Monday, July 12, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbiord and Cultural Relativism

This is the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most important American literary works of the last century. A magnificent piece on many levels, one of the most important philosophical elements is the way it undermines the ethical view called cultural relativism.

When you teach ethics, something you hear all the time from students is "that's the way I was raised" or "that's what I believe because I am a _____." The idea is that ethical judgments are based upon cultural beliefs and practices. That's not how it is done here, so it shouldn't be done here. If they do it differently over there, then so be it, it is fine for them but not for us. Ethics is a matter of cultural norms and one culture should not judge any other. It is an attempt to be open minded, to realize that there may be more than one way to look at an ethical system and to establish moral claims on something empirical, sociological facts, widely held and enforced beliefs within a society.

Yes, cultural imperialism, where one culture takes over another in order to enforce its way of being, is problematic and has a long and troubled colonial history. But that does not mean that there is no way to ethically judge the norms of one's own or other cultures. There are and that is one of the morals of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Atticus Finch and his children pay a price when he defends Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. By standing up for an African American, by giving him the same vigorous defense that a white person would receive, is counter to cultural norms, norms that are enforced. What Atticus did certainly violated the social rules of Alabama in the 30s. But the point of the novel is to show us the moral bankruptcy of those accepted social mores. It is the upstanding Atticus Finch and the oppressed Boo Radley who see the ethical problems of the normal way of life in the post-Civil War South and who act in accord with moral dictates, not socially expected patterns of behavior.

We obey two masters. There are those rules of behavior that come from the culture and those that come from morality. They are not the same, although we hope that they come to overlap more and more as time goes on, it is not always the case. Sadly, it is often the pressure to be normal, and to avoid the shunning and humiliation that comes from running afoul of it, that overruns the power of moral rightness. What we hopefully learn from To Kill a Mockingbird is to realize that these two notions of right and wrong are not identical and that we need to think critically and rigorously about both.