Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Moral relativism and moral arbitrariness

We all know that different cultures value different things, and that they often have very different takes on what is right and what is wrong. Sometimes, what we take from that is that, gosh, because there are so many different takes there must not be anything that's right and wrong....and in fact, we should just sort of give up on trying to sort it out. It's all relative, right?

Well, the thing is that in every one of those systems of thought you have people who have devoted their lives to sorting out what's right and what's wrong on a very thorough level. You have folks in India who have spent their lives looking at questions of this nature coming up with different answers than folks in China who have done the same thing, coming up with different answers from people from the Islamic world who have been doing the same thing. I'm certain the parallel could be extended to African societies and to societies in Asia and Polynesia, and elsewhere, where there's more of an oral tradition as opposed to one that's recorded in books. Even though culture is relative, culture is also, then, deep.

If you look at things and just say "Well, it's all relative", what you miss is the depth of the engagement with the human experience that's encoded in that culture. What we call "culture" is really just the aggregation of attitudes and values that are both new and old. There's culture that's just a fad and culture that's deeper. Both types of culture contain notions of what the individual is like, what the proper way for the individual to relate to society as a whole is, what the proper way for society as a whole to be like is, and what the acceptable ways for all of them to relate to each other are. Looking at in reference to history, where culture builds on itself, you have an encyclopedia of the human experience, one which people in trying to come up with moral codes, or ideas about morality, have engaged fully. If you yourself don't go in for that, and instead stay on the outside of things just declaring that it's all relative, you cheat yourself out of this engagement with life.

None of this is to say that culture itself may not be derivative from economics, influenced by historical accidents, or by other sorts of environmental influences, but, despite this variability, it's the best thing that we have, and any substitute that compensates for influences which really are variable that we think our static will similarly have to engage life on a comprehensive basis. If it doesn't, it will just clear away what, though variable, is a good attempt given the context, without putting anything comparable in its place. 

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