a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Some thoughts on morality and its origins

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I remember, quite a few Christmases ago now, a slightly acrimonious discussion breaking out about religion and morality. I simply observed – it wasn’t my family. It never is.

A born-again religious woman asked her sister – ‘where do you get your morality from if not from religion?’ She responded tartly, ‘From my mum’. This response pleased one of those present, at least! But as to the implicit claim that we get our morality from religion, my silent response was ‘how does that happen?’

Religion, at least in its monotheistic versions, implies a supernatural being, from whom all morality flows. But if you ask believers whether their cherished supernatural entity talks to them and advises them regularly about the moral decisions they face in their daily lives, you would get, well, a variety of responses, from ‘yes, he does actually’, to something like ‘you miss the point completely’. The second response might lead on to – well, theology. We were given free will, the deity’s ways are mysterious but Good, he communicates with us indirectly, you need to read the signs etc etc. But you’ll be relieved I hope to hear that this won’t be an essay on religion, which you should realise by now I find interminably boring when it tries to connect itself with morality – which is most of the time.

I’m more interested here in trying, inter alia, to define human morality, to determine whether it’s objective, or universal, and if those two terms are synonymous. And as I generally do, I’ll start with a rough and ready, semi-ignorant or uninformed definition, and then try to smarten it up – possibly overturning the original definition in the process.

So, roughly, I consider human morality to be an emergent property of our socially wired brains, something which is, therefore, evolving. I don’t consider it to be objective, because that suggests something outside ourselves, like objective reality. We can talk about it being ‘universal’, as in ‘universal human rights’, which may be agreed upon by consensus, but that’s a convenient fiction, as there’s no true consensus, as, for example, the Cairo Declaration (on human rights in Islam) reveals. Not that we shouldn’t strive for consensus, based on our current understanding of human interests and human thriving. I’m a strong believer in human rights. I suppose what I’m saying here is that my ‘universality’, far from being a metaphysical construction, is a pragmatic term about what we can generally agree on as being what we need in terms of basic liberties, and limitations to those liberties, in order to best thrive, as a thoroughly social species (deeply connected with other species).

So with this rough and ready definition, I want to look at some controversial contributions to the debate, and to add my reflections on them. I read The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris, a while back, and found it generally agreeable, and was surprised at the apparent backlash against it, though I didn’t try to follow the controversy. However, when philosophers like Patricia Churchland and Simon Blackburn get up and respectfully disagree, finding Harris ‘naive’ and misguided and so forth, I feel it’s probably long overdue for me to get my own views clear.

The difficulty that many see with Harris’s view is encapsulated in the subtitle of his book, ‘How science can determine human values’. I recognised that this claim was asking for trouble, being ‘scientistic’ and all, but I felt sympathetic in that it seemed to me that our increasing knowledge of the world has deeply informed our values. We don’t call Australian Aboriginals or Tierra del Fuegans or Native Americans savages anymore, and we don’t describe women as infantile or prone to hysteria, or homosexuals as insane or unnatural, or children as spoilt by the sparing of the rod, because our knowledge of the human species has greatly advanced, to the point where we feel embarrassed by quite recent history in terms of its ethics. But there’s a big difference between science informing human values, and enriching them, and science being the determinant of human values. Or is there?

What Harris is saying is, forget consensus, forget agreements, morality is about facts, arrived at by reason. He brings this up early on in The Moral Landscape:

… truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: one person can be right, and everyone else can be wrong. Consensus is a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.

Clearly one of Harris’s targets, in taking such an uncompromising stance on morality being about truth or facts rather than values, is moral relativism, which he regularly attacks.  Yet the most cogent critics of his views aren’t moral relativists, they’re people, like Blackburn, who question whether the moral realm can ever be seen as a branch of science, however broadly defined (and Harris defines it very broadly for his purposes).  One of the points of dispute  – but there are many others – is the claim that you can’t derive values from facts. For example, no amount of information about genetic variation within human groups can actually determine what you ought to do in terms of discrimination based on perceived racial differences. Such information can and should inform decisions, but they can’t determine them, because they are facts, while values – what you should do with those facts – are categorically different.

It seems to me that Harris often chooses clear-cut issues to highlight morality-as-fact, such as that a secure, healthful, well-educated life is better than one in which you get beaten up on a daily basis. Presumably he imagines that all the gradations in between can be measured precisely as to their truth-value in contributing to well-being. But surely it’s in these difficult areas that questions of value seem to be most ‘subjective’. Can we make an objective moral claim, say, about vegetarianism, true for all people everywhere? What about veganism? I very much doubt it. Yet we also need to look skeptically at those values he sees as clear-cut. Take this example from The Moral Landscape:

In his wonderful book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker includes  a quotation from the anthropologist Donald Symons that captures the problem of multiculturalism very well:

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes ”culture”, and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers”, including feminists.

Now, as a card-carrying humanist, and someone generally quite comfortable with the values that, over time, have emerged in my part of the western world, namely Australia, I’m implacably opposed to the practice described here by Symons. But even so, I see a number of problems with this description. And ‘description’ is an important term to think about here, because the way we describe things is an essential indicator of our understanding of the world. The description here is of a ‘procedure’, and it is brief and clinical, leaving aside the depiction of the ‘terrified struggling screaming little girl’. It isn’t a description likely to have much resonance for those who subject their daughters and nieces to this practice. After all, this is a traditional cultural practice, however horrific. It is still practiced regularly in many African countries, and in proximate countries such as Yemen. Clearly the practice aligns with rigid attitudes about the role and place of women in those cultures, attitudes that go back a long way – the first reference to female circumcision, on an Egyptian sarcophagus, dates back almost 4000 years, but it’s likely that it goes back a lot further than that. As Wikipedia puts it, ‘Practitioners see the circumcision rituals as joyful occasions that reinforce community values and ethnic boundaries, and the procedure as an essential element in raising a girl.’

Now, Symons (and presumably Pinker, and Harris) take the view that this is clearly a criminal practice, and that culture should not be used as an excuse. It’s a view backed up by most of the nations in which it occurs, who have instituted laws against it, and in 2012 the UN General Assembly unanimously voted to take all necessary steps to end it, but these national and international good intentions face a long, uphill battle. However, if you look at some of the first descriptions of this practice, by outsiders such as Strabo or Philo of Alexandria, both writing in the time of Christ, you won’t find any censoriousness, nor would you expect to. It was well accepted in the Graeco-Roman world that customs varied widely, and that many foreign customs were weird, wild and wonderful. It’s likely that observers from the dominant culture felt morally superior, as is always the case, but there was no attempt to suppress other cultural practices – any more than there was only 200 hundred years ago, in Australia, with respect to the native inhabitants. The ‘mother country’ sent out clear and regular messages at the time about treating the natives with respect, and non-interference with their cultural practices (though it would no doubt have considered them barbaric and savage as a matter of course). It’s really only in recent times that, as a result of our growing confidence in a universal approach to morality or ‘well-being’, we (the dominant culture) have spoken out against what we now unabashedly call female genital mutilation, as well as other practices such as purdah and witch-hunting.

From all this, you might guess that I’m ambivalent about Harris’s confident approach to moral value. Well, yes and no, he said ambivalently. I can’t tell you how mightily glad I am that I live in a part of the world in which purdah and infibulation aren’t prevalent. However, I can’t step outside of my space and time, and I don’t know what it would be like to live in a world where these practices were standard. And living in such a world doesn’t mean being being transported to it ‘suddenly’, it means being steeped in its values. After all, my own Anglo-Australian culture was one that, less than 200 years ago, transported homeless boys, in danger of ‘going to the bad’, to Australia where they often ended up being worked to death on chain gangs, and this was considered perfectly normal. I would have considered it perfectly normal, for I’m not so arrogant as to imagine I could transcend the moral values of my culture as it was in the 1830s.

So, to return to the passage from The Moral Landscape quoted above. It isn’t a factual passage, it’s a description, with interpretive and speculative features. It describes, first the actions of ‘one person’, engaged in what seems to us an insane surgical procedure, then we’re asked to multiply this act by millions, and ‘suddenly’ consider it culture. But this strikes me as a deliberately manipulative putting of the cart before the horse. The real motive seems to be to ask us to dismiss culture altogether. After all, any human product that can be called into being ‘suddenly’, and which ‘magically’ blights our moral understanding of the world cannot surely be taken seriously.  Harris, as I recall, used similar arguments against religion, perhaps in The End of Faith (which I haven’t read), but certainly in some of his talks on the subject. A practice or belief which we might lock someone up for, ‘suddenly’ becomes acceptable when engaged in by millions and called ‘religion’.

This strikes me as a glib and naive argument, which could only appeal to historically uninformed (or indifferent) ‘rationalists’. Cultural and religious beliefs and practices, weird, wild, wonderful and occasionally horrifying though they might be, are far too widespread, and too deeply woven into the identity of individuals and social groups, to be set aside in this way.

This is a very very complex issue, one that, dare I say, middle-class intellectuals like Harris and Pinker tend to skate over, even with a degree of contempt.  For myself, I deal with these cultural issues with a mixture of fear –  ‘don’t provoke the culturally wounded, they’ll just get angry and dangerous’ – and concern  – ‘if you take away these people’s cultural/religious identity, how will they cope?’. Perhaps I’m being arrogant about the power of western secular values, but it seems to me that much of the world’s turmoil comes from resentment at old cultural and religious certainties being undermined.

So I believe in cultural sensitivity, for strategic purposes but also because we are all culturally embedded, no matter how scientifically enlightened we claim to be. However, I don’t think all cultures are, or all culture is, equally valuable or equally healthy. How I measure that, though, is a big question since I can’t step outside of my own culture. Perhaps therein lies the difficulty about getting all ‘scientific’ about morality. Science itself is hardly culture-free – a dangerous point to make in some circles.

So I don’t think I’ve gotten much further as to where morality comes from. To say that it comes from culture requires a thorough definition and understanding of that concept, otherwise we’re just deferring any real explanation, but clearly that is the way to go.  But I prefer to look at this connection with culture, and with other more fundamental aspects of our social nature, from a  humanist perspective. Western secular humanism tends to wear its culture lightly, and to value skepticism, reflection and analysis as – possibly cultural – tools for dismantling or at least loosening the overly heavy and oppressive armour that cultural beliefs and practices can become.

Written by stewart henderson

January 4, 2014 at 12:09 am

7 Responses

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  1. Another way to look at morality is that it is a ‘technology’ which utilises, and requires, agreements or consensus among the population in order to work.

    In this way it is rather like a number system or a currency which are also a kind of technology. In our number system it does not matter if 2 is really 2, or if 4 is actually 2 and 2 is actually 4. What matters is that we all agree on what value each number represents and we stick to that agreement…….. because the purpose of numbers is not to be ‘right’ (or to prove others ‘wrong’), the purpose is for numbers to be useful. The purpose of morality is also to be useful. But it can be useful in two very different ways…

    The quote “In nature there are neither rewards or punishments, there are only consequences” is a good one. We often think of morality in terms of rewards and punishments, probably because religions tend to be based on a reward/ punishment scheme. But I would argue that that is not really morality, because decisions based on a reward/ punishment scheme are, by definition, self serving. If decisions based on the concept of heaven/ hell also happen to be virtuous that is only by coincidence. The concept of heaven and hell actually detracts from morality.

    Morality can, and I would argue should, be thought of in terms of consequences, rather than rewards and punishments. The consequence of a behaving immorally are social dysfunction and eventually collapse of civilisation to a state of ‘cavemen’ beating each other over the head for scraps of food. The consequences of behaving virtuously are a high and cultured, free and pleasant civilisation for all. Heaven and hell are therefore integral to moral/ immoral behaviour, and pulling them out and placing in the afterlife is as absurd as withholding the value of ‘2’ (or any number) until after you are dead.

    But if the purpose of morality is also to be useful, why do we have such a hard time using it, or even grasping it?

    The answer is that it is just as useful to use morality as it is to *abuse* morality. The usefulness of a currency such as $ depends on our agreement on the value of $1 at any given time. The moment we all dispute the value of $1 that currency becomes useless. But what if you could convince everybody else to agree on the value of $1…… while at the same time convincing them that your $1 was actually worth 10x more? That would be pretty useful….. to you, if no one else.

    This is what has always happened with morality. The ruling classes, be they priests, kings or politicians, have always convinced the public to accept moral rules as universally applicable…… before making themselves *exempt* from those very same universal moral rules. In fact they have even managed to convince us that they somehow need to violate all the moral rules which apply in society in order to enforce those moral rules in society!

    Pure genius… and pure evil too.

    Most people imagine the government in these terms “Raping young girls is immoral. We are the elders of this village and we are going to ensure that nobody is allowed to rape the girls in this village. Anybody caught committing rape will be put in a cage” ….. seems fair enough.

    But if you think about it, what governments *actually* say is this “Raping young girls is immoral. We are the elders of this village and we are going to ensure that nobody is allowed to rape the girls in this village except us. Anybody else caught committing rape will be put in a cage”

    A subtle, yet devastating, difference.

    We have never lived in a society where universal moral rules were applied universally (ie to everyone). That needs repeating. We have never lived in a society where universal moral rules were applied universally (ie to everyone). If we ever did live in such a society then morality would suddenly make a whole lot more sense and nobody would be so confused about what is moral or immoral and why.

    Moral behaviour is basically just behaviour which is universally preferable.

    How far would science have progressed if scientists still had not agreed on consistent, universal values for numbers….. or units of time, length and so on? What if state controlled universities were allowed to use a different set of physical laws than everybody else? Obviously science would be an absolute mess and we’d still be using horse and carts (with very wonky wheels).

    And tragically, that is about where we are today socially, thanks to the NON-universal application of universal moral rules. War, famine, poverty, oppression, genocide, tyranny, police states, collapsing economies….. these are all inevitable CONSEQUENCES of accepting universal moral rules, but not applying them universally (not applying them to the people in governments, who are just people after all, not gods!)

    Frankly we’d be better off not accepting any moral rules at all, rather than accepting them among ourselves while allowing one tiny group (government) be totally exempt from them.

    But the best (ie most rational and most preferable) scenario would be for us to accept universal moral rules based on universally preferable behaviour and then apply those rules as they are meant to be applied…. universally!

    Naturally that would mean the people in government, and those working for government, would be judged as human being (not gods) and moral rules concerning theft or the initiation of force would apply to them too – as they’ve always applied to the rest of us. That would mean an end to governments as we know of them… and a society which was FINALLY based on rules (universal conditions), rather than laws (arbitrary commands backed by guns).

    There are no rules in a statist system, only rulers (ie those who claim the the right to violate rules). This is why we struggle with morality. To embrace morality is to reject coercive authoritarian rule by force. It’s either one or the other. Most people sense this and choose to remain in a state of perpetual confusion and contradiction.

    Most of the credit for these ideas must go to the maker of this video (and many others). Well worth exploring IMHO… before civilisation totally collapses under the strain of this double think system.
    Good is Evil

    Spinning For Difficulty

    January 4, 2014 at 1:27 am

    • Thanks for your comment, but it doesn’t seem that you’ve engaged much with what I’ve written. You’ve completely ignored cultural belief systems, which was the main theme of my piece, and gone on to describe universal moral rules in, to me, a vastly over-rational way which seems to bypass the messy cultural baggage around morality and well-being. I think you’ve oversimplified the options and operant forces in society, and I don’t share your disdain for governments, which are just as messy, self-contradictory and self-deceiving as people are, no more or less. Your hopes for a government-free world sound like another version of what I call ‘kindergarten libertarianism’. I’m an optimist – the world is actually becoming less violent, in spite of some perceptions – but I’m no utopian.


      January 4, 2014 at 12:55 pm

      • “…You’ve completely ignored cultural belief systems…”

        Sorry, I don’t think I made that part clear. My point was that morality is actually very simple as an intellectual concept and as practical behaviour enacted in the real world….. but only if it has not been subverted, which unfortunately is rarely the case.

        Once morality is subverted (typically by a ruling class or, on a smaller scale by parents) everything becomes a lot more complicated. So a parent or a teacher or a government establishes some universal moral rules and these are generally accepted by the population or by the children in a family. Then the people who have established those moral rules, and who enforce them, then claim exemption from those same moral rules. Thus stealing is immoral behaviour for the population but the government must steal half of everyone’s earnings. Or hitting is immoral behaviour for the children, but the parents must spank their children.

        At this stage we are faced with two options (1) we call out the BS and blatant hypocrisy inherent in the whole scheme for what it is and refuse to go along with it or (2) we accept the contradiction (often under duress) and try to sweep the contradiction under the rug by inventing the concept of ‘culture’ and ‘cultural practices/ beliefs’.

        Thus cultural beliefs are what happens when we submit to absurd and irrational schemes, often out of fear of standing up to tyrannical rulers (or parents). Over time they solidify into complex ‘cultural belief systems’ which are really just the collective scar tissue of a population’s shattered rationality, twisted thought processes and broken wills which are passed on from one generation to the next.

        Irrationality + force + momentum = culture

        (of course I’m not talking about neutral culture such as local cuisine or fishing boat designs)

        The saying “You cannot be reasoned out of beliefs that you were never reasoned into to begin with” is appropriate here. Culture is that which we generally accept (I hesitate to use the word ‘learn’ which implies knowledge and truth) as children, often before we have had time to develop our capacity for critical thought. This is how culture is able to be transferred from one generation to the next. Culture is precisely that which CANNOT be taught using reason and evidence, and therefore it MUST be taught simply as fact, usually to a young and impressional mind. Trying to teach cultural beliefs to an adult who has been raised in a rational environment will almost certainly result in rejection of those cultural beliefs. Culture also tends to be taught BY FORCE, with the threat of social ostracism, or a beating, or even death if the recipient (who may be only a small child) does not accept the cultural beliefs being taught. And finally culture is taught by simply overwhelming the recipient in that culture so that s/he knows no other world view.

        And so my point is that it is a futile exercise to try make sense of cultural beliefs, including those associated with morality, using reason and evidence.

        The history of morality is not really the history of morality at all, but rather the history of the never ending subversion, perversion and exploitation of morality. To not understand this is like trying to make sense of the movement of African people to the Americas without referencing or properly understanding slavery.

        “… I don’t share your disdain for governments..”

        I have no disdain for governments. I object (both morally and practically) to THEFT and the INITIATION OF FORCE (coercion, assault, kidnapping, torture, murder etc). Do you also object to these things?

        If ‘John’ steals or initiates force against somebody I object to his immoral behaviour. Whether John works in a factory or a shoe shop or a department of government does not make any difference to me. Why should it? His behaviour is still immoral, is it not?

        Do you object to immoral behaviour or not? If you do then what is it about working in or for a government that makes someone magically exempt from basic moral rules which apply to everyone else?

        I cannot have disdain for government because a ‘government’ is a cultural invention. In reality there is no government, there are only PEOPLE. Some people behave morally and some people behave immorally. A government is a cultural belief system invented to mask the irrationality of believing some people can magically violate moral rules in society and not be held accountable for their immoral behaviour, or even not be considered to have done anything immoral at all!

        If you put 1000 people on a deserted island and after a week some people had their property stolen, nobody on that island would dream of trying to solve the problem by selecting 10 people and granting them the legal and moral right to steal from everybody else. Everyone would realise that is the very opposite of a rational solution.

        But if 10 people used violence to subjugate the rest and installed themselves as tyrants on the island they could declare their right to steal was somehow necessary and morally justified. Nobody would believe them, but if they accepted this declaration publicly out of fear for their lives then within a few generations a ‘government’ could be born. Which is to say an irrational set of beliefs have been accepted, and over time they have turned into ‘cultural beliefs’ taught to children who just accept them. Accepting those cultural beliefs will have two distinct negative consequences for all future generations on that island (1) they will keep having their property stolen by the government (2) they will struggle to grasp concepts related to morality and property, because their entire society is now founded upon a fundamental contradiction with respect to the subject of property rights and moral rules.

        In other words their island will have become like every other nation on earth.

        “….Your hopes for a government-free world sound like another version of what I call ‘kindergarten libertarianism’…”

        I was not talking about a ‘government-free world’. I was talking about the consistent and universal application of basic moral rules such as “It’s immoral to steal” and “It’s immoral to initiate force”. These are rules that we teach to children in kindergarden. They are ‘no brainers’.

        Those two moral rules from the basis of our day-to-day society. Try stealing or assaulting or coercing or kidnapping from any member of the public and you will find out that nobody accepts that kind of behaviour.

        The only group in society who still claim the legal right to violate those basic moral rules are the group of people who call themselves ‘government’.

        Do you accept except that if we (the general population) extended those two basic moral rules just a little but further so that they applied to 100% of the population, rather than just 99% we would end up with a more moral society and a more functional society too?

        Or to put it another way, if a civilised society requires us to regard theft, assault, coercion, murder, kidnapping, torture and fraud as fundamentally immoral and therefore socially unacceptable ways to behave, what possible justification could there be for allowing one small group in society have an exemption from those moral rules?

        The answer I would suggest is that their is no rational justification. If you accept those moral rules as valid then, by definition, you must morally object to anybody who violates them.

        And conversely, if you accept the behaviour of the people in government as legitimate then you cannot, logically, claim to accept those moral rules as valid.

        A third option is to maintain ourselves in a state of cognitive dissonance, or ‘double think’ for the entirety of our lives. And how do stick two totally contradictory positions together?

        We use the magic glue that is ‘cultural belief systems’. That is what cultural beliefs are FOR. They enable us to achieve a permanent state of irrational double think, through the invention of culturally loaded words such as ‘government’. If you take away the word ‘government’ you are forced to refer instead to a bunch of people violating basic moral rules….. and when you do that the contradiction is exposed and rationality is able to operate once more, as if a five thousand year spell has been broken (which is actually not far from the truth).

        “….I’m an optimist – the world is actually becoming less violent, in spite of some perceptions – but I’m no utopian….”

        I agree. But the world is only becoming less violent in ordinary society (ie in areas where government does not dominate). This is a natural consequence of ordinary society gradually extending universal moral rules to cover more and more people, thus bestowing full personhood onto different groups who were previously considered less than people…… women, blacks, native Americans, gays and so on. We are even finally stating o recognise that children can be considered people too! And that it is wrong to hit them, just as it’s wrong to hit an adult.

        We do not stop persecuting various groups and then start extending moral rules to cover them. We extend the moral rules FIRST and then as we start to accept women or black or gays are equals the violence and persecution ends (and those who persist are dealt with by society).

        And so now, in the 21st century, the only group left in society who still claim the legal and moral right to steal and initiate force against others is the group calling themselves ‘government’. This makes total sense. The last group to be granted full personhood is the weakest (children). And the last group to claim exemption from universal moral rules is the most well armed (government).

        As for ‘utopian’ I would suggest that giving one group in society a monopoly on the legal right to steal, coerce kidnap, assault and murder and then expecting them to somehow put your interest above their own (or their friends) is possibly the most utopian delusion ever conceived. It is the exact opposite of how we behave in our daily lives. We demand contracts for every transaction and never put people in positions of power over us (such as asking random strangers to park our cars for us or look after our wallets while we go swimming).

        If it was not for the double think glue of ‘culture’ we would never hold such contradictory opinions about the fallibility of people in the street vs the infallibility of people in government. People who seek positions of power are the very last people you want to be in positions of power.

        But that is a practical argument. Governments are inherently immoral institutions regardless, as they are founded on theft and the initiation of force which are universally accepted as immoral ways to behave.

        Spinning For Difficulty

        January 4, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    • Thank you but I completely disagree with most of what you’ve written, or rather your thinking is so unlike my own as to be nonsensical to me. Just to limit myself to your first para, if you think that morality is simple, whether intellectually or in practical terms, you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. Morality has had a long, complicated growth, as long and complicated as our growth and development as social mammals subject to various power relations, including those based on parentage, seniority, brute strength and sub-group dynamics, amongst many other forces. Morality, as such, is present in more or less rudimentary form in rats, birds, elephants, wolves and whales. It’s not some simple, pristine thing that can be/has been subverted, rather it develops within a world of subversion and struggles for power and control, over oneself and others in an endlessly dynamic and dangerous world.

      Having said that – I’ll now be a little more generous, having read your response more carefully! – I agree with you that, with the growth of a more universally agreed morality, extending in recent times to ‘savages’, women, gays and children, we are at last turning to heads of states and seeking – with limited success so far – to strip them of their immunity. Geoffrey Robertson’s book “Crimes Against Humanity” traces the chequered recent history of this justice movement. However, I’m not sure that ‘rationality’, a term I’m a bit uncomfortable with, will win out in the end. Cultural tribalism is everywhere, and is far from having exhausted its power.

      As to your remarks about government, though you make some good points, it would seem to me that the history of government ‘stealing’ led, probably, to the first cities and civilizations, based, no doubt, on slaves, or semi-slaves and press-ganged armies as well as taxation, but producing the first major public works, from sewers to sports arenas. I’m wondering how you think our increasingly technocratic societies will survive without governments?


      January 4, 2014 at 5:51 pm

  2. Should it not be the goal of all philosophical inquiry to step out of personal cultural bias and reexamine the world from a purely rational perspective? True, it is not really possible because we are all so heavily laden with preconceived baggage that we can hardly get completely rid of it, but we should still try, shouldn’t we?

    The Socratic warning that “the unexamined life is not worth living” means continuously and restlessly asking new questions to escape from lazily held majority opinions and one’s own hasty conclusions. Although a full escape is not possible, we must desperately try for the value of our lives.

    Yes, that actually means dismissing culture altogether in the search for morality. For what is culture other than practices based on habit rather than reason. It is far more valuable to search for the truth than to preserve some antiquated cultural belief.

    But does culture have no intrinsic value at all? Oh, it does, just as any human achievement carries value. If the work of one single human being is given a value, then entire cultures must be much more appreciated. A culture is the accumulation of millennia of human habits and thoughts, and just like an ancient wonder it deserves our awe.

    To a certain extent it is therefore reasonable to submit to the demands of our culture. When we find ourselves on morally neutral ground, the courteous thing to do is to follow the cultural rules. When our conduct is not potentially hurtful to others or to ourselves, the moral rules remain silent, and the rules of the community become the highest authority – but only then. If a cultural rule is somehow inflicting pain, a rational person should pause to ask if it deserves his approval.

    But this rationalist approach also includes a great deal of respect and understanding of cultural differences. The difficult game of transporting oneself into an imaginary area of cultural neutrality can also be paralleled by a rational journey into a culture different from one’s own. One may ask: Given certain cultural premises, would it not be reasonable to conclude such and such, and then reach the conclusion that what at first sight seemed to be a senseless cultural practice is in fact quite rational.

    It seems to me that some of the most serious cultural conflicts between the Western and the Muslim world in recent years stem from this very disability to transport oneself into the valid thinking of the other side. Moreover, the questions of dispute have not really been morally significant at all. The debate in the West has not been about issues such as female circumcision, but rather morally irrelevant issues like the wearing of headscarves or drawing pictures of Muhammad.

    Any attempt at understanding culture must somehow involve an experimental removal from one’s own culture.


    January 5, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    • Thanks for your comments. I don’t see much here that I disagree with. We can’t quite dismiss culture because, for a start that would mean dismissing people, the carriers of culture. It’s a dilemma, and I’m often fascinated by anthropologists who defend the belief systems and religions of cultures they study – often to the point of forming close ties with their ‘subjects’ and gaining honorary membership of the group – against the critiques of rationalists. They’re never prepared to go the whole hog and abandon their western values for those of the people they study, but they’re genuinely torn between their sense of empathy (and a more or less rational understanding of how this smaller-scale culture has emerged) and the much broader scope and far greater dynamism of western culture.
      One way of looking at culture in a more emotionally neutral way is to consider one vital but less controversial aspect of culture – language. I make my living teaching English to non-English speakers and I’m very aware that English is the number one international language, and its status as such is growing rapidly, while small, local languages are disappearing at a regular rate. Is this a positive or negative thing? Can we encourage the growth of English while at the same time fighting to preserve other languages? That’s surely doubtful. And of course this brings up issues of cultural dominance and cultural monism. Gains and losses…


      January 6, 2014 at 10:39 am

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