Countries with an avowedly multicultural identity, like Canada, face an interesting question in terms of how they can reconcile respect for the equal dignity of individuals with respect for the diversity of cultures. Some cultural practises seem to violate the equal dignity of individuals and yet are an integral part of certain cultures. For example, clitoridectomy stands out as one such practise as it seems to be harmful to girls and women, and yet is certainly an integral part of certain cultures.
Within this multicultural context, members of particular cultures may say that they should be allowed to continue to engage in a practise that is illegal because this practise is part of their culture. Some, call them multiculturalists, are quite receptive to this sort of exemption for certain cultural practises as they think this is required to respect the diversity of cultures within a state. On the other hand, liberal universalists are critical of this claim and say that if a practise violates laws that are meant to defend the rights and well-being of equal citizens than it really does not matter if the practise is a part of your culture. According to this latter perspective it is not enough to justify the validity of a practise, and its eligibility for exemption from an existing law, to point to the fact that it is a part of your particular cultural tradition. In this debate I tend to be far more supportive of the latter position, than the former, but for the sake of this piece I do not want to focus on the specifics of whether policy should provide exemptions for cultural practises that violate existing law, but rather look at what these kinds of exchanges tell us about the nature of value and its relation to culture. It seems to me that cultural traditions are inexorably linked to universal values, rather than being opposed to them, and consequently we should not speak as if there was such a fundamental opposition. Universal value is an aspect of culture, rather than oppositional to culture.
When someone says that they should be able to engage in a practise because it is part of their culture, or their religion for that matter, what are they saying? On the most literal reading of their statement they are saying that as far as possible people should be able to engage in practises that are part of their heritage, and should not be impeded from doing so by existing law. Liberal universalists tend to take this interpretation of the defenders of multicultural policies of exemption, and as a result quite rightly point out that if this is what multiculturalists mean they are quite simply defending a quite repugnant form of cultural relativism. If a practise causes harm to children or significantly reduces their opportunities in life, but is a part of a culture’s practises it seems quite cruel to say that the practise should continue merely because it is part of a group’s culture. This would be like saying women should continue to be the predominant caregivers of children because they have been in our culture in the past. I gave the example of children as the way that a culture treats children is particularly important because children, unlike adults, do not have the ability to leave their culture if they decide they do not like it until they have reached adulthood, and so they are particular vulnerable to being unjustly harmed by cultural practises.
However, I don’t think all multiculturalists are arguing for this kind of vacuous relativism, and I think there is more sophisticated defense. For example, to defend a cultural practise by saying that it is part of one’s culture can plausible be viewed as suggesting that this practise should be exempted from existing law because it constitutes a unique and significant value, such that by preventing the practise the lives of those who practise the culture would be diminished. On this account culture is not just a mere set of practises that we inherit from the past that has no universal value, but rather culture gives an insightful account of our place in the world and its practises constitute a valuable mode of operation. The value of culture in this sense is not just that the members of the culture happen to like to practise it, but that in a real sense it enhances the lives of its members and allows them to understand what is most significant. Different cultures represent differing notions of what is valuable, but they all purport to answer the question of what is significant. Now, from a policy angle the mere fact that a cultural practise that is illegal can be shown to have significant value is not enough to justify an exemption for it as the law could be protecting a value that is more fundamental. But this interpretation of the multiculturalist argument is not insensitive to the interests and lives of the members of the culture. Consequently it is not open to the liberal universalist charge of uncaring cultural relativism.
Yet, this latter interpretation of the multiculturalist argument would completely change the way we talk about multiculturalism. If cultural practises that are currently illegal should be exempted for members of a particular culture because they provide significant value to the lives of the members of the culture, than why shouldn’t the law forbidding in general be repealed? Once we begin to justify cultural practises in terms of their value to the lives of their members, the practises are not merely valuable for a particular culture, but for citizens in general as there value is universal and not conditional upon cultural membership. In this case, all other things being equal, if a significantly valuable cultural practise is made illegal through existing law than why wouldn’t we just legalize this practise in general? By only allowing members of a certain culture to engage in this practise through an exemption we would be preventing others from accessing a valuable option, and thus denying the principle of equality. Consequently, upon this interpretation of the multiculturalist argument the argument is not about whether a culture should be free to engage in a particular practise that others within the society are not free to engage in, but whether a currently illegal practise should be made legal because it is valuable. Of course, there are some cases where exemption makes sense as a matter of prudence, but these are not the norm.
What the preceding faintly shows is that the defense of cultural practises need not be framed in terms of the opposition between the defense of local cultural practises on the basis that they are part of a tradition and the defense of universal human values. But liberal universalists and multiculturalists themselves are far too often willing to frame their arguments in terms of this opposition. Liberal universalists tend to suggest they are standing up for universal human values, against the particular parochial practises of traditional cultures. We can see this in the debate on the headscarf in France. Liberal universalists justified the banning of the headscarf in public schools based on the fact that they were defending the universal value of equality, as the headscarf symbolizes the subordination of women. On the other hand, the critics of the ban tended to see this as a case of the French majority trying to impose their values on an already oppressed cultural minority who merely want to retain their traditions.
Now, through framing these issues in terms of universal values and local traditions, something deeply important is missed about the relation of culture and value. Cultures are always related to the particular, but value is always mediated and made most present through the particular. Fairness is an example of this. In an abstract sense what fairness requires is very hard to understand. Surely, it is fair to make a decision by flipping a coin, as no party has a significantly better chance of guessing correctly, but it would be odd to say that a fair way of organizing society would be by flipping coins to decide who did what and who had power in that society. Thus, the value of fairness can only be understood in particular contexts. A fair way to decide who should get the last slice of cake after each has had one piece might be through a random selection, whereas in an artistic competition fairness in judging the winner is based on fidelity to criteria that are integral to the nature of artistic competition that is occuring. Likewise, for Christians, what piety requires is very different from civic nationalists, or Muslims, but both are concerned with the same core object of piety.
Cultures are thus not particular traditions that are opposed to universal values. Rather each culture’s practises are a mediation of a related set of values that can plausibly apply to anyone; thus cultures do not simply represent the particular, but rather the mediation of universal values in a particularistic form. Now, some cultures may have a better mediation of one value than another, culture or contain values that we deem are more or less important. Surely, the contemporary culture of Canada has done a better job to mediate the value of compassion than the culture of Ancient Sparta. But this does not change the fact that particular cultures are not opposed to universal values, but an attempt to bring together and mediate a set of universal values in a form of life.
Thus, when we are talking about a culture’s practise and debating its value we should not be framing the issue in terms of the defense of a particular culture retaining its tradition, absent of any claim of universal value, against a claim of the defense of universal human values. Instead, when we are talking about cultural practises, we are talking about mediations of universal values that have their value precisely in the fact that they are not just a local custom, but instead a way of thinking and living life that can reveal what is significant to anyone. Engaging with other cultures is not a matter of respecting their diversity, but of trying to grasp them and see if they reveal something valuable about how we should live.