Relativity, Part II

Spent some time reading while on an exercise bike yesterday. Generally, I don’t think the magazines at the Rec Center are all that interesting, so I brought my own book. And wouldn’t you know, this particular book had a great follow-up to Ruth Benedict’s essay on cultural norms and morality.

Ok, so I admit, I was looking for the other side of the discussion. My selection of James Rachels’ “Morality is Not Relative” wasn’t so random after all. The following is a collaboration between Dr. Rachels and myself. I can’t take credit for all the ideas, but I wholeheartedly agree with him and have added my $0.02 here and there.

The first thing that hit me about Rachels’ essay is that he spends no small amount of time acknowledging and even elaborating on the cultural differences on which Benedict built her case. Wow, this guy’s pretty confident… not shying away from opposing evidence at all. For example, Knud Rasmussen, one of the most prolific early explorers of the Eskimo culture, met one woman who had borne 20 babies but killed half of them at birth. Female babies were especially likely to be eliminated, as men were the tribes’ primary food-providers. There was no social stigma whatsoever attached to this practice.

The “Cultural Differences Argument” is the base of relative morality. Rachels’ example goes like this:

  1. Eskimos see no problem with infanticide, whereas contemporary Americans believe infanticide is immoral.
  2. Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong. It is merely a matter of opinion, which varies from culture to culture.

More generally:

  1. Different cultures have different moral codes.
  2. Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.

On the face of it, (I love that phrase!) the Cultural Differences Argument sounds very convincing. Undeniably, it’s been quite influential. “But,” Rachels asks, “is it logically sound?” Ah, there’s the rub. It’s not. The conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premise. Even when the premise (addressing belief) is true, the conclusion (addressing reality) might be false. One more example, this time from my humble understanding:

  1. Martin Luther vehemently opposed Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. Luther believed everything revolved around the earth; Copernicus, the sun.
  2. Different brilliant people had different beliefs about an issue. Therefore, we cannot say that there is an objective truth to the matter.

This is one case where the conclusion more obviously does not follow from the premise. Differences of opinion do not constitute relativity. Rachels clearly spells out the feeling I had in my gut before originally reading his essay: You can’t make a substantitive claim about morality just because people disagree about it.

Even though the foundational argument is a conclusion disconnected from its premise, it would be unwise and intellectually unfair to throw it out the window at this point. Let’s look at consequences of taking relativism seriously:

  1. We could no longer say practices in other cultures are inferior to our own. Sounds enlightened, right? What’s enlightened about being restrained to watch ineptly as Jews are gassed in Poland, or as 14-year-olds are drafted into insurgent militias in Uganda, or as Christ-followers are persecuted in China?
  2. Within our own societies, we could only judge right vs. wrong based on the current norm. A resident of South Africa wonders whether the national policy of apartheid is morally correct… well, it does conform to his society’s moral code. Then I guess there’s nothing to worry about. What’s disturbing is that few of us are ever completely satisfied with our own culture, yet moral relativism prohibits us from criticizing its norms. What becomes normative becomes good.
  3. The notion of moral progress ceases to mean much of anything. I’d like to think the changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement were for the better. But if moral relativism is correct, is it not arrogant and incorrect of us to think of progress as replacing one practice with another better one? Replacing evil segregation with better integration? By what standard do we judge the new ways of doing things as superior? If the old ways were in accordance with the norm of a bygone era, then it is a mistake to judge them by the standards of the present era. To say that we’ve made progress since the culture of slavery wrongly implies the judgement that our modern culture of equality is better. A great thinker once addressed this issue:

“Segregation. There was another one. America sees this now but it took a civil rights movement to betray their age. And 50 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court betrayed the age May 17, 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education came down and laid to rest the idea that separate can ever really be equal. Amen to that. Fast forward 50 years. May 17, 2004. What are the ideas right now worth betraying? What are the lies we tell ourselves now? What are the blind spots of our age?” -Paul Hewson

(Credit in the “Consqeuences” section definitely goes to Rachels for mentally extending moral relativism out into practical life. I elaborated on the principles, but the italicized ideas are his strokes of pragmatic genius.)

One thing that I really like about James Rachels is his unconventional treatment of conflict. Normally, social conservatives, and other big absolutist morality proponents attempt to reinforce their cases by playing up to the fullest extent the differences of opinion. It’s popular (maybe normative but not correct?) to make it an us vs. them, good vs. evil dichotomy. But after addressing the sad logical extensions of moral relativism, Rachels devotes no small amount of thought to “Why There is Less Disagreement Than it Seems.” He examines the roots of female infanticide, and finds a researcher who, after examining the available statistics, concluded that “were it not for female infanticide… there would be approximately one-and-a-half times as many females in the average Eskimo local group as there are food-producing males.” Basically, the Eskimoes recognize drastic measures sometimes needed to ensure the family’s survival. Quite simply, Eskimoes’ lives force upon them choices that we do not have to make. Oh, and! Although there is no stigma attached to female infanticide, it is in fact a last resort. Interestingly, the other prominent and more popular solution is adoption. He emphasizes this to show that the raw data of the anthropologists can be misleading. Just like a political statistician can manipulate numbers, a relativistic anthropologist can manipulate raw findings to say whatever suits their agenda. I wonder just how much Ruth Benedict had chosen to reveal when she first published her essay…?

Every self-perpetuating society must have an inherent protective view of infant life. Infants are helpless by themselves. If a group neglected its young, the young would die off, and older members would not be replaced. Any cultural group that continues to exist must make infant care the norm, and the infant destruction the exception. See? We’re not all that different, Eskimoes and us.

Let’s get to the moral of the story. Pure moral relativity just cannot work. It rests on a logically unsound argument, it has consequences that make it implausible, and the extent of cultural differences it claims is inaccurate. Sounds like a pretty thorough repudiation. But what can we learn? It does teach a positive lessons: Moral relativism has a correct view of cultural arrogance. (This should be especially important to my fellow Christ-followers and I!) Moral relativism paves the way for dialogue, for each of us to understand some of our strongest feelings on issues may simply be the product of cultural conditioning. But we can accept this lesson without accepting the whole theory. What will you do?


2 responses to “Relativity, Part II

  1. Holy cow I googled “James Rachels relativity” and this post came up #1… yowzahs…

  2. ^ agreed! I was having such a hard time understanding James Rachel’s material through the textbook until I came across your blog. Good work =)

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