment to the cause of truth; on the other hand, what only appears to be true is often more efficacious and somehow convincing, and therefore more readily accepted.

77Couldn’t we then say that relativism expresses somehow the consciousness of someone whose emotional-cognitive environment has been taken over by “bullshit”, so to speak? It is an environment in which nothing anybody believes is really believed; nothing anybody asserts is meant seriously, so nobody would be as crude or rude as to say that it was “true”. Nobody would care about the truth even if it came up and hit them in the face. Such a person would have come to regard being “bullshitted” as the normal, default state. Such a person might think that to really believe in something (and hold it to be true, period) is somehow abnormal, a relic of a more innocent age in which people did not yet realize that “everything is bullshit”. This also might explain why relativists (and some so-called “postmodernists) often think of themselves as sophisticated compared to people who have not gotten over the idea of ‘absolute or objective truth’. Relativism might even seem to be a way of protecting oneself against being taken in and deceived by bullshit, since it makes it explicit that no assertion is to be taken at face value and nothing anybody ever says is really to be believed.

78Interestingly though, people who bullshit others do however seriously hold some beliefs, even if they don’t express them: For example, they seriously believe that if the others are bullshitted often enough, they will behave in ways that serve the bullshitter’s interests at the expense of the bullshittee’s. It is only because the bullshittees seriously believe this too that they have any reason to protect themselves against bullshit by not taking it seriously. So it would seem that however prevalent, pervasive and ubiquitous bullshit might become, it never really abolishes genuine belief or assertion, or renders the notion of (absolute or objective) truth obsolete. In fact, one might wonder if it is not a self-defeating strategy to try to protect oneself from bullshit by not taking it seriously. Isn’t bullshit by its nature something that is not seriously believed, and that manipulates us despite the fact that we do not seriously believe it, and sometimes even because we do not believe it? Therefore, however prevalent bullshit may become in our emotional-cognitive or socio-cultural environments, we cannot ultimately avoid challenging it directly and in unsophisticated manner by just recognizing it for what it is and declaring bluntly that it is false. Admittedly, this may not always be the most expedient or diplomatic. But it is the nature of bullshit that it manipulates those who take a “let-it- be-attitude” or believe to be above the fray even more successfully than it does those who are not, since such attitudes often mean slouching into the acceptance of the very notions and dispositions that let bullshit work on you. The only way really to oppose bullshit is by being undiplomatic, by uncompromising chopping logic and rational arguments, and by insisting rather squarely on the obvious if boring fact that there is after all a distinction between telling the truth and telling lies. Isn’t there? As far as what we really know, we may concede that we don’t know much with certainty in the final analysis, but nevertheless we can still insist on a simple distinction between what is more or less and relatively speaking established or substantiated and what is mere fable, fabulous or fabrication.

Ultimate intellectual defense mechanism and immunization against criticism

79As we have seen above, relativism says that whatever we believe is true for us irrespective of what anyone else believes. In effect, it marginalizes everyone else’s standpoint except our own. In relation to bullshit, relativism tries to protect us from being manipulated by urging accommodation, and by blocking beliefs that others could try to implant in us against our knowledge and will, by cutting us off from any pretense at serious communication or dialogue with them. In relation to what we do seriously believe, however, relativism also cuts us off from serious communication or dialogue with others, and serves thereby as a self-protective mechanism in another way.

80In the course of opening ourselves up to other ways of thinking (as when we do philosophy, for example), we may suddenly discover powerful arguments and theories we never considered before and which challenge the opinions and judgments we have always taken for granted. Needless to say, this can be very unsettling and disturbing, and could even make us feel intimidated and insecure. Relativism comes to the rescue by protecting our opinions and judgments (by making them all “true for us”). Because relativism is presumably ‘neutral’ between all particular opinions and judgments, it enables us to remain above the fray, so to speak, by taking the high ground away from those who, by defending and lobbying for their particular version of the truth, make it all too obvious that they somehow have an axe to grind. A relativist never has to bother with the frustrating details of any real dispute (philosophical or otherwise) because his position explains ahead of time not only why the dispute will never get resolved, but also why this is perfectly all right. It is as if we can agree that inquiry, reasoning and argument are fine (if someone happens to feel like paying attention to them), but we are assured by the “guardians of cultural purity and integrity” that they will never seriously threaten our own beliefs, which remain true for us however the arguments come out. In this way, it seems that relativism encourages one kind of tolerance, namely, tolerance toward one’s own intellectual cowardice, laziness, ineptitude, and incompetence, for which some people have arguably a desperate need.

81When, furthermore, it purports to protect us against all those whose powerful arguments might threaten one’s comfortable little world of convictions and deeply held, though objectionable beliefs, relativism also makes us think we are tolerant toward others. Since it protects us somehow from experiencing their alternative views as a threat to ours [and prevents us from looking at them as “alternatives for us” or even “alternatives to us” –to appropriate and use freely another of Williams’ distinction (Williams, 1985). Thus, it releases us from the need to resist their arguments or to argue back: We can just “live and let live” –as the popular bumper sticker philosophical statement puts it. Both the appeal of relativism and its so-called claim to tolerance are then grounded ultimately in the way it immunizes our dogmatically held opinions and judgments against any facts or critical reasonings that might possibly call them into question.

Consequences of “cultural complexity” : toward an empirically and normatively adequate approach to cultural analysis

82As we all know by now, ‘culture’ has emerged in recent decades as the subject of intense and divisive political controversies at both the national and international (or should I say, global) level. The intensity and divisiveness of these controversies can be felt most acutely in a number of areas. These include: identity politics or the politics of cultural differences and recognition, multiculturalism, cross-cultural communication or incommensurability, or more specifically, with the issue of cultural relativism vs. moral universalism, particularly as it is brought to bear on the debates and struggles about human rights, democracy, human development, social and global justice –to mention only a few of the most contentious ones.

  • 29  Obviously, I am not here making the traditional German distinction between Kultur and Zivilization (...)
  • 30  In a recent book(2006), Amartya Sen takes aim at the logic of conflict underlying the reductionist (...)

83In the aftermath of the Cold War and the so-called “end of ideologies”, some authors (on the right side of the political spectrum) have argued that the single most important conflict confronting the world today and for the foreseeable future will be a “clash of civilizations” (Huntington, 1996) –also characterized as a “clash of cultures” (in the broadest sense of the term)29, which are irremediably incommensurable and condemned to misunderstand one another30.

84Paradoxically enough, this view is further supported and given credence by so-called “postmodernists” who are typically situated on the left side of the political spectrum. These thinkers take a strong anti-metanarrative stance and recommend that we content ourselves and learn to live with diverging tales and narratives in irreconcilable idioms and languages. They urge that we forego once and for all any attempt to make comparative evaluations on the basis of a presumably neutral (external, trans-historical, trans-cultural, and universal) set of standards, or to enfold them into synoptic or synthetic visions of any kind.

85Besides, the phenomenon of “globalization” –apprehended in at least one of its main dimensions– is commonly viewed as something fundamentally new (see earlier note 6) and interpreted as one threatening cultural uniformity or homogenization around the world.It is in one sense taken to represent the new face of “cultural imperialism”. In effect, it is viewed mainly as “a threat to cultural diversity”.

86It is widely believed that the predominance and global expansion of uniformizing and homogenizing modes of production and reproduction, consumption and information risks alienating non-Western and Western people alike from the intellectual and moral resources embedded in their own ‘distinctive’ cultural traditions. In reaction to what is viewed as the erosion of traditional cultures and civilizations, we seem to be witnessing the re-emergence of a tendency to “re-ethnicize the minds” through renewed and more or less systematic “cultural revivals” worldwide (viz., “induisissions”, “sinofication”, “nipponification”, “islamicization”, “indianisassions”, “ivoirization”, “russification”, “gallicization”, etc). Scholars of various stripes and persuasions are clamoring to understand and assess the significance of this phenomenon, as attested by the proliferation of publications on this subject (Botz-Bornstein and Hengelbrock, 2006).

87In the past few years, the unesco convened a forum in order to hammer out a convention on the “protection and promotion” of cultural diversity. Such a convention was finally approved, I believe, in October 2005. The drafters worried that “the processes of globalization …represent a challenge for cultural diversity, namely in view of risks of imbalances between rich and poor countries”. The fear was that the values and images of Western mass culture, like some invasive weed, are threatening to choke out the world’s native flora. Subsequently, alarms are sounded and concerns raised about the imminent disappearance of “distinctive cultures”, and calls made to “preserve” all existing cultures –as if they each and all deserve to be saved, in each and all their respective components and elements.

88Upon closer scrutiny however, the unesco document reveals contradictions and tensions. For example, it affirms both the necessity of protecting cultural diversity and the importance of the free flow of ideas, freedom of thought and expression, and human rights. However, as we know, the latter values will become universal only if we all choose to make them so. And it is manifestly unclear how to best arrive at this desirable result. In this context, shouldn’t we ask the difficult question: What is really important –cultures or peoples? Shouldn’t the most pressing question be instead: How can we articulate a viable universalist ethics of globalization –judiciously and properly understood in its complexity? A defensible global ethics is arguably going to be one that tempers the respect for differences with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices.

  • 31  I mean here to include various “dogmatic, political ideologies”, some of which claiming to be athe (...)

89It is important to recognize that ‘diversity’ and ‘freedom’ may often be at odds, and the tensions between them are not always easy to resolve. The rhetoric of preservation and diversity does not seem of much help in dealing with the contradictions that emerge. Let us consider a couple of provisions included in the unesco convention on cultural diversity (Unesco, 2001). Take for example the principle affirming equal dignity and respect for all cultures. Does this mean each, any and all cultures, or what? Does this mean affirming the equal respect for each and all components or aspects of a given culture? Do the cultures deserving protection for diversity’s sake include the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) and the Taliban, other expressions of cultural purity and integrity, or fundamentalisms –whether they are religious or secular31? I, for one, certainly do not think so.

  • 32  In a recent article titled “A Secret History” that appeared recently in The New York Times (Februa (...)

90Take also the principle affirming the importance of culture for social cohesion, and its potential for the enhancement of the status and role of women in society. Doesn’t cohesion argue for uniformity or conformity? Wouldn’t enhancing the status and role of women involve changing, rather than preserving, some cultures –at least in some important respects32? Unquestionably, human variety and cultural diversity matter –not for their own sake or in themselves, but because they offer people different options to which they are entitled in order to flourish (see Mill, 1860, 1982 for a classic argument to that effect). It is not to enable them to adapt merely to miserable and oppressive conditions (see Nussbaum, 2000, p. 111-166 for an insightful discussion of “Adaptive Preferences and Women’s Options”). If, however, we want to preserve a wide range of cultural and human conditions, it must be because it gives free people more live options as opposed to dead ones. Subsequently, it must be because it gives people the best chances to make their own lives as they see fit. Can we thereby justify enforcing diversity by trapping people within differences that they themselves long to reduce and seek to escape? We should not forget, as I already pointed out, that cultural differences are often the perfect cover for the continued imposition of unjust and oppressive traditional practices. We should also keep in mind, as Seyla Benhabib reminds us, “cultural boundaries circumscribe power in that they legitimize its use within the group or community” (Benhabib, 2002, p. 7).

91“Political correctness” aside, perhaps we should also keep in mind that: “Cultures are not museum pieces, to be preserved intact at all costs” (Nussbaum, 1999, p. 37). Perhaps we also need to come to grips with the unavoidability and even desirability of “cross-cultural contamination, intermingling and fertilization” (Appiah, 2006b).

92According to Appiah (2006a), it may be useful to distinguish between ‘preserving cultural artifacts’ produced by different cultures over time from ‘preserving cultures.’ It is hard to see how one could object to the former –commensurately of course with one’s means and resources, and morally justifiable priorities. But it is not clear how much we can or should preserve cultures as such –as if they can be preserved ‘frozen in time’ like ‘pickles in a jar’ if they are unable to survive through changes and adaptations and endure, even if only as a historical entity. Let’s not forget that cultures are made of continuities through changes, and the identity of a culture (as a historical entity) typically survives through these more or less radical changes. A culture which does not survive through various kinds of changes is not more authentic, but merely dead. This is true of any particular Western culture as well as any other non-Western culture.

  • 33  This is not to imply that such protagonists don’t exist in the Western World as well. They obvious (...)
  • 34  Capitalism, as we know it, is unquestionably of Western origin and nowadays it is indeed global –e (...)

93The so-called ‘preservationists’ or ‘guardians of cultural purity and integrity’ in the non-Western world, for exemple33, often make their case by invoking the evil of ‘culturale imperialism’. The picture underlying their position can be depicted, in broad strokes, as follows: There is a global Western system of capitalism34. It has a center and a periphery. At the center –in the US and Europe– is a set of multinational corporations. Some of these dominate literally the media business. All however are actively seeking to sell their ‘products’ around the world by promoting the creation of ‘desires’ and ‘false needs’ that can be fulfilled only by the purchase and use of these products. They do this explicitly through advertising and marketing, but more insidiously, they also do so through the messages implicit in videos, movies and in TV soaps, comedies, and dramas. Leading critics of media-cultural imperialism claim that ‘it is the imagery and cultural perspectives of ‘the ruling sector’ in the center that shape and structure the consciousness throughout the system at large.’ From a certain (experiential) point of view, this claim seems to be borne out at least in part, but it is doubtful whether a socio-historical and political analysis of evidence (in due form) would corroborate this picture in an unmitigated and unqualified way. Recent studies in this area show interestingly enough that people around the world respond to these cultural imports differently depending on their values, needs and priorities in their respective and already very complex cultural contexts. In short, it seems that adaptations, re-interpretations, transfers and filterings are taking place in so many different ways. Besides, doesn’t talk of cultural imperialism ‘structuring the consciousness’ of people living in the so-called periphery treat them like ‘blank slates’ on which global Western capitalism unfettered writes its subliminal messages, leaving in its wake only ‘cultural automatons’ or ‘zombies’? Isn’t this deeply condescending, apart from being unsupported by the complexities of cultural interactions and exchanges around the world in this era of both globalization and glocalisation?

  • 35  I am here putting into play the various dubious assumptions or premises, alluded to earlier (in no (...)

94More often than not, a problematic conception of ‘culture’ is at work implicitly or explicitly in the views of various protagonists involved in these debates about culture. As noted earlier, they write or talk as if “culture” were a homogenous, coherent, bounded, tightly woven, un-contested, unified, or unitary entity with a distinct nature, whose identity-constituting and deterministic role on individuals and groups of people is uniform, continuous, and stable35. I contend that such a conception of “culture” underlying or underwriting many of the controversies raging today constitutes in fact a fundamental misconception, with profound and at times disturbing philosophical as well as political implications (Chokr, 2006a).

  • 36  A worthwhile project might consist in sketching out (1) the Modern view, how it evolved in the pas (...)

95Admittedly, the concept of “culture” is “essentially a contested concept –like democracy, religion, simplicity, or social justice”, which is multiply defined, multiply employed, ineradicably imprecise (Geertz, 2000, p. 11). And a history of its evolution over the past couple of hundred years or so –to take a relatively limited yet arguably sufficient historical perspective– would attest to the vicissitudes it has undergone, the battles over its meaning, its use, and its explanatory worth36.

  • 37  In recent years, ideas from ‘complexity theory’ have had a substantial impact on various disciplin (...)

96If however we were to draw together some of the main insights and lessons that we have learned from various such efforts, we would come to recognize the facts of “cultural complexity37 and be compelled to draw its consequences. This would inevitably lead us to articulate and defend an alternative, more appropriate conception, according to which “culture” is always already ineradicably plurael, compound, inconstant, and always already multiply contested both from within and without. Such a conception constitutes, I believe, a direct challenge to the static “cookie-cutter conception of culture” with its focus on consensus, type, uniformity and commonality. In the face of the kind and degree of fragmentation, dispersion, intermingling, cross-fertilization and contamination characteristic of the (globalizing and ‘glocalizing’) world today, I submit that the view of culture, a culture, this culture, as a consensus on fundamentals –shared beliefs, feelings, values and practices– is hardly tenable except for the “guardians of cultural integrity and ethnic purity” who would like us to believe otherwise. Against such guardians, we must be prepared to countenance instead the composite, dynamic and heterogeneous nature of cultures. I must stress here that such a view does not aim to deny the significance of cultural differences, quite to the contrary. We should be willing and prepared to countenance them in a realistic and normatively justifiable way; however, we need not reify them because this would deprive us of the necessary resources to engage in social and political criticism and radical questioning intra and inter-culturally. To be sure, “Culture matters”, but not in an essentialist and strictly deterministic sense –as in the view articulated by Huntington & Harrison (2000).

  • 38  Jean-Francois Fayart has argued along similar lines in his book(2005). He claims that the concept (...)

97In conclusion, we are well advised in my view to draw the consequences of “cultural complexity” in a world that is undergoing both ‘globalization’ and ‘glocalisation’ at the same time in an effort to articulate an adequate conception of culture and cultural analysis –from both an empirical and normative point of view. I contend that, if, and when we do, we would for example be able to come up with an account of the complex mechanisms of identity-formation for individuals and communities that is far more compelling empirically and normatively (Chokr, 2007a)38. We would also be able to better understand the complex internal dynamics of cultures as well as the diverse relationships that obtain (or not) between them at this juncture of history. I am also prepared to argue that it would enable us to better address the various issues mentioned above, and in particular, that of human rights –to mention only one of the issues referred to earlier (Chokr, 2006a). We would then easily come to see that the traditional debate pitting ‘cultural relativism’ against ‘moral universalism’ is in fact a dead-end, outdated and made irrelevant, so to speak, by the newly emerging historical conditions confronting us, and in which we find ourselves.

Considering two possibly viable options: Williams & Nussbaum

98I believe that Williams is correct when he notes that, though cultural relativism conjures up a general moral problem, it is in reality either too early or too late (Williams 1972, 1981, 1985, 2002). Different cultural communities are either in contact or not. If, on the one hand, two communities and their outlooks have not encountered each other, then it is too early for any question to arise about their relations to one another and the judgments they form. Relativism is then not a very interesting or substantive thesis because there is nothing at stake between them. This allows for a sense in which cultural relativism is true. There can be in other words relativism at a distance between two historically distinct cultures. But if, on the other hand, two communities are already in contact with one another, then it is too late for cultural relativism. By virtue of being in contact, the communities have to some degree become interconnected. It is too late for cultural relativism in the sense that it can provide no answers to the question of how individuals and groups with different moral outlooks and judgments are to treat each other. Together they now form a new moral and conversational community, which must confront the morally basic questions of how its members ought live and relate to one another (Benhabib, 2002). This is obviously the situation in which we are today, and which arguably involves (almost) the whole world.

99It seems then that only a departure from cultural relativism towards something like a “pluralistic, historically enlightened ethical universalism” can help us address the moral questions that we all face together in a ‘globalized’ world, and in which we now form a new community confronted with urgent moral questions. Such a universalism must be one that remains however sufficiently respectful of cultural differences, while at the same time being constrained normatively by what is right and therefore good for each and all human beings, regardless of which culture or cultural complex they (claim to) belong to.

100As I pointed out at the outset, such a view is also that of a number of contemporary philosophers who are eager to clear the ground for such a perspective and defend it each in their own distinctive way from their respective philosophical and political standpoint. For this purpose, I intend in a forthcoming section (6.2) to focus on, and discuss in some detail Nussbaum’s bold, substantial, and timely proposal. First however, I turn next to Williams’ case against ‘ethical theory,’ and his defense of ‘reflection’ as an alternative in an effort to ascertain if he offers us a viable option.

Williams’ case against ethical theory/defense of ‘reflection’ as alternative

101Though Williams’ writings –subtle, imaginative and insightful as they are, have for the most part defined themselves over the years in opposition to one or another of the dominant ethical theories in contemporary moral theory, they have not however put forward an alternative theory. This is not of course to say that Williams’ contributions have been primarily negative or critical, but it means that “his positive contributions have not taken the form of theory construction” (Scheffler, 2002, p. 197). For Williams, traditional ethical theories have failed to orient themselves convincingly in relation to conspicuous features of ethical phenomena as actually experienced by situated human beings. They have overlooked or neglected dimensions of ethical life, the complexity of human life, the non-rational and emotional aspects of human nature, including the fact that people find value, as he says (1972), in such things as trust, submission, regret, uncertainty, risk, even despair and suffering”.

  • 39  As noted earlier (note 18), I have myself vigorously defended such a view as well in another conte (...)

102This has led him to challenge the dominant agenda of contemporary moral philosophy; to question and raise serious doubts, not just about the alternative and rival answers that moral philosophers have traditionally given to certain standard and traditional questions, but more importantly, about whether the standard and traditional questions themselves are really the right ones for moral philosophy to be addressing. He has thus indicted the so-called traditional “morality system” and its underlying assumptions. Moreover, he has recommended that we replace the “thin” concepts (e.g., good, bad, ought, right, wrong, etc) favored by the “morality system” and which are “general and abstract” and “do not display world-guidedness” by “thick” concepts (e.g., courage, shame, treachery, brutality, gratitude, promise, lying/truthfulness, etc) which are “world-guided and action-guiding” (Williams, 1985, p. 140-134 and 152). And on the basis of a distinction drawn between morality and ethics, he urged that philosophers return to the Greeks’ more inclusive and general starting point “How should one live?”39 In his view, such a question obviously invites considerations of all salient aspects of human life, as well as confrontations of life’s tough questions, presumably in a piecemeal fashion, with close attention being paid to the arts, literature and psychology, and more generally to the humanities and the social sciences.

103In effect, one could say that, for Williams, the fundamental alternative confronting moral philosophers today is between (1) an ethics based on theoretical, metaphysical criteria and (2) an ethics squarely and firmly anchored in the thick of human life and existence.

104In his famous 1985 work, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Williams extended his criticism with increasing vigor to the very idea of an ‘ethical theory’ itself. To put it briefly, he does not believe that there is any legitimate philosophical question that is best answered by elaborating the kind of normative structure that philosophers commonly refer to as an ‘ethical theory’. “There cannot be any very interesting, tidy or self-contained theory of what morality is…nor…can there be an ethical theory, in the sense of a philosophical structure which, together with some empirical fact, will yield a decision procedure for moral reasoning” (Williams, 1981, p. ix-x). It is in this context that we may understand his powerfully articulated and defended criticisms of Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Aristotelianism.

105However, in their evaluations of Williams’ work, several critics, who are otherwise sympathetic to a number of his ideas (including myself) have expressed doubts and reservations about the wisdom of, or warrant for, his wholesale repudiation and rejection of the so-called “morality system”.

106Thus, while Nussbaum, for example, agrees for the most part with his objections to Utilitarianism, she finds his critique and rejection of both Kantianism and Aristotelianism too sweeping and not nuanced or qualified enough. In fact, she believes that “there are many points of agreement between Williams’ approach to ethics and Aristotle” (Williams, 2003, p. 24). She also believes that “Kant’s idea that we should always treat humanity as an end and never as a mere means” is also helpful for criticizing many inclinations we have, in both personal and political life (ibid, p. 11). Another question that she also finds puzzling concerns the relationship between the ethical and the political in Williams’ work (ibid, p. 10). According to her, “Williams later maintained that his attack on ethical theory left intact the aspiration to construct political theories, which might be valuable guides”. But she then asks, quite pertinently: “where does this leave those among the great Western political theorists such as Aristotle, Cicero, Rousseau, Kant, and John Rawls, who put a moral theory at the core of their political theories?” (ibid, p. 10). She goes on to note, also quite pertinently for my later discussion, that Williams has somehow singled out Rawls as an example of the criticized class of moral theories, and yet, his later statements to this effect seem to suggest that he might after all admit the usefulness of Rawls’ theory, given its political nature. In the end however, Nussbaum thinks quite rightly, I believe, that the source of the distinction between an acceptable aspiration to a theory of political justice and an unacceptable aspiration to a theory of individual morality is left obscure. Williams’ general failure to engage systematically with Rawls’ ideas about social and political justice leaves such important issues unresolved. In her mind, Williams never adequately confronted the question of a plausible account of the good in ethical theory (ibid, p. 11).

107As for Scheffler, another sympathetic critic of Williams, he argues that Williams’ distinction between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ concepts is flawed (see also Tappolet, 2004, for another argument to that effect), and therefore less effective against ethical theory than Williams takes it to be (Williams, 2002, p. 199). A closer examination of the latter distinction leads him to identify what he regards as “an important instability in that position”. He wonders in particular if the elimination of ethical theory, given Williams’ own diagnosis of the urge that produces it, would leave Williams with enough resources to engage in the kind of social criticism he evidently wants to engage in (viz. discussions of racism, sexism, and social injustice). According to Scheffler, “there is in fact a conflict between Williams’ repudiation of ethical theory and his desire to engage in social criticism of oppressive social institutions” (ibid.). If Scheffler is right, this raises the question of whether ethical theory should be retained, or whether ethical criticism should instead be eschewed. The answer to this question depends in part on the force of Williams’ objections to ethical theorizing, and those objections in turn depend in part on his doubts about the objectivity of ethics. In the final analysis, Scheffler suggests, quite rightly in my view, that “the possibilities of ethical objectivity may be greater than Williams allows” (ibid.). Insofar as that is so, his case against ethical theorizing is weakened even further.

108However, Williams has insisted that viable resources for moral and social criticism will remain available to us long after ethical theories have disappeared. He writes: “Nothing has been said should lead us to think that traditional distinctions are beyond criticism; practices that make distinctions between different groups of people may certainly demand justification, if we are not to be content with unreflective traditions which can provide paradigms of prejudice” (Williams, 1985, p. 115). Williams calls his alternative to ethical theory “réfection”, and he states unequivocally that the latter should go in a direction opposite to that encouraged by the former. ”Respect for freedom and social justice and a critique of oppressive and deceitful institutions may be no easier to achieve than they have been in the past, and may well be harder, but we need not suppose that we have no ideas to give them a basis. We should not concede to abstract ethical theory its claim to provide the only intellectual surroundings for such ideas” (ibid., p. 116 and 198). And he adds: “It is quite wrong to think that the only alternative to ethical theory is to refuse reflection and to remain in unreflective prejudice. Theory and prejudice are not the only possibilities for an intelligent agent, or for philosophy” (ibid., p. 112).

109What does Williams mean by ‘reflection’? Is it really the case, as he insists, that it enables to criticize moral practice without resorting to moral theory? I will next consider these questions in some detail in an effort to ascertain whether Williams’ alternative proposal is satisfactory.

  • 40  For evidence of Williams’ debt to Critical Theory, see Williams, 1985, p. 166-7, esp. notes 11 and (...)

110The concept of ‘reflection’ is most at home within Critical Theory and Williams’ own use of the term owes clear debts to the way in which critical theorists, such as Habermas employ it40. Although Williams does not offer a formal definition of what he means by ‘reflection,’ the following passage serves both to give some sense of what he means and to indicate how, on his account, reflection differs from ethical theory.

What sorts of reflection on ethical life naturally encourage theory? Not all of them do. There is reflection that asks for understanding of our motives, psychological or social insight into our ethical practices, and while that may call for some kinds of theory, ethical theory is not among them. Nor is it merely that this kind of reflection is explanatory, while that which calls for ethical theory is critical. Much explanatory reflection is itself critical, simply in revealing that certain practices or sentiments are not what they are taken to be. This is one of the most effective kinds of critical reflection. It is a different kind of critical reflection that leads to ethical theory, one that seeks justificatory reasons. (Williams, 1985, p. 112, italics added)

111The kind of reflection Williams has in mind occurs when agents are led to see how they have acquired their normative beliefs and attitudes. This is by the way reminiscent of the ‘genealogical’ approach advocated by both Nietzsche and Foucault. Critical theorists often speak of this as “emancipatory self-reflection” –which consists basically in freeing oneself from hidden forms of domination and repression through a depth explanation and understanding of social processes. Williams intends it however as a more extensive strategy for promoting not only freedom but justice and other ethical concerns as well. He allows that such reflection “may call for some kinds of theory” (e.g., psychoanalysis, or even Marxist social theory) but not ethical theory, allegedly because ethical theory seeks justificatory reasons, which simply cannot be had. The strong justificatory urge of ethical theory is impossible to fulfill, according to Williams, because it involves a wish to see our moral life as endorsable from a standpoint external to it; and many aspects of human moral cannot stand up to such impartial rational scrutiny.

112In this regard, he writes:

We may be able to show how a given moral practice hangs together with other practices in a way that makes social and psychological sense. But we may not be able to find anything that will meet a demand for justification made by someone standing outside those practices. We may not be able, in any real sense, to justify it even to ourselves. A practice may be so directly related to our experience that the reason it provides will simply count as stronger than any other reason that might be advanced for it. (Williams, 1985, p. 114; italics added)

113There seems to be good sense behind Williams’ conviction that many of our moral practices are alas “human, all too human” (to use Nietzsche’s expression) and that they lose the only ground they have if we try to view them from a nonhuman (external) perspective –something like a God’s eye perspective. But does it follow from this that such practices cannot be critically evaluated, or that they can somehow be criticized effectively without invoking moral norms and justifications of these norms? Granted, our justifications often turn out to be more meager than we had hoped they would be, but does this diminish their necessity and importance in our thinking?

114It is worth noting here that Williams uncharacteristically suggests that ‘justice’ may be one moral concept that “transcends the relativism of distance” (Williams, 1985, 166), thus allowing us to appraise societies as just or unjust that are temporally and spatially quite distant from us. If this is so, then on Williams’ view we can appraise some aspects of moral practices from a standpoint external to them. However, it is hard to see what the force of these “justice appraisals” could be. Since the concept of ‘justice’ is also a ‘thin’ concept –one that is not “world-guided” in Williams’ account, it follows then that such appraisals must accordingly and ultimately lack any objective basis.

  • 41  Habermas makes a distinction between “reflexive learning“and “non-reflexive learning”. The former (...)

115Critical reflection only attains its goal when agents are arguably able to defend or dismiss social practices on the basis of arguments41. For Habermas, for example, the search for justificatory reasons is not an esoteric practice indulged in only by ethical theorists. It is somehow built into the structure of everyday communication. In everyday communication we are constantly making various sorts of claims, and the communication continues only when there is a background consensus that the claims could be justified. When this background consensus breaks down, then justificatory reasons must be provided or else the communication itself will break down. In other words, for Habermas, the capacity to provide justificatory reasons is also part of the “communicative competence” that defines us as members of a linguistic community. Contrary to what Williams says, showing that certain practices “are not what they are taken to be” is merely a first step. Defending or dismissing a social practice on the basis of arguments always involves an appeal to moral norms that one believes is rationally justifiable, and this, in turn, necessitates the resources of moral theory. Theorists will continue to debate the precise ways in which such norms can and cannot be rationally justified; but there is no getting around the necessity of normative justification (and hence, of moral theory) once one decides to venture into the arena of social and political criticism. This is, I believe, where the single most important challenge confronting moral and political philosophy today lies. The character of the arguments we are inevitably forced to use in the moral sphere need to find their place within a larger theoretical framework in order to show that our criticisms are neither ad hoc nor self-serving for suspicious ideological purposes.

  • 42  Nussbaum finds it difficult to figure out what Williams’ positive alternative to ethical and polit (...)
  • 43  In recent years, Habermas seems to have softened his position in the sense that he now accepts the (...)

116Williams’ own use of the concept of “reflection” therefore not only runs counter to how Habermas intended it to be understood, but is ultimately self-defeating as well42. Reflective knowledge in the moral sphere requires the resources of normative theory. Habermas himself, in seeking to “recover the forgotten experience of reflection” in his early work (Habermas, 1971) was explicitly trying to re-appropriate a crucial insight of the classical Greek concept of theoria that most modern theorists unfortunately have dismissed, and that is, “the insight that the truth of statements is linked in the last analysis to the intention of the good and true life” (Habermas, 1971, p. vii and 317)43. In doing so, he was not only expressly acknowledging that critical reflection requires the resources of normative moral theory but also drawing attention to the fact that moral norms are embedded in, and presupposed by, all forms of critical thought.

  • 44  One may even note that a charitable interpretation and overall re-assessment of Williams’ work can (...)

117In the final analysis however, it remains that ethical theorizing may have to be done in a new way, perhaps even in a post-Williams’ way44. I.e, a historicized way of doing ethics, anchored in the real, one that takes into account the variegated and complex phenomena of human life and existence, and whereby its ‘objectivity’ is established on radically new grounds, and arguably in a non-metaphysical way.

Nussbaum’s defense of a pluralistic, historically enlightened ethical universalism

118Nussbaum’s effort in this regard is especially noteworthy, and in some sense, particularly conciliatory. Though her work intersects on many points with Williams’ –esp., regarding his interest in ancient Greek thought and the moral and political importance accorded to the hitherto neglected phenomena of the imagination and emotions, she departs radically from him on a number of points.

  • 45  As Nussbaum interprets Aristotle and Marx’s use of his ideas, “the core of his account of human fu (...)

119Thus, she rejects normative culturale relativism and seeks to articulate a universalist ethical and political theory grounded in a Marxian/Aristotelian conception of human flourishing45,as a “free-standing conception”. She claims that the latter could be the object of a worldwide “overlapping consensus” –to use Rawls’ expression, without however restricting it or placing the kinds of constraints he places on it (Rawls, 1996, p. 133-172). By “overlapping consensus”, Nussbaum means “that people may sign onto this conception as the freestanding moral core of a political conception, without accepting any particular metaphysical view of the world, any particular comprehensive ethical or religious view, or even any particular view of the person or of human nature”. Indeed, she adds, “it is expected that holders of different views in those areas will even interpret the moral core of the political conception to some extent differently, in keeping with their different starting points (Rawls, 1996, p. 144-145).

120Though her view is by her own admission closely allied to Rawls’ “political libéralisme”, it differs from the latter’s in that she seeks to extend it beyond the narrower confines of “Western liberal democratic sociétés”. Whether this extension is defensible or not could constitute grounds for contention and controversy, and perhaps even a non-starter. I choose therefore to leave this issue aside for now.

  • 46  In his reply to Habermas’ objection that “justice as fairness” is in fact more substantive than Ra (...)
  • 47  One could say alternatively that it is an opportunity-based approach as long as one insists howeve (...)

121Besides, unlike Rawls’ procedurally oriented conception of justice46, in her view the strongest form of social contract theory today, which countenances a Kantian conception of the person as a rational being, her approach is arguably more of an outcome-oriented approach to justice47. It eschews the Kantian conception and adopts instead Aristotle’s conception of the person as a social and political animal, who shares complex ends with others at many levels.

  • 48  For Rawls, the list of “primary social goods” includes (1) basic rights and liberties, (2) freedom (...)
  • 49  Elsewhere she characterizes “central human capabilities” as “developed opportunities for functioni (...)

122While Rawls’ conception of “justice as fairness” is essentially “resourcist” and focuses on “primary social gonds”48, Nussbaum’s conception of justice is underwritten by her focus on what she calls “central human capabilities” (that is, what people are actually and truly able to do and to be). Her approach is “in a way informed by an intuitive idea of a life that is worthy of the dignity of the human being” (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 5, italics added)49.

  • 50  Even though Nussbaum believes that “we need a substantive account of central political goods, of t (...)
  • 51  It is worth noting here that this is reminiscent of Scanlon’s “parametric universalism” discussed (...)

123Unlike Sen, who opts for a position of “deliberate and assertive incompleteness” in his version of the capabilities approach (Sen, 1992, p. 49), Nussbaum identifies a list of ten such capabilities (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 78-80) as specific political goals and presents them within the context of a kind of “political liberalism” (as opposed to a “comprehensive liberalism”), “in a manner free of any specific metaphysical grounding”50. She thus believes that “the capabilities can be the object of an overlapping consensus among people who otherwise have very different comprehensive conceptions of the good” (ibid., p. 5). She argues further that the capabilities in question should be pursued for each and every person, treating each as an end and none merely as a means for the ends of others –in accord with the Kantian categorical imperative. She adopts therefore what she calls “a principle of each person’s capability, based on a principle of each person as end (ibid.) –which, she claims, has particular critical force with regards to women’s lives which are all too often, alas, viewed as accessories or appendages to the lives of others. Finally, she insists on the idea a threshold level for each capability, beneath which it is commonly held that truly human functioning is not available, and argues that the social and political goal of each society and community should be getting its members above this capability threshold. Her account is not intended to provide a complete theory of social justice, but designed instead to be a general and flexible framework which each community (society or nation-state) is to fill in on its own and in its own way –relative to its particular circumstances and conditions51.

124By attempting thus to defend an approach to the foundations of basic political principles using the idea of human capability, Nussbaum believes that we can uphold “a form of universalism that is sensitive to pluralism and cultural difference” and that could “enable us to answer the most powerful objections to cross-cultural universals” (ibid., p. 8). In effect, she is interested in developing a particular type of normative philosophical theory –not one that is monolithic, tyrannical or dictatorial but one that remains attentive and responsive to various particular empirical facts and considerations.

  • 52  Since I have addressed similar arguments previously in my essay, and will do so again in the forth (...)

125Nussbaum is not content with merely pointing to the “poverty of relativism” and putting forth “historical arguments about non-Western cultures that show the descriptive inadequacy of many anti-universalist approaches” –as Amartya Sen (Sen, 1999), her colleague and pioneer of the capability approach in economics has presumably done. She has not only produced explicit and strongly nuanced arguments against relativism, whether it be derived from considerations about culture, diversity or paternalism (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 41-59)52, but sought to articulate a strong and sustained philosophical defense (of the need for) universal norms and values (ibid., p. 13 and 34-110).

126Against anti-theory thinkers (such as Williams, and even more radical ones such as Annette Baier and Richard Posner) who argue that all philosophical theorizing in ethics is somehow suspect and useless, and that we are better off sticking to everyday language, common intuitions and conceptions, Nussbaum writes, quite rightly, I think:

[…]I am convinced that this wholesale assault on theory is deeply mistaken, and that the systematic arguments of theory have an important practical function to play in sorting out our confused thoughts, criticizing unjust social realities, and preventing the sort of self-deceptive rationalizing that frequently make us collaborators with injustice. It’s perfectly obvious, too, that theory has great practical value for ordinary non-philosophical people, giving them a framework in which to view what is happening to them and a set of concepts with which to criticize abuses that otherwise might have lurked nameless in the background of life. (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 35-36)

127Nussbaum is acutely aware of the possible serious objection faced by anyone making a concrete proposal for a universal framework to assess and evaluate human well-being and flourishing in a particular cultural context. It may be objected for example that the particular categories and concepts chosen are likely to reflect immersion in one’s own particular theoretical or cultural tradition and may thus be external and, at least in some respects, the wrong ones for undertaking such an assessment in that context or even across contexts (ibid., p. 39-40). She even wonders quite perceptively and boldly ‘whether it is appropriate to use a universal framework at all, rather a plurality of different though related frameworks”, and whether the proposed framework, if a single universal one, is “sufficiently flexible to enable us to do justice to the human variety we find” and that we have good reasons to countenance and take into account. She even acknowledges that the challenge is serious because so many proposals in the past “have gone wrong through insufficient attunement to cultural variety and particularity” (ibid., p. 40).

128Nevertheless, she goes on to argue that however crucial it is to understand how a particular context shapes both the choices and aspirations of the people concerned, it remains that certain basic aspirations to human flourishing are recognizable across differences in context (ibid., p. 31). For it is one thing to say we may need local and particular knowledge to fully understand the problems particular people face and properly direct our attention to the aspects of their lives that others may take for granted. “It is quite another matter to claim that certain very general values, such as the dignity of the person, the integrity of the body, basic political rights and liberties, basic economic opportunities, and so forth, are not appropriate norms to be used in assessing the lives of individuals –regardless of where they live” and what cultures they (claim to) belong to. And she asks rhetorically, or rather sarcastically: “How might one argue this more contentious point?” (ibid., p. 41). Indeed, how could anyone in good conscience object to the desirability for each and all human beings of the general values and goals she mentions?

129Nussbaum recognizes the obtuseness and objectionable nature of various ways of thinking across cultural boundaries and urging a universalist approach –e.g., those of the ethnocentric Enlightenment of yesteryears, colonialism, “neo-liberal global marquetèrent”, and even some allegedly open-minded and progressive contemporary Western intellectuals. It is in part the blindness of these various ways to “cultural complexity” that has made many people skeptical about any and all forms of universalism.

It is because such approaches seem obtuse –neglecting tradition and context and their role in constructing desire and preference, neglecting the many different conceptions of the good that citizens of different nation have and their urgent need to be able to live in accordance with these conceptions –that many sensitive thinkers feel all universalizing approaches are bound to be obtuse, and mere accomplices of a baneful globalizing process. Such thinkers see before them the prospect of a world in which all interesting differences, all the rich texture of value, have been flattened out, and we all go to McDonald’s together. (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 32)

130But, of course, ethical universalism need not have such defect, and the fact that some (or even most) universalist approaches proved to be seriously objectionable need not compel us to indict any and all such approaches. Universal values may even be necessary, she reminds us, for an adequate critique of the misguided ways. “Pluralism and respect for differences are themselves universal values that are not everywhere observed; they require a normative articulation and defense” and that is one of the things Nussbaum hopes to provide (ibid., p. 32).

131In this context, it may be relevant to recall the point made earlier (section 2.2.4), in my discussion of pluralism and universalism. I then argued that they offered and constituted a better and more appropriate response than relativism to the fact of real and genuine moral disagreements, as well as to the fact and genuine respect of cultural diversity. Calling for an ethical universalism need not consist in advocating a unique value or even one set of values. Nor does it have to take the traditional form based on authoritarian and paternalistic values and norms. It is instead underwritten and ‘justified’ by a pluralism, which enables it to demonstrate its respect for cultural differences –under some minimal normative constraints.

132Thus, the kind of “pluralistic, historically enlightened ethical universalism” that she wishes to defend would be prepared to leave space to individuals who may wish to adopt a traditional way of life. But it would also be prepared and determined to criticize unjust cultural practices wherever they are found. In drawing correctly the consequences of cultural complexity in a historically enlightened way, she insists that intra-cultural criticism is deeply entrenched in all cultures. “Culture are dynamic and full of contestation” (ibid., p. 59), and not static nor uniform or homogenous, as proponents of relativism often seem to assume or suggest. She is also prepared to countenance and even endorse the view according to which “we should provide spaces in which valuably different forms of human activity can flourish” (ibid., p. 59). In other words, “we should not stamp out diversity, or even put it at risk, without a very good reason (ibid., italics added). However she is quick to add the following comment: “But in light of the fact that some traditional practices are harmful and evil, and some actively hostile to other elements of a diverse culture, we are forced by our interest in diversity itself to develop a set of criteria against which to assess the practices we find, asking which are acceptable and worth preserving, and which are not” (ibid.). Finally, she is insistent on the fact that her view is underwritten by a political rather than a comprehensive liberalism. It is one that urges respect for the many different conceptions of the good that individuals may have, and promotes a political climate in which they will each be able to pursue the good (whether religious or ethical) according to their own lights, so long as they do no harm to others.

133In effect, as suggested earlier, what Nussbaum is advocating is the search for universals that are “facilitative rather tyrannical” or dictatorial, that create and protect spaces for freedoms and choices rather than dragooning people into one desired or desirable total and totalizing mode of being and living. Such an argument, she contends, is not only compatible but even required by the search for cross-cultural universals.

For it is all about respect for the dignity of persons as choosers. This respect requires us to defend universally a wide range of liberties, plus their material conditions; and it requires us to respect persons as separate ends, in a way that reflects our acknowledgment of the empirical fact of bodily separateness, asking how each and every life can have the preconditions of liberty and self-determination. We have good reasons already, then, to think that universal values are not just acceptable, but badly needed, if we are really to show respect for all citizens in a pluralistic society. (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 59-60)

134Elsewhere in her discussion, she sums her position forcefully as follows:

We want an approach that is respectful of each person’s struggle for flourishing, that treats each person as an end and as source of agency and worth in her own right. Part of this respect will mean not being dictatorial about the good, at least for adults and at least in some core areas of choice, leaving individuals a wide space for important types of choices and meaningful affiliation. But this very respect means taking a stand on the conditions that permit them to follow their own lights free from tyrannies imposed by politics and tradition. This, in turn, requires both generality and particularity: both some overarching benchmarks and detailed knowledge of the variety of circumstances and cultures in which people are striving to do well. (Ibid., p. 69)

135To the critics who, despite her explicit claims to the contrary, accuse her of advocating a comprehensive Western-centric liberal doctrine, and another variant of the rigid ethical universalism of yesteryears construed in terms of a monolithic Western-centric content, albeit one that presumably aims to widen progressively so as to include other cultural contents, she replies forcefully and categorically that she has been misunderstood (see Barclay, 2003, Nussbaum, 2003c).

136In all fairness, Nussbaum is, once again, acutely aware that a major risk of ethical universalism is inclusivism, which isoften motivated by good intentions and advocated in the name of justice. As she knows very well, “the road to hell is often paved with good intentions”. To avoid this trap, Nussbaum insists that her list of capabilities, which has been arrived at as a result of years of a broad and open “cross-cultural discussion” (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 76), does not provide for a specific achievement or functioning prescription. It only includes those meaningful spheres of a truly human life which are present in each country and for each and every person. No ethical content is to be defended at all costs, especially if such defense goes to the detriment of the other’s flourishing life. “It is in this sense that the list is, emphatically, a partial and not a comprehensive conception of the good” (ibid., p. 96).

  • 53  At times however, she seems to be wavering in this regard, or rather, to make an exception in the (...)
  • 54  As Nussbaum conceives of the capabilities, they obviously have a “very close relationship to human (...)

137Her version of the capabilities approach and the ethical universalism underwriting it does not seek to impose specific functionings but to open up possibilities, by giving each person the opportunity to be herself, in the way she deems best. She insists that “capabilities” (and not functionings)53 are and must remain the appropriate political goal –i.e, to give each person the opportunities to choose (or not) to actualize certain valuable beings and doings in accordance with her conception of the good life (ibid., p. 87)54.

  • 55  In this regard, Nussbaum is, I believe, in agreement with Habermas. However, once again, I believe (...)

138She also points out that her critics often fail to distinguish between two sets of issues which are easily conflated: one is the issue of justification, and the seconde, that of implementation (ibid., p. 101-105). The former must be done in terms of rational and universally valid arguments55, while the latter must countenance plural specification, and will obviously be context-sensitive, taking into account the relatively different circumstances and resources available in different measures to different communities around the world, and therefore be multiply realizable (ibid., p. 77).

139In her view however, “the legitimate concerns for diversity, pluralism, and personal freedom are not incompatible with the recognition of universal norms”. Indeed, she believes that “universal norms are actually required if we are to protect diversity, pluralism, and freedom, treating each human being as an agent and an end”, and that “the best way to hold all these concerns together […] is to formulate the universal norms as a set of capabilities for fully human functioning, emphasizing the fact that capabilities protect, and do not close off, spheres of human freedom” (ibid., p. 106).

[…][I]n a time […] when non-moral interests are bringing us together across national boundaries, we have an especially urgent need to reflect about the moral norms that can also, and more appropriately unite us, providing constraints on the[…] choices nations may make[…]. Seeking such norms is an urgent task; if we do not seek them, we will be governed without the input of our own critical reflection, by interests and processes that very likely could not withstand the scrutiny of ethical argument. (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 32, italics added)

140In the long run, Nussbaum believes that it would be highly desirable that “the community of nations should reach a transnational overlapping consensus on the capabilities list, as a set of goals for cooperative international action and a set of commitments that each nation holds itself to for its own people”. In agreement with Pogge (1989, 2002) on this point, insofar as her list is closely related to the contents of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she contends quite rightly that “such a consensus already exists about some items on the list”, and that “there is reason to hope that we can build from these to the others” (ibid., p. 104).

Especially in era of rapid globalization, the capabilities approach is urgently needed to give moral substance and moral constraints to processes that occurring all around us without sufficient moral reflection. It may be hoped that the capabilities list will steer the process of globalization, giving it a rich set of human goals and a vivid sense of human waste and tragedy, when choices are pondered that would otherwise be made with only narrow economic considerations in view. (Ibid., p. 105)

  • 56  Compare with Rawls’ claim (1971) that “justice is the first virtue of society”.
  • 57  As she states elsewhere: “The intuitive idea behind the approach is twofold: first, that certain f (...)

141For Nussbaum, justice must take priority in our social and political reflection (ibid., p. 33)56. The capability approach she advocates begins, in the political arena, from a basic yet powerful intuition, namely, certain human abilities exert a moral claim that they should be developed57. This, she says, must be understood as a freestanding moral idea, not one that relies on a particular metaphysical, religious or teleological view. In other words, she contends that her argument begins from ethical premises and derives ethical conclusions from these alone, and not from any further premises. To determine whether this is so or not would require a closer and tighter scrutiny than I can provide herein. In any case, this may be another point of fragility and contention in Nussbaum’s position. Nonetheless, she believes that we can get a consensus of the requisite sort, for political purposes, about the core of our moral argument concerning the moral claim of certain human powers (ibid., p. 83). In an interview given in 2004, she stated unequivocally that she firmly believes that we can achieve an ‘overlapping consensus’ on a list of basic and central capabilities as a basis for social planning and human development in a pluralistic world. Moreover, she added interestingly enough:

  • 58  As noted earlier, we might also add Charles Taylor (2001) to this list. See Chokr, 2006a.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose contents is rather closely related to my capabilities list, was such a document, framed, as Jacque Maritain (one of the framers) stressed as a practical political account of central human goals that could be endorsed by people from all sorts of different religions and traditions. Many constitutions the world over have list of fundamental entitlements similar to my list, and the work I’ve done on constitutionalism and on the Indian constitution in particular has closely informed my work. The trick in getting such a consensus, as both Maritain and Rawls stress58, is to make the political conception “freestanding”, that is, not grounded in metaphysical ideas[…] that are the property of a particular tradition and not shared or sharable by all. I see no reason why this can’t be done. In fact, whether in Bangladesh or South Africa or Poland, it is done all the time. I think we should look for agreement on conclusions without agreement on premises, and that it is not despair but respect that informs such a search. (Nussbaum, 2004, p. 63, italics added)

Closing remarks in guise of final evaluation and conclusion

142In the final analysis however, it would seem that Nussbaum’s attempt to articulate and justify “a pluralistic, historically enlightened ethical universalism” grounded in her version of the capabilities approach “seems to rely on intuition to a greater degree than procedural approaches” (of the kind that Rawls defended), as she herself admits in her most recent work (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 83). She does seem to recognize some version of this problem and has periodically grappled with it (see for example Nussbaum, 2000, p. 101-103). The charge here is one of question-begging on the part of what seems to be “a preconceived notion of justice”. How can Nussbaum deal with this charge and related problems?

143Two or three ways are worth considering. First, she could give an a priori foundationalist justification of her proposed list of capabilities. Second, she could refurbish and strengthen the a posteriori, naturalist and historical, case she made in Women and Human Development (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 101-105) –namely, that the items of her list emerge from the way distinct yet interacting accounts and traditions of the conditions under which human and non-human life flourishes intersect and yield mutual agreement. Or third, it may be that bringing up the whole question of ‘justification’ in this way is to misunderstand (the articulation of) her project. It may be that, instead of emerging from some given or found common notion of human flourishing, the items on the list are meant to constitute and articulate the most basic and abstract modes of that flourishing, and rather than needing a foundation, it is meant to serve as one.

144While none of these proposals would satisfy everyone, they at least constitute some possible responses to the problem at hand. Strangely enough though, Nussbaum uses none of them in her most recent work (Nussbaum, 2006). Instead, she puts forth the rather bizarre claim that Rawlsian social contract theorists rely on intuition just as much, if not more, than proponents of the capabilities approach, in the design of the contracting situation itself (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 183). In effect, what Nussbaum is saying is that Rawls’ original position (along with his proposed list of “primary social goods”) is just as question-begging as her list of capabilities. Whether this is true or not is beside the point. I don’t see how dragging down the account of one’s opponent or competitor can serve as a defensible response to a criticism of one’s own view. In all candor, Nussbaum seems to have a remarkable knack for leading her readers right to the edge of these sorts of deep and intriguing philosophical knots, only to leave them almost completely untied.

  • 59  Is Nussbaum’s view in this regard different from the way it was articulated before 2000? This is p (...)

145Of the three options sketched out above, it seems that only the second one constitutes a viable and defensible response, one that is consistent with the main thrust of her position. Since her latest work (Nussbaum, 2006) does not in the end shed more light on the problem at hand, we are better off, I believe, returning to her 2000 work59. She writes: “In general, the account of political justification I favor lies close to the Rawlsian account of argument proceeding toward reflective equilibrium” (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 101). And she proceeds to explain briefly how this kind of non-foundationalist and non-metaphysical justification goes.

146We begin by laying out the arguments for a given theoretical position, holding it up against the provisional “fixed points” in our moral intuitions, and we then try to see how these intuitions both test and are tested by the conceptions we are examining. In particular, we look to see how the various conceptions we are examining correspond (or not) to our intuitions. In some cases, we may find good reasons for holding a particular conception or theory (e.g., the capabilities approach) and rejecting others (e.g., utilitarianism, subjective welfarism, social contract theory or resourcism). In others, our considered judgments or moral intuitions may have to be rejected when we find out that the particular conception or theory we favor and uphold on other grounds cast them into doubt and calls them into question. By running through this process over and over, we may come in time to achieving some sort of consistency and fit with our considered judgments and moral intuitions taken as a whole. We do so by modifying particular judgments or intuitions when this is required and called for by a theoretical conception that seems in other respect powerful and compelling enough, and modifying or even rejecting the favored theoretical conception when it has failed to fit in with the most secure and stable of our moral intuitions or considered judgments.

  • 60  As Rawls later clarified, “wide, not narrow reflective equilibrium (in which we take note only of (...)

147Needless to say, we seem to apply such a procedure toward reflective equilibrium in many different areas or domains, but Rawls applied it specifically to the political domain (Rawls, 1971, p. 20-22, 46-53, and Rawls, 1996, p. 28, 45, 381 n.12, 384, n.16) in seeking to “justify” a political conception of justice to which people with different comprehensive doctrines or conceptions of the good life can agree –within a Western-style liberal democracy with its attendant ‘public culture.’ Obviously, such a procedure entails that we take into account not only our own intuitions or judgments and theoretical conceptions, but also those of our fellow citizens within the context of a nation-state (Rawls’ view) or fellow human beings across nation-states, within the broader context of the “global community” that we now constitute (Nussbaum’s view)60.

148In her 2000 work, Nussbaum takes only two steps by her own admission in applying this procedure in an effort to reach a wide reflective equilibrium about her approach within the national context (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 102). Presumably her 2006 work is meant to take further steps along this line within the broader global context, as it seeks to cover the cases not only the disabled, but of different nations and beyond, to include human species relative to other living species. As I have suggested earlier however, it is not clear how successful her argument and justification for it are in the last instance.

  • 61  “Reflective equilibrium […] is a point at infinity we can never reach, though we may get closer to (...)

149Nussbaum recognizes that the process that such a procedure for political justification entails is bound to be protracted, long and arduous, and may never in fact be complete. If this process were ever complete (if it ever could be)61, then, she claims, “that very fact would give us the confidence to move ahead, boldly building the conception so affirmed into the foundations of both national societies of many sorts and international documents that specify what nations hold themselves to”. Moreover, she is quick to add: “Even then, however, we would still need to think about issues of appropriate procedure and about how to effect a transition from the current status quo in a nation to the capabilities conception” (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 102). It is true, as she points out, that we would be helped in this regard by the fact that we would have the actual agreement of all citizens; but, as she also recognizes, “we would still need to devise transitional procedures that are appropriately respectful of their choices (ibid., p. 103). At this stage, and to her credit, I must say, Nussbaum asks the most crucial question. “What do we do about implementation, she wonders, when the process of political justification remains, as it always very likely will remain, incomplete –when we have a promising conception that has survived many tests and has the backing of many people, but regarding which no wide reflective equilibrium in the full Rawlsian sense has as yet been found?” (ibid.). Admittedly, the political conception of justice itself makes already a great deal of room for pluralism with regards to comprehensive conceptions of the good. However, another serious issue with regards to pluralism itself emerges at this point: What should we do when other political conceptions remain possible contenders and still garner strong support? How should we proceed?

  • 62  See Chokr (2008) for the articulation and defense of “a pluralism under rigorous and severe normat (...)
  • 63  Philosophers such as David Wong (1996) and Michael Walzer (1994) don’t shun the label ‘relativists (...)

150From all the above, it seems clear that an unbridled and unconstrained pluralism is not attractive and in fact untenable from a normative point of view.62 Certain boundaries and constraints are needed. It is difficult to see how tolerance about alternative frameworks or conceptions can be maintained unless we suppose that there is some viewpoint independent of these alternative conceptions or frameworks from which to evaluate them. Many philosophers have concluded that there is such a viewpoint, although they concede it can only countenance a very broad standard imposing limits on the range of acceptable conceptions or frameworks.63 Pluralism holds that a range of different conceptions or frameworks exists and can be tolerated, but only within limits. In other words, no matter how desirable pluralism and the tolerance it counsels are, there must be limits to what can and should be tolerated, i.e, a threshold of the intolerable that we should not cross with impunity. Pluralism must therefore be placed under rigorous normative constraints of some kind.

151There are naturally different forms of pluralism, and it is worth considering two of the most pertinent in this context. One form of pluralism might be based on a kind of indeterminacy among acceptable conceptions or frameworks: it begins with a universally valid, broad and general framework for any acceptable standard, including for example the demand that any valid standard must treat like cases in like manner –e.g., fairly and impartially. Such a framework alone is not itself a standard for determining rightness or wrongness, and so cannot provide any kind of meaningful guidance. It is, rather, like a second-order standard, or a standard for any acceptable first-order standards. We might say, furthermore, that this framework marks off and delineates somehow a “range” property of standards, in the sense that no standard fits the framework any better than any other standard –as when, for a given circle, no point within the circle is more within it than any other (Rawls, 1971, p. 508). As long as a given standard fits the framework, it is acceptable, but an indefinite number of different standards could meet it. This case offers no grounds for judging that any standard is “better” or “worse” than any other, based on the second-order framework, except to say that either a standard fits the framework or it does not. Limited and morally justifiable tolerance, then, would amount to approving of those standards within the range that fit the framework and disapproving of those outside of that range –based on the second-order standard of acceptability provided by the framework.

152A different form of pluralism would be based simply on epistemic modesty (i.e, a justifiable reticence to assert claims that one does not know to be true with any sufficient degree of confidence and certainty). This may be akin to Rawls’ notion of the “burdens of judgment” which in effect counsels reasonable pluralism (Rawls, 1996, p. 56-66). It can be combined with parametric universalism, according to which a single universally valid framework yields different standards that deliver opposed conclusions in a given case depending on the circumstances of its application or implementation. Epistemic modesty implies here that even if there is a determinate answer to the question whether, for any given action, conduct, behavior, or practice, it is right or wrong, it may not be possible to be confident or certain enough of this judgment in any case. In other words, no one can be confident that she knows how that framework is to be put into practice in any particular culture. That is, she does not know which of the available standards that fit the framework is best, given the circumstances. And so, where one is not confident or certain about one’s judgment, one should be tolerant.

153In the end however, it is not clear that either kind of pluralism can serve our purposes to meet the challenge of developing a coherent, morally plausible or compelling defense of tolerance. Pluralism based on epistemic modesty implies a kind of diffidence in the face of alternative standards that is sufficient to prevent the modestly just from condemning the alternative standards. Yet it must also leave one confident in the importance of one’s own standard. As for pluralism based on indeterminacy, it allows us to see our own standard as acceptable in that it meets a certain minimum, but this is hardly the sort of endorsement that can sustain “its grip on us” –to paraphrase Williams– in the face of a variety of equally acceptable alternative standards from a moral point of view.

154‘Reasonable pluralism’ counsels tolerance of different practices that conform to alternative standards, and tolerance is acceptablse and can readily obtain in a number of areas such as etiquette, humor, culinary taste, and perhaps even standards of beauty and others. However, the stakes are altogether different when it comes to what is deemed valuable, reasonable/rational, or worthy of the dignity of human beings. Because of the relative lack of importance in our thinking and living of the former areas, we can somehow maintain our way even while taking an external view of them as simply one way and one standard among others. However, in the case of the latter, the subject matter itself raises the stakes –as I pointed out at the outset (note 13). Once the stakes are raised, we seem less able to take an external view, to maintain our views about what is morally worth doing or being, or what is reasonable to believe. And yet, we must somehow come to terms with the plurality of values, traditions, and lifestyles in the world as we know it today. Is it however possible to avoid falling into a messy and indiscriminate pluralism that robs us of the necessary resources for criticism, social and political reflection without at the same time yielding to a monolithic, rigid and oppressive form of universalism? This is the challenge that philosophers such as Nussbaum have taken up, and it is, I believe, the right one. Her effort in this regard, though still fraught with various problems and difficulties as I have shown, is nevertheless compelling and commendable –despite her critics’ claims to the contrary. For this reason, she deserves to have the final word in this essay:

Many people […] confuse relativism with the toleration of diversity, and find relativism attractive on the ground that it shows respect for the ways of others. But of course it does no such thing. Most cultures have exhibited considerable intolerance of diversity over the ages, as well as at least some respect for diversity. By making each tradition the last word, we deprive ourselves of any more general norm of toleration or respect that could help us limit the intolerance of cultures. Once we see this, our interest in being relativists should rapidly diminish. (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 49)

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1  I am here using Rawls’ expression (Rawls, 1996) without however endorsing his brand of ‘political liberalism’ and the particular strictures or conditions under which he believes such a notion makes sense. I do so along the same line as Nussbaum, as we shall see later on.

2  The notion, question and problem of ‘tolerance’ will be, as can be expected, at the center of my reflection and discussion for a number of reasons. It is often evoked or conjured up as part of the justification for (normative) cultural relativism, and for the critique of Western hegemony and cultural imperialism. It is also evoked because it is a cardinal virtue of Western liberalism and one of the main values of the Enlightenment, whose legacy is precisely in question today (see Graham, 1996, Harrison, 1976).

3  At this point, I am neither reinforcing nor justifying any of the perspectives, views or outlooks implicated here. I am merely setting up the problem in a provisional only to show further the possible conceptual links that may be said to obtain (or not) between (some of) them, e.g., between cultural relativism and particularism, or communitarianism.

4  Putnam writes: “We all know that cultural relativism is inconsistent” (Putnam, 1983, p. 236); see Brandt, 1984 for a refutation. See however Hales (1997), for a valiant effort to show how one can make relativism consistent from a logical point of view. See also Harman (1977, 1996, 2000a, 2000b), Wong (1985, 1986, 1991, 1996), Walzer (1994) for other, yet different attempts to defend moral relativism. See finally Williams (1985) for an attempt to state normative relativism in a coherent and not self-defeating way.

5  I am naturally aware that the latter question sounds more like an empirical question, perhaps better addressed through a socio-historical inquiry, whereas the former is, properly speaking, to be understood as a normative question, and therefore squarely situated within the realm of moral philosophy. And I certainly do not intend to commit myself to a defense of “the naturalistic fallacy”, and seek somewhat trivially to derive an ‘ought’ (norms, what we ought to do) from an ‘is’ (facts, what we are and what we do). Nevertheless, I believe that our normative thinking is best (more realistic and more convincing) when it is constrained in some way by relevant kinds of empirical considerations, though not determined by, nor merely derived from them. This should be taken in the context of a broader concern with a prominent trend in moral and political philosophy (esp., in the Anglo-American tradition), in which philosophers, despite claims to the contrary are in fact far too focused on ideal-theoretical considerations and less or not enough on real-world conditions. They do not always factor in relevant and appropriate considerations about the world as we know it is, what human beings are and have shown themselves to be in the course of recorded history. But most importantly, they do not consider what humans and/in the world can both realistically become –provided they are prodded by a judiciously calibrated normative and arguably “utopian thinking”. Compare and contrast with Rawls (1999), or with Rousseau (1997). The latter writes at the opening of his famous work: “My purpose is to consider if, in political society, there can be any legitimate and sure principle of government, taking men as they are and laws as they might be. In this inquiry I shall try to bring together what right permits with what interest requires so that justice and utility are in no way divided”. Rousseau also said: “The limits of the possible in moral matters are less narrow that we think. It is our weaknesses, our vices, our prejudices, that shrink them. Base souls do not believe in great men. Vile slaves smile mockingly at the word freedom” (Rousseau, 1997, II, 12,2). In the Law of Peoples, Rawls claims to follow Rousseau. He writes: “I shall assume that his phrase ‘men as they are’ refers to persons’ moral and psychological natures and how that nature works within a framework of political and social institutions; and his phrase ‘laws as they might be’ refers to laws as they should, or ought, to be” (Rawls, 1999, p. 7, 13). See Chokr, “On Justice in a Globalizing World” (2008, forthcoming) for a clearer and more substantial articulation of my concern and my view on “how not to do political philosophy today”.

6  To keep my discussion within manageable bounds, I will not seek herein to discuss all versions and variations on the thesis of relativism. However, it will be obvious that much of what I have to say about (normative) ‘cultural relativism’ has a certain degree of generality and wider applicability (see Krausz, 1989, Krausz & Meiland, 1982). Relativism is certainly one of the most tenacious views with a pedigree and a history as old as philosophy itself —in both Western and Eastern traditions. In the ancient Greek world, both the historian Herodotus and the sophist Protagoras have presumably endorsed some form of relativism. The latter’s view was famously discussed by Plato in the Theaetetus. This has, as we know, given rise to philosophical controversies about what Protagoras really meant by his well-know statement: Man is the measure of all things”, but also naturally about Plato’s interpretation. In the ancient Chinese world, the Taoist philosopher, Chuang-Tzu (whose name is nowadays spelled ‘Zhuangzi’) is also said to have put forward a non-objectivist view which is often interpreted as a kind of relativism (see Westermarck, 1906, 1932 and Allinson, 1989, p 112-142, on the question of relativism in Chuang Tzu). Nearly as ancient as its history is the criticism that such a view is untenable and self-refuting. However, despite its ancient history, it was not until the 20th century that it became a prominent and highly controversial issue in philosophy as well as in other areas or domains. Since then, it has been submitted to a continuous barrage of other objections and criticisms. Yet, it seems to have endured –in one form or another—and continues to exert an appeal, even though is has been shown repeatedly to be profoundly misguided (see for example Brandt, 1984 for a refutation; see also Putnam, 1983).

7  Unlike many writers today dealing with this subject, I am here taking a historically more informed, and therefore more nuanced and qualified position about ‘globalization.’ Thus I assume that we have witnessed several waves of ‘globalization’ before –starting roughly back in the 6th century BC, and upward in time through the 15-16th centuries until the 19th and 20th centuries, and in more recent times (how many depends on when one starts and the ‘periodization’ of history one favors). However, I contend that the latest wave, which is commonly said to have started in the 80s, is one that is substantially different (qualitatively and quantitatively) from all previous ones. Its impact on all spheres of life (economic, political, social, cultural, etc) is of a different kind and far more extensive. The challenge before us is to figure out how to think through the consequences of these developments, and in the case that is of interest to us here, we need to figure out what this means for the commonly accepted conception (or misconception) of ‘culture’ at this juncture of our history. As I will show in due course the thesis of ‘cultural relativism’ is underwritten by an inadequate conception of ‘culture,’ one that is committed to dubious and objectionable assumptions (of essentialism, monism, holism, hermeticism, idealism and determinism), and therefore inadequate from both an empirical and normative point of view. In short, relativists fail to taken into account what I call “the consequences of cultural complexity” (Chokr, 2006a, 2007a, 2007b) and most specifically the fact that ‘globalization’ is invariably accompanied by ‘glocalisation’ –i.e., the adaptation and appropriation of global phenomena in terms of local and particular factors and considerations. See later discussion to that effect.

8  Among the relativists here in question, I would include all the self-appointed and elitist “guardians of cultural purity and integrity”, comprising, among others, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, Li Kuan Yew, officials and numerous intellectuals of the People’s Republic of China, various other Asian, African and Latin American leaders and intellectuals, various religious and secular leaders and scholars of the Muslim world, a number of Western intellectuals and philosophers [such as Rorty (1991), Levi-Strauss (1985), and Lyotard (1984) for example, apart from those already mentioned], and many other protagonists around the world who do not have the courage of standing clearly and firmly behind their beliefs and positions, and that one may characterize therefore as “closet or reluctant relativists”.

9  What I mean to say here obviously is that the traditional formulation of the problem is outdated, not that the stakes are and should no longer be our concern. By the notion of “moral universalism”, I mean the traditional, Western-centric approach which sought to find its justification in a metaphysical or transcendental way on the basis of some suspiciously ethnocentric, monolithic notion of human nature, reason, rationality, or even person (see Donnelly, 1984, Renteln, 1985, Okin, 1998).

10  It may be worth noting, ahead of the forthcoming in-depth discussion of Nussbaum’s view, that the ‘capabilities’ are associated with “the freedom to choose”, and that as such, they serve to underwrite a partial (thick-vague) conception of the good –comprising at least the freedom to choose one’s conception and way of life.

11  Nussbaum disagrees in this regard with Rawls who has insisted on the “priority of right” in relation to “ideas of the good” (Rawls, 1996, p. 174-211). Despite her claims to be proceeding in this regard in a non-metaphysical way (though in an internal essentialist neo-Aristotelian way), it is questionable whether she actually succeeds in doing so (see Nussbaum, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2000b, 2003, 2003b, 2004, 2006). In due course, I will articulate several other grounds for possible objections to Nussbaum’s approach.

12  Just as they have done already in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). See Jacques Maritain (1951), Charles Taylor (2001, p. 409-423), and Nussbaum (2004, p. 63) for a similar line of reasoning. See Chokr, 2006a for an extended discussion on this point.

13  At a meta-theoretical level, I make some relatively unproblematic and widely accepted and reasonable background assumptions –which are also for the most part those included by the editors of Tracés in their call for contributions. Quite generally, a position is said to be relativistic, if it holds that a determinate thing is relative in some specifiable way to another. In others words, where there is relativity, there is at least a two-term relation. A relativist scheme functions on the basis of a dependent variable (A) and an independent variable (B): A is relative to B. This scheme can be applied obviously to a number of areas or domains, and may thus seem general enough and innocuous. But the stakes become more serious and clearer when it comes to choosing the variables and determine the strength of the relation (whether it be one of necessity, probability, or sufficiency). The debates about relativism, as attested by the exploding literature in the 20th century, are all the more acrimonious and heated if truth, rationality, knowledge, language, or morality is chosen as a dependent variable rather than an independent one. They bear furthermore on following kinds of considerations: the scale (local or global), the domain of application (moral, epistemological, ontological, semantical, or cultural), the pretensions and aims (descriptive vs. normative, theoretical vs. empirical, weak vs. strong) or the kinds of connections or combinations that can be established or assumed between various claims (e.g., moral relativism to substantive normative relativism), and which a particular version relativism can claim (or not) for itself (See Krausz, 1989, Krausz and Meiland, 1982, Munthe, 2005).

14  Because the point is often made with respect to truth or justification (or both), it is useful to include both aspects in our general characterization (see MacIntyre, 1994).

15  As I will show more explicitly in due course, such a view makes some objectionable assumptions about culture –as if it is ever monolithic and consensual operating in a deterministic, homogeneous way and equally on all members of a given culture. See later discussions of inadequate conception of ‘culture’ (section 3.3) and ‘cultural complexity’ (section 5).

16  This may explain at least in part why so many forms of universalism in the past have been misconstrued, obtuse, and therefore untenable –as Nussbaum (2000) will correctly note in section 6.2.

17  Various anthropological studies could be adduced in support of this point. One may focus in this regard on “honoring and respecting one’s parents” or “the respect for elderly members of the community” more generally.

18  The following issues may be mentioned in this regard: human sacrifice, slavery, pogroms, foot-binding, widow-burning, animal cruelty, experimentation on animals vs. humans, IPR and the poor’s health and medical welfare, GMF, global warming, bio-diversity, abortion, death penalty, torture, just war, violence against women, marital rape, pornography, female genital mutilation, women’s rights, free speech and free press, corporate responsibility, dissidence and political activism, obligations to others (near and dear vs. distant and foreign), conceptions of human rights, limits of tolerance, etc, etc.

19  Both pluralism and universalism are discussed further and in detail throughout. In the closing section of this essay, I distinguish at least two variants of each. My purpose is double: making a case for the view that I wish to advocate in the final analysis, following Nussbaum in this regard, though with significant differences, as well as making clearer and more acute the fundamental challenge that we face today. See Chokr (2008) for further details.

20  With regard to the distinction implied here between morality and ethics, and the proper and central question of the latter, I follow not only Williams, but the later Foucault as well (see Chokr, 2006b for a forceful defense of this point of view).

21  The pertinence of this point will become clearer when I turn in due course to my critical discussions of both Williams’ and Nussbaum’s views.

22  As if it has always been consensual, one and indivisible, and otherwise uncontested from within. This is certainly a questionable and highly problematic assumption not only about Western culture but also, I would argue, about any other culture, as a proper apprehension and understanding of ‘cultural complexity’ would confirm (see section 5 on this notion).

23  As suggested earlier (note 14), and as we shall see when I turn in section 6.2 to my discussion of Nussbaum’s view.

24  Levi-Strauss (1985) has argued that it may be an illusion that humanity can ever escape completely ethnocentrism, or even that it will care to do so. In his view, it is not only not a bad thing in itself, but, as long it does not get out of hand, a rather good one. As for Rorty, he claims, “we have to work from the networks we are, from the communities with which we presently identify”, and that “we can only hope to produce a better conception of rationality and a better conception of morality if we operate from within our tradition” (Rorty, 1991, p. 200-202).

25  Other reasons for its enduring, yet misguided appeal are provided in forthcoming section 4.

26  In ancient Greece, Protagoras was well known for advocating very conventional views about how to live and what is right and wrong. See also Teson (2001) for a similar point in the context of a discussion regarding obstacles to the universal acceptance of human rights.

27  Following the republication of an essay by Harry Frankfurt, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, on “bullshit” (Frankfurt, 2005), this topic has recently gained some ‘serious’ and ‘focused’ attention in the English-speaking world (in both the academic and non-academic worlds, in the media and popular culture at large) to the dismay or shock of some, and the pleasure or satisfaction of others. Previously, the only other notable philosophical work dealing with this issue was Max Black’s discussion of The Prevalence of Humbug (Black, 1983). [“Humbug” is basically the English term for the American ‘bullshit”]. In contrast however, the French-speaking world has been familiar with numerous ‘serious’ discussions of ‘bullshit’ –commonly translated as la connerie ou la betise– going back at least to the 17th-18th centuries, and of course, in more recent times in the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Clement Rosset, and Michel Onfray, to mention only a few. A number of hypotheses regarding this observation can be entertained but this is not properly speaking my concern herein. See for example G.A. Cohen (2002b) on the prevalence of ‘bullshit’ in French academia. I address such issues and many others regarding ‘bullshit,’ and most specifically, the views of Frankfurt (2005) and G.A. Cohen (2002; 2002b) in an unpublished critical essay titled “Even Deeper into Bullshit: An Archeological and Genealogical Analysis –In Response to Harry Frankfurt and G.A. Cohen” (2006c).

28  Writing in the Times Literary Supplement (1996) on the Sokal affair, Paul A. Boghossian described how the hoax and satire revealed for all to see the extent of “the brush-fire spread, within vast sectors of the humanities and social sciences, of the cluster of simple-minded relativistic views about truth and evidence that are commonly identified as `postmodernist’. These views license, and on the most popular versions insist upon, the substitution of political and ideological criteria for the historically more familiar assessment in terms of truth, evidence and argument”.

29  Obviously, I am not here making the traditional German distinction between Kultur and Zivilization, which can also be made in French (Culture et Civilisation) –following in this regard Freud’s principled refusal to the same effect.

30  In a recent book(2006), Amartya Sen takes aim at the logic of conflict underlying the reductionist approach pitting “us-vs.-them” (the West vs. the Rest) found in the work of Huntington, and in which members of different cultures seem to be locked up in ‘little boxes’ from which they cannot escape. Interestingly, or rather ironically, Huntington’s outlook is shared by those ‘radical Muslim fundamentalists’ against whom his analysis seems to be aimed. Along similar lines, Jean-Francois Fayart(2005) argues that the “clash of civilizations” is not unavoidably our fate. We come to believe otherwise only if we adopt a problematic and objectionable conception of cultural identity as natural.

31  I mean here to include various “dogmatic, political ideologies”, some of which claiming to be atheistic, agnostic, or laic, among the forms that fundamentalism can take. This point does not seem to be appreciated enough in contemporary discussions, and is therefore often overlooked.

32  In a recent article titled “A Secret History” that appeared recently in The New York Times (February 25, 2007), Carla Power reports about a project of bold and radical re-interpretation pertaining to Islam and women. Undertaken by Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a 43-year-old Sunni alim, or religious scholar, at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies in Britain, such a project led him to rediscover a long-lost tradition of Muslim women teaching the Koran, transmitting hadith (deeds and sayings of the Prophet), discussing Islamic law with men and even making it, not to mention holding official posts, and lecturing in the men’s section at the mosque. His findings challenge prevalent notions of women’s roles within Islamic societies or communities. As Power points out, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, the stock image of an Islamic scholar is a gray-bearded man. Women tend to be seen as the subjects of Islamic law rather than its shapers. And while some opportunities for religious education do exist for women –the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo has a women’s college, for example, and there are girls’ madrasas and female study groups in mosques and private homes, their options are very limited and the barriers and obstacles numerous. Eight years ago, Akram Nadwi embarked on what he thought would perhaps amount to a single volume biographical dictionary of female hadith scholars. He thought initially that he might find 20 or 30 women. To date, while trawling through dictionaries, classical texts, madrasas chronicles, letters and other citations, he has found 8 000 of them, dating back 1 400 years and his dictionary now fills 40 volumes. Admittedly, not all these women were previously unknown. Many Muslims acknowledge that Islam has its learned women, starting with one of the Prophet’s wives, Aisha. Several Western academics have written on women’s religious education. About a century ago, a Hungarian Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher estimated that 15% of medieval hadith scholars were women. But Akram Nadwi’s biographical dictionary is groundbreaking in its scope and its implications for Islam and the place of women in Islamic societies could be radical and far-reaching in eliminating the visible and invisible cultural barriers that prevent women in the Islamic world from pursuing an (advanced) education, functioning as full citizens, and taking leadership positions in their communities. *In the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror” and most specifically against “radical and extremist islamists”, several Muslim scholars (men and women) have undertaken in good faith with tremendous integrity and courage similarly bold and radical re-interpretation of the classic and canonical texts of their religion. Their aim is to bring out the “true” message of “peace, tolerance, and justice” and the universal core ideas and tenets of Islam as one of three great religions of the Book. Many have done so, it goes without saying, at great risks to their lives and welfare.* Worth noting here is the recent case of Laleh Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American Muslim woman, which has received some media attention while I was completing this essay –only two days ago. For the past two years, she has been working on a new translation of the Koran when she came upon Charter 4, Verse 34, according to which “a rebellious woman should first be admonished, then abandoned in bed, and ultimately ‘beaten’ –the most common translation for the Arabic word ‘daraba’ –unless her behavior improves”. She nearly dropped the project right then, but later decided prodded by her faith that God could not be saying such a thing that there must another, more accurate and compelling way to translate this word. In the 20 or so English translations of the Koran that available, the word in question was translated variously as: beat, hit, strike, scourge, chastise, flog, make an example of, spank, pet, tap, send way, or even seduce. She was therefore faced with a serious dilemma –all the more so that she is not an Islamic scholar with the appropriate credentials and she knew the opposition and outcry she would face from the Muslim community at large. In Germany last week, a judge citing the verse caused a public outcry and controversy after she rejected the request for a fast-track divorce by a Moroccan-German woman because her husband beat her. The judge, removed from the case, had written that the Koran sanctioned physical abuse (see the article on the subject by MacFarquhar, The New York Times, March 25, 2007).

33  This is not to imply that such protagonists don’t exist in the Western World as well. They obviously do. The Western world has its share of such individuals who wish to ‘preserve’ cultures, local, particular, and exotic ones in any part of the world, which are in fact only their constructed representations thereof. Let us not forget the often romanticized, exotic, and fictive images of Africa, the Middle East, India and China that many Western intellectuals have often entertained uncritically for the past hundred years or so. It is also worth noting perhaps that their fictive images of various parts of the world have often led some to declare that this or that part of the world would ‘never be ready for democracy and human rights”. Finally, though it would be better perhaps to be more specific and explicit about the tenets of the so-called “preservationists”, I believe that the above discussion could make due in an ostensive or performative manner.

34  Capitalism, as we know it, is unquestionably of Western origin and nowadays it is indeed global –esp., with the emergence of a number of new major players such as India, China, Brazil, and Russia, not to mention Japan and South Korea, as well as the other so-called “Asian tiger economies”. However, it is far being homogenous or of the same type everywhere, and it is no longer bi-polar, but rather multi-polar, more network-like, dynamic and arguably with several centers and multiple peripheral layers, with even reverse-directionality-and-subsidiarity, a phenomenon not yet appreciated or understood well-enough. Besides understanding how these different models work, or rather don’t work, and in effect, understanding the new global capitalist (dis)order, requires analytical and diagnostic tools that are far more up-to-date and sophisticated than the ones provided by the usual and dominant so-called “neo-liberal” perspective, the traditional liberal or Marxist approaches. In this regard, the analysis offered for example by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire (2000) is noteworthy. However, many other, more recent critical and sophisticated studies, from France particularly, abound. See for example: Aglietta & Berrebi (2007), Chavagneux (2007), Charolles (2006), Artus & Virard (2005), Cohen (2005), Greau, (2005).

35  I am here putting into play the various dubious assumptions or premises, alluded to earlier (in note 6), and that typically serve to underwrite the relativists’ misconception of ‘culture.’

36  A worthwhile project might consist in sketching out (1) the Modern view, how it evolved in the past 100-200 years, and gave way in the past 50-60 years to (2) the (anthropological) Received View. For a brief yet substantial treatment in this regard, see Chokr, 2006a, 2007a, 2007b (forthcoming); see also Geertz, 2000, Benhabib, 2002. In their classic compilation of the various definitions of “culture” that have appeared in the literature since the 19th century, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963) had found 171 distinct definitions, which could then be sorted out into 13 categories.

37  In recent years, ideas from ‘complexity theory’ have had a substantial impact on various disciplines outside the “hard” sciences from which they originated, in particular in sociology, organizational sciences, and in anthropology. However, their impact on mainstream philosophy has not been as significant as one would expect. This is surprising given that the related domains of cognitive science and evolutionary theory have inspired plenty of philosophical investigations. In a recent paper, titled “Complexity and Philosophy”, Heylighen, Cilliers and Gershenson (2006) explore some of the reasons for this. They go on to show how (postmodern) philosophy could benefit from taking complexity seriously on a number of issues, including the structure of complex (social) systems or systems of meaning, the distinction between boundaries and limits, the problem of difference, the idea of the subject in political philosophy, ethics, relativism, life, mind, consciousness, and in turn how complexity theory could be further enriched by philosophy. They write: “Complexity is perhaps the most essential characteristic of our present society. As technological and economic advances make production, transport and communication ever more efficient, we interact with ever more people, organizations, systems and objects. And this network of interactions grows and spreads around the globe, the different economic, social technological and ecological systems that we are part of become ever more interdependent. The result is an ever more complex ‘system of systems’ where a change in any component may affect virtually any other components and that in a mostly unpredictable manner. The traditional scientific method, which is based on analysis, isolation, and the gathering of complete information about such a phenomenon, is incapable to deal with such complex interdependencies. The emerging science of complexity offers the promise of an alternative methodology that would be able to tackle such problems. However, such an approach needs solid foundations, that is, a clear understanding and definition of the underlying concepts and principles”. Despite the fact that concepts from complexity have not yet gone very deeply into philosophy, the process is already under way. Apart from the works of Derrida (1988) and Deleuze (1987) which are often mentioned in this regard, it is also worth noting those of Morin (1992), Cilliers (1998, 2004, and 2005), Rescher (1998), and Taylor (2003).

38  Jean-Francois Fayart has argued along similar lines in his book(2005). He claims that the concept of ‘cultural identity’ has become for many a convenient explanation from most of the world’s political problems. He offers a sustained critique of this rationalization by dispelling the notion that fixed identities do, in fact, exist. In his view, the very idea of cultural identity prevents us from grasping the cultural dimensions of political action and economic development. Identities, he argues, are fluid, never homogeneous, and more often than not invented. The conflicts we read about in the news draw their murderous force from the supposition that a ‘political identity corresponds to each so-called ‘cultural identity,’ which is in reality illusory. What the facts indicate is that each of these identities is often a recent construction. There is no ‘natural identity’ which imposes itself to us by the sheer power of things. There are only ‘identity strategies,’ rationally produced by actors easily identifiable, and identity dreams or nightmares to which we adhere because they either seduce or terrorize us. In any case, Fayart argues, we are not condemned to remain prisoners of such devious manipulations. The “clash of civilizations” need not be our fate. Also, worthy of note in this context is the essay by Amin Maalouf (2001), in which he offers a philosophical exploration of what a culture without entrenched identities, or tribalistic forms of identities would be like. Writing from a position of multiple identities, which, he claims, to share with many people around the world, he addresses such complicated and timely issues as how we judge religious traditions that have embraced violence and brutality, modern manifestations of ‘otherness,’ how language facilitates and breeds nationalism, and most importantly, the contradiction between stark identity-based political conflicts and how the same identity-based cultures can be shared by different groups. In the end, Maalouf does not naively demand that personal identities be dismissed, but suggests a number of ways in which identities can remain intact and might form not a “meaningless sham equality” but “rather the acceptance of a multiplicity of allegiances as all equally legitimate”. While “the wind of globalization” could lead us to disaster, he writes, it could also lead us to success. Maalouf envisions a globalized world in which our local identities are subordinated to a broader “allegiance to the human community itself”. And in this regard, he may be viewed as a proponent of what Appiah (2006a) calls “a rooted cosmopolitanism” –which is in effect a form of ethical universalism taking its premises from the core universal ideas contained in each culture. For further details on the notion of “rooted (moral) cosmopolitanism”, and “pluralism under rigorous normative constraints”, see Chokr, 2008.

39  As noted earlier (note 18), I have myself vigorously defended such a view as well in another context (Chokr, 2006b) on the basis of Foucault’s later work.

40  For evidence of Williams’ debt to Critical Theory, see Williams, 1985, p. 166-7, esp. notes 11 and 12. See also his remarks about “reflective social knowledge” (ibid, p. 199). In his Knowledge and Human Interests, Habermas announces that his aim is “to recover the forgotten experience of reflection” (Habermas, 1971, p. vii), and the concept of ‘reflection’ plays a central role –albeit not always clean– in much of his work. See also Geuss (1981, p. 61-63, 70, 79, 91-94).

41  Habermas makes a distinction between “reflexive learning“and “non-reflexive learning”. The former involves defending or rejecting practical claims “on the basis of arguments” while the latter takes place when practical claims “are naively taken for granted and accepted or rejected without discursive consideration” (Habermas, 1973, p. 15).

42  Nussbaum finds it difficult to figure out what Williams’ positive alternative to ethical and political theory amounts to, if anything. Interestingly enough, she writes:”It was only when the postmodernists showed him the excesses of his own position that he brought out, against them, his old Cartesian rationalism, and his always deep commitment to truth, along with an equally strong commitment to social criticism”. Moreover, she adds: “The dialectic between his Enlightenment self and his Nietzschean self makes his last, enigmatic book (Truth and Truthfulness: an Essay in Genealogy, 2002) especially precious to me” (Nussbaum, 2003 p. 22).

43  In recent years, Habermas seems to have softened his position in the sense that he now accepts the claim that “philosophy has no business playing the part of the highest arbiter in matters of science and culture”. However, he continues to hold that philosophy ought to concern itself with justificatory discourse in all areas of life and with the validity claims raised in all conversations. Philosophy’s proper role is thus that of interpreter or “stand-in” as opposed to that of a judge within a Kantian tribunal of reason (Habermas, 1990, p. 14 and 19).

44  One may even note that a charitable interpretation and overall re-assessment of Williams’ work can justifiably lead us to believe that he would ultimately be supportive of the approach advocated herein, namely, one that attempts to bring together appropriately construed and judiciously re-conceived notions of “pluralism”, historical enlightenment”, and “ethical universalism”.

45  As Nussbaum interprets Aristotle and Marx’s use of his ideas, “the core of his account of human functioning is a freestanding moral conception, not one that is deduced from natural teleology or any non-moral source. Whether she is correct or not on this point, and this is clearly another possible point of contention, she insists however that her neo-Aristotelian proposal is intended in that spirit –and also (clearly unlike Aristotle’s) as a partial, not a comprehensive, conception of the good life, a moral conception selected for political purposes only. The only essentialism she wishes to countenance is internal, as opposed to external (Nussbaum, 1992). Her search for universal values does not proceed therefore from external metaphysical considerations, but rather from internalist considerations informed by history and our best knowledge about the world. By thus being anchored in our natural and historical reality, her moral inquiry seeks to derive some ethical principles or recommendations based only on a number of ethical premises.

46  In his reply to Habermas’ objection that “justice as fairness” is in fact more substantive than Rawls realizes or is prepared to admit, and not merely or strictly procedural, Rawls argued that these two aspects of a conception of justice are in fact connected and perhaps even inseparable. One may however choose to put the emphasis on one rather than the other. In his case, he prefers to emphasize the procedural aspect of his conception of justice. He then goes on to “return the ball” to Habermas and points out that the latter’s conception based on discourse ethics and communicative action is in fact more substantive that he realizes or is inclined to say (Rawls, 1996, p. 421-432).

47  One could say alternatively that it is an opportunity-based approach as long as one insists however that she is talking, just like Sen, about ‘real and substantive opportunities’ and not merely “formal opportunities.’ The former could yield desired and desirable outcomes (i.e., capabilities) if one has the means, resources and proper conditions for choosing (or not) to actualize them (i.e., achievements and functionings). Whereas the latter often add up to naught or mere lofty pronouncements as when one talks about the desirability for people “to bootstrap themselves” out of poverty and utter deprivation when in fact they have neither boots nor straps, nor even the minimal conditions under which they could acquire either of them.

48  For Rawls, the list of “primary social goods” includes (1) basic rights and liberties, (2) freedom of movement and free choice of occupation against a background of diverse opportunities, (3) powers and prerogatives of offices and positions of responsibility in the political and economic institutions of the basic structure of society, (4) income and wealth, and (5) the social bases of self-respect. He was also prepared to countenance (6) leisure time, and (7) freedom from physical pain (Rawls, 1996, p. 181-182). See also (Rawls, 1996, p. 182-87) for a discussion of the merits of his conception relative to the one proposed by Sen’s capabilities approach in an effort to address in a feasible and practical manner the serious problem of variations and heterogeneities among people.

49  Elsewhere she characterizes “central human capabilities” as “developed opportunities for functioning that are necessary for a life in accordance with human dignity”. Examples of these would be: the ability to live to the end of a human life of normal length, the ability to have health care, an education, to enjoy bodily integrity, to participate in the social and political life of one’s community, to be able to form one’s conception of the good life, to be able to use one’s senses, imagination and mind in a truly human way. to have and to care for friends, to have control over one’s material and political environment, to enjoy the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation up to an adequate threshold level, to enjoy a healthy emotional life, and so forth (for details on the complete and revised list proposed, see Nussbaum, 2000, p. 78-80).

50  Even though Nussbaum believes that “we need a substantive account of central political goods, of the sort that the capabilities approach gives us”, she insists that her approach is diametrically opposed to “Platonist accounts of the good” (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 8).

51  It is worth noting here that this is reminiscent of Scanlon’s “parametric universalism” discussed earlier.

52  Since I have addressed similar arguments previously in my essay, and will do so again in the forthcoming discussion, I need not rehearse here or dwell on Nussbaum’s specific treatments, even though they are insightful and duly nuanced.

53  At times however, she seems to be wavering in this regard, or rather, to make an exception in the case of the most deprived and poorest people for whom it only makes sense to insist on certain basic and fundamental functionings or achievements.

54  As Nussbaum conceives of the capabilities, they obviously have a “very close relationship to human rights” (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 97). And though the language of ‘rights’ play a powerful role in public discourse and international debates, one significant advantage of her focus on the ‘capabilities’ is, as she points out, that it is not linked to one particular cultural and historical tradition, as the former is often believed to be –albeit wrongly. But this is another issue. Even Williams recognizes the advantage of the language of ‘capabilities’ over that of ‘rights’, when he writes in his commentary over Sen’s view: “I am not very happy myself with taking rights as the starting point. The notion of a basic human right seems to me obscure enough, and I would rather come at it from the perspective of basic human capabilities. I would prefer capabilities to do the work, and if we are going to have a language or rhetoric of rights, to have it delivered from them, rather than the other way around” (Williams, 1987, p. 100). The relationship between the two concepts (‘capabilities’ and ‘rights’) require however further scrutiny and such a task is obviously the limited scope of this essay (see Nussbaum, 2000, p. 98-101; and others of her writings on this matter).

55  In this regard, Nussbaum is, I believe, in agreement with Habermas. However, once again, I believe that such arguments must be couched as much as possible in non-foundationalist and non-metaphysical terms.

56  Compare with Rawls’ claim (1971) that “justice is the first virtue of society”.

57  As she states elsewhere: “The intuitive idea behind the approach is twofold: first, that certain functions are particularly central in human life, in the sense that their presence or absence is typically understood to be a mark of the presence or absence of human life; and second, –this is what Marx found in Aristotle –that there is something that it is to do these functions in a truly human way, not merely animal way. We judge, frequently enough, that a life has been so impoverished that it is not worthy of the dignity of the human being, that it is a life in which one goes living, but more or less like an animal, unable to develop and exercise one’s powers” (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 71-2). She also notes: “This idea of human dignity has broad cross-cultural resonance and intuitive power” (ibid).

58  As noted earlier, we might also add Charles Taylor (2001) to this list. See Chokr, 2006a.

59  Is Nussbaum’s view in this regard different from the way it was articulated before 2000? This is perhaps a question worth entertaining, but better left for others to answer. She seems in any case to have taken a clearer and more explicit position by then.

60  As Rawls later clarified, “wide, not narrow reflective equilibrium (in which we take note only of our own judgments) is plainly the important philosophical concept…This equilibrium is fully intersubjective: that is, every citizen has taken into account the reasoning and arguments of every other citizen” (Rawls, 1996, p. 384-5 n. 16).

61  “Reflective equilibrium […] is a point at infinity we can never reach, though we may get closer to it in the sense that through discussion, our ideals, principles, and judgments seem more reasonable to us and we regard them as better founded than they were before” (Rawls, 1996, p. 385).

62  See Chokr (2008) for the articulation and defense of “a pluralism under rigorous and severe normative restraints”.

63  Philosophers such as David Wong (1996) and Michael Walzer (1994) don’t shun the label ‘relativists”, but they are perhaps better described as “pluralists”.

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Nader N. Chokr, « Who is (not) afraid of (cultural) relativism? », Tracés. Revue de Sciences humaines [En ligne], 12 | 2007, mis en ligne le 24 avril 2008, consulté le 02 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Nader N. Chokr

Shandong University, Department of Philosophy, School of Philosophy and Social Development
Professor of Philosophy and Social

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