Imagine you are riding in the passenger seat of a car, and a loved one of yours (spouse, parent, sibling, bff) is driving the car. While riding along, your loved one accidentally runs a red light and slams into a car in the middle of the intersection.  The other car spins out of control and drive into a telephone pole, and explodes. You and your loved one are fine, even though the hood of the car you are in is a little damaged.  Your loved one looks around and notices that there are no witnesses around. No one saw what happened. Without saying a word, your loved one speeds off, rushes home, and hides the car in the garage. Once inside your loved one’s home, he or she turns on the television and sees that the crash is on the news. The driver of the car that your loved one hit died at the scene, and the police are looking asking for help: “If anyone has any information about the hit-and-run, please contact us immediately.” 

Your loved one turns off the television in a panic, and says to you, “I know this is bad, but I just cannot turn myself in. I just can’t. I will go to jail for this, and I just can’t go to jail. I’m sorry.”  What would you do in that situation? Would you try to reason with your loved one, and try to convince him to turn himself in? If he refuses, what would you do then? Would you keep your knowledge of the accident to yourself, and not contact the police? Or, would you go straight to the police station, and let them know what your friend did? Your response to this dilemma reveals whether you are more of a universalist or a relativist/particularist. 

Universalism is the belief that there are universal, objective standards in one’s culture which every member of that culture ought to follow. People who subscribe to this kind of universalism generally value rules or principles over relationships. To be sure, they care about relationships; just not as much as they care about complying with the culture’s universal standards. Relativists or particularists, however, value relationships over rules. They too care about rules, but just not as much as they care about preserving their relationships.  This dilemma creates all kinds of conflicts in the world.

For instance, you may have seen this dilemma when it comes to marriage. When someone in your family is planning to marry someone that most people in the family do not like, does the family do anything to stop the wedding, or at least express their disapproval? Many families, despite their disapproval of the marriage, talk privately with one another about their concerns and reservations, but they almost never express their concerns with the family member whom they believe is making the “mistake.”  Where do you fall on that spectrum, between universalism and relativism? Would you confront the wayward family member because you felt it was your obligation to do so, or would you keep your concerns to yourself for the sake of the relationship?  A universalist in that situation who believes that one should always tell the truth would perceive the family’s reticence as dishonest and unloving. A relativist or particularist would care more about preserving the relationship with the relative who was about to make a mistake than they would about telling the truth.  To be sure, the particularists believe in telling the truth, but just not as much as they do about protecting their relationship with their loved ones. Saying something, in the relativist’s mind might upset the relative, and possibly harm the relationship.

I am not arguing for you to take any position. I am just trying to get you to get more clear about your own cultural background. This is important because it can help you understand others who might have different cultural convictions about rules and relationships.