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.