In a chapter of The Bible Now, Friedman and Dolansky argue that the Bible's seeming unambiguous condemnations of homosexuality can be ignored, even if you accept the Bible's moral authority. According to a review by Adam Kirsch, this is one of the arguments they make:
Turning from ancient Israel to Assyria, Egypt, and Greece, Friedman and Dolansky observe that these other Near Eastern societies generally had nothing against homosexual acts as such. They reserved their odium for the passive partner in anal sex, the man who was penetrated.It's not altogether clear to me that killing both men is better than killing just one of them, but let's put that aside. I wish to discuss the question of whether the surrounding culture can make the authors of Leviticus more morally praiseworthy.
Why, then, does Leviticus, uniquely among ancient Near Eastern law codes, prescribe death for both partners in homosexual acts? Friedman and Dolansky argue, quoting another Bible scholar, that it is because Leviticus “emphasizes the equality of all. It does not have the class distinctions that are in the other cultures’ laws.”
This is a remarkable performance. Before you know it, a law that unambiguously prescribes death for gay men has been turned into an example of latent egalitarianism.
As I understand it, cultural relativism is not so much a distinct philosophy, as a term that you use to denigrate philosophies you don't like. But of course, we all know the stereotype of cultural relativism. "Cultures all have different moral guidelines, and we should judge people from the perspective of the culture they come from." Well, what if this culture thinks it is morally correct to apply its own moral guidelines to other cultures, huh?
However, I think there is a grain of wisdom in even the strawiest of cultural relativist strawmen. Allow me illustrate it with faux mathematical graphs.
Suppose that there are a variety of actions we can make, and some are morally preferred to others. Let's invent a number "x" which says how strongly a particular action is preferred. A higher value of x corresponds to a greater moral good.
But even though we may prefer x=3 to x=2 to x=1 to x=0, it is hard to express different gradations of moral approval. For the most part, we either express praise, or condemnation, or indifference. So when express judgement, we have to translate this potentially continuous variable x to a discrete value. Here are a few ways to do the translation, though there are many more:
I was too lazy to bust out Mathematica for this one
But depending on what culture a person is from, they may have a different range of actions available to them. Either people from that culture believe that a certain range of actions is "reasonable", or the culture punishes people who go outside that range. For example, the authors of the Leviticus could have chosen to express more or less condemnation of homosexuality, but it would be extremely unlikely for them to express anything approaching an enlightened view.
In other words, the authors of Leviticus had various values of x available to them, but all of these available values are very low in my view.
If I were to express praise and condemnation according to method 2, this wouldn't be very effective. No matter what action the ancient people take, I condemn them, so they have no incentive to do better. But if I express praise and condemnation according to method 1, praise is within reach for them! Perhaps this will cause them to change their actions.
And that's why we may want to look at the surrounding culture before issuing judgments about the people in it.
But there's a problem here. The authors of Leviticus aren't listening to my moral praise. They're dead! The only people listening to my moral judgments are people in my culture. Therefore, I'm sticking to method 2. That means universal condemnation of the authors of Leviticus and their surrounding culture.