Monday, April 4, 2011

Cultural relativism: Mullah-ing it over

Much has been made -- appropriately, I think -- of the fact that the shameful murders of UN workers in Afghanistan was not directly in response to Terry Jones' burning of the Koran (which initially did not make that much press this time around since it was after all just some crazy fundamentalist kook holding a dumb little ill-attended show inside his church), but rather in response to Afghani president Hamid Karzai's very public announcement and condemnation of Jones' actions, and subsequent incitement by some very angry mullahs. I immediately spotted the parallel to the Danish cartoon affair, which barely made the news outside of Denmark until a couple of imams decided to tour the Mideast a year later stirring up anti-Danish sentiment (I was not the only one to make this observation, by the way).

So in both cases we have a Western nation experiencing an otherwise rather short-lived and mostly harmless free speech controversy, in which freedom of speech ultimately triumphs despite widespread condemnation of the message (which is just great; that's how liberal democracies are supposed to work) -- which was later turned into an international incident when some mullahs deliberately tried to make an issue out of it and fan the flames of violence. To me, it seemed easy to see where the blame lies: with the mullahs, not with the dumb bigot pastor or the controversial cartoonists.

That is, until I realized that unless one rejects cultural relativism (which, thankfully, I do) that argument falls apart, or at the very least undermines some other moral statements we'd very much like to make.

Take for example the problem of child witchcraft accusations in parts of Africa. Ophelia Benson's blog is a good resource to find out about this, but in a nutshell, there is a problem in certain parts of Africa where bad events are blamed on local children practicing witchcraft, and the children are then exiled or murdered in the most brutal ways. Terrible stuff.

Of course, like the Terry Jones book-burning and the Danish cartoons, locally it is not that big news. Sadly, that's not too far out of bounds for how things are done in those regions.

Perhaps this is a poor example because, shamefully, this travesty hasn't gotten much press in the West. But if we did want to do something about this, the way to do so would be to publicize what had been only a minor local issue, get people over here angry about it and motivated to do something. In other words, do exactly what the mullahs have done in regards to perceived slights against Islam in Western nations.

Don't misread me here. I am not drawing a false equivalence. I happen to think that murdering children in the name of superstition and scapegoating is not even comparable to the questionable exercise of free speech. And I happen to think I am right about that in some objective sense, not just as a matter of cultural or personal bias.

But that's just the point I am making. Without a strong statement that, in this particular case, one culture has got it right and the other one has just plain got it wrong, we cannot blame the mullahs for inciting violence. They simply drew public attention to what, in their cultural perspective, was an unacceptable event taking place elsewhere -- an event so unacceptable that they felt, just as I feel about the child witchcraft stuff, that they could not turn a blind eye to it just because it is happening halfway across the world. From their cultural perspective, burning a Koran is as bad or worse than murdering children. And so, unless we reject cultural relativism, the mullahs were perfectly justified in what they did.

As much as a sick fuck as Terry Jones is, it's baffling and enraging to me that people want to put as much blame on him as they do on the mullahs who directly incited violence, or on the angry mobs who murdered innocent UN workers in their infantile rage. But maybe it's because of cultural relativism run amok. After all, unless we flat-out reject the idea that it's okay for another culture to be as angry about their holy book being desecrated as we Westerners might be about murdered children, then we have no leg to stand on in condemning them.

We should not make the leap from a long overdue rejection of our history of cultural imperialism and an appropriate humility about our own cultural perspective and its potential flaws, into a pure ungrounded cultural relativism. There is nothing inherently superior about Westerners that ought to make our culture always superior; and when culture does not warp people's values into a twisted caricature of morality, cultural variation is part of the rich tapestry of human experience. But none of that changes the fact that there can be issues on which another culture is just flat-out objectively wrong, no ifs ands or buts.


  1. But none of that changes the fact that there can be issues on which another culture is just flat-out objectively wrong, no ifs ands or buts.

    Objectively? So it's wrong even by animals, say?

  2. Heh, I was unguarded in this post because I wanted to avoid that rabbit hole. You are quite right to call me on it -- I thought I'd get away with it because so few people (other than Dennis M.) actually comment on most of my posts ;)

    My thinking on this subject is still evolving. You can read my thoughts on it from August 2009 here. I still stand by a lot of what I wrote in that post, but when I read back it is very unrefined, and I've since learned a lot of big words to clarify my meta-ethical position in the preferred jargon. I've also discovered there's a helluva lot more to meta-ethics than I ever imagined, and must apologize for my relative ignorance on this topic as compared to folks like Russell Blackford. That said, let me take a crack at this...

    As to your specific question, my answer would be: Probably some animals, but when I used the word "objectively" in this post I intended it to apply strictly within the context of H. sapiens. (Believe it or not, I explicitly thought that in my head as I typed "objectively" in the sentence you quote, but decided to leave it unsaid at the time!) Certainly we could not apply these standards of morality to certain eusocial insects, let alone to single-celled organisms. But I feel fairly comfortable asserting that, within the confines of what it means to be human, some things are objectively immoral.

    As to my meta-ethical foundation, I am very-close-to-but-not-quite a moral realist. I think some moral claims are true given a very limited set of assumptions which, although rarely explicitly stated, are shared by virtually every member of our species.

    I don't think all moral statements can be evaluated objectively, however. In one of his commentaries on Harris' End of Faith, Blackford (who subscribes to moral error theory, by the way, which I most certainly do not!) made an excellent analogy, and I wish I could dig it up right now, that roughly went like this: We could come up with all kinds of criteria about what makes a good car -- horsepower, handling, safety rating, mileage, etc. -- and even though we could objectively quantify all of that data, people's individual weightings might be somewhat different and so we could not objectively say whether, say, a Camry vs. an Accord was the better car. But we could make a comparison between, say, a Camry, and a hypothetical car that got 5 MPG, had a top speed of 20mph, had no safety features, cost a hundred thousand bucks, etc., and we could in that case make a case that the Camry was an objectively better car. And if you said the expensive clunker was better, I'd go so far as to say your preference was objectively wrong.

    I think moral "truths" are a lot like this. I am willing to entertain, for instance, that my belief that it would have been morally wrong to impinge on Terry Jones' freedom of speech by preventing him from and/or punishing him for very publicly burning the Koran. I do think it would be wrong to do so, but I am not so confident in that that I am willing to assert that it is objectively true. According to my personal value judgments, it is true, but someone else might have a set of alternative value judgments -- ones which were reasonable within the parameters of H. sapiens -- that could reach a different conclusion.

    On the contrary, I absolute reject that there is a valid set of personal value judgments that would make it morally okay to go kill someone because you were angry that they or somebody else burned a book. Many people may think they hold that kind of value in esteem, but when you look at the values that seem to most fundamental to H. sapiens, it just shows itself to cause so much more harm than it could possibly cause good. I feel confident stating that it is objectively wrong.

    (continued in subsequent comment...)

  3. Now, I remember your post about the Pirahã. So I am not so surprised to see you differing here! :) I did not comment on that post, because I wasn't quite sure what to say. That really did make me think. Your first paragraph from that post is a rather apt description of the problem -- in most other societies, I can point to how the (IMO) artifically-inflated values I am objecting to are maintained by power and fear, and how they are inherently damaging to so many of the ideals that seem fundamental to humanity. But the Pirahã culture, as described in that post at least, is just so different, and not in an authoritarian way, I am just not quite sure how to respond to that.

    Is it objectively wrong to let a toddler play with a large very sharp knife? Fuck, I'm not really sure. I kind of want to say yes, but... That's a tough one.

    To be clear, I must reiterate that I am not quite a moral realist. As you say in a comment on your post on the Pirahã, "the concepts of right and wrong...have no origin in nature apart from human (or other "higher" animal) minds." (I disagree with some other parts of that comment, BTW, but perhaps for another time) It seems to me that concepts of right and wrong occur naturally in human minds, and that some of these concepts hold universally across our species (the occasional sociopath excepted, of course). I go on to assert -- without justification, I admit -- that we all ought to value those apparently universal concepts of right and wrong. The lack of justification for that assertion is why I cannot quite call myself a moral realist, but I feel that once one accepts that simple assumption (and are you telling me you don't? Not that it is provable, but that you don't even live as if it were true?) plenty of objective moral truths flow from there.

    It is an assertion that I make without justification, because I do not really believe that anyone outside of true sociopaths truly lives their life as if that assertion were false.

  4. Your assertion - that we all ought to value those apparently universal concepts of right and wrong - is one that leads to pleasant societies in the eyes of most humans. I think we ought to value those concepts, too. But I do not have to believe in them in any absolute sense. It is just not needed. So what if some other society (perhaps on a distant planet) think that killing babies under certain conditions is okay? The fact that the Pirahã are so different doesn't affect what I subjectively think is right or wrong.

    As for Mullahs, etc., I don't need an objective morality to condemn them for killing people. I think it's wrong, and that is all I need.

    To make the difference between us clearer: I certainly do not think it is even necessarily morally wrong to let a toddler play with a knife. Dangerous surely, and I wouldn't let mine do it, but from there is a big step to say that it should be universally wrong.

  5. Oh come on! Blogger just lost my whole damn comment. WTF. Maybe I'll try and reconstruct it later.

  6. Rule 6 of internet communication: Write long comments first in a file, then copy it to the web.

  7. Yup.

    Or the shortcut I do sometimes, I select-all and copy before posting. That doesn't help if you lose it during the composing, but if the submission craps out it saves you.

  8. So let me try this one more time...

    First off, I'm not 100% sure what I think about the Piraha/toddler/knife thing. Like you, I sure wouldn't do it... but it seems that the reason for the Piraha's rather bizarre (to us) value system is not some warped or imposed false value, but rather a different weighting of shared values, namely "personal autonomy" (a very worthy shared value!) taking primacy. I'm not sure that isn't legitimate.

    As to the difference between where we stand, first the commonalities: We both agree that "we all ought to value those apparently universal concepts of right and wrong" (hereafter known as "the assertion"), although we also both agree that you can't really objectively justify "the assertion". Furthermore, we both seem to agree that a lot of what we would call morality follows naturally from "the assertion".

    Now to what I think is the key difference: For me, because I think "the assertion" is so universally shared amongst all humans, I am willing to kind of short-cut it a bit, and call those things which follow from it "objective" -- they follow objectively from the assertion, and the assertion seems to be broadly agreed upon by virtually all humans. You, on the other hand, quite correctly point out that the assertion, as widely shared as it is, is still ultimately subjective; and that therefore all things which follow from it are necessarily subjective as well.

    Your position is quite defensible, and perhaps more philosophically "clean" if you will. I feel that mine is perhaps a bit more practical -- there can be no morality without the assertion, so in a sense we might even say that's what we mean by moral...

    Blackford just did yet another post about this stuff. His position is essentially similar to yours, I think, and he makes much of the fact that moral realism has never quite been able to establish an individual imperative to behave morally. I am still mulling this one over... I am not sure that matters! We can talk objectively about which car is better than the other without there being an inherent individual imperative to choose a "better" car. The universality of the sense of an imperative makes it, in my opinion, a rather modest assertion, even if it is ultimately unprovable and unjustifiable.

  9. "And so, unless we reject cultural relativism, the mullahs were perfectly justified in what they did."

    Good, then let's reject cultural relativism then. Where's the problem?

  10. That's the point I was trying to make: That cultural relativism leads to erroneous (and potentially dangerous!) conclusions.

  11. Hey. I've been away (Chicago Field Museum).

    But again, that the assertion is subjective doesn't change anything.

    As for cultural relativism, what is the problem saying that the Mullahs were justified? I have no problem admitting that in their view, they were justified. Not by my standards, so I will judge them as I se fit. There's no conflict there.

  12. Yes, but when I say that they were not justified, I am trying to make a more powerful statement than I would if, say, I was saying they had lousy taste in beer. (Let's pretend they don't have an outright prohibition an alcohol) By their standards, I might have lousy taste in beer. I think they are wrong, they think I am wrong.

    But when I say I think they are wrong about what makes a good beer, I mean something quite different than when I say they are wrong to go around killing people over a stupid book.