The moral arrogance of relativism
- Jacques Rousseau
- 27 Oct 2010 07:55 (South Africa)
It is not only because of the privileged status we accord to our ideas that we are reluctant to unsettle them, or that others are wary of challenging them. In some areas of knowledge – or potential knowledge – some of us think that no truths can, in fact, be known and that we, therefore, need to find other ways of resolving disputes. Or sometimes the claim is that we should not even bother trying to resolve disputes because they are in principle not resolvable.
One area where this can be observed is in the debate between naturalism, broadly defined as the view that everything can potentially be explained by reference to empirically verifiable data, and supernaturalism, where objects like deities play a significant role in explaining our lives and our physical surrounds. Another is aesthetics, where some claim that beauty only exists in the eye of the beholder. And, of course, there is morality, where, according to a certain school of thought, there are no objective grounds on which to judge one moral viewpoint as superior to another.
The benchmark case of this view is known as relativism, where it is claimed that moral rightness and wrongness are defined by cultural preference, because there is no way to independently and objectively arbitrate between competing moral viewpoints. There is, however, a potential confusion that must be eliminated at the outset of this conversation: The relativist claim at issue is not that people happen to have different interpretations of what is right and wrong (they surely do, and this is surely uninteresting). The claim is instead that the moral preferences of a given society are normative, in that they are definitive of what actually is right and wrong, not merely descriptive of what a culture happens to believe.
This is the distinction between descriptive and normative cultural relativism. A descriptive cultural relativist would describe the cultural differences in the arena of moral belief, but could still claim that there is an independent truth, regardless of what the culture happens to believe. The normative relativist would instead define moral right and wrong for that culture according to the views of that culture, while herself believing something else to be right based on her own cultural preference. As I write that sentence, the proposition expressed therein seems too absurd to merit any further sentences. Yet this view is still surprisingly popular and it is perhaps worth thinking about why that might be the case.
First, we are understandably reluctant to criticise things that we might not fully understand. Second, there is surely some virtue in avoiding the sort of provincialism that is expressed in the view that only we know the truth, and that only our moral standards are the correct ones. Relativism argues for humility in these areas, in that it asks us to acknowledge that our perception of the world might not be the only permissible one, and that we have no license to judge the strongly held views of others as being false or foolish.
So if we discard the privilege of simply asserting that we are right and others are wrong and instead try to reason our way to a moral conclusion, the relativist claim is that we would not be able to find any objective standard or universal truth by which to judge one moral conclusion as being superior to another. According to their view, the only reasonable conclusions are then that universal truth is a myth, that there is no objective standard to judge one moral code as better than another, that there are no universal truths in ethics and that the moral code of a society determines what is right within that society. By extension, we would, of course, not be able to judge the moral codes of other societies because that would presume that our judgements are based on some higher and more justified moral standard.
It is, of course, true that in many cases, our categories of the normal/abnormal or moral/immoral are culturally determined, rather than absolute. Assuming for the moment that relativists are right, it’s also true that we would be more inclined to say something like “charity is morally good” instead of saying “charity is a habitual activity in this culture and, therefore, morally good”. Lastly, it is also true that to demonstrate moral values as being culturally determined does not show that they are wrong.
The argument is instead about the foundation for any particular moral belief, and the reasons why it should be regarded as right or wrong. For the relativist, resolving such arguments is as simple as mapping the belief to cultural dispositions, because we have no other standard by which to judge. Alternatively, we could say that there are some independent criteria for judging a practice to be undesirable, regardless of what any particular culture happens to think is the truth.
What might such independent criteria look like? Well, we could offer an argument based on some absolutist principle, such as divine command theory (God tells us what is good) or the primacy of reason and a moral will (Kantianism), as I’ll discuss next week. Or, we could ask some more simple and pragmatic questions.
For example, we could ask how one could possibly think that female genital mutilation (FGM) should be understood as morally “right” in any particular culture. Of course, we can agree that many in Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt (to name but a few examples) believe it to be right, but how does that observation compel us to agree that it is, in fact, right? Some who might want to accuse anti-relativists of a sort of moral imperialism might say that even the “victims” of FGM accept this practice as part of their culture, and as being morally correct.
But we are, of course, free to say that they – both those who do the mutilation, as well as those who suffer it – are wrong. In fact, it’s very difficult to find any reason why we would not say so. Just as oppressed people throughout the ages have suffered under some hegemonic definitions of what is in their best interests, kidnap victims have experienced Stockholm syndrome, or abused spouses have insisted that their partners love them deeply, we know full well that people can be confused as to what is in their best interests.
This, however, simply goes to show that supporters of a particular cultural practice could be confused as to what best contributes to their own welfare – it doesn’t yet resolve how we could say (from outside of this particular culture) why they are wrong to do the things they do. Well, you could ask members of that culture to explain what good they believe to come from practices such as FGM. You could also ask them to agree on some objective facts related to the process, such as the pain, the chance of infection and death, and the likelihood of permanently decreased sexual pleasure.
Then, you could consider whether or not the good that is believed to come from FGM cannot be purchased more cheaply, with less accompanying trauma and harm. If it can be, then there is a superior alternative to FGM, whether the culture in question recognises this or not. And we have not even considered the validity of the cited merits for FGM, which typically relate to something sharply reminiscent of slavery, albeit described in the language of paternalistic care-giving and the protection of ancient and respected values (frequently premised in service to a supernatural being).
The fact that you can imagine how such a discussion might proceed – regardless of its chances of success – demonstrates that it’s a cop-out to describe morality as relative or irresolvable through reasonable discourse. It is furthermore a lazy and irresponsible way to engage with the suffering of others, in that it accepts that suffering as being right – at least according to someone else’s standards. Most revealing is perhaps the observation that it is often only the privileged that are capable of the “enlightened” view that is normative cultural relativism, in that they are secure in knowing that these barbaric practices are not cultural norms in their neighbourhoods.
It is easy to accept that cultures or individuals can define their own moral norms when we speak of less emotive (and less harmful) practices such as whether we should tolerate animal sacrifices in our posh suburban neighbourhood. But we should remember that if this is the case, it’s simply because some practices are perhaps not objectively right or wrong, and that it is, therefore, permissible to define their rightness or wrongness according to cultural preference.
But there is no reason to generalise this conclusion to all moral beliefs, and there are compelling reasons not to do so. If we accept the relativist argument, we could no longer – ever – say that other customs are inferior to our own. We could not make this judgement for Ukweshwama (a Zulu rite of passage involving the killing of bulls, in the news following plans to bless World Cup stadiums in this way), but neither could we make it for FGM, slavery or even apartheid.
We could also no longer make any sense of moral debate, nor of moral progress and regress. The former implies that there is something to be debated, rather than the simple requirement of establishing whether what you intend to do accords with cultural standards. The latter presumes either an objective standard, or at least the possibility that some norms can be known to be better than others.
It is difficult to imagine how allowing both sexes to vote is not morally better than only allowing males to vote, regardless of the confusions inherent in any given culture. It’s also difficult to imagine those with relativist pretensions being true to those principles when they are tested closer to home, rather than involving hypothetical conversations around what people do “over there”. If it was your daughter who was killed for not wearing a veil or wanting to wear jeans, because her father and brother were offended by her violation of cultural norms, I imagine you might have a different view.
Of course, you might say that that’s why you choose not to live in such a community. Aqsa Parvez in Ontario was not fortunate enough to be able to choose, given that she was only 16 when this happened to her. Unless we start becoming more comfortable with the idea that moral judgements are possible (perhaps even obligatory) under some circumstances, many more could end up as unfortunate as she was. And the only reason it typically doesn’t happen where you live is because we agree that it’s wrong – for everybody – to kill someone for what they believe. DM
- Homophobia and the politics of outrage
- Please look after the place while I’m gone.
- Parliament – where dead sheep savage one another
- ‘Catholic’ and ‘Muslim’ South Africa
- Free speech doesn’t guarantee an audience
- So atheists are people too?
- A culture of dying
- Deciding when to die
- Minds are what brains do
- So what are universities for?
- Mantashe wants to help you 'Know your DA'
- Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!
- UCT, race, and the seductive moral outrage machine
- The sound and fury of sanctimony
- Burn the witch!
- Not even Madiba can turn anecdotes into data
- Pornography is coming to eat your children
- Do you know what’s good for you?
- #We Say Enough
- Talking about risk-mitigation is not (always) victim blaming
- Can Frankensalmon triumph over uninformed ad-hoc opinions?
- You can leave your hat on
- If performance-enhancing drugs are bad, let's ban high-fibre cereal too.
- Blood deferrals: Too important to take personally
- The world according to Zuma - and the trouble with 'culture'
- A free market in false choices
- I, for one, welcome our robot overlords
- Debate is the key
- Been there? Got the T-shirt? Think carefully before you wear it...
- You are what you tweet
- Body language: Freedom confronts respect in Body Worlds human forms
- Choose wisely: Mourdock, rape and targeted outrage
- Birds of a feather...philosophise together?
- So who owns oppression, really?
- Help, not demonisation, will stem child abuse
- More about trolls
- Please do not feed the trolls
- Affirmative action: Equity does not come with voting rights alone
- SAA's cadet programme: The sky isn't falling
- South Africa: Why do you make me hate you?
- SA & religion: Eyes wide shut
- Freedom of speech & freedom of abuse
- Is free speech fried in Chick-fil-A debate?
- Colorado killings: there's no comfort in the absurd
- Let's try to avoid drive-by charity on Mandela Day
- First do no harm
- The cutting edge of religion
- Public holidays: positive discrimination?
- The new discrimination – against men
- Censorship: The chilling effect
- Health Warning: You may not smoke, but you can eat yourself to death
- 'I see a red door and I want it painted black'
- Freedom of speech; oh, perish the thought
- Homophobia trending among traditional leaders
- How to meat friends and influence people
- How to meat friends and influence people
- Still hunting, still gathering
- Dogmatix isn't only a canine in the Asterix comic books
- Exactly Whose Humanity is Vanishing?
- Tim Noakes on carbohydrates - fad or fact?
- Mind over matter – and knowing the difference
- Don't PIN your freedoms to Icasa's apron strings
- Killing the messenger never silences the message
- The unbearable rightness of maybe being wrong
- The worrisome worth of foregone conclusions
- The tyranny of labels
- Staring into the abyss of ‘special privileges’
- Twitter censorship, the Streisand Effect and three fingers pointing back
- Free speech is good - but not in my back yard
- Abortion - the great conceptual conundrum
- Killing live animals to talk to dead people is bull
- Stalking votes with over-the-counter vetoes
- Always look on the One side of life
- Get Tested: Get off the entitlement horses and give it a chance
- The Lotters, Harry Potter and SA's judicial system
- The haunting of Helen Zille
- The Great T-Shirt Debate that went horribly wrong
- M&M & the media – playing the ball or the men?
- Twitter - fast food for ever-fattening egos
- How Occupy Wall Street became Pick a Protest
- Steve Jobs was just a man
- What are you?
- Who did ET really call? Woo-woo fest at Wits might have the answer
- How to strut like a slut and itch like a bitch
- The world according to reader feedback
- To judge or not to judge; that is the Mogoeng
- 'A Boy Named Sue' and a victim named 'slut'
- How to bake the perfect humble pie
- How to win friends and influence the irrational
- See what I mean? Or maybe you don't...
- Separating sense from nonsense
- Racial nationalism - the silliest disease of them all
- Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can rip my soul
- Just catch the next feminist wave
- That's right - tertiary education is a privilege, not a right
- The conundrum of university - level remedial education - where do we start?
- The immense value of the egghead
- If ridicule be the right remedy, mock on
- Racism, put on your ballot-proof vest
- It was the lizard on the grassy knoll
- Of unenclosed toilets and enclosed ballot booths
- Our responsibility to build a better 'Bill'
- It's the Singer, not the Song
- Trapped in an abusive relationship? Dial 0800-VOTE
- Hate speech and hateful words - there is a difference
- Why the Bill of Responsibilities doesn't make the grade
- Natural selection and principled prejudice
- The Orwellian horror of a world without grammar
- Beware the Jabberwock
- Ya don’t learn nuffink by shutting others up
- U2, Brute!
- Unfollowing the defriended is like delisting the unlikeable
- There's something fishy about Kenny and his critics
- Astrology - the gullible's travails are written in the stars
- Dr Woo and the Silicon Snake-oil Bangle Sellers
- Life, liberty and the pursuit of dignity
- Who wants to be African anyway?
- The Beatles warned you, Mr President
- Annelie Botes, racism, moralistic awards 'n all
- The silence of the racists
- The proof of the pudding
- Freedom is a fragile thing
- The conditionality of morality
- Of guillotines, smoking, kissing children and scientific proof
- Why moral absolutism hasn't done so well
- The moral arrogance of relativism
- The dilemma of being special in a world of special people
- Of burning closets and closed minds
- Is Internet making us stoopid commenters?
- To be, or not to be serious
- Stepping into greyer shades of grey
- Books and beliefs and other burning issues
- Talking of Hawking and thinking of God
- ‘You may be wrong for all I know, but you may be right’
- The unbearable triteness of best-selling BS
- The struggle for true freedom is with us more than ever
- It’s silly to take a penknife to a gunfight
- Tell me lies, tell me sweet little morally questionable falsehoods
- I think therefore I am … at least I think so
- First, do no harm
- All rights are equal – or should be
- Beauty and the beastly behaviour
- Afrighana versus United States of North America – a continental dilemma
- Of shoes and ships and sealing wax – the multiple tasks of multi-tasking
- Blow the vuvuzela and blow the cultural argument
- Roll up! Roll up! Welcome to the World Cup!
- Thought police, never a good thing
- The redemptive nature of offence
- Potholes or profits – the modern dilemma of corporate social responsibility
- Too many cows, too few tuna and too big an appetite
- Press freedom’s value is in our capacity to take part
- Of uncertainty and the opinions it spawns
- Just another brick in the wall
- Playing the authenticity card
- The dangers of tolerance
- ‘Twas Easter and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble on the roads
- Julius is The Man
- Beware the orthorexics as you chomp down on your boerie-roll
- Freedom of (Multi)choice
- Let's talk about our moral code