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Essay: An Encounter with Moral Relativism



An Encounter with Moral Relativism

Casey Dorman

I’m an old man, fairly set in my ways, willing to learn but not easily swayed by arguments that conflict with opinions and values that I have developed over a lifetime. But in the last year I have had my eyes opened, I think for the better. I’m a bookish kind of person so it’s appropriate that the encounter that changed my outlook was with a book. The particular book was Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (reviewed in the Summer 2012 issue of this journal).

Haidt’s basic point, buttressed by research that tapped the belief systems of literally hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world, was that the moral framework from which most well-educated Western Europeans and particularly educated upper middle class liberal Americans make their judgments is WEIRD compared to that of the rest of the world. WEIRD is an acronym that stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic

Westerners see people as individuals, rather than as components within a context of relationships. Easterners (and perhaps poor and/or uneducated Westerners) see the world holistically as an overall context with an emphasis upon the relationships among the parts.

Haidt had fastened upon what sociologists call an individualistic point of view versus a collectivistic point of view. The emphasis upon individualism is associated with moral principles that emphasize autonomy and the rights of individuals. The concentration on autonomy as the basis for morality in Western culture, according to Haidt, has led to a narrow focus upon just three moral dimensions: liberty/oppression, care/harm and fairness/cheating. People should be free to do whatever they want so long as it does not harm anyone else and as long as everyone else has the same opportunity to do the same thing.

But Haidt pointed out that the narrow focus on autonomy as the basis for morality among WEIRD people leaves out other major themes of morality. His own research across different cultures identified six moral dimensions. What I found both interesting and surprising were the dimensions that are not usually valued by the WIERD culture but are highly valued in many of the non-Western European cultures of the world, and it turns out, among many American conservatives. One of these is the Loyalty/Betrayal dimension. Loyalty/Betrayal may be attached to one’s nation, school, sports team, race, religion, community or even language group (e.g. French-speaking Quebec). It fosters indignation toward those who are viewed as unsupportive of one’s cause and it is valued more highly by American conservatives than by American liberals.

The Authority/Subversion dimension is an essential part of the moral fabric of many cultures. The Chinese culture in its adoption of Confucian tenets is one obvious example of this, but many cultures emphasize respect for authority in the form of respect for older persons, officials, royalty, males, teachers, etc.

The Sanctity/Degradation dimension is the mindset that provokes disgust in people when they encounter objects that are soiled, either literally or figuratively and reverence when objects are considered sacred. Different cultures attach their feelings of sanctity and disgust to different things. Riots occurred in countries as far away as Afghanistan when an American pastor recommended burning copies of the, to Muslims sacred, Koran. The arguments in this country over abortion and gay marriage are often phrased by conservatives in terms of the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.

Haidt studied these dimensions of moral behavior using over 130,000 American participants. He found that both liberals and conservatives valued liberty but liberals were concerned about care and fairness far more than they were about any other dimensions; conservatives valued all dimensions more or less equally. Yes, liberals were somewhat higher on both care/harm and fairness/cheating than conservatives, but not much. Liberals, on the other hand, fell well below conservatives on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation as values to which they subscribed. Even more interesting was that, once one inquired beyond American and Western European cultures, most of the rest of the world valued loyalty, authority and sanctity as highly or higher than they valued liberty and fairness. Even more sobering was the finding that, far from viewing their value systems as culturally determined and specific, almost everyone viewed his own values as universally true. In effect, even though value systems differ, we all use our own systems to evaluate those of others.

Why was I surprised? Being a staunch member of the WEIRD minority, I had been trained to recognize and even value cultural relativity. A basic tenet of the WEIRD mindset was the view that cultural diversity was something to be “celebrated.” But moral diversity? That was another matter. Weren’t “do no harm to your fellow human beings” and “treat everyone equally, regardless of race, age, sex, sexual orientation, etc,” universally valid? Weren’t things such as the second-class treatment of women and attitudes of disgust toward lower-caste individuals in some developing countries just plain wrong? Didn’t actions such as killing someone for insulting a religious figure violate a basic, universal value of placing human life above the sanctity of religious icons?

The answer of course was that some things are wrong from one point of view but not wrong from another and I had to face the fact that my own value system had been formed from one of those points of view. I could judge, but I did so from the perspective of my own moral system. The dilemma facing me was that moral values, by their very nature, were deemed universally valid by those who held them. This was no less true in my case. In my mind, my moral position was the obviously correct one. But I had to recognize the fact that someone else in the world was just as sure that I was wrong and that he or she was right about what both of us considered fundamental moral issues. What was I to think about such a person?

Haidt provided a framework within which I could begin to construct an answer to my question.  He argued that all six of the moral dimensions were built into human beings’ brains in the form of evolutionarily-tuned ways to think about the world. In other words, each of us might hold different moral beliefs but we all arrived in this world with our brains wired similarly, ready to adopt whichever of the six moral points of view the culture into which we were born, favored.

If Haidt was right (and evolutionary speculations are just that—speculations) then each of the six moral positions had some survival value in an evolutionary sense but different cultural environments emphasized one or another position, which is why those of us who were raised in different cultures came out favoring different values. And, as evolution repeatedly teaches us, differences are differences due to different adaptive requirements, not due to differences in the “maturity,” “worth,” or “sophistication” of the particular traits. In other words, no moral value is more universally valid than another.

This was a difficult pill to swallow. I was not ready to abandon my faith in the superiority of my own moral perspective and to see all moral values as equally valid. But after reading Haidt’s book I felt compelled to attempt to do this, at least to the extent that I could withhold my moral judgment on events and issues long enough to consider what someone with a different point of view might be thinking. Last year’s Presidential election season gave me ample opportunity for testing my hoped-for increased tolerance.

The first issue to come up was Romney’s famous discussion of the “47%,” which had made the point that a sizeable segment of the population does not earn its way in our society and lives off of the rest of us. Romney viewed a large portion of this group as doing so out of choice.

How could I understand Romney’s point of view? Haidt’s research had indicated that both liberals and conservatives subscribed to the fairness moral dimension, but the two groups had different views of what constituted fairness. Liberals tended to see fairness in terms of each person getting as much as everyone else while conservatives saw this dimension in terms of getting back what you put in. Liberals were more sensitive to who gets “left out” of access to resources while conservatives were more sensitive to who is getting a “free ride” by taking out without contributing. From the conservative point of view, those who received government assistance but did not pay their share of taxes were getting a free ride at the expense of everyone else.

I could comprehend the value system that supported Romney’s assertion. I could even agree with him that anyone who was deliberately making a career of taking more from the system than he or she gave should not be rewarded for doing so. I could agree on the moral point. It was the characterization of a sizeable portion of Americans as falling into this category, and deciding that they did so by looking at whether or not they paid income tax or received government benefits that was wrong because it was inaccurate. Those who were out of work, underemployed, disabled, or poor and elderly were not “free riders.” So the conservative facts were wrong, even though their moral position could be defended.

The next major political issue was The Innocence of Muslims film and the violent reaction of many people in the Middle East to this attack on their spiritual leader, Mohammed. In America the issue with the film focused upon freedom of speech. In the Middle East the issue was the sanctity of Mohammed. A host of American commentators described a value system which guaranteed freedom of speech as being more highly developed, mature, or sophisticated than one which valued sanctity over freedom of expression. To most Americans, the scenes of rioting Middle Easterners burning effigies of President Obama represented a primitive reaction based upon ignorance of the true meaning of liberty as we live it here in America. It was one more example of why people in that region of the world were “not ready” for democracy.

I was able to overcome my initial feelings of revulsion at the scenes of street riots in Cairo to force myself to consider what the different reactions to the film in two different areas of the world might actually represent. Despite the self-righteous pronouncements of my countrymen, I could not convince myself that my value of freedom of expression necessarily trumped Middle Eastern protestors’ value of the sanctity of a religious figure. These were simply different values. On top of that, the American version of freedom of speech, which requires that the speech pose some actual harm to someone before it can be curtailed, turned out to be extreme even in the Western world. Virtually all European countries and the European Union forbid using insulting or demeaning language in the media, and, unlike the United States, do not require proof that the speech could incite violence or prejudicial action against its target.

Even restriction of speech based upon the value of sanctity is not uncommon in many parts of the world. In nearly all countries with a Muslim majority, including such disparate nations as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia, blasphemy against Islam is forbidden by law. Furthermore, this pattern is not confined to Muslim countries. Greece prohibits blasphemy against God, the Greek Orthodox Church and “other tolerated religions.” Malta forbids blasphemy against the Roman Catholic Church and Italy forbids “vilification of religion.” The guarantee of nearly absolute freedom of speech is a unique position taken by the United States.

I could not convince myself to approve of violence as the method of protesting violation of one’s moral values (although there are several moral outrages that routinely provoke violence in the United States). But I could no longer condemn the Middle Easterners for their reaction to the insulting video.

The final test of my newfound tolerance and understanding came with the infamous statement by Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, that, “life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." I had to wade through the onslaught of  hype by my fellow liberals who deliberately distorted Mourdock’s remarks to imply that he was saying that  a rape itself was intended by God when he clearly was referring to the pregnancy resulting from the rape.

But could I give credence to someone’s opinion that a fetus conceived as a result of a rape was a “gift from God?” Mourdock’s premise was that, as a religious person, he believed that all human life was created by God. A significant proportion of the world’s population would probably agree with him. I doubt if most of them would view God as capable of making a mistake and creating a child by accident or believe that unborn babies fell into two groups: those created by God and those not created by God. So Mourdock’s point of view made sense, given his assumptions.

But Richard Mourdock is what, in the American political vernacular, is called Pro-Life and I am Pro-Choice. In terms of value systems, that means that he places the sanctity of life, even the life of a fetus (because it is a gift from God) over a woman’s right to privacy and free choice with regard to her body. I have the opposite value system. Our argument was over whose value system, his or mine, should be the basis for United States law.

I could not think of a sense in which I was “right” and he was “wrong.” The decision as to whose value system should become the law of the land was one that ought to reflect American public opinion and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the U.S. constitution.

I had become a moral relativist.

But is moral relativism really desirable or even possible? Aren’t there some absolute values, which shouldn’t be forsaken no matter what? Haidt listed six moral dimensions. Which of these is mandatory? An argument can be made that liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity can each be interpreted so differently by different cultures (or even by different factions within the same culture) that none of them can be considered a bottom line value that cannot be overridden by another. But what about the harm/care dimension? Nearly every culture subscribes to the idea that an innocent person should not be harmed, that an injured person should be helped. Are these values often overridden in the name of other values? Certainly, cruelty exists. Certainly, innocents are often slaughtered in the name of some other value (authority, liberty, sanctity, loyalty, even fairness when it is defined as revenge. It’s not hard to think of examples). Certainly, “do not harm another,” is violated in practice everyday, in every society.

A country such as the United States is built upon a philosophy which holds some values higher than others. I think it is fair to say that liberty and fairness are at the heart of the American value system and I believe that even a cursory reading of either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution would support my claim. But that doesn’t make such values a universal priority to which everyone else in the world must subscribe. Even within our American system there is ample room for argument regarding the limits of liberty. When does it conflict with the value of not harming others? When does it conflict with loyalty or obedience to authority? And, as we have seen in the argument over Romney’s 47%, fairness may be in the eye of the beholder and may come in conflict with the moral dimension of caring.

I now hold a more relativistic, nuanced view of moral values as a result of reading Jonathan Haidt’s book. I haven’t changed any of my own moral priorities, but I am more understanding of their cultural specificity and of the priorities held by others, both within my country and in the rest of the world. I think that’s a step forward.

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