This article was written in the context of a philosophy assignment. The question was: ”comparing the values of different cultures is not possible’ do you agree?” I tried to answer the question by using the theory of paradigms by Thomas Kuhn. He basically argues that cultures are also systems of knowledge which are established by (scientific) training where we know what we value and we value what we know – so the general distinction between fact and value is taken less seriously. Finally, I try to come out of our often held ‘original position’ of cultural relativism by using something I believe is a universal denominator among cultures: consistency.
If Kuhn is right, individuals are bound to their cultures even when they have the pretension of objective knowledge, since it is their paradigm that decides what should be considered knowledge. Comparing cultures then, becomes immediately difficult for paradigmatic reasons. To illustrate, it is practically extremely hard, if not, impossible to compare each and every aspect of any culture A to any culture B as it manifests itself completely. It is not even possible to conceptualize such a study – where would one start? This means that one has to make decision as to which aspects one will focus on.
However, when making these decisions, Kuhn would suggest, one is hardly led by a purely objective method of what one should pay attention to. Instead, you pay attention to what you value in your own conception of a good culture and civilization. A clear example is how the Arab world is criticized for its lack of freedom of speech by (unacquainted) Westerners, but only seldomly compared with the Western world in terms of its hospitability by the same individuals. In other words, everyone is culturally limited, if not, bounded and it is practically impossible to avoid the asymmetry or incompleteness when comparing different cultures since an intention to objectively perceive another culture becomes a value-judgement by necessity.
However, since comparisons are aimed at being informative to both cultures and third persons readings these comparisons (or they are a tedious hobby), it would suggest we are unable to conduct fruitful comparisons. And if we cannot compare cultures, cross-cultural learning will seem futile since our judgements of other cultures will be labelled as seriously biased and unable to say something meaningful. Fortunately, there might be middle-ground solution to provide this informative function.
To my knowledge, all value-systems and cultures have one thing in common: they aim and pretend to be consistent. If this is true, it means we have a shared value. And if consistency is a shared value, its implications on cross-cultural observation can be highly significant. Members of one group can specifically look at this value in other group of people and observe with great scrutiny (and automatically judge) the extent to which this consistency is present. In this way, cultures can inform their own members of a higher consistency present elsewhere and provide a blueprint for improvement within one’s own paradigm. And consequently, provide a blueprint to other, less-consistent, cultures as well.
This approach is, of course, open to abuse. But I am hesitant that this downside is sufficient to outbalance the potential for societies to be compelled to fulfil their own values or promises (e.g. equality). In short, the pretension of completely objective comparison between different cultures should be discarded. However, to maintain cross-cultural feedback and learning, cultures can perhaps be compared in terms of some of their fundamental shared values and by doing so, they can be informative and provide blueprints for inner-paradigmatic improvement.