Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Aspects of Cultural Relativity (paca)

I wrote this as a possible guest blogger on The Moderate Voice political blog, but I have no idea if they will want it. Anyway, I decided to post it here as well. It will be of interest if you like essays on ethics.

Why Choose "Cultural Relativity"?

This post was inspired by a couple recent ones from Marc and Michael, but it isn't particularly in opposition to or support of their posts. Each of them happened to bring up the notion of cultural relativity in ethics, and this inspired me to reflect on the concept a bit. Generally speaking, cultural relativity is the idea that morals are relative to a specific culture, and therefore not real or true. The sun is real. It is independent of us and it would be there if we had never existed. However, according to the common concept of cultural relativity, morality, right and wrong, are phenomena of cultures that have no independent existence. We don't say the sun exists only relative to something else. It's there. But not so, say the cultural relativists, about morals. There is no independent right and wrong.

Of course, hundreds of articles and volumes have been devoted to these notions over hundreds of years. I've deliberately kept it non-academic, hoping my own thoughts would be of interest. I'd enjoy any feedback.


My interest in this post is in why anyone would ever want to be a "cultural relativist"? Why would someone declare a person or an action wrong and then turn around and refuse to declare something in another culture or society as wrong? Typically, when this occurs, a charge of cultural or moral relativity is levelled. Action X is bad for Culture X but Action X is okay for Culture Y, so clearly the person doesn't really believe in real objective right and wrong at all. Why would so many people want to take such a seemingly inconsistent position or declare that morality is not real? As always, there are many factors at play. I'm going to list a few good and bad reasons to adopt a stance of cultural relativity, as it is defined in each section. The good ones are, of course, the ones that I think are legit and intriguing.

Bad Reason 1: It's okay for the good guys. The person wants to justify the actions of those with whom they sympathize and, at least subconsciously, they don't care how inconsistent they are as long as the people they care for are treated well. This reason is quite common, but in most versions isn't particularly compelling if we are trying to figure out how to behave. I will let this one go. However it's worth noting that the motive for inconsistency is sometimes a good one -- to help others.

Negative Reason 2: There is no right or wrong. This is what a cultural relativist is usually assumed to believe. The person doesn't believe in right or wrong at all; morality is like hemlines. They go up; they go down; and there's no particular reason why one is better than the other. A good number of people will argue for this, but it isn't clear how much this belief actually changes their lives and the actions they take. You can find people breaking the bounds of conventional morality espousing this, and find people who are as conventional as they come. One problem is that people are as attached to their culture as they are to specific moral beliefs. Again, this is the popular conception of cultural relativity as spelled out earlier, and I agree with the critics if this were the only justification. I at least want to say that honesty really is good and slavery bad, and that isn't just something we all pretend together. (Gross simplification, I'm aware.)

Neutral Reason: Humility. I am personally a big fan of humility, and there are good reasons to exercise humility in our judgments of others and their cultures. After all, history is filled with ethnocentric morality as an excuse or a reason to dominate others. At the same time, humility by itself isn't a complete moral philosophy. We have to act at some point and must make the best moral guess we can.

Positive Reason 1: There is more than one right way to live. Even saints aren't the same. Mother Theresa, the Buddha, St. Peter, Moses, and Dogen all acted differently from one another. Of course, these people shared many, many moral principles, but the fact remains that they were also different in the way they led their moral lives. For one, spiritual practice was the focus; for another, feeding the hungry; for another, spreading the truth. How do you handle this? (You don't have to choose people from different religious traditions, which I did simply to incorporate moral icons of various readers. Even if you believe that a single religious doctrine is correct, you still have saints, rabbis, and monks who differed from one another and are still moral examples.) One reaction to this diversity is to declare that there is in fact a single way that all people should live, and that differences between people, even moral saints, are symptoms of our failings. In this frame, people just cannot meet that single standard (perhaps due to original sin) and we all fail in different ways. This is certainly a possible position, but it runs the risk of making our individuality, our uniqueness, essentially a failure. Instead of celebrating the different lives that people lead, and their different characters, we end up arguing that humans just aren't wise or strong enough to be identical. In the Garden of Eden, then, we are all the same. But no one hopes for this, do they? If not, we have to allow for the possibility that people could lead moral lives in very different ways, choosing different values and goods for themselves. But perhaps due to our individuality, these different moral lives are truly the best ethical way for us as unique people to live. This is clearly a perilous road to take. Is it possible that one good person could be more courageous than an equally good person? How about more honest? The dangers are obvious, and yet I have never found a religious or ethical tradition that doesn't tacitly believe people will naturally seek different values as the focus of their lives. The best moral life for a unique person should, instead, be the perfect fit for that person's natural character. One size does not fit all.

If we allow that two people can have different morally decent, ideal ways for each to live, then should we not allow the same thing of two cultures? If not, are we essentially saying that in a perfect world there would only be one moral culture to which we would all adhere? If so, then the moral lives encouraged by each culture differ and are in this sense "relative".

Positive Reason 2: Morality is a system, not a list. Most people agree about what the basic virtues are: Honesty, dignity, respect, freedom, individuality, humility, courage, etc. It's not that easy to find someone who actually thinks that honesty is always bad at all times. Where we disagree most often is how to rank these various virtues when they come into conflict. Most Western Europeans and Americans value honesty very highly, and anyone who were to lie to a respected individual just to be in agreement typically comes off as a brown noser who will do anything to stay in the good graces of the powerful. Other societies rank more highly paying respect to other people and their societal roles, and if one has to lie every once in a while to treat others decently, well, so be it. A white lie. Even if you ignore cross-cultural currents, essentially every moral decision depends on how to make our various values work together. Now the key for this essay is that one thing a culture does is harmonize the various virtues into a way of life. A culture does it in fits and starts and contradictions, but turning a list of virtues into a life is one of the great functions of cultural life. This way of life that, when working well, brings out the better sides of people, only emerges from putting all the virtues together in an tangled knot with their own rankings and compatibilities. If you take one virtue out of the system by itself, it could be a complete moral failure, but when incorporated back into the whole culture, it does work. Outside of a culture, saying certain words or wearing certain clothing means nothing or can even be slightly harmful. But inside the culture, as part of the entire system, such items can become part of an expression of human dignity. If morals were a list, then one could easily check that everyone is following them. Instead, they are an interconnected system, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In short, if we have moral disagreements due to the different rankings of agreed upon virtues, and the rankings only work when they are part of an entire culture, then, straight up objective morality is, in this specific sense, relative to a culture and cannot be wantonly transplanted from one society to another. Real, objective morals then are indeed relative to culture in that they often only function effectively as part of a whole and because there might truly be more than one way to live (more than one way to worship God, more than one path to Eglightenment, etc.)

This post opens up more questions than it solves. One question is how to keep the "positive reasons" from falling into morality-as-random-and-baseless. But of course, there's the opposite perspective; i.e., people might be attempting to express the positive reasons for relativity when they are being wrongly accused of the negative ones. There's also the gigantic question of deciding when a culture's moral rankings and the form of life they create are failing its people and not bringing out their better natures. However, in the same way that it isn't always clear when to be honest and when to lie and yet we still think honesty is a virtue, we can acknowledge that it isn't always clear when to leave other cultures alone and when to interfere and yet still entertain the notion that, objectively speaking, morals might be "relative". Indeed, if morality is most concerned with creating virtuous people (the Aristotlean tradition of ethics) then insisting that virtues be independent of people and cultures can cause harm. A morality independent of the human context risks making good people into mirror images of one another and destroying the systemic manner in which virtues must fit together into a way of living your life. A set of virtues independent of humans fails to effect a transformation in our souls, which is its very purpose.

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