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The fallacy of cultural relativism
Posted: 01 December 2007 05:19 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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The dominating, and suffocating mindset in the West today in response to various evils perpetrated by non-Western cultures against “their own” members or others is that we must “tolerate” it, because that is how their culture is, and that it would be cultural imperialism to demand imposition of “Western”, human rights values on other cultures.

At the very most, we may engage in “respectful dialogue” with them, but it would be morally wrong of us to engage in outright, unilateral condemnation of other cultures, or do something active to prevent/destroy those elements within their cultures that “we” deem as immoral.
Ultimately, it is only up to them to change their own culture, persons outside that culture have no rights to dictate how those cultures should evolve, let alone engage in effective actions to implement, or accelerate that evolution.

In practice, this view holds that each “culture” is somehow morally sovereign, that is to say, it is immoral to develop any type of morality that over-arches “culture”, and against whose universal standards the individual cultures are to be judged.
Rather, each culture can only be properly judged by its internal standards of morality, and the only thing outsiders can properly contribute with is to point out internal inconsistencies, failures to uphold their own standards, and ideological/behavioural ambiguities that might allow for a variety of culturally legitimate paths of evolution.

This is, as I see it, the essence of “cultural relativism”.
We must respect other cultures because they are as fundamental as our own, and no one can step outside his own culture and create a universal morality or code of ethics.
Those who try to do so are dangerous fools advocating immoral actions.
(If somebody disagrees with my portrayal of cultural relativism, please correct me!)


It should be noted that what this view really sets up as an absolute (or, more precisely, absolutes) is a nebulous entity called “culture”.

Each “culture” is considered a sovereign realm of morality and jurisdiction, and preservation of this sovereignty is the basic inter-cultural moral duty.

But, one may legitimately ask:
WHERE does a particular culture start, and where does it end?
How are we to point it out?
And, what are the relevant criteria for singling out those cultures that should be regarded as morally sovereign, and which (sub-)cultures that are NOT morally sovereign?
For example, in all societies there will evolve different classes, and each class will develop its own standards of behaviour.
Are such class moralities, sub-cultures morally sovereign with respect to the over-arching culture or not?
And, whatever the answer is, what are the criteria for determining this?


It should be readily seen that all this talk about cultures as somehow morally sovereign zones is just as nebulous as the entities cultural relativism throws forth as absolutes.

Precisely because we cannot by any means pin down what a culture is, what extent it has, and the criteria for determing whether or not a particular culture should be regarded as sovereign, cultural relativism is, at the very outset, an INVALID mode of thinking.

Although an unquestionable set of FACTS cannot automatically be said to constitute a set of morally binding principles, the minimum requirement for moral thinking is that we know what we are talking about, and “cultures” are far too nebulous entities to fulfill that criterion.


In a later post, I’ll develop a few ideas concerning a universal morality, indeed THE universal morality, and show that the basis for that thinking is, indeed, grounded in unquestionable facts (whether or not I’m wrong in particular developments later on).

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Posted: 01 December 2007 05:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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A special case of cultural relativism: Historical relativism

To say that we cannot legitimately judge a long gone culture for its barbarities is, perhaps, the most pervasive form of cultural relativism.

The statement has an unfortunate surface credibility, since to bash the ancient Greeks, Romans or Vikings for their immoralities seems rather silly, since they are no longer around. What’s the point, really, of criticizing dead cultures?

But the trivial fact that members of these cultures are no longer present, and hence that any type of communication between us and them is physically impossible, and thereby seemingly make “their world” sovereignly inaccessible for us has not the slightest relevance upon the issue upon whether or not we may unilaterally pass moral judgments upon them.

Consider the scenario that by a time machine we were enabled to meet up with the great names of the past, like Cicero, Caesar and so on.
What would we talk about?
Flatteries concerning how beautiful their wine-yards were?
Or might it be that it would be legitimate to force them upon the issue of slavery, condemning them in their face on why slavery is wrong?
Why did they choose to leave the business of handling the slaves on their farms to others so as not to dirty their own hands in flogging their slaves?
Was it, perhaps, because they deep down were revolted by the idea to keep others in abject misery, or at least the harsh reality those ideas led to?


To say that we shouldn’t judge the actions from the past is to hallow “history” and the dominant classes at particular epochs as morally sovereign zones and agents, and cannot be regarded as the result of sound moral reasoning.

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Posted: 05 December 2007 09:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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All right, suppose we condemn some foreign culture because their idea of morality disagrees with ours.  What then?  From a practical standpoint, I don’t see how it would make any difference.  I suppose we could “liberate” the people from their culture by force.  That worked pretty well in Iraq.  Or we could take a more middle-of-the-road approach, and apply sanctions.  Sometimes that works (South Africa, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe) sometimes it doesn’t (Iran, North Korea).  All in all, saving people from themselves seems a lot like do-gooding to me.

I’m looking forward to your universal morality, and to why you think it’s superior to any other morality.

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Do-gooding is like treating hemophilia—the real cure is to let hemophiliacs bleed to death, before they breed more hemophiliacs. -Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

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Posted: 06 December 2007 12:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Antisocialdarwinist - 06 December 2007 02:08 AM

  All in all, saving people from themselves seems a lot like do-gooding to me.

Hmm..do you think the woman about to be stoned is to be saved from “herself”?

Do you think the Copts living under continual legal harassment in Egypt are to be saved from “themselves”?

Do you think a 9-year old Yemeni girl who is married off to an old man is to be saved from “herself”?

Do you think that a daughter who is about to be killed by her own family having “dishonoured” them is to be saved from “herself”?

Do you think African animists taken in slave raids are to be saved from “themselves”?

I’m looking forward to your universal morality, and to why you think it’s superior to any other morality.

Because it is based on facts, rather than based on preservation of some fantasy object, like culture, race, religion, class, honour whatever.

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Posted: 06 December 2007 04:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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arildno - 06 December 2007 05:22 PM

Hmm..do you think the woman about to be stoned is to be saved from “herself”?

No, not literally.  The woman about to be stoned is a product of her culture, just like her fate.  Do I think she deserves to be stoned?  No.  If I could snap my fingers and make the practice magically disappear I would.  But unfortunately, it’s not that easy.  The cure (unless you can surprise me with some new, untried one) always seems to turn out worse than the disease. 

arildno - 06 December 2007 05:22 PM

Because it is based on facts, rather than based on preservation of some fantasy object, like culture, race, religion, class, honour whatever.

Lets hear’em.  I’ve been a moral relativist up until now, but maybe you can change my mind.

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Do-gooding is like treating hemophilia—the real cure is to let hemophiliacs bleed to death, before they breed more hemophiliacs. -Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

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Posted: 06 December 2007 08:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Please give me a better definition of sovereignty.  Is moral sovereignty different from other kinds? Are there other kinds?

Te me, you don’t have sovereignty unless there is an entity willing to maintain it.  There can be cultures with no sovereignty, and sovereignty where there is no culture.  Does that view conflict with yours, or only prove your point?

[quote author=“arildno”]and the only thing outsiders can properly contribute with is to point out internal inconsistencies, failures to uphold their own standards, and ideological/behavioural ambiguities that might allow for a variety of culturally legitimate paths of evolution.

That’s a pretty long list of options for being so suffocating.
I don’t see how it can be so dominating and suffocating when it is, as you describe, essentially anti-imperialistic.

Cultures evolve.  If you go by a Dawkinsian model of memetic determinism, saying one culture could accelerate the evolution of another is absurd.  Whatever is driving the evolution of a culture is inherent to it.  It will go at its own pace with no direction.

Is morality relative to culture?  The religious say no, since we get our morality from god.  An atheist like Richard Dawkins says morality is ingrained in humans as evidenced in the primitive moralities of chimpanzees.  In that sense the internal standards of morality are manifest in every culture equally.  But even among chimpanzees there are free love communes and war-waging murderers.

Chimpanzees have culture.  They have different tools used for different tasks, and those ways of tool use stay with particular troops as they are taught by parents and learned by offspring.  It clear that this is where any given human culture started – even before the evolution of anatomically modern humans.

So a culture persists through learned characteristics that remain true over time.  Does this give you a way to “point it out”?

It should be theoretically possible to break down any given culture into its most basic elements.  Be they memes, tools, artifacts, or other specific adaptations, placing them in different cultures entirely changes their meaning.

[quote author=“arildno”]no one can step outside his own culture and create a universal morality or code of ethics.

Stepping outside one’s culture may be possible, but I think the main point is that you can’t easily step into someone else’s and immediately become part of that culture.  There is a process of immersion and enculturation that is dependent on cultural distance. 
The grand effect of cultural relativism depends on cultural distance.  Where there is small cultural distance, the relative effects of culture are less.  Where there is great cultural distance, one must tread more carefully.

I don’t see this as a means of restricting human behavior or bottling up morality, but just a guide for how to get things done.  If we are to reprimand other cultures for their moral failings, ignoring the relative effects of culture will not help but hinder.


If you’re making this argument to allow for unilateral condemnation of religious groups I think it largely falls apart.  As far a cultural relativism goes, nothing has been a greater force for imperialism than religion.  In many ways, religion is mutually exclusive from culture.  Culture is dependent on learned characteristics, while so much of the time religion opposes learning and is more concerned with brainwashing with a total lack of respect for cultural boundaries.  Respecting other cultures is secular.

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Posted: 06 December 2007 09:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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ligh+bringer - 07 December 2007 01:32 AM

If you’re making this argument to allow for unilateral condemnation of religious groups I think it largely falls apart.  As far a cultural relativism goes, nothing has been a greater force for imperialism than religion.  In many ways, religion is mutually exclusive from culture.  Culture is dependent on learned characteristics, while so much of the time religion opposes learning and is more concerned with brainwashing with a total lack of respect for cultural boundaries.  Respecting other cultures is secular.

You convinced me on every point except this last one, but I guess it depends on your definition of culture.  Would you say that Christmas or Easter are not part of Western culture?  And what do you mean by culture being dependent on learned characteristics?

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Do-gooding is like treating hemophilia—the real cure is to let hemophiliacs bleed to death, before they breed more hemophiliacs. -Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

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Posted: 06 December 2007 09:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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It’s reminiscent of the non-overlapping majesteria.  The majesteria are overlapping, but not over any majority of the area.  Where they do overlap we can expect conflict.

I say learned characteristics, Dawkins says memes.  I think we have to keep the definition open to include larger ideas.  You can become enculturated by taking a class and learning about a culture in huge chunks.  Say you learn how to speak Arabic.  You can now move to a middle eastern country with more ease.  However, the individual memes that are transmitted through that language don’t necessarily get through.  Religion is trying to control what gets through and what doesn’t (mostly, that nothing gets though but the religion).

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Posted: 06 December 2007 09:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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ligh+bringer - 07 December 2007 02:21 AM

I say learned characteristics, Dawkins says memes.  I think we have to keep the definition open to include larger ideas.  You can become enculturated by taking a class and learning about a culture in huge chunks.  Say you learn how to speak Arabic.  You can now move to a middle eastern country with more ease.  However, the individual memes that are transmitted through that language don’t necessarily get through.  Religion is trying to control what gets through and what doesn’t (mostly, that nothing gets though but the religion).

Agreed, but how does that exclude Religion itself from being considered a component of culture?  Didn’t you say earlier that “saying one culture could accelerate the evolution of another is absurd.  Whatever is driving the evolution of a culture is inherent to it.  It will go at its own pace with no direction.”  That sounds to me like cultures tend to resist outside influences—which is exactly what religion does.

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Do-gooding is like treating hemophilia—the real cure is to let hemophiliacs bleed to death, before they breed more hemophiliacs. -Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

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Posted: 06 December 2007 10:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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I say that only if you accept the Dawkinsian model, which I don’t.

If we say culture evolves it means they change gradually in response to changing conditions.  Outside influences can make or break a culture.  And while cultures may resist outside influences a certain percentage of the time, religion opposes them.  It subverts and conquers them.  It is the greatest insult to cultural relativism.

Imperialism is built into a culture when there is a religion to install it.  If a particular religion fails to do that, maybe it is a component of a culture or limited bastion of cultures.  Most religion, as function of individual humans in the modern world, is not like that.

Dawkins sees religion as a virus.  I see it as an arms race.

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Posted: 08 December 2007 03:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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I’ll break my answer into parts:

ligh+bringer - 07 December 2007 01:32 AM

Please give me a better definition of sovereignty.  Is moral sovereignty different from other kinds? Are there other kinds?

Gould’s term non-overlapping magisteria fits very well to my concept of soveregnty concept (although the sovereignty concept is not really mine, but is the traditional concept for what Gould chose to refer to by NOMA)

The laws, or rules within a sovereign zone is intrinsic to it, there really isn’t any laws formulated outside it that can be applied on what happens within it.

For example, the card game whist is a sovereign zone in that even if a particular move within whist is not allowed in bridge (or vice versa) this has not the slightest effect upon the legality of the move within whist.

Each game is an independently created zone with its own rules for proper/legal behaviour.

There cannot exist a hypergame-master who has the authority to nay some particular rule within, say, bridge.


Similar sovereignty exist within maths, where one is free to choose what set of axioms for valid deductions (i.e the logic by which you define valid reasoning)&what;types of “numbers”/sets you are to study (i.e, the type of maths you’re doing).

Theorems applying to fields, say, won’t necessarily hold for rings.

The theorem’s validity can only be scrutinized by those axioms held valid within the study of fields.
That is, internal criticism is the only type of criticism available.

[ Edited: 08 December 2007 03:49 AM by arildno]
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Posted: 08 December 2007 05:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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ligh+bringer - 07 December 2007 01:32 AM

[quote author=“arildno”]and the only thing outsiders can properly contribute with is to point out internal inconsistencies, failures to uphold their own standards, and ideological/behavioural ambiguities that might allow for a variety of culturally legitimate paths of evolution.

That’s a pretty long list of options for being so suffocating.
I don’t see how it can be so dominating and suffocating when it is, as you describe, essentially anti-imperialistic.

Sure it is suffocating.
If in one culture, one tier of society is legitimized in enslaving another tier, then an outsider is prevented from criticizing the institution of slavery as such, since it is part of “their” culture.

Now, assuming some moral relativist is unwilling to accept he must condone slavery, he might try to make the following counter-“argument”:
But, the oppressed tier is in itself a “culture”, and hence the other sub-culture (the oppressors) had no inter-cultural right of oppressing the other culture.
Therefore, we can criticize it.

Now, the big issue is then:
How large must a culture be in order to constitute a zone of self-rule that others have not the right to invade/criticize?

A least number must exist.
Is it 2 million? 10000?
(In that case, any sub-segment within it does not in itself constitute a culture, and hence have no rights to criticize the rules their ambient culture has imposed upon them. Nor do any outsiders have the right to act on behalf of the “oppressed” sub-culture, since that sub-culture is not a morally sovereign zone whose rights have been trampled on. Their rights are simply those by which the ambient culture treats them according to, and those “rights” have not been violated)


Or might that least number be equal to the number: 1?

And then you might try to identify which morality system has as its basic premise that the single individual constitutes a morally sovereign zone..

[ Edited: 08 December 2007 06:26 AM by arildno]
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Posted: 08 December 2007 06:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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ligh+bringer - 07 December 2007 01:32 AM

Cultures evolve.  If you go by a Dawkinsian model of memetic determinism,

I don’t. It is a gross over-simplification.

saying one culture could accelerate the evolution of another is absurd.  Whatever is driving the evolution of a culture is inherent to it.  It will go at its own pace with no direction.

Again, you are under the fallacious impression that:
Cultures are some type of independent absolutes, having some inherencies that cannot be dislodged from the outside.

This is just wrong.

Do you think a child born, say, by Muslim parents, spontaneously generates a belief in Islam?

Cultures are TAUGHT, and that holds for any one cultural element within it.
Such elements can be detaught as well, by a lot of means.

On the purely factual basis, each individual is a sovereign “melting pot”, if you like, who shapes his or her beliefs in an original manner on basis on whatever is put into the pot.
While it is therefore predictable that the resultant belief set will be strongly correlated to the belief sets inculcated in him by significant others, like parents, such belief sets may well change by new experiences.

As childhood wanes, a type of inertia sets in, and the belief system is less likely to change as the result of a random new experience the individual is exposed to.

But that does not mean that specific, non-randomly taught new beliefs won’t have the power to break the ingrained belief system.

Also, belief-shattering singular experiences are well attested, by which a single event by its own* demolished the previous mindset.

*More precisely, initiated a sequence of thoughts&emotions;within the individual that ultimately led to his rejection of his previous belief system.

[ Edited: 08 December 2007 07:04 AM by arildno]
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Posted: 08 December 2007 08:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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Since I am a devout relativist, I’ll have a go at the big issue.

arildno - 08 December 2007 10:51 AM

How large must a culture be in order to constitute a zone of self-rule that others have not the right to invade/criticize?
A least number must exist.
Or might that least number be equal to the number: 1?

The minimum number is two. If two or more people share an illusion of what the world is, that’s a culture. Typically, one person convinces others of their illusion and starts a cult of personality. Cults are baby cultures. If it grows until it requires a management staff of 50 or more to run it, then it’s a mature culture.

There is a circle in your question. Any right to invade or criticize could only exist within the framework of a culture. Establishing a morality is rather pointless for a sovereign individual. Why would one need to give oneself the right to act on one’s own decisions? One’s actions may reflect an observable and definable morality, but without sharing it with others, what’s the point of putting it in a conceptual box and calling it a morality?

Cultural sovereignty is incompatible with individual sovereignty. The struggle to take power away from culture is called secularization.

The issue for us today is how do we fully arrest sovereignty from a culture that doesn’t want to let go and clings to the holy anointing that underlies the shared illusion?

Moralities are useful for putting some restraint on cultures but mostly on other cultures.
Cultures run on balls. Our balls.

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Posted: 08 December 2007 09:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Nhoj Morley - 08 December 2007 01:52 PM

Since I am a devout relativist, I’ll have a go at the big issue.

arildno - 08 December 2007 10:51 AM

How large must a culture be in order to constitute a zone of self-rule that others have not the right to invade/criticize?
A least number must exist.
Or might that least number be equal to the number: 1?

The minimum number is two. If two or more people share an illusion of what the world is, that’s a culture.

So, according to your view, any union between two individuals constitute a morally sovereign zone which it is no business for others to meddle in, whether or not one of the persons within it agrees to the shape of that union or not.

Congratulations for having made the rape situation into a morally sovereign zone.

If you read closely what I actually said, I asked what is the least number so that below that, those individuals within the “culture” did not have the right to argue against their own culture’s demands.

Now, you might wish to distinguish between insiders and outsiders so that whereas insiders DO have the right to oppose their ambient culture, but outsiders don’t, irrespective of any blatant oppression going on inside the culture in question.

Yet again, the question is:
If there is a least number so that when the culture (oppressors+oppressed) exceeds that number then outsiders do NOT have the right to interfere in “internal affairs”, whereas if the culture is beneath that number, outsiders do have the right to interfere in the culture’s internal affairs.

Clearly, at least for most, that least number must be greater than 2, otherwise, you have given blanket approval in practice for say, the rape situation.

So, if we have 10000 individuals, are now their internal affairs holy, and verboten for outsiders to meddle in?
What about 10 million?

Perhaps THAT least number doesn’t exist at all, and outsiders have the right to interfere in any culture’s internal affairs irrespective the size of that culture.

[ Edited: 08 December 2007 09:46 AM by arildno]
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Posted: 08 December 2007 10:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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I will again point to my first post:

arildno - 01 December 2007 10:19 AM

But, one may legitimately ask:
WHERE does a particular culture start, and where does it end?
How are we to point it out?
And, what are the relevant criteria for singling out those cultures that should be regarded as morally sovereign, and which (sub-)cultures that are NOT morally sovereign?
For example, in all societies there will evolve different classes, and each class will develop its own standards of behaviour.
Are such class moralities, sub-cultures morally sovereign with respect to the over-arching culture or not?
And, whatever the answer is, what are the criteria for determining this?


It should be readily seen that all this talk about cultures as somehow morally sovereign zones is just as nebulous as the entities cultural relativism throws forth as absolutes.

Precisely because we cannot by any means pin down what a culture is, what extent it has, and the criteria for determing whether or not a particular culture should be regarded as sovereign, cultural relativism is, at the very outset, an INVALID mode of thinking.

Although an unquestionable set of FACTS cannot automatically be said to constitute a set of morally binding principles, the minimum requirement for moral thinking is that we know what we are talking about, and “cultures” are far too nebulous entities to fulfill that criterion.

“Culture” is NOT some well-defined entity, nor will it ever be, and HENCE, it is just foolish to regard it as some type of absolute reason, some independently existing “thing”.

It is a mere generalization, a term loosely referring to a variety of practices, beliefs and individuals.

It certainly is not the ground of all being, and should never be portrayed as such, either.

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