It’s Not All Relative

During my time as a professor of philosophy I taught a great many ethics courses, including business ethics — which was actually one of my favorite courses: there are so many real-live  incidents in business to discuss from an ethical perspective. But during all those years I continued to run up against a stone wall that appeared in the form of a mindless relativism. “It’s all a matter of opinion.” Or, “It’s all relative.” Or, “we really shouldn’t be judgmental.” I came to understand that these sorts of responses were just a dodge to allow the students to avoid thinking about problems that are complex, do not allow of quantification, and which require a modicum of objectivity. But I hit my head against that stone wall for years and it gave me many a headache.

Thus, while I have blogged about this before, an article in the news jumped out at me today that simply demands comment. It was a Yahoo News story about a terrible incident in a far-off New Guinea:

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — On a tropical island in Papua New Guinea where most people live in huts, a mob armed with guns, machetes and axes stormed a wooden house by night. They seized Helen Rumbali and three female relatives, set the building on fire and took the women away to be tortured. Their alleged crime: Witchcraft.

After being repeatedly slashed with knives, Rumbali’s older sister and two teenage nieces were released following negotiations with police. Rumbali, a 40-something former schoolteacher, was beheaded.

The standard response to such a story in one of my classes, should I have brought it up, would be something like this: who are we to judge whether that is wrong? It’s not our country and we don’t know enough of the details of what really went on. In its shortened form it is the cliché “who’s to say? We haven’t walked a mile in their shoes.” It’s called “cultural relativism.”

The objections ring true, of course, but they are irrelevant. We haven’t walked a mile in their shoes — or even two yards. But we know enough from the article to make an informed judgment — subject to further correction if later information alters the ethical perspective. But at this point we can say with some assurance that even in a country on the other side of the earth, men coming into a home at night and taking four women suspected of witchcraft to be tortured and/or killed is simply wrong. That is to say, even though we have not walked in those shoes, the people who do walk in them are engaged in actions that cannot possibly be justified in a neutral court of rational appeal. And that is the test for all ethical claims: the neutral court of rational appeal. It is something like a jury, except that it has no formal status. But thinking persons anywhere read and assimilate the information provided and attempt to see both sides of complex issues and then render a judgment. Failure to do so would be morally irresponsible: indifference disguised as tolerance.

As I have said before moral condemnation does not necessarily result in an invasion of another country — as though they were hiding weapons of mass destruction, for example. But it simply means that when we read such a story we are appalled, thank our lucky starts we don’t live in such a country and that we have become enlightened enough to recognize that “witchcraft” is hardly grounds for decapitation and torture — or anything much other than bemused indifference. But when concern over witchcraft leads to acts of violence and murder then it is simply wrong, wherever it may occur. When something is wrong, it is wrong whether it happens next door or on the other side of the world. All that is required is careful judgment, imagination, and a lively sensibility. This does not imply our cultural superiority, it simply implies that we have thought about the actions of those men and condemned them — just as we would if they had happened next door.


9 thoughts on “It’s Not All Relative

  1. There are no human values left these days, it seems. Only corporate values of relativity. The lesser of two evils, is still evil, and that age old one, two wrongs, don’t make a right.

  2. I disagree Brother Hugh only with your characterization of this incident as “complex…” for complex it often is not…it is like many issues cast in the cloke of the complex, simple, often very simple…

    Change very few of the particulars and you could be describing the actions of our country (Manefest Destiny? No wonder the Native American failed to grasp the compasion of the white man’s God!) and several Presidents of the United States (too many to list, but see Millard Fillmore’s energized embrace of the Fugitive Slave Act, an act of Congress so vile it is difficult 150 years later to read about!) to uniformed soldiers of the US at My Lai, or the cowardly nocturnal acts of more than a half million members of the 1st KKK following the Civil War, or their 100 years of evil progeny down through the Civil Right’s movement of the King Years (try reading PARTING THE WATERS without weeping;) the fire hoses and dogs of Bull Conner, or Mussolini’s Brown Shirts, or Hitler’s SS Corp…the ongoing and contemporary hate crimes against against gays and lesbians, or…

    All these (well most) “movements” explained away or supported in sympathy by those who would shrug at any discussion of means and ends.

    Where Brother Hugh, did you ever find enough material to properly support a course in ethics?

  3. I would have loved taking your ethics class and debating these relativists. Are there really so many of them that have this view? As you pointed out, condemning these actions does not mean we should invade and bring “morality” to the people. Those students show intellectual laziness and disturbing apathy. I don’t think I would have the patience and restraint to be a teacher.

    • I would say the majority were, as you say, “intellectually lazy and apathetic.” It was clear from their unguarded statements that there were things that disturbed them and they were just as “judgmental” as the rest of us. The problem is their judgment tended to be mindless and unsystematic. That was the challenge.


  4. Hugh, I mentioned the book I am having a hard time completing called “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It speaks of the atrocities inflicted on women around the world – the above would be something that could be included on the list. The title is from a Chinese proverb, that women hold up half the sky. So, the book’s premise is we as a civilized culture must help show that it is not right, morally, ethically or even economically to treat half of the world’s population so poorly. To do otherwise is a shame. So, we must do what we can, where we can. This is one reason why I want Hillary Clinton to run and win. She will be a symbol to many. Great, thought provoking post. BTG

      • I respect and admire Elizabeth Warren. Maybe Hillary can have an all female ticket. Warren would aid her campaign and it would give Warren more exposure. The GOP senators ragged on Warren, but she is top drawer and they should have picked on someone else as the agency she helped create fined a lot of financial services companies for fraudulent and aggressive marketing tactics.

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