Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cultural Moral Relativism and the Chinese Hit-and-Run Story

Sullivan links to this at

So here's the deal--more or less:
It is rare for someone to unequivocally espouse cultural moral relativism. In fact, there probably isn't even a clearly-defined view to espouse. Shamelessly shoving all the interesting details to the side, however, cultural moral relativism is--if it is anything at all--roughly the view that acts become morally right in virtue of being traditional (that is, roughly: having been performed repeatedly), or in virtue of being widely or traditionally accepted. It is the view that specifically and narrowly cultural facts like tradition and acceptance constitute or subvene moral rightness.This view is insane, and no one who reflects on it can think it is plausible.

So...does GetReligion advocate such a view? No...  Again, almost no one does. But relativism survives on unclarity and equivocal support. geoconger at GetReligion marshals facts about China's Confucian heritage in response to shock at the hit-and-run case. The relevant dialog would go something like this:

A: Holy crap, I can't believe people just killed that girl/let her die!

B: Well, you've got to understand that Confucianism doesn't endorse Good Samaritanism.


No one in this dialog is advocating CMR...but B is not exactly not endorsing it, either. That is to say, B's response is consistent with CMR, but does not entail it. One might make a B-ish response if one were a cultural moral relativist and thought that the fact that x is traditional magically makes it right. Or one might make a B-ish response if one had a non-crazy moral view, but was offering a kind of excuse for the reprehensible actions of the people in question. The fact that x is traditional cannot make x right...but it can act as an (at least partial) excuse for people who do x. Culture is a powerful thing. Contrary to much current thinking, it is not magic. It can't, for example, make acts morally right. But it can blind people to even very obvious facts. Like the fact that one ought to render aid to the innocent when feasible. This part of our Christian heritage is not specifically Christian. Christian's didn't make it up, they just directed our attention to it. And--unless we're missing something here--if you don't recognize such a duty, you're making an error.

In fact, there's a much better defense of the actions of the bystanders (if not the killers) based on perfectly objective appeals. According to these folks, helping someone in China opens you up to the threat of prosecution. I've been seeing several appeals to a story about a guy who found an elderly woman lying in the street and helped her up. She sued him, falsely claiming that he had pushed her down, and the court sided with her, allegedly asking "why would he help her up if he had not pushed her down?" Now, arguments that one should render aid anyway to the side...this explanation makes perfect sense and has no hint of relativism. The duty to render aid is of a merely prima facie type--given a sufficiently high probability of me drowning, I can be relieved of my obligation to try to save you from drowning. As you raise the cost to the potential Good Samaritan, you weaken his responsibility to render aid.

At any rate, what interests me most about this is that it's such a representative case with respect to CMR. Nobody comes right out and says that it's wrong to render aid in China, and wrong because their culture (allegedly) accepts that it is. Everything that is said can be cashed out in much more sensible terms; culture can excuse, in the same way that ignorance can excuse. But I have little doubt that many will read the post as another instance of knee-jerk CMR.

Again, the single most important fact about CMR is that it is a view that survives on unclarity.

(Note also that an actual Chinese person here does not try to make any even vaguely CMR-ish appeal, but, rather, just looks for explanations of what she clearly sees and identifies as widespread moral error in China.)


Blogger Aaron Boyden said...

David Lewis has a couple of papers ("Mill or Milquetoast" and "Academic Appointments"; both are in his Papers in Ethics and Social Philosophy) arguing a consequentialist basis for tolerance. The brutally oversimplified version is that given the massive risks and costs of conflict, the potential gain from eliminating wrongness if it is suppressed wherever it arises is not enough to be worth it. Since it's difficult to think strategically all the time, we convince ourselves that people holding wrong views is all right in order to ensure that we maintain our commitment to the necessary tolerance.

Though Lewis specifically addresses only tolerance of wrong beliefs, I wonder if it might not generalize to tolerance of at least some kinds of wrong behavior as well. If so, that might account for our attitude toward other cultures; if an entire culture engages in a practice that is morally wrong, then the sort of conflict that would result from trying to change that would be very destructive indeed, so unless the wrong is very severe, it wouldn't be worth it to get in a fight over that issue. Perhaps we convince ourselves that it isn't really wrong when another culture does it in order to ensure that we consistently follow the (highly advisable) strategy of not treating it as something we should be willing to fight over.

7:24 AM  
Anonymous Spencer said...

Just a terminological question. Is there a standardly accepted term to describe moral relativism which says that moral goodness subvenes on individual opinions?

That seems to be as common a view as cultural moral relativism. I used to refer to that as "ethical subjectivism", but that appears to be a totally different metaethical position.

12:42 PM  

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