Monday, June 12, 2006

If You Grew Up in the Manson Family, It Doesn't Matter That You Were Brought Up That Way

Since we're on a roll of what ethics isn't. Might as well pull out cultural relativism, as well. Where ethical subjectivism contends that an act x is morally right for person P if and only if P thinks it is right, cultural relativism holds an act x to be morally right for society S if and only if it is socially acceptable in S. These are different positions, but you will frequently hear people slide between them as if they were the same.

The similarity is obvious and the problems from one find analogies in the second case. There is the problem of infallibility. Societies can, by definition, never consider a widely accepted act to be immoral. Consider a hypothetical antebellum Southern abolitionist. By holding that slavery in the South before the Civil War is immoral, the cultural relativist must hold that she is not only wrong, but a complete idiot. Consider the sentence, "It is raining, but I believe it isn't." The person who would assert the truth of a sentence and then deny it's truth is a moron or a liar. But if cultural relativism were true, then saying, "Slavery is socially accepted, but I think it is wrong" is the same thing as saying, "Slavery is moral, but I think it is immoral" because an act is moral in the society to which she belongs exactly if it is socially accepted. People who object on moral grounds to widely practiced behaviors on moral grounds may be right or wrong, but they are not idiots. Cultural relativism must be false.

But there is another problem that ethical subjectivism does not fall prey to. At least with subjectivism we knew what it was that we were relativizing to -- with the possible exception of moral disagreement between Siamese twins. What constitutes a society? Is there one ethic for all of the US or a different one for New England and the Deep South? For whites and blacks in Mobile, Alabama? How large does a group have to be? Is there a culturally defined set of norms for Lithuanians in Chicago, but not Albuquerque -- until they get enough to retire there to form a "Little Vilnius?"

Again, the view is a desire to be tolerant. It comes from the mature understanding that we have something to learn from other cultures, that there are other ways to do things that have worth, and most importantly to avoid cultural imperialism. We have a very bad track record in humanity generally, but in the West especially to charge in to someplace and demand that the folks there instantly adopt our way of doing everything even if it makes no sense for their historical, geographical, or material context. Not only that, but we insist that they ought to thank us for the electrodes on their testicles that make this point clear.

But the problem is that cultural relativism does not undermine cultural imperialism. To oppose cultural imperialism is to make a universal, extra-societal moral claim that it is always wrong to interfere in the ways of another culture, but notice that the very definition of cultural relativism rules out the possibility of moral claims that extend beyond cultures. If moral truths are culturally relative, then there is no way to rule out cross-cultural intervention if one culture finds it acceptable.

While there have been many cases of horribly immoral interference, surely if we take "never again" seriously, there are cases in which intervention is imperative -- Darfur, for example. Stopping genocide is obvious, but where is the line? Female circumcision? Wearing a hijab? Wearing a burkha? Suppose the oppressed group has a desire to continue the tradition? Is it an affront to autonomy to even make the moral argument against it? Is there a false consciousness so that by opposing it, we are in fact, restoring autonomy, that is to say, if they weren't weighed down by that cultural baggage, they wouldn't want it? How do we draw that line?