top of page

Why you can't be a progressive AND a cultural relativist

One of the planks of today's progressive worldview is cultural relativism. Yet progressivism and cultural relativism are fundamentally incompatible, and to try to maintain them both is to compromise one or both principles. Aspiring cultural-relativist progressives may be clearer and more effective in what they believe if they grasp how each principle limits the other.

What is progress?

To be a progressive means, first, to believe that there is such a thing as progress. To believe in progress is to believe in an objective ideal toward which a culture progresses. We may not know the ideal perfectly—in fact, the closer we get to it and the better we see it the more it may correct our notions of it—but we believe it is there.

Importantly, if there is such an ideal, it not only defines progress but it also measures progress. As a culture changes it either moves closer or further away from the ideal—that is, it gets better or it gets worse, it progresses or it regresses. Without that ideal yardstick that is outside the culture, which the culture is measured against, there is no progress—there is only change.

Put another way, if I am trying to drive to Chicago, then at any time we can measure whether I am closer to Chicago or further away from it than I was before. But without a fixed destination (even if I'm not 100% sure where precisely Chicago is), I'm not progressing on my journey: I'm just driving around.

Now when the progressive ideal measures whether a culture is getting better or worse, it is effectively making a comparison between two cultures—for example, between this culture a generation ago and this culture today. If the ideal can do that, it can also measure the difference between two different cultures at the same time. It forms the basis for comparing whether Culture A or Culture B is closer to the ideal—that is, which has made more progress—and thus which is better than the other.

What is cultural relativism?

It is just at this point that the notion of progress fundamentally clashes with cultural relativism. The doctrine of cultural relativism is that right and wrong, good and bad are defined by and within a culture—as it were by the consent or agreement of members of a society.

This has some important corollaries. One is that there is no single, objective standard of right and wrong outside cultures. Another is that no culture has any reasonable basis for judging another culture. The only basis for judging another culture is one's own culture, and that is no basis for judgment. It's rather like complaining that a player on another field has committed a delay of game according to the rules of football when they are actually playing baseball—or backgammon—or baking a cake. Therefore, no culture is better than any other, and a person dare not think of their own culture as superior to the rest (or inferior, for that matter).

Now it happens that today's progressives favor cultural relativism. They happen to value multiculturalism, and cultural relativism appears to facilitate it nicely (though by itself it does a poor job of defining how people of different cultures are supposed to share the same space and resources). They also value tolerance of a peculiar (but quite popular) definition—not "I think what you're thinking and doing is a mess, but I'm willing to put up with (i.e., tolerate) you," but, "I think you're wonderful just the way you are, even though I would never be that way myself." Also, cultural relativism makes for a neat and clever way of deflecting rebuke: "I can see why you think I'm wrong, but that comes from an idea in your culture, not mine." Finally, cultural relativism serves as a basis for rebuking others for not being tolerant of other cultures.

Why progress and relativism are incompatible

It is at exactly this point that the scheme breaks down. One cannot locate cultural relativism in the progressive ideal without violating either relativism or progress.

If you claim that the human race needs to make progress, then you are claiming a standard against which cultures may be judged, and because it is an objective standard, there is no reason why a person from Culture A cannot compare Culture B to that standard. But to do so is to violate the principle of cultural relativism that no culture is better than any other.

On the other hand, if you claim that there is no mode of comparison between cultures, because each culture is only judged by its own standard, then there is no objective ideal toward which to strive. What is, is right. However a culture is, is good, and however a culture might be in the future is also good. There is therefore no progress, only change.

You may note that there is a third logical option: each culture might have its own ideal toward which it is to strive that is both objective to it and peculiar to it. Thus Culture A progresses toward the ideal for its culture and Culture B progresses toward the ideal for its culture, which are different ideals. However, actual progressives don't approach life this way.

Take women's rights for example. Full equality between women and men is part of the progressive ideal. Progressives don't believe that this is a local good but a universal one: they believe that women should be equal with men in every culture in the world. But by standing for this they pass judgment on cultures in which women are not equal with men, in which it is not believed that women should be equal with men, even in which there is not even a concept of equality that corresponds to the progressive ideal. Measuring a culture against that standard of progress is an obvious violation of cultural relativism.

A more apt (and somewhat amusing) example has to do with cultural relativism itself. Picture progressives in Culture A disdaining the powers-that-be in Culture B for not developing a tolerant, multicultural society or for not getting along peaceably with its neighbors of a different culture—in effect, for not governing as cultural relativists—when cultural relativism is not a feature of Culture B. You have one culture violating cultural relativism by judging another culture for not being cultural relativists.

Of course, this happens within cultures as well as between them, because cultures are not monolithic—they are composed of almost infinite, nested layers of subcultures. So when progressives rebuke people in their own culture for not functioning as cultural relativists, those criticized can easily reply, "Cultural relativism makes sense in your culture-within-our-culture, but it is not a feature of my culture-within-our-culture."

How to compromise between progress and relativism

So what is to be done? Some compromise must be made. We could limit cultural relativism by standing for certain objective moral ideals that apply to all cultures and acknowledge without shame that our culture is better than many others in certain areas. We could also scale back what constitutes our progressive ideal and give other cultures a bit more room to do their own thing without being judged by us, even if we don't like it.

In fact, we're already doing both of these things—we're just generally not conscious of it. Our unawareness tends to make us proud and strident. If we become aware of how we're not quite as progressive or quite as relativistic as we'd like to believe we are, it might make us a bit more humble and gentle in our proclamations.

I can't help but muse about what would constitute the right compromise between progress and cultural relativism. It seems to me that today's progressive thought has the serious (and ironic) flaw that its roots—historically and in the present day—are in the elite stratum of the most culturally dominant macrocivilization in the world, that of Western Europe and North America. In order to embrace the progressive ideal, people from other, more-or-less dominated or marginalized cultures (or strata within Western European and North American cultures) have to leave their own culture to some extent and become cosmopolitan to be really progressive. This is the opposite of what progressives want people to have to do, but it appears to be necessary.

I can't help but think that Christianity makes for a better compromise between progress and cultural relativism. You might find that notion surprising, but there are good reasons to consider it.

For starters, Christianity was multicultural virtually from its beginning and has exhibited an extraordinary ability to adapt to and be indigenized in a bewildering variety of cultures. In a few years—less than a generation—after its founding, the Christian movement was an amalgamation or fusion of Palestinian Jewish culture, Hellenistic Jewish culture, and many of the Hellenized cultures of the wider Roman world. It continued to diversify in amazing ways in the ancient world, from Ireland to Ethiopia to India.

Granted, when Islamic armies imposed their will on vast stretches of the world that Christians inhabited, Christianity became a predominantly European thing for many centuries (not that Europe wasn't culturally diverse itself to some degree). But in the last century or so the Christian faith has made up for lost time. Two thirds of today's Christians live in the Two-Thirds World. There is no ideology, religious or secular, that is at home in more cultures in the world today—not as a foreign import but as a flourishing, native thing.

At the same time, Christianity defines an ideal toward which individuals and societies must progress. It is an ideal called the kingdom of God that is going to be imposed upon us whether we progress toward it or not (but we'll enjoy it a whole lot more if we progress toward it). It is an ideal that is outside every culture, has echoes in every culture, but also critiques every culture (including the ones that heard about it first). It is an ideal that has much in common with the ideal of today's progressives. (In fact, there is a strong case to be made that the progressivism of the last two or three centuries is mainly an eviscerated version of Christianity, but that's a story for another time.)

Progressives might scoff at the notion that Christianity is progressive. To them, much of Christianity is regressive. I sympathize, because much that progressives believe is progressive Christians believe is regressive. (For example, does anybody really believe that progressive sexual mores are cutting-edge? These are outmoded standards that our civilization progressed from centuries ago.)

Well-intentioned people disagree about what really is progressive. I don't blame people for not seeing what they can't. One of the best parts of Christianity is that God does the work to enable people to see his ideal and enter it. In the end, he's the one seeing to it that we make progress.

bottom of page