Cultural Relativism and Environmental Ethics

This article was originally published in the IUCN Ethics
Working Group Report No 5, August 1994

Cultural Relativism and Environmental Ethics

Freya Mathews

The fact of cultural difference in respect of moral attitudes to the environment is, I believe, the central meta-ethical problematic facing any attempt to arrive at a global ethic of Nature, or, more narrowly, for wildlife. It is highly likely that a global ethic of Nature, if it is to come into being, will take a pluralistic form, in the sense that it will appeal to a variety of principles and will not be reducible to any single underlying principle. Different cultures can offer different philosophical resources in this connection, and this wealth of resources presumably ought to be utilized thoroughly in any attempt to arrive at an adequate ethic. It should not of course be the case that the conceptual framework of any particular culture is privileged in this process, or made to appear more 'natural' than others. However a healthy pluralism is not equivalent to relativism: to insist that we must draw on as wide a range of cultures as possible in piecing together a complex, multi-perspectival ethic is not the same as saying that we must simply accept the rightness of every culture's distinctive attitude to its own environment.

This is a hard assertion to defend in the present post-colonial climate, for in the modern period it has of course been the West which has reserved for itself the 'right' to evaluate the cultures of all 'others', and it has done so in a flagrantly self-interested way, simply naturalizing and privileging its own prejudices. This shameful history of epistemological imperialism has led to the widely-held view that any attempt by a member of one culture to evaluate the belief systems (whether moral or empirical) of other cultures is arrogant and colonizing in intent, and accordingly not to be tolerated. This reaction seems questionable to me. It perhaps hides within it a residual imperial arrogance, in the form of the assumption that while the belief systems of the West may be no better than those of other cultures, they are at least no worse; they are not simply wrong. Yet it seems to me that in many respects the traditional belief systems of the West are simply wrong, and that other certain cultures have got things significantly more right. The insistence on cultural relativism prevents us from recognizing - and learning from - the epistemological and ethical strengths of different cultures.

If we allow that the West has got things wrong - and many thinkers in the West itself have long been engaged in this kind of dissent - then the possibility has to be allowed that other cultures may have got certain things wrong as well. In the context of human-to-human (as opposed to human-to-Nature) ethics,outsiders may judge that certain practices institutionalized within a given culture are unduly cruel or degrading to certain members of the society in question. Of course it is very difficult for outsiders to make informed judgments in such cases, since in order to do so they need to be fully apprised of the meaning of the relevant practices within that culture. History is littered with misguided and ignorant attempts of colonialists to 'civilize' the 'savage' inhabitants of other cultures. But again the fact of such a history does not in itself entail that all practices of all cultures are necessarily irreproachable. The reproachability of Western colonial practices itself bears this out: it has been widely accepted by critics both within and outside of Western societies that these practices are wrong. So again, if the moral values of the West can be criticized, then so too can the moral values of other societies. If this holds true in relation to human-to-human ethics, then presumably it also holds true in relation to human-to-Nature ethics.

The difficult question in this connection is, who has the 'right' to condemn the practices or values of any given culture? Does it just come down to power again: is it just a matter of powerful cultures dictating their (self-interested) ethical terms to powerless or marginal culures, where this will again amount to no more than a re-enactment of colonialism? I think not. But if the attempt to formulate a global ethic is to avoid becoming a re-enactment of colonialism, it may be that we need to come to the debate not only as representatives of particular cultures, but as representatives of a global community which faces unprecedented global crises. The challenges these crises pose may be negotiable only within the framework of a common global culture rather than in the terms of a multitude of traditional cultures. In other words, it may be that these crises force us to recognize that societies are no longer absolutely discrete. All societies - even small indigenous societies - are now consciously part of a global society, and really have no alternative but to accept this reality and the cultural changes that will inevitably accompany such acceptance. All people are now aware of a wider world than that which many traditional cultures encompassed within their belief systems - a world of planetary, indeed cosmological, dimensions. Planets, moons, outer space - these are not merely the peculiar constructions of the scientific belief system of the West. Humanity has circumnavigated the planet, it has been to the moon, it travels in space. There is for this reason no simple return to the more local worldviews, the 'bioregional narratives' of many traditional cultures. The traditional cultures which rested on such local worldviews will have to be revised if they are to be adequate to the new spatial dimensions of reality that Western science has indeed revealed. At the same time however, and perhaps more importantly, cultures - such as Western culture - which have lost sight of the particularity of local and concrete realities, and the ethical attitudes appropriate to them,will also need to be revised if they in their turn are to become adequate to these more qualitative dimensions of the world. In mutually revising our cultures in light of the ontological discoveries that cultural interchange has made possible, we are likely to find that the area of philosophical consensus between the various cultures expands. In this expanding area of consensus, we have the makings of a global culture, or perhaps meta-culture.

While we are engaged in this reciprocal revision of cultures, we also need to acknowledge that our world, in all its dimensions, is, as I have said, in various kinds of unprecedented crisis. These global crises affect us all, even though they are by no means causally attributable to all, but only to a relatively few, societies. The responses which these crises demand from all of us may involve new cultural initiatives and deviations from traditional values and practices. Those traditional values and practices evolved in response to, and made sense in relation to, particular sets of material circumstances. In many cases those circumstances have now changed, and some aspects of some traditions may not be appropriate to the new situation. In this sense it may perhaps be said that there are no longer any purely traditional cultures - though all cultures will meet the challenges of the new situation in their own way, drawing on their unique collective experience and understanding.

So I would like to argue that the global community we have all come to inhabit, and the global problems we all stare in the face, provide a framework for a new debate about how we are to live on the planet, a debate in which we are all entitled to share. If our efforts to address the global issues are genuine, then we shall presumably be prepared at certain points to transcend both self-interest and the requirements of tradition. This may mean Northerners conceding the incompatibility of their capitalist ventures with global ethical goals, and it may mean small societies on occasion being prepared to give up certain of their cultural traditions - with due compensation from the rest of the global community for any material losses incurred.

Representatives of no one regional culture then are in a position to determine the elements of a global ethic of Nature. But as representatives of the global community, we are all in a position to contribute to this debate. We may hope for some consensus on the grounds that, although we all bring different interests and identities to the debate, we can also all recognize that there is something much, much larger than these differences at stake: the preservation of the earth, of which we are all natives and to which all our traditions owe their origins. In other words, we are no longer, any of us, only Aborigines, or Europeans, or Africans. There is also a new, as yet shadowy, dimension of our identity - a transnational, transcultural, ecological dimension - which is at this very moment in process of formation. It is this exciting new aspect of our identity which will, more than anything else, I think, create the possibility of a fertile though pluralistic ethical consensus rather than a sterile relativistic stalemate.


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