Are All Cultures Equally Good?


It is a truth universally acknowledged by “progressives” that all cultures are equally good and equally valuable. Common sense says that this is nonsense.

I lived for eighteen months with a nomadic tribe in southeastern Iran in order to study their way of life. These people were ethnically Baluch and religiously Sunni Muslim. They lived in black goat-hair tents and raised goats, sheep, and camels to make a living. Each was a member of a group descended from a common male ancestor, and that group was charged with defense and security of the land, livestock, and people.

Tribes are regional defense organizations in which small descent groups are balanced against other small descent groups, and large against large, and peace is kept, when it is, by the deterrence of potential retaliation. There are no rulers, police, or judges. Every man is a warrior, if only part-time. Tribesmen are jurally — that is legally — equal. Most decisions are made democratically and in a decentralized fashion. Individual families have considerable autonomy.

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Tribes do two important things: One is that they give small groups access to large territories, which is important for raising livestock in arid landscapes with erratic rainfall and plant growth. The other is that autonomy and equality are maintained by resisting the impositions of pre-modern, despotic states, and the intrusions of other tribes.

Tribal life has all of those benefits, plus a high level of hospitality for strangers, very useful for nomads in large territories. These Baluchi tribesmen, both men and women, were mostly very decent people and were very kind to my wife and me.

At the same time, the limits of tribal life were evident. Although making the best in difficult circumstances, the Baluch had no architecture but tents; they had no machines but relied on muscle power; they had no literature but the Koran brought from outside, and most were illiterate; they had no art other than flat-woven rugs of traditional design; they had no science but relied on practical knowledge; they had no education but experience growing up.

The same limits exist for all tribal societies, such as the famous mountain nomads of Iran, the Qashqai and Bakhtiari, the northern Turkmen, the Maasai of East Africa, the Fulani of West Africa, even the sedentary tribes of Africa. It is true that the mountain nomads and Turkmen made beautiful small carpets, and that African tribes had attractive body decorations and ritual masks. Limits are even greater for hunting and horticultural peoples. North American natives had similar limited profiles to tribal peoples, although the Pueblo Indians did have architecture, mostly domestic, and the peoples of the North West Coast, in an exceptionally rich environment, did develop magnificent wooden sculptures.

Tribal and sub-tribal peoples, although fully human as all other people, relied on cultures suitable for their circumstances, but lacking in the material, intellectual, artistic, and scientific development that characterize world civilizations such as Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Western.

While not everyone in the West cares to go to Shakespeare plays, read Jane Austen novels, listen to Beethoven quartets or Italian operas, view French paintings, or eat French cuisine, these cultural accomplishments are available for those who do. Most people in the West watch movies and television and listen to jazz or rock or hip-hop, all of which depend upon elaborate creative and production organization.

Not everyone wants to be an architect, an astronomer, or an anthropologist, but these and many other specialized occupations are available for those who aspire to them. Western universities that provide education and research in these and many other fields are the envy of the world and always rank at the top of the annual world rankings.

Most people in the West have a material standard of living that is astonishing in historical perspective. We live in commodious dwellings protected from the cold by heating, and the heat by air conditioning. Their always available electricity, hot water, and indoor plumbing are luxuries that kings and queens in the past did not even dream of. Most of us have private vehicles — cars and trucks of great power, capable of technical feats to increase safety and efficiency. Many of us travel great distances for pleasure. Food is so readily available that our problem is not hunger but obesity.

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The view that all cultures are equally valuable is called “cultural relativism.” For this, anthropologists must take much responsibility. What began as a research effort to see other cultures without bias and through the eyes of their members, became an extremist moral and ethical relativism, the view that someone from one culture cannot judge what happens in another culture. In this view, no criteria may be applied from one culture to assess other cultures; above all, no judgments may be made indicating that some are better than others.

According to cultural relativism, we must accept without judgment bride-burning as part of the dowry system in India, honor murders of girls and women in the Middle East as part of male control of fertility, witchcraft accusation in Africa as part of the social control system, slavery in the Islamic world as part of Muslim supremacy, and the Holocaust as a manifestation of traditional German antisemitism. If they do it in other cultures, it’s all good.

In reality, everyone judges others according to their own ideas and values. And judgment is a universal human activity. The reason for this is clear: social norms and cultural values are not hardwired but are learned, and within every society peer judgment of people’s activities is one of the main ways that a culture’s norms and values are maintained. It is ironic that professors advocating relativism spend their lives making absolute judgments about exams, essays, articles, books, and candidates, evaluating on scales from good to bad.

In the same way, we judge other cultures according to our own values. Contemporary Western values include equality, freedom, democracy, achievement, tolerance, and charity. When we look at other cultures, we see shortcomings of which we disapprove: the lack of democracy in China; the lack of equality in India; the lack of achievement, tolerance, and charity in the Middle East.

Above all, we do not want influences we disapprove from elsewhere of affecting our culture: we do not wish to import despotism, inequality, suppression of freedom, economic dependency, and intolerance. Multiculturalism is fine as a cover for the diversity of origin, but it is not an invitation for undermining American and Canadian values and institutions. Caste discrimination, religious determination of public policy, male domination of females, rape gangs, honor killings, and religiously-based anti-Semitism are not welcome. No more appropriate is the adoption of native folklore and traditional folkways as a replacement for modern science and medicine.


  • Philip Carl Salzman

    Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Past President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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13 thoughts on “Are All Cultures Equally Good?

  1. As a UK socio-cultural anthropologist I have strong sympathies with your critique of extreme relativism, and I have no doubt that in a loose sense your critique is valid for many anthropology lecturers and students. Still, it would be a lot more persuasive if you (or someone) could compile an informative set of examples of real professional anthropologists who have said objectionable things from an extreme relativist standpoint. We could then try better to understand how such unhelpful attitudes came about, with a view to exposing them to to proper critical scrutiny in our classes.

    Many of the anthropologists I know have been a bit too reluctant to offer grown-up evaluative critiques of nonwestern culture, and a bit too glib in finding fault with western culture. Very occasionally you’ll find some who still teach and write about witch persecution without condemning it, but in general most anthropologists wouldn’t condone bride burning, cruel punishments, honour killings, slavery, human sacrifice, female genital mutilation (although too many still seem to condone the genital mutilation of male infants).

    In short, we absolutely do need to expose anthropologists’ poor track record on moral evaluation, and to call out individual instances of extremist relativism, but the ‘slippery slope’ argument shouldn’t blind us to the merits of moderate nonjudgmentalism. It’s good to pause and consider carefully before leaping to intercultural moral evaluation, but clearly idiotic and harmful to infantilise nonwestern cultures by trying to protect them from moral scrutiny.

  2. To me it makes sense to say that all cultures are equally morally valuable, but some cultures are “better” for some specific purposes than others are. And that distinction cuts both ways — some are better for inventing technology, some are better for respecting the rule of law, some are better for being ecologically sustainable, some are better for seeing artistic talent in everyday life.

    1. @ EB
      I find that response to be beyond rational belief. It makes you part of the problem. Explain, if you can, the ‘moral value’ of Nazi, Pol-Pot, the extremes of communism, female-genital-mutilation, slavery, … just for starters. There ARE moral absolutes.

    2. It is quite accurate to say that all cultures are not equal. This does not mean, however, that it is appropriate or moral to treat individuals within those cultures as inferior.

  3. Salzman’s “truth universally acknowledged by progressives” is his own ideology-based falsehood, in the same category as “all conservatives are Aryan Supremacists”. Cultural “relativism” is the unique preserve of a tiny bunch of nutbars. But since Salzman can’t even see through his ideologue-glasses what is actually believed by the vast majority of those who describe themselves as progressives, perhaps his fieldwork is equally flawed.

    1. Are my colleagues and students at my elite university “a tiny bunch of nutbars”? I find Professor Emeritus Christensen’s remark unkind. And misleading, as well. For a number of years I have pointed out to my students the conflict between human rights and cultural relativism, but, given the opportunity to voice their opinion, most all of the students opted for cultural relativism. Granted, almost all were from the social sciences. But when I suggested that there were counter-arguments to cultural relativism, they were shocked and said that they had never heard of such a thing in their classes.
      But let’s look at a broader field. The Prime Minister of Canada has asserted that Canada has no mainstream culture, and that diversity is Canada’s strength. He has also opened the doors to undocumented/irregular/illegal immigrants. If you do not think that all cultures are equally good, why would you deny your own culture and welcome all others. So too with my students. Given the choice (Angus Reid survey) between saying that minorities should adapt to the Canadian mainstream or keep their own languages and cultures, three quarters of my student opted for the second choice (although Canadians at large opted for assimilation by 67%). Unless you think all cultures are equally good, why would you invite them into the bosom of your country?
      “Progressive” politicians in Europe are keen to turn their countries and cultures over to anyone and everyone:
      In December 2015, Former Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, president of the European Council in 2009, gave an interview to TV4 ahead of his departure from the leadership of the Moderate Party, in which he asked rhetorically:
      “Is this a country that is owned by those who have lived here for three or four generations or is Sweden what people who come here in mid-life makes it to be?… For me it is obvious that it should be the latter and that it is a stronger and better society if it may be open… Swedes are uninteresting as an ethnic group.”
      In addition, in 2010, Mona Ingeborg Sahlin, the leader at that time of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, told a gathering of the Turkish youth organization Euroturk:
      “I cannot figure out what Swedish culture is. I think that’s what makes many Swedes jealous of immigrant groups. You [immigrants] have a culture, an identity, a history, something that brings you together. And what do we have? We have Midsummer’s Eve and such silly things.”

      If you do not think all cultures are equally good, or all but your own are better, why would you surrender your culture and country to any foreign arrival?
      I do not know why Professor Emeritus Christensen, you are so unwilling to admit what most progressives are proud to stand for.

  4. To John K. Wilson: I have just completed fifty years of teaching anthropology at McGill University. In recent decades, my students, as they have told me, have identified strongly with the left and believed in cultural relativism. My colleagues also believed in cultural relativism, with the exception of the West, which they deemed responsible for all of the ills of the world. Apparently, through the magic of “postcolonial theory,” they saw no contradiction between these views.
    It has long been true that anthropologists were committed to cultural relativism. Here from Wikipedia is a report on the American Anthropological Association in 1947 rejecting the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the grounds of cultural relativism:
    ‘The American Anthropological Association criticized the UDHR while it was in its drafting process. The AAA warned that the document would be defining universal rights from a Western paradigm which would be unfair to countries outside of that scope. They further argued that the West’s history of colonialism and evangelism made them a problematic moral representative for the rest of the world. They proposed three notes for consideration with underlying themes of cultural relativism: “1. The individual realizes his personality through his culture, hence respect for individual differences entails a respect for cultural differences”, “2. Respect for differences between cultures is validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered”, and “3. Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole.”[60]’
    The quotes from the AAA are the critical information here. Here is a link to the original AAA statement:
    I have to disagree with your statement that cultural relativism is not a serious problem. It is the mother of anti-human rights political correctness, the oxymoron multiculturalism, and the unhealthy and anti-merit obsession with “diversity.” Cultural relativism is one of the main forces behind the many ways our culture has gone astray.

  5. John K. Wilson says ” all cultures are equal is sheer nonsense. I’ve never actually met anyone who believes this.”
    I can tell you I have, for almost all of my life.
    It started out in progressive academia whereby the thought was “all cultures are equal, they are just different.”
    But it became apparent that for the past 500 years virtually everything of value to humankind was created by the West.
    John K. Wilson goes on to say,”cultural relativism is a straw argument, not a real enemy.”
    I can tell you it is a very real enemy. Cultural relativism is the foundation of all anti-western ideology. “All Cultures are equal, except the West because it exploits other cultures” is the excuse used when exploiting the West, and undermining its core values. Anti-westernism believes the West is responsible for all the world’s ills and therefore the West needs to compensate other cultures. It is easier to rob a willing victim who is made to believe they do not deserve their wealth.
    There is a disdain for Western traditions like Christmas because it is non- inclusive. Western Corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s are despised because they are accused of exploiting their suppliers, their employees or their customers.
    Yet non-Western traditions that are also not inclusive are ignored. Non- Western Corporations who indisputably exploit their suppliers, their employees or their customers are rarely criticised.
    John K. Wilson says, “Cultural relativism would mean that cultures that embrace slavery (such as America did) are the equal of cultures that reject slavery. Clearly, progressives would reject this.”
    Progressives would only reject it when it means making America equal to other cultures. Their narrative is that America is worse than others, and therefore, that is why they would reject any claim that would attempt to make the West or America in particular, equal to other cultures.
    Yet they give other cultures, whose reputation towards the environment, or women, or genocide, a pass because they believe that those cultures contempt for the West is of higher value.
    Ask a Progressive in a room full of other Progressives, where they would like to live, Rwanda or Norway, and you will see their hesitation because their carefully crafted narrative is that they are both equal.

  6. Fabulous….our education has largely been a lie. Death be to political correctness! Long live science and reason!

  7. As a progressive, the assertion that all progressives believe all cultures are equal is sheer nonsense. I’ve never actually met anyone who believes this, and especially not progressives. Perhaps that’s why Salzman does not actually quote any of these cultural relativists that he asserts are everywhere. Where is the evidence? Cultural relativism would mean that cultures that embrace slavery (such as America did) are the equal of cultures that reject slavery. Clearly, progressives would reject this. Cultural relativism can be a useful attitude to cultivate among anthropologists who are reporting on cultures that the rest of us have little access to, to encourage more objective and accurate reporting on these cultures. And certainly we should all be skeptical about our own certainty of cultural superiority. But cultural relativism is a straw argument, not a real enemy.

    1. Of course not “all progressives” believe in cultural relativism, but plenty do. Of course unlike you, and I mean this sincerely, they have not thought it through. I have argued with plenty of people who claimed to believe in relativism as Salzman describes it, and I used the exact arguments you mention to dissuade them, sometimes successfully. William Graham Sumner described why relativism is “true” more than 100 years ago.

      We have all heard someone say, “Who are we to judge,” especially when it comes to the anti-female practices common to Islam.

    2. No Sale – “Clearly, progressives would reject this.” is BS. The camel’s nose does not come into this man’s tent.

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