Monday, December 5, 2011

On cultural relativism

Here's a good example of what you might derogatorily call cultural relativism. Coming from Biblical scholars, no less.

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.
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.
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.

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.

(via Evolutionblog)


Cheekyvimto08 said...

I was kind of with you until you said 'incentive to do better'. If you praise them according to method one, why would they think they needed to change their ways even if they were alive? Your praise surely implies they are behaving in a moral way.

miller said...

Incentives are caused by a differential in rewards. If they have no reasonable possibility of earning praise, they have no incentives. If they do have a reasonable possibility of praise, then they have incentive to behave in the upper range of what is allowed in their society. If everyone in the society has these incentives, it could cause society-wide change. And then, of course, you would adjust your standards for praise accordingly.

Of course, this makes many questionable assumptions about human behavior. But I hope it's enough of an argument that I'm not attacking a complete strawman. If you can think of a less strawy argument, let us know.

Cheekyvimto08 said...

Hmm. As a working plan it makes the assumption that the society will evolve towards your position.

Relativism is a funny one. It strikes me as odd how in practice relativism is used to try to give respect to religion, which is absolutist in nature.

What else I find strange is this notion of suspending judgement. What is that supposed to accomplish? I suppose I'm the one making straw men because you seem to disagree with relativism.

Isaac said...

This post reminds me the following Spanish proverb, "lo dijo Mahoma: tan maricón es el que da como el que toma," [said Muhammad: as fag is who gives as who receives.] I think that the attribution to Muhammad is due to the rhyme, but it could be true, coming this equality of the partners in sodomy together with the monotheism.