About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Between the Scylla of moral absolutism and the Charybdis of moral relativism
Absolutism, in this context, is the idea that there is only one set of moral precepts, it is universal, and it applies everywhere, to everyone, and under any circumstance. It is the sort of idea that has bred 19th century colonialism and 20th century fascism and communism. Not a pretty sight to behold.
Moral relativism, as applied to different cultures, is much more recent, being mostly a late 20th century phenomenon. But it isn't much less pernicious than its antipodal predecessor: the basic idea is that “anything goes,” any cultural practice, no matter how repellent (think genital mutilation), has to be respected because, you know, who are we to think ourselves superior to other people?
Well, let us make no mistakes about it: a culture that (at least as an ideal) respects people's freedom of speech, strives to give women and minorities equal rights, and minimizes physical harm and emotional pain for its members is indeed superior to most alternatives produced by humanity in millennia of history, in most places in the world.
How arrogant, you may say. Not at all. My claim simply derives from the Aristotelian observation that human beings – if given a chance – want to be able to pursue whatever it is that allows them to flourish, and that usually boils down to freedom of action and thought, and avoidance of pain and suffering. It's that simple, and anyone seriously doubting this is not well acquainted with the basics of human nature. So, yes, modern cultures that subjugate women and practice genital mutilation or infanticide are barbaric, and it is morally compelling for the rest of us to help them out of that sorry state of affairs.
That said, however, one needs to steer very much clear of the opposite pole, attempting to impose a rigid and universal standard forged out of the idiosyncrasies of one's own (usually Western) cultural history. So, for example, it is sheer nonsense to talk about immorality when it comes to the varieties of sexual behavior among consenting adults, pre-marital, after-marital or instead-of-marital, as the case may be.
And it is this twin problem, this ethical version of the quintessential dilemma personified by the ancient mythical monsters of Scylla and Charybdis, that faces modern open societies. The very idea of an open society means that we ought to (as in morally should) be tolerant of different viewpoints and customs. But we cannot be tolerant of intolerance. We cannot work toward a society of equal rights while at the same time welcoming people who actively deny rights to women and minorities because “it is their culture.” It may be their culture, but it is wrong, and shame on us if we don't have the guts to call it as we see it (and as it really is).
(Note: the original post had the word "multiculturalism" instead of "moral relativism," but several readers have pointed out that the latter is really a more appropriate term for my target here.)