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The Folly of Cultural Relativism

In the early 1960s, Ghana and South Korea were on roughly equal economic footing. Thirty years later, South Korea was an industrial powerhouse, with the world’s 14th largest economy. Ghana was in the doldrums, with an economy 1/15th that of South Korea. What was the difference? According to Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington, “South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values. In short, cultures count.”1

This sort of observation tends to upset anthropologists, “who are loath to make value judgments about other cultures.”2 They prefer to lay the blame at the feet of colonialism, racism, geography, and/or climate, but counter-examples abound. For instance, Singapore and Hong Kong were British colonies in the feverish tropics,3 but both are extraordinarily prosperous today. In the Caribbean, two former slave-sugar colonies, Barbados and Haiti, have gone radically in different directions, Barbados up and Haiti down. In the north, Canada and Russia have comparable resources; the former is booming, the latter has only recently begun to emerge from distress.4

Of course, cultural relativists argue that arrogant Westerners (who say the West is best) have problems of their own, including shaky families, materialistic consumerism, and stress-related diseases. Who is in the position to say that the quality of life is better in the West? Well, the Africans themselves. As one prominent Cameroonian leader put it sarcastically to patronizing cultural relativists:

We Africans really enjoy living in shantytowns where there isn’t enough food, health care, or education for our children. Furthermore, our corrupt chieftaincy political systems are really marvelous and have permitted countries like Mobutu’s Zaire to earn us international prestige and respect. Moreover, surely it would be terribly boring if free, democratic elections were organized all over Africa. Were that to happen, we would no longer be real Africans, and by losing our identity—and our authoritarianism, our bloody civil wars, our illiteracy, our forty-five-year life expectancy—we would be letting down not only ourselves but also those Western anthropologists who study us so sympathetically . . .5

So what is the solution? Various answers are given. After studying Japan, Peruvian businessman Octavio Mavilo returned to his country to teach his Ten Commandments of Development: order, cleanliness, punctuality, responsibility, achievement, honesty, respect for the rights of others, respect for the law, work ethic, and frugality.6 Harvard Professor Lawrence Harrison has his own list: Versus nepotism, elitism, tribalism, cronyism, tyranny, etc., he lauds (1) orientation on the future; (2) a high view of work; (3) frugality; (4) a high view of education; (5) merit-based advancement; (6) community spirit; (7) a rigorous ethical code; (8) impersonal justice and fair play; (9) dispersed authority; (10) freedom for dissent.7 Argentine professor and columnist Mariano Grondona prefers a list of 20 cultural values, including a climate of liberty, rationality, and optimism.8

So how are these values achieved? Religion plays a major factor. And while Confucianism,9 with its emphasis upon family-discpline and social virtue, gets higher marks than animism or Islam, the source par excellence of culture-enhancing virtues is Christianity, with special honors going to Protestantism, with its focus on the work ethic.10 Korea is 50% Christian; in Ghana, Muslims, and animists outnumber Christians three to one. The economic disparity should be no surprise.11


Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington, eds. foreword to Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (New York: Basic Books, 2000), xiii.


Lawrence E. Harrison, “Introduction: Why Culture Matters,” in Ibid., xxv.


Cf. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Society (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).


Harrison, “Introduction,” ibid., xxvii-xxviii. In Russia the economic and political reforms introduced by President Yeltsin resulted, after initial pain, in much higher growth rates. The move back to authoritarianism under President Putin, however, may endanger Russia’s nascent prosperity.


Daniel Etounga-Manguelle, comments on Richard A. Schweder, “Moral Maps, ‘First World’ Conceits, and the New Evangelists,” in ibid., 173.


Lawrence Harrison, “Promoting Progressive Cultural Change,” in ibid., 303.


Ibid., 299-300.


Mariano Grondona, “A Cultural Typology of Economic Development,” Culture Matters, 47-53.


Harrison, “Introduction,” ibid., xxviii.


Grondano, Ibid., 47, 50, 52. See also Kairos Journal booklet, "Legatees of a Great Inheritance: How the Judeo-Christian Tradition Has Shaped the West".


“Nations of the World,” The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2003 (New York: World Almanac Books, 2003), 788, 801.