Sunday, September 25, 2011

Culture Relativism Versus Moral Relativism

To me this seems like an impossible distinction. Morals are culture and vice versa. Of course I can see the value of stepping outside your culture to broaden perspectives, but this will require stepping outside of your morals as well. However with this said; I do not believe that all culture and morality are on equal ground. In other places around the world children are taught to fear  monsters, trust in untested medicine and drink veritably harmful water; as well as undergo genital mutilation and restrictive gender norms. Many of their beliefs are utterly inconsistent with reality and it causes them great harm. Sometimes the point is made that our beliefs from our culture and theirs are on equal ontological ground. I completely disagree. When it comes to sickness form water, I have seen bacteria through a microscope, I have seen moldy bread, and I have experienced the foul smell of mildew. Culture and morality are not universal, but that does not mean they are equal ground. Some cultures cause great harm and dispassionately observing would be immoral.

Some people approach other cultures cautiously. Tip toeing around to avoid causing offense. Expecting to have an Avatar or Dances with Wolves experience with every culture they come into contact with. They mistake moral disgust for ethnocentrism, and think that any objection or argument of another is vile racism.  Morality is complicated, incredibly complex.

Absolute morality is a juvenile, simplified, watered down attempt at right and wrong, and is currently plaguing religion. If things were really wrong, black and white, we would see major consistencies across time and other cultures. This is far from the case. Some morality can be created and explained through geography, like in a hypothetical culture that prohibits the wearing of a metal that can be used to create a medication for a life threatening illness. In our culture that would not make sense. It would seem oppressive and restrictive, and that would be true, because we have no such need for that medication.

Another example can be found in a history of our morality surrounding sexuality. Sexuality before birth control could cause great harm, pregnancy could kill both the mother and child, and syphilis was untreatable and was fatal; it made sense to tie sexuality to morality. This is no longer the case; safe sex is easy and cheap. Pregnancy is almost completely non-fatal now through medical technology and practices. Sexuality no longer has any basis to be under the authority of morality. Safe, responsible sex should be taught like any other behavior, of rational consequences but not moral harm. But religion will have a long fight before they finally let go of it.

Morality is completely subjectively created. We are social animals and we need rules to interact with each other, but this subjective creation can go bad. Other culture’s morality can be downright vile and atrocious. But relativism is no savior. Morality is socially and subjectively created, but we can objectively look at the consequences of a culture moral norm and analyze its effect on the population’s human rights. Morality is like language, completely socially created, but has objective standards of grammar and syntax. Just because morality is subjective doesn’t mean we should be afraid to compare and critique.

Our world is filled with horrifying offensive violations that are widely accepted moral norms. Using objective human rights standards we can critique offensive moral norms.  According to CNN, 2,500 cases of bride burning are reported in India every year. Bride burning is when the husband decides the dowry received is not enough. Killing the bride allows him to remarry and try again for a dowry. My culture is thankfully superior to that one.
In Escape, Carolyn Jessop describes her life living in the FLDS culture. When she graduates high school, she is excited to go to med school and be a doctor. Instead she gets chosen to be wife number four to a 50 year man high in the FLDS hierarchy. Over the course of around ten years she has 8 kids. Four of which had severe medical issues and the last one nearly killed her. Our culture is objectively more moral than this one.

In some Islam countries today, religion continues to cling to barbaric gender roles. Women are treated as property, and are taught to hate and fear their body and sexuality. Rationality and secularism is a superior morality, in regards to harm minimization and good maximization.

In the Christian Old Testament every "sin" required the punishment of death. Even minor violations and crimes without a victim demanded this disproportional consequence. Blasphemy, cursing your parents, and working on the Sabbath were all punishable according to this Bronze Age moral guide. The Old Testament is not concerned with justice and human rights, but only the whims and wishes of a vain supernatural child. These examples in no way blinds me to the problems here, now, where we live. But it infuriates me when others use relativism as a tool for tolerance.  

Sometimes people will respond by saying that the victims are really happy. That those pregnant FLDS woman are actually content, and the Muslim woman feel honored that they are part of a religion that respects woman enough for modesty. Hegemony is oppression that is so perfect the oppressed will defend the system that enslaves them. Morality is not determined by whether or not the victim says it is "OK," but an evaluation of human rights. This is because reality is constructed by the powerful. In Plato's allegory of the cave in his The Republic this point is made clear. Men are tied up in a cave, viewing the shadows from a fire behind them. This is their reality; all that they know. One of them leaves and his eyes burn from the sun of the new ontology. When his vision adjusts, his perspective is corrected. He goes back to the cave to try and share his new freedom with his tied up friends. They refuse because the shadows on the cave wall are their reality. Choice is not liberating around so much ignorance.
Let me say again, some cultures are just different on an equal moral ground. This is can be a fascinating look into what our society is and lets us question our seemingly objective moral norms. This does do good. Margaret Mead had an extreme positive impact on our western gender norms, and allowed us to begin to work toward sexual equality. That is not why I care enough to write this.

When does it become immoral to let a society harm itself in ignorance? When is it morally necessary to put this cultural relativism stuff away, and educate (dogma for rational thought, not dogma for dogma) to reduce categorical harm? Yes tolerance is good, and peace is wonderful, but let us not shortcut our route there. Tolerance is not achieved by turning a blind eye and ignoring human suffering. Let us not delude ourselves into a faux of tolerance. Let us rationally attack human right violations anywhere and everywhere we find them, to promote the greatest level of peace for the greatest amount of individuals. 


  1. You might be interested in Gwen Dewar's post "How child labor made a 'race of pygmies,'" which makes a similar point.

    As I commented on that post: "It is important to care about other people. Sometimes we care for others by leaving them alone and allowing them to be different, and sometimes we care for them by intervening when they need help. Both are ways of according respect and dignity. It can be difficult to know when it’s best to take which approach." I'd be interested in your reflections on that question.

    Also, when you report that your culture is "objectively more moral" than others, I wonder how you are identifying this objective standard? How do you know it is objective and how do you know it is correct? What is this standard--the avoidance of causing harm? (If so, you might be interested in Sam Harris's book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.)

  2. Thank you for your email. I will respond to it separately.

    In my original post I compared morality to language to make this point. Language was subjectively made but it has objective standards of grammar and spelling. Morality is made to ensure smooth human relations and is unique to culture. But can still be objectively compared by an analysis of human harm.

    I think I basically agree with Gwen Dewar. I was not super impressed with her blog though. It made me laugh when she made a comparison to "naturally short statured peoples of Central Africa," to argue for a heavy environmental correlation to height. It also felt that she was glorifying, and simplifying morality.

    "That people are born with equal, unalienable rights. Rights that no tyrant, tradition, or factory owner can ignore."

    Are you serious? People are born with unalienable rights? Tell that to burned Indian woman, and slaves, and people in poverty. Its not that hard to take rights away, all it takes is a bit of power. I wonder if you are defining "rights" as something human beings should have rather than actual rights for lack of a better word. I do not think this is a very useful definition because we cannot argue hypothetical and theoretical, we can only compare and asses.

    We have not found an absolute on either side of a morality spectrum. So we can not make absolute statements just ranking on harm and good to the society.

  3. heeeeeeey this was a school topic. you should have linked your thoughts to the website. Josh would have shit his panties.