Are some cultural practices ‘wrong’?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a time when families gather together to argue drunkenly about politics, morals and all the other fine points of life over plates of bland turkey, over-cooked vegetables and tasteless mashed potatoes.

Okay, maybe it isn’t that bad at your house, but my family seems to span an alarmingly large portion of the political spectrum which makes holiday gatherings, uh, colorful.

Normally I try to lessen the political debates, not fuel them, but last night, at a little pre-Thanksgiving gathering, I got sucked into a hot-button issue for travelers — cultural relativism. Naturally thought I should give my fellow vagabonds a chance to weigh in (or add a little bit of controversy to your own Thanksgiving table if you’re into that sort of thing).

It’s all Wade’s fault really. The perpetual vagabond behind Vagabonding Journey recently posed the question: Are Some Cultural Practices Wrong?

Here’s how Wade frames the question:

Do you feel as if certain traditional and cultural practices can be called wrong? Do you feel that one culture should interfere with the actions of another because they feel their traditions are immoral? Do you feel that one culture has the right to extinguish the long-honed practices of another because they think it is wrong?

Or do you believe that all cultures and their traditional practices are relative? Do you think that certain practices only seem wrong or abusive because outsiders misunderstand them? Should all cultures be allowed to practice their traditions even if they hurt or kill themselves, animals, or the environment?

On the surface it seems pretty easy, obvious even, if you just consider the fringe cases. Most of us would tend to agree that certain cultural practices — forced female genital mutilation, Chinese foot binding, the death penalty for adultery, the old Hindu practice of Sati, to name a few — seem rather horrible even inside their cultural context.

The problem is, as always in moral debates, where do you draw the line?

If you believe that some cultural traditions shouldn’t be continued because they are, regardless of context, “wrong,” then where and by whom is the line between acceptable and unacceptable drawn?

And that’s where things get heated.

As a former philosophy major I can make my professors proud by arguing both points of view with pretty much equal conviction. In the end though I don’t actually think there is an answer. No one wants to be a cultural imperialist, but no one wants to condone some of the world’s more abusive cultural traditions.

Since vagabonds tend to miss holiday gatherings, think think of the comments form below as your invitation to the always-heated Thanksgiving table. I’m curious to hear from both side of this controversial issue.

Posted by | Comments (3)  | November 26, 2008
Category: General

3 Responses to “Are some cultural practices ‘wrong’?”

  1. John Says:

    I would actually find this an easy philosophical question to answer. Does the practice violate an individuals right to pursue their own happiness or life without any restrictions save that they cannot trample that same right for others? If that is violated then the practice is morally wrong.

  2. Hong Maslanka Says:

    Many of them were the guru’s of the time. They in-particular were not desperate, but greedy.

  3. Monica Wotton Says:

    Very good suggestions, I’m going to bookmark this and come back to it. I’m curious if you have any follow ups to this post?