Cultural Relativism & Feminism in a Liberal Society

Multiculturalism and feminism are two values held in a liberal society that have stirred controversy for some time. Although we as human beings can relate in many ways,  geography has played a significant role in our ways of life.

Feminism, although mostly misunderstood promotes equality between men and women…Yes, EQUALITY! Women shouldn’t be disadvantaged by their sex but be recognized as having human dignity equally with men. Also, they should have the opportunity to live as fulfilling and as freely chosen lives as men can. The second value Multiculturalism promotes protecting minority groups cultures by granting them group rights.

It is evident that there is a predominance of patriarchal cultures and traditions within minority groups. Given this fact, the dominant theme in minority cultural groups is the fulfillment of the men sexual, reproductive and domestic desires by the women. It’s not shocking that there are many controversial customs within minority groups.
Based on the descriptions of both values, it is evident that they contradict one another. Group rights and human rights cannot coexist in a liberal democracy. By granting group rights to protect multiculturalism, liberal democracies are allowing for denial of liberties to the women in those groups. Not coincidentally, male members are those who are generally in a position to determine and articulate the groups’ beliefs, practices and interests.

The challenges of cultural relativism from an ethical standpoint:

The Cultural Differences Argument is false. It states that different cultures have different moral codes, therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture. However, the logical point is that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. Just because two cultures disagree on a matter does not mean that there’s no “objective truth” in the matter. The premise deals with what people believe whereas the conclusion concerns what really is, clearly two different ends of the spectrum.

Cultural relativism not only forbids us from criticizing the codes of other societies, it also stops us from criticizing our own. If right and wrong are relative to culture, this must be true for our own culture just as much as for other cultures. We would have to stop condemning other societies merely because they are “different”. There are some moral rules however, that all societies must have in common because those rules are necessary for society to exist.
Cultural relativism says that a sort of independent moral standard cannot exist. We DO have a method to judge other culture’s moral codes and discover universal truths. We can analyze the situation by using our ability to reason.
By accepting cultural relativism and therefore multiculturalism, the rights of minority groups must be consistent with the fundamental of liberalism. It’s aim is furthering the well-being of its members especially those of the women and children. There can be no assurance that the leaders of the groups, which are mainly elderly men, represent the interests of all the groups’ members.

The challenges of cultural relativism from a political standpoint:

Multicultural defense should not be used if it causes harm to the people whose lives are affected by it. No matter who’s guilty, the women always get the blame and suffer, while the men get reduced charges. The real concern should be that by failing to protect women and children from male violence, their rights to equal protection are violated. When a woman from a more patriarchal culture comes to a liberal state, such as the U.S.A, they are discriminated against and less protected from male violence. futhermore, cultural practices that are oppressive to women can often remain hidden in the private or domestic sphere. Therefore the courts cannot enforce their rights.

I think Susan Okins’ argument is a good argument. She recognizes: the importance of the development of self-respect and self-esteem of the group members; that sexual discrimination occurs more or less in all cultures; patriarchal minority cultures can exist but is dependent on their willingness to become less. Therefore, group rights justifications can be made once they take women’s equality seriously. Finally and most importantly, human rights trump group rights.


 

Rachels, J (1999). “The Elements of Moral Philosophy”. McGraw-Hill, Inc, pp 15-29.

Moller Okin, S. (1999) “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?”. Princeton University Press.

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