Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Cultural and Moral Relativity

It's always strange when you have a college professor, someone who is supposedly educated, look you in the face while standing in front of 50 people and say," All cultures/morals are equal." Especially, when they have a smug look on their faces like they're the only one in the room who understands the concept of objectivity vs. subjectivity. I used to take the high road with such people and give them a chance of recovering with dignity, but I find that the more preposterous I become the more preposterous they become. I'll explain what I mean.

Let's take the situation in the above. The professor makes this claim, that all cultures/ morals are equal because they are asserting as fact, without declaring it, an unproven assumption that all cultures/ morals are subjective. So, you appeal to their sense of humanity and bring something up like chauvinistic cultures. Without missing a beat they reiterate their point feigning objectivity, without explaining the "why," confident in their assumptions and content with their arrogance.

Their assertion creates a number of dilemmas. Probably the most obvious is that it dismisses the concepts of good and bad, right and wrong. By doing so, they are attempting to unilaterally dismiss a multitude of things and people they have no business dismissing. When they dismiss the concept of good and bad, right and wrong they're dismissing every religion in the world, they're dismissing the laws of every nation since the dawn of civilization, they're dismissing human rights, they're dismissing animal right, they're dismissing much of philosophy, dismissing family and friendship... all while arrogantly smiling. Can you tell I don't like intellectual  arrogance concerning untried assertions?

Whenever this happens, I'm reminded of the scene from the movie 'The Princess Bride' where Wesley says to the villain," You're that smart?" and the villain says,"Have you ever heard of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle?... morons." That's basically what these people are doing; they're dismissing on their own authority Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle along with everything and everyone else stated in the above.

If you point this out to them, they begin to stammer a bit as they try their assertion for the first time. For the first time they actually wonder if what they've been saying and believing is true. I used to help them with this process and be more reserved at this stage of such debates, but it seems that as soon as they've realized that they're had they divert their attention to their embarrassment and they go back to blindly defending their primary assertion. They prefer ignorance to the enlightenment of the point, by failing to submit to what the facts bear out.

So, now what I do is as soon as they're reeling from the realization of what they have just dismissed, to their shame, I follow up with a final point,” Well, I'm a Nazi and I'm relieved to finally meet an open minded person like you. I know you won't judge me because I'm a racist and I think that we should kill all Jews. By the way, you don't have any non-white ancestors do you?" tongue in cheek.

Most often in the media, in college, in the modern world, we encounter this sort of theoretical cultural/moral relativity nonsense instead of well tried, well reasoned assertions. The media and schools of higher learning are supposed to be devoted to enlightening people, yeah? They’re supposed to be communicating objective truths, unless they are expressly communicating subjective opinions. I suppose most people would just shrug if the media blurred the line between reality and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity. But we would expect more from an institution of higher learning, yes?

The reality is that culture and morality come in two varieties: nature and convention. The family, in all its variations, is a natural piece of culture. Duty to family is naturally moral. Then, you have morals and culture of convention. Wearing a fruit basket on your head is a cultural convention. Being a pro-choice individual is an exercise of moral convention. Political loyalty can be an exercise of moral convention. When it comes down to it, however, there are some natural morals we can’t negotiate on that cause us to come to conclusions like: Don’t murder, take care of your offspring, don’t rape, don’t steal, don’t perjure… etc.

Morals form a culture, but at some point a culture can start to fabricate morals. If a culture starts chucking the natural morality for the conventional, or they introduce morals that contradict each other, then the consequence is an inferior culture. Leaving all that aside to say, cultures are not equal, all moral systems are not equal. And to some extent morals and cultures are both natural and man-made; it’s not one way or the other like secular and religious fundamentalists try to say so often. A blind man could see that. People get so caught up, especially in America, with this absolutist, either-or thinking. We need to challenge that when discretion calls for it. There are absolutes out there, I'm not saying there aren't; to say that there are no absolutes is an absolute. But we need to be moderate in our approach to things and always strive for legitimate and true objectivity. 

"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and choice, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." ~Aristotle~

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