These are the words of Walter Sobhak (played by John Goodman) in the classic Coen brothers’ film, The Big Lebowski, a film I have, for reasons obvious to those who have seen it, put on a pedestal and often over-quote. But I think they’re actually very relevant to our current discussion of cultural relativism.

As I have suggested, I believe same-sex couples who lawfully enter into a civil union or marriage in one country should have that arrangement honored by another country if they decide to move. Mr. DeHaut, in his paper, raised the question of whether we ought recognize certain rights (custody, etc.) while not recognizing others (tax privileges, etc.). And while I initially rebuffed this suggestion, I think I now see the value in this point, particularly as it relates to cultural relativism.

To wholeheartedly embrace cultural relativism, the argument goes (and let me know if I’m setting up a straw man here…), we would have to remain neutral toward many practices (e.g., female genital mutilation) we believe to be wrong on a very basic level. But, as we see in the context of same-sex marriage, we may approve of what other cultures are doing and perhaps even want to recognize some rights “created” in other nations. So the question here is where do we draw that line in the sand?

I’d like to make a distinction between affirmatively created or contractual rights on the one hand, and passively accepted rights or political rights on the other. This distinction allows us to accept as valid a same-sex marriage (or at least certain aspects of it; see this post supra) or an overseas business obligation, while at the same time denying such negative rights as the right to oppress others and such positive rights as the right to free state university education (which we may oppose for moral or efficiency reasons).

Does this distinction help? What problems– in cultural relativism or otherwise– have I left untouched?

Daniel Corbett