Relativism and tolerance Notes for September 27

Main points

The aim of the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on Human Rights is clear enough. They thought the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was of a piece with European imperialism. And they worried that it would be used as an ideological rationalization for continuing imperialism. They wanted the powerful European societies to tolerate the less powerful societies rather than thinking that there is a universal set of moral values that they could insist on or enforce.

We began by distinguishing different arguments in the Statement. Having isolated moral relativism as one of the arguments, we looked at the logic of the argument. How could you move from the assumption that moral relativism is true to a conclusion about tolerance?

Moving from relativism to tolerance

Some of the problems with the anthropologists’ position stem from their reliance on societies as the source of moral rules. Williams pointed out that this would mean moral relativism is useless among people who do not share a society. And Maya hinted that there would be little reason to regard the society as the source of moral rules as opposed to some other unit, like a community, family, or even individual.

Dhruv noted a logical problem: a universal requirement of tolerance is incompatible with the relativist denial that there are any universal requirements.

A third problem concerns reconciling the tolerance that the anthropologists recommended with our values. This emerged most clearly in their treatment of the Nazis. As Steward pointed out, they could not refuse to pass judgment and so left a loophole for a mild kind of interference with societies such as Nazi Germany. But, as Steward argued, once they conceded that outsiders could act on their values when confronting a society like Nazi Germany, they could not sustain their argument for tolerance. That argument rested on the impossibility of making any evaluation of a foreign culture at all.

To illustrate this problem, I asked the class to consider what bearing the truth of moral relativism would have on society A’s moralistic reasons for interfering with society B. I put two arguments on the board that began with the premise that A is justified in interfering with B on the basis of A’s moral code only if A’s moral code is correct.

As Nick saw, everything depends on what the term “correct” means. The most natural interpretation under moral relativism is that “correct” means that A’s code is genuinely A’s code. But if that’s what it means, the truth of moral relativism wouldn’t alter A’s moral reasons for doing anything. If A’s moral code is tolerant, they should be tolerant. If it’s intolerant, they should be intolerant. After all, A’s moral code gives people in A their standards for how they should behave. If moral relativism is true, why would they care what people in an entirely different society believe? That’s not relevant to them.

The other possible meaning of “correct” comes from moral universalism and not moral relativism. It holds that A’s code is correct for A only if it is correct for everyone. That sets a standard for having justified moral beliefs that cannot be met if moral relativism is true. But, of course, this is what you should expect. Moral universalism holds that there is only one true moral code; the standard for having justified moral beliefs under consideration comes from moral universalism. If we take the standard from moral universalism and try to combine it with moral relativism, what we get is not the view that each society is justified in following its own moral code but rather moral nihilism, the view that there are no justified moral beliefs at all.

Is moral relativism false?

My conclusion was not that moral relativism is false, but that it’s useless. You can’t draw any conclusions from it about what you should do. Really, I think it’s a bit worse than that. If we take the idea of moral relativism seriously, there’s nothing we can learn from other cultures. They have their moral beliefs that apply to them and we have ours that apply to us. But that can’t be right. Nor can it be what the anthropologists meant. They study different cultures, after all.

Suppose you encounter some people who have different moral beliefs and practices than you do. When does it make sense to revise your beliefs in the light of such an encounter?

You don’t have to be an intrepid explorer like Cortez to know what this is like. As Louis Menand pointed out, we all know what it is like to encounter disconcertingly different ways of doing things. It’s disorienting and uncomfortable. What we had taken for granted as the natural order of things turns out to be just one way among others. We often react with hostility or, at least, a call home. But once we get over the shock, how should we regard our way of doing things, the beliefs and practices that we had taken for granted?

In other areas of knowledge, the fact that someone disagrees with you gives you some reason to reconsider your beliefs. If you are on top of a hill and say that you see lions on the other side, I have good reason to reconsider my belief that it’s safe on the other side of the hill. If you and I are standing side by side and you claim to see something that I don’t, I have reason to wonder whether I’m seeing things accurately. And so on.

What about when the disagreement is moral? One possible reaction is tolerance. They have their way, I have mine. I don’t agree with theirs, but I won’t criticize or interfere with it either. Another reaction is change. Maybe there’s something to their way of doing things. I ought to be more like them. Finally, you might stick to your original opinions: they’re wrong and, in some cases, should be opposed.

Vulgar relativism insists that the third option is ruled out, at least when you are confronted with the members of a different society. Interestingly, I think it would rule out the second option as well. If different societies have their own codes that cannot be evaluated by non-members, how could the members of one society learn from another?

Since the second option is tremendously important in these cases, it would be a significant loss if moral relativism were true.

How much disagreement is there, really?

President Bush was fond of saying that Al Qaeda and its ilk hate freedom. I have to confess that I thought this was overblown. Who hates freedom? Well, how about Ayatollah Khomenei, the cleric who played a leading role in the Iranian Revolution?

Yes, we are reactionaries, and you are enlightened intellectuals: You intellectuals do not want us to go back 1,400 years. ... You, who want freedom, freedom for everything, the freedom of parties, you who want all the freedoms, you intellectuals: freedom that will corrupt our youth, freedom that will pave the way for the oppressor, freedom that will drag our nation to the bottom. ... Islam says: Whatever good there is exists thanks to the sword and in the shadow of the sword! People cannot be made obedient except with the sword! The sword is the key to paradise, which can be opened only for holy warriors!** Ayatollah Khomenei quoted in Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower (Knopf, 2006), p. 47.

Score one for Bush there. It’s not hard to see why there would be so much discontent in Iran if this is the attitude of the characters at the head of the government.

Well, at least we can all agree about drowning children. Here, for instance, the fatwa issued by Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s mentor in Afghanistan, in 1984.

Azzam’s fatwa draws a distinction between a fard ayn and a fard kifaya. The first is an individual religious obligation that falls upon all Muslims, like praying and fasting. One cannot avoid such duties and be considered a good Muslim. If nonbelievers invade a Muslim land, it is fard ayn — a compulsory duty — for the local Muslims to expel them. If they fail, then the obligation expands to their Muslim neighbors. “If they too slacken, or there is a shortage of manpower, then it is upon the people behind them, and on the people behind them, to march forward. This process continues until it becomes fard ayn upon the whole world.” … Fard kifaya, on the other hand, is a duty of the community. Azzam gives the example of a group of people walking along a beach. “They see a child about to drown.” The child, he suggests, is Afghanistan. Saving the drowning child is an obligation for all the swimmers who witness him. “If someone moves to save him, the sin falls from the rest. But if no one moves, all the swimmers are in sin.” Thus Azzam argues that the jihad against the Soviets is the duty of each Muslim individually, as well as of the entire Muslim people, and that all are in sin until the invader is repelled.†† Wright, The Looming Tower, pp. 102-3.

Saving a drowning child also helped to make conservative opinion columnist William Safire popular at the liberal New York Times.

He had a rough time with his transition from the Nixon White House to The Times. He told me that many of the liberal reporters stiffed him for the first couple of years until he dove into a pool to save a drowning child at an office party.‡‡ Maureen Dowd, “On Safire,” New York Times, September 29, 2009.

I have yet to read anything about anyone’s opinions about violinists with kidney problems, though.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2010. It was posted September 30, 2010.
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