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

The other night I gave a presentation on science and religion to the Cafe Scientifique in New York City, using Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, as a starting point for the discussion. After the event, I had dinner with the organizers and some of the attendees. Most of the dinner conversation with one of my table neighbors was about the opposite evils (I'm using the term loosely here) of moral absolutism and 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.)

21 comments:

  1. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    If we don't like a religion's practices, can we really do anything about it?

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  2. As it turns out, yes. For example, if a Christian Scientist (an oxymoron, if I've ever heard one) withdraws medical care from his children on account of his faith, he will go to jail for child abuse.

    The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but only within limits (e.g., you can't go around crying "fire" in movie theaters if there isn't any fire).

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  3. ThumpalumpacusMay 03, 2007 5:42 PM

    Well-put. Constitutional history here in America has long enshrined the concept of personal rights ending when one's exercise of rights infringes upon another's -- and that is, imho, the most precious social right aside from free speech.

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  4. Why use the term multiculturalism instead of moral relativism? In my experience, I have never heard anyone (except a handful of conservative moral absolutists) equate multiculturalism with 'anything goes'. Rather, multiculuralism, while it is rather vague, fosters exactly the type of tolerance for others that you yourself espouse. With a few exceptions (e.g. some sociology departments!), I doubt that multiculturalists advocate that anything goes.

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  5. Yes, I agree with the multiculturalism, but I conceive it only as the beginning of a more specialized (mature) society that throughout diversity had found dialectically a better way of socioeconomic organization.

    I do not think that specialization carry to despoil rethinking our society when this change in a social context, would implicate that it is not experienced frequently enough.

    Yes, "shame on us if we don't have the guts" rethinking our society now and invite more people to materialize an "ideal".

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  6. Bravo, Mr. Pigliucci, for not being afraid to say this. I agree one-hundred percent.

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  7. Massimo,
    I am going to add to the disagreement with your terminology and use of multiculturalism.

    Moral relativism is a much more precise and accurate term.

    I think multiculturalism can be seen as a movement to put value on the contributions of other cultures' contributions other than European dead white males. This is something prevalent in the humanities departments in the universities. The general concept of respecting the contributions of other cultures has spilled out into society in general and I think is a good thing. Of course with the caveat that multiculturalism can be taken to ridiculous extremes. But it doesn't neccesarily imply moral relativism.

    I think these ideas can be traced to the early 20th century anthropologist Franz Boaz who introduced the concept of cultural relativism. The basic idea is that to study another culture, one must attmept to put aside ones own cultural biases and presumptions. In anthropology a stance of cultural relativism is analytically neccessary.

    One of my philosophy of science professors, Merilee Salmon, wrote an article arguing that cultural relativism needn't imply one must also adopt a stance of moral relativism.

    I will rifle through my photo copied journal articles and find you a reference if you care to look into it. Should be able to get a .pdf file if you have access to a university library.

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  8. Here it is:
    Salmon, Merrilee H
    1997 Ethical Considerations in Anthropology and Archaeology, Or Relativism and Justice for All
    in Journal of Anthropological Research Vol. 53 No. 1

    This is available on JSTOR which most Unv. libraries have, others are SOL

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  9. Multiculturalism doesn’t mean “anything goes” (moral relativism). Rather, it refers to a policy or attitude of tolerating many cultures in a society so long as the cultures are consistent with the law. That’s at least the way any documents of importance (i.e. the Canadian Multiculturalism Act) use it.

    To me, it seems that you’ve fallen for conservative rhetoric and vilification of multiculturalism.

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  10. All,

    yes, several people are correct in pointing out that a better term for the target of my criticism here is "moral relativism," not multicuralism. Hence the modified post and note at the bottom of it. Thanks for being attentive readers and critical thinkers.

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  11. An approach I like has been well described by Michael Shermer in "The Science of Good and Evil". It's the provisional morality stance. He also rejects both extremes of absolutism and relativism, and then poses the problem: if there are no absolute rules nor it is the case that each person determines what is right or wrong (which would be the "anything goes"), then how do we know?

    The provisional morality idea, if I remember well, basically states that right or wrong do exist but they are conditional on time and space. Social and historical constructs, therefore "real" enough, but subject to mutating as societies evolve (or "devolve", let's say), etc. A pretty interesting book, I have to read it again to refresh the details in my brain.

    Cheers
    J

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  12. I'd prefer Fyfe's stance. It basically says that there are "real" or "better" morals, but it depends on a complex relationship between beliefs, desires, intentions, and actions.

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  13. Massimo,

    I am definitely no right winger, but I agreed with your use of "multiculturalism" one-hundred percent. The feminist and political theorist Susan Okin argues that a concern for the preservation of cultural diversity should not overshadow the discriminatory nature of gender roles in many traditional minority cultures, that, at the very least, "culture" should not be used as an excuse for rolling back the women's rights movement.

    Here's "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?" by Susan Moller Okin
    http://www.exclusion.net/images/pdf/89_sanom_Okin_inglese.pdf

    Another article:
    "How multiculturalism is betraying women"
    http://comment.independent.co.uk/columnists_a_l/johann_hari/article2496657.ece

    You said it best, Massimo:
    "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)."

    PS Could you explain why you changed it? Hopefully it wasn't just to avoid sounding to "conservative."

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  14. PPS moral relativism does not necessarily mean "anything goes."

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  15. 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.

    Why use a term like 'superior' when there is no agreed upon scale with which to rank cultures? It's not like measuring temperature.

    Why not phrase it something like: ...

    is preferred by most people

    or

    tends to produce societies that consume the greatest amount of natural resources per capita


    this way you are actually making a statment that can be defended / supported with data rather than opinion.

    PS and how many times have we had to deal with people claiming there is such a thing as a 'superior race?'

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  16. Mark said:
    "I am definitely no right winger, but I agreed with your use of "multiculturalism" one-hundred percent. The feminist and political theorist Susan Okin argues that a concern for the preservation of cultural diversity should not overshadow the discriminatory nature of gender roles in many traditional minority cultures, that, at the very least, "culture" should not be used as an excuse for rolling back the women's rights movement."

    Susan Okin is of course correct, respect for cultural otherness should not be used as a defense for oppression of anybody based on gender or any other category. And it is true that questionable concepts like moral relativism or epistemological relativism are often defended under the banner of "multiculturalism."

    The problem is that "multiculturalism" can also encompass relatively benifical activities and ideas. It can encompass the reading of literature from India or Latin America, or the consideration of history from a Native American viewpoint etc..

    When a Unv. has a multicultural fair/day/week, nobody thinks that Muslims should be able to set up an imposition of sharia law. Or at least they shouldn't!

    "the discriminatory nature of gender roles in many traditional minority cultures,"

    When I was a teaching assistant for various anthropology courses I often ran into assumptions encapsulated in the above quoted statement. That is many students assumed that increasing gender equality has simply progressively evolved with modernity and is represented at its apex by our society.

    Perhaps their image is that of the primitive caveman beating his woman over the head.

    Yet, ethnographically we find that gender relations are quite variable. In some traditional hunter gatherer cultures like the San peoples, gender relations are quite equal. On the other hand, small scale horticulturalists like the Yanomamo they are quite horrendous, while horticulturalist like the Hopi or Iroqouis they are again relatively equitable.

    So my point is that we should not assume our alleged cultural superiority in gender relations or other things.

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  17. "Susan Okin is of course correct, respect for cultural otherness should not be used as a defense for oppression of anybody based on gender or any other category. And it is true that questionable concepts like moral relativism or epistemological relativism are often defended under the banner of "multiculturalism."

    The problem is that "multiculturalism" can also encompass relatively benifical activities and ideas. It can encompass the reading of literature from India or Latin America, or the consideration of history from a Native American viewpoint etc.."

    I agree. There are big overlaps of moral relativism, postmodernism, and multiculturalism. Where these things do NOT overlap, I have no problem. I agree, of course, that other cultures' rituals, literature etc. should be respected and that we may even learn from them. Only when those cultures' rituals, literature, etc. go against our's (in an oppressive or a morally or epistemologically relativistic way) is it wrong to respect it any longer. That's reasonable enough, right? I'm not advocating monoculturalism. In some instances, feminism trumps multiculturalism.

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  18. "So my point is that we should not assume our alleged cultural superiority in gender relations or other things."

    Thanks for the anthropological info. I didn't know that. But the point still stands, especially when literalist Muslims read the Koran in a disgustingly sexist way. I'm sure a lot, maybe even the majority, of Muslim-Americans are somewhat moderate and don't read the Koran literally and they integrate better. Again, all I'm saying is that our egalitarianism trumps their culture when they conflict.

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  19. Why didn't you tell me you were giving a speech :o(

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  20. "me,"

    "Why not phrase it something like: ... is preferred by most people?"

    Because my point was exactly that relativism isn't going to cut it, and preference as nothing to do with value, it's relative.

    "how many times have we had to deal with people claiming there is such a thing as a 'superior race?'"

    Except I never said anything about superior races, I'm talking about better cultures. Unless you don't believe that human culture can make progress (which would be a pretty sad thing), then you must admit the possibility that some have made more progress than others.

    At any rate, as stated in my post, the "scale" proposed here is the same that Aristotle had in mind: whatever furthers human flourishing.

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  21. Because my point was exactly that relativism isn't going to cut it, and preference as nothing to do with value, it's relative.

    yes, but at least it's honest about being so - it's upfront. Using Aristotle is no less relative. He had his opinions, other people have their opinions. Aristotle may have been influencial but he was just a guy, you know?

    It's the classic fallacy of appeal to authority. I'm sorry but when it comes to something subjective like this you can't escape it being relative. All you can do is distance yourself from the relativity by using general (absolutist) terms like 'superior' and defining your terms in a way that most people agree sounds pretty good.

    Human cultures aren't that different than ant species - some ants are slave makers, some are aggressive & very territorial, some are more or less peaceful, etc. Who is to say that one ant species is superior or has made more progress without using subjective definitions of the terms 'superior' and 'progress'?

    Same problem exists with the often used phrase 'evolutionary success' which you'd think would easier to define objectively than 'evolutionary progress' but both really can't escape human bias and subjectivity. Both can be and are misused by people who should know better.

    Unless you don't believe that human culture can make progress (which would be a pretty sad thing), then you must admit the possibility that some have made more progress than others.

    I believe human culture (and ant species) can make 'progress' as I happen to define it (which is probably how most folks define it) but it's still just a definition by agreement. Not something that can be explained based on first principles.

    This is all related to the large literature on whether there is such a thing as 'progress' in evolution - as opposed to improved fit between organism and environment. One implies an absolute, unconditional, (and rather Aristotelian) ladder from lower to higher, from worse to best, etc. and the other implies conditional, temporary survival.

    To conclude and return to where I started - the use of relative, subjective terms like 'superior' (and 'evil') bothers me because these terms allow the users to hide the subjectivity that is at the base of their statements. It's a way of making one's arguments seem more well supported than they really are. 


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