Cultural relativism

Samurai standing on stairway in night forest with the red moon on background,illustration painting

Note: This is a 3-part series of the essay Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and Moral Relativism.

Part III: Cultural Relativism

 

Many people come to affirm moral relativism because there is so much moral disagreement, both within a culture and across cultures. These people think that the fact that there is no agreement is a sign that there is nothing to agree about, no objective truth that cuts across cultures.

 

This disagreement isn’t recent either.  Certainly the Jews and the Romans profoundly disagreed about how to live, about what was OK to do and say and what wasn’t.  The ancient historian Herodotus, who was writing in mid fifth century BC, relates the following anecdote of the King of Persia:

 

He summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians…who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing (Herodotus 440BCE; trans. Sélincourt, 1988, pp. 219- 20).

 

Insofar as we take Herodotus to be putting forth a view here, it would be what we now call cultural relativism.  This is a species of moral relativism insofar as it says that morality is relative to cultures, and it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally true for the people who are born into it.  So, what is morally true for an aboriginal tribe in what is now called Australia is true for them but not true for we Americans, and vice versa.

 

Cultural relativism is a species of moral relativism.  A cultural relativist believes that morality is relative to cultures, and that it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally acceptable and mandatory for the people who are brought up under them and for no one else.

 

A version of cultural relativism was put forward in 1947 by the American Anthropological Association, in response to the UN Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man.  The AAA was against such a universal declaration on explicitly relativist grounds.  They argued that moral belief and practice is entirely determined by culture and that there is no way to legitimately demonstrate that the values or customs of one culture are superior to any other.  They further chastised western political institutions for imposing their own culturally situated ideology of “universal rights” upon other nations.  In their statement on human rights, the anthropologists asked:

 

How can the proposed declaration be applicable to all human beings, and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America?[i]

 

Their worry was that the declaration of universal human rights was just colonialism masquerading as liberation.  Unmask this, and all we are left with is the ideology of the “white man’s burden” all over again.   So, instead of declaring a regime of universal rights that all cultures had to respect, the anthropologists argued for “respect for differences between cultures” which is “validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered.” (1947, 542)  The anthropologists also claimed explicitly that:

 

Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any declaration of human rights to mankind as a whole. (Ibid)

 

The first thing to say about this fascinating document is that its appeal to science does no argumentative work.  For just as there is no “scientific” method to “qualitatively evaluate” moral beliefs, there is also no “scientific” method to determine that qualitative measures are the only legitimate standards of knowledge.  To say that science hasn’t yielded an adequate moral theory is just to state the obvious and pretend that something substantive follows from it.  But we cannot infer from the fact that science doesn’t yield moral knowledge the conclusion that there can in principle be no moral knowledge, as moral knowledge may simply not be scientific in character.

 

Setting debates about what moral knowledge is aside, notice that here we have the familiar refrain to “respect diversity” rather than interfere and impose, because moral standards are relative to cultures, and that failure to recognize this belies a crude parochialism.  This position doesn’t have to assume, by the way, that other cultures have to respect diversity as well, so it needn’t be self-defeating in the ways we have previously discussed. [There is a complication here, however, about a so-called “right of men to live in terms of their own traditions” casually asserted in the document, but let’s be charitable and pretend it isn’t there]. The statement just says that within our western culture we should respect diversity and be tolerant of cultures dramatically different from our own.  This may mean, by the way, that women continue to be treated as inferiors to men and denied political rights, education, and any semblance of control over what happens to their bodies, that homosexuals may be executed, that honor killings may continue, or any other number of things that look like moral atrocities from our contemporary western point of view.  The consistent cultural relativist will, on these matters, have to live and let live.

 

We can further complicate this issue.  In her wonderful essay, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Mary Midgley describes the following custom of Samurai warriors in Medieval Japan:

 

There is, it seems, a verb in classical Japanese which means ‘to try out one’s new sword on a chance wayfarer.’  (The word is tsujigiri, literally ‘crossroads-cut’).  A Samurai sword had to be tried out because, if it was to work properly, it had to slice through someone at a single blow, from the shoulder to the opposite flank.  Otherwise, the warrior bungled his stroke.  This could injure his honor, offend his ancestors, and even let down his emperor.  So tests were needed, and wayfarers had to be expended.  Any wayfarer would do.”[ii]

What interests me so much about this example is that it brings up yet another iteration of cultural relativism, what Bernard Williams has called “the relativism of distance.”[iii] Williams is deeply skeptical that one can judge any culture when there is significant historical distance between the judger and the time period judged. Williams thinks that moral beliefs are radically contingent, such that it would be a mistake to assume the authority to judge those who came before us. According to Williams, judging the past is basically an empty, self-congratulatory exercise; it is patting oneself on the back for having the good fortune to be born in more enlightened times.  More specifically, Williams argues that appraisal of the past does not satisfy two conditions for genuine moral judgment: (1) shared interests and projects in common, and (2) a practical question of what to do.

 

What can we say to Williams or to our benighted anthropologists?  Is it true that we should refrain from judging cultures?  This is a difficult question, to be sure, because we should be wary of the dangers inherent to judging others—they are real.   But one thing seems certain to me, and that is that adopting cultural relativism doesn’t solve the problem of our relationship to the past and to other cultures, but arguably just makes that relationship more strained and insincere.

 

For one thing, as Mary Midgley herself pointed out, if we adopt relativism in either sense, it makes learning from other cultures and time periods very difficult (if not impossible).  For if we cannot censure another culture we also cannot praise it (for that too, would be to make a moral judgment about it, which I have blocked myself from doing). In order to enter into genuine dialogue and exchange with another culture or time period, we have to be able to identify what we find good and what we find bad in it—otherwise we are entirely closed off to it.  If we cannot enter into this conversation, which depends on moral judgment, then we have no hope of converging on a shared worldview and we have no hope of genuine cultural exchange.  A dialogue can only take place from where we are, a place of real commitments to specific values. Insofar as relativism asks us to give up our commitments, it asks us to be isolated and closed off from other cultures and time periods.  It encourages us to see the other culture as radically other, thus blocking any genuine attempts to seek common ground and a common identity.  This tends to drain the value out of historical and cross-cultural engagement, which can have dangerous political implications.

 

I want now finally to return to our opening remarks about the dictatorship of relativism.  I want to suggest that there is something totalitarian about relativism after all.

 

When all truth is relative, which really means when there is no intelligible notion of truth at all, the rational discourse that is a necessary condition for a viable democracy becomes impossible. As rational animals, we cannot escape the fact that we have to form beliefs and make choices that are informed by them, and we cannot escape the fact that some of these beliefs are going to inform our most basic social institutions.  Some values of necessity must prevail over others. If we refuse to acknowledge any objective measures of truth that are publicly accessible and in principle available to anyone, then all we have left to determine which beliefs and values determine social life is individual or collective will to power (whether this be the will of the oppressor class to maintain its status, or the will of the oppressed classes to gain power, is of no matter).  In such social conditions, the clever and ruthless will prevail, and in absence of the power to persuade people to follow them, they will have to resort to violence to ensure that their private vision prevails over its competitors.

 

So freedom and equality really do depend on truth, they really do depend on some publicly accessible measure to which those in power can be held to account. And so we were wrong to think that relativism is a friend to democracy and equality. Quite the contrary, it is its enemy. For truth helps us to transcend ourselves; without truth, we inevitably collapse into ourselves, into our own private needs and desires.  In that condition, we will either dominate or be dominated; either way, we will not be truly free.

 

[i] “Statement on Human Rights” American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 4, part 1 (Oct-Dec, 1947), pp. 539-543.

[ii] Mary Midgley, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Heart and Mind, St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

[iii] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Routledge, 2011.

Partial relativism and skepticism

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Note: This is a 3-part series of the essay Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and Moral Relativism. Part I was “Why worry about moral relativism?”

Part II: Partial relativism and skepticism

People may think that what they read in their chemistry, physics, and biology textbooks are objectively true, or at least, that there is some reality that could determine whether the claims in these books are true or false, but that there is no objective truth to be found in a book on ethics, politics, or aesthetics.  That is, one could think there are truth makers relative to some domains and no truth makers relative to another; in the latter sort of domain, all perspectives are equally valid because there is nothing that could serve as a measure to adjudicate between rival truth claims.  Such a view would not be self-refuting.  But that doesn’t mean that the view is any good (self-refutation is a pretty low bar for theorizing). I will limit myself to discussions of moral and cultural relativism.

 

Before I talk about what moral relativism is, let me stave off confusion by saying what it isn’t.  It isn’t moral skepticism.  The moral skeptic doubts our claims to possess moral knowledge. But this is not the denial of objective truth; rather, it is a denial that we have reliable access to that truth.

 

Alternatively, a skeptic may deny that moral claims function like regular beliefs at all.  On this view, moral claims are just statements about one’s own personal preferences, such that moral disagreement is an illusion.  Disagreement is an illusion because statements of preference are not truth-apt—they are not susceptible of being true or false.  If I say I like ice cream, and you say ice cream is gross, we are not disagreeing about anything objective.  We are saying something about ourselves—viz., that you and I have different reactions to eating ice cream; I have a pleasure response, and you don’t.  Similarly, if I say I don’t like murder and you say you do, we aren’t disagreeing about objective facts about what it is ‘to kill the innocent’ but merely stating our own responses to it when it happens.

 

There are other forms of skepticism, but skepticism is not our topic. The moral relativist thinks there are no objective truths that could settle moral claims, but that moral claims do assert private or personal truths. Consider a moral disagreement like this: Lucy thinks that rape is impermissible is true, whereas Linus thinks that rape is permissible is true.  Both claims can be equally true according to the relativist—true from each person’s first personal perspective.  But neither claim is objectively true, and so neither claim demands our allegiance.

 

One thing that is weird about this point of view is that it can in principle have no practical upshot, because as soon as one tries to make moral relativism practical one is caught in a performative contradiction.  For example, suppose you are at a frat party and you see Jack trying to rape Jane, who is only semi-conscious.  Suppose you believe that rape is wrong—really, terribly wrong—in which case you will want to stop him.  But you cannot stop him if you are an ethical relativist, because you will have no ground on which to do so.  As a relativist you are committed to the belief that Jack’s value judgments are true for him and equally as good as your own, and Jack plainly doesn’t think that rape is wrong.  Perhaps he thinks it expresses his will to power, or perhaps he thinks so long as he has drugged a woman and makes sure that she doesn’t get pregnant, then he isn’t really doing anything bad to her.  Let us suppose that you are a decent person, so you are horrified by what Jack is doing and thinking.  As a relativist, however, you have undermined any ground you might have otherwise had to object to his behavior.  As an ethical relativist, you cannot impose your belief, your truth, on someone else.   At best you can say that what he does is upsetting you, but of course, Jack will only stop if he cares about that.  But Jack doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that puts other’s needs before his own; I mean, think about what he is doing to Jane.  Hopefully you can see the problem.

 

All this is to say that the ethical relativist can only be a relativist in theory but not practice.  That’s pretty weird, because we typically think that our ethical beliefs are supposed to translate into action—they are supposed to be practical.  But now it looks like the only time this is possible is when my actions only concern me, because only then would I not be imposing on anyone else in trying to realize my own private vision of the good.  Good luck identifying what actions those are!  If you can find any—and I personally doubt that you can—they will certainly be few and far between.  Most of what we do either directly involves others or affects others in fairly obvious ways.

 

This point about the practicality of judgments about the good is important, so I want to dwell on it a bit longer.  I have already argued that we cannot escape making judgments and having beliefs—as creatures with an intellect, this is our plight. But we are not merely knowers, we are also actors, and so we have to deliberate from a first person perspective not only about what to believe but also about what to do.  But just as the question about what to believe is transparent to the question about what is true, so also the question about what to do is transparent to the question about what is good or desirable to do.  When we choose some action in some circumstances, we choose it because we think it is in some sense good (either that it is pleasant, that it is fitting, or that it is instrumentally useful to the attainment of some other good we are also trying to secure); alternatively, we choose some action because we think that it avoids some evil, but avoiding evil is just a way to maintain or preserve one’s good. So, just as the intellect orients us to the truth, the will orients us to the good.  For this reason Aquinas says that the will is a rational appetite, it is a capacity or tendency to pursue what the intellect judges is good to pursue.  But no one wants to choose what is merely apparently good—people want things that are really and truly good for them.  According to Aquinas’s theory of vice (where vice is the opposite of virtue, the dispositions to act well), even the vicious person is after real human goods.  For instance, the greedy man is after wealth, a real good; the greedy man’s trouble is that he wants this good inordinately, which causes him to wrong others and sacrifice higher goods, which ultimately causes him to wreck his life.

 

So, from within the first-person perspective of human experience—of deliberating, making choices, and acting—moral relativism looks like it is a denial of central and inescapable aspects of human experience.  And this is because the moral relativist holds that there is no such thing as objective goods for humans to seek in their choices.  But then choice itself starts to look pointless, if not impossible.  For if choice isn’t about getting onto real goods, why choose anything at all?  The very act of choice seems to depend on the thought that you can secure a real good for yourself—perhaps even a good life on the whole.  And again, as rational animals who must make choices, a commitment to the pursuit of real goods seems to be our plight.

 

The fact that ethical relativism is deeply impractical and untrue to human experience certainly undercuts the motivation many had to adopt it in the first place.  For if one adopted relativism because she was practically committed to advancing values like freedom, equality, and tolerance, she now finds herself in the awkward position of being unable to advocate effectively (if at all) on behalf of it, and equally unable to realize this value and maintain her relativism.  For as soon as she tells someone else to be tolerant, she is contradicting herself. If tolerance, freedom, and equality are really goods, then they are truly goods, and things that are truly good ought to be realized in our individual and collective actions; indeed, we should arrange our lives and our societies so that we can secure and maintain these goods.  Once we see that relativism undermines these possibilities, it becomes rather less appealing.

 

Tomorrow: Cultural Relativism

 


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Why worry about moral relativism?

Lost in the rain

Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and the Moral Life

Part I: Why worry about moral relativism?

The title of this essay, “Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and the Moral Life,” refers to Pontius Pilate’s question to Christ in John’s Gospel.  Of course, it is hard to say what exactly Pilate’s intentions were in raising this question—perhaps it was to absolve himself of any consequences of his actions, perhaps it expresses his skepticism that truth is all that relevant to the deeply pragmatic and compromised political decisions he has to make, including the judicial condemnation and execution of an innocent man, or perhaps it is a deep skepticism that anyone can, as Christ says, “bear witness to the truth.” But however we interpret that scene, one thing is certain: Pilate’s question is a perennial and personal one for all of us; it has not and it will never go away.  It is a question we will inescapably confront, again and again, precisely because, as rational animals—i.e., creatures with an intellect and will who make judgments, assertions, and choices—we cannot avoid seeking what is objectively true. The truth is inescapable for us because even if we try to say that there is no objective truth, we are thereby trying to say something objectively true.  This reality about us, that we seek out and must conform ourselves to the truth in every sphere of human life, is what all forms of relativism, which is the denial of objective truth, attempt to deny.

But why should we worry about relativism?  The answer is simple: because young people often think they have to be relativists.  Certainly students in my classes, especially my classes in moral theory, are often scandalized by the idea of making truth claims.  The tacit assumption they bring into my class is that making moral judgments is a bit presumptuous, illiberal, and worst of all, unkind.  Of course, the intelligibility of these objections to making moral truth claims depend upon very serious moral truth claims of their own—viz., that it is truly bad to be illiberal and unkind, that humility is truly good, that it is truly good to respect one another’s life choices, and so on. I will return to this point later on.  For now, I want us simply to notice the following interesting fact: that the principle reason to adopt moral relativism in the first place, which is the idea that there are no objective truths about what is good or bad in human life, depend upon moral beliefs that are taken to be objectively true.  This self-contradictory stance is the first sign that there is something deeply wrong with moral relativism.

But perhaps the worry is deeper.  Perhaps relativism is worse than just philosophically unserious or insufficiently reflective—perhaps it is positively bad for society and needs to be actively guarded against.  Consider the following remarks from then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his homily to mark the beginning of the conclave that would eventually elect him Pope:

“We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”[i]

Ratzinger’s remarks are a bit cryptic and certainly dark.  Obviously a dictatorship is something we don’t want to be building up unawares!  But why would Ratzinger call relativism a dictatorship?  If relativism is the idea that there is no objective truth such that all opinions are basically on a par, to many ears that sounds pretty democratic and tolerant, the exact opposite of an authoritarian dictatorship!  Moreover, in a liberal, democratic society such as ours, in which we all have an equal right to determine the future course of things, relativism may present itself as the only workable perspective—viz., the only standpoint from which one can be truly liberal and respect others.

A natural response is to say that Ratzinger is getting things backwards.   It isn’t relativism that oppresses us; rather it is the appeal to objective truth that is intrinsically illiberal—the real threat to individual liberty and personal autonomy.  Relativism simply encourages everyone to “speak their own truth,” as Oprah would say, and to live according to their own personal and authentic vision of the good life.

In this talk, I am going to suggest that a truly liberal democratic order—one that preserves true freedom and equality—depends upon mutual recognition of and respect for objective truths, most especially, objective truths about the nature of human beings and human life, and what human beings need in order to live well and flourish together.

To show this, I will first go through a variety of kinds of relativism that one might encounter these days, arguing that each version is both problematic and unappealing.  Along the way I will say a few things about what I think truth is generally, why truth is inescapable for us as rational animals, and why truth is necessary for a proper account of freedom.

  1. Varieties of Relativism
  2. Protagorean or global relativism

Not all relativisms are equal, and some are easier to dismiss than others.  Let us begin with the most vulgar sort, the kind of thing well-meaning people sometimes say but don’t really believe.  This is the sort of relativism that is often attributed to the Sophist Protagoras (a character we know about because of Plato’s discussions of him).  Of course, being called a sophist is not a compliment, so as you can imagine, Plato was not a fan. The idea, roughly, is that there is no such thing as an objective measure of truth independent of us, so there is no way to adjudicate between your own beliefs and anyone else’s.

For example:  Jane says that global temperatures are rising due to greenhouse gas emissions; Jack says that the current warming trends are part of the natural order of things, and that greenhouse gas emissions have made a negligible contribution to the current upward tick.  The relativist comes along and says that there is no truth of the matter either way, because there is no mechanism that could serve as a measure to determine which belief, Jack or Jane’s, is objectively true.

We have to be careful here, because relativism isn’t just disagreement; after all, genuine disagreement depends on the idea that there is some objective truth and thus something to disagree about. Relativism also isn’t the skeptical claim that we cannot be certain about our access to reality—that the evidence is too complicated or tricky. Relativism is the much stronger claim that each belief is equally true or equally good qua belief.  The world is as it appears to you, and the world is at it appears to me.  But this is all that there is and there can be: mere appearances.  Or, if we want to talk about reality, there is your reality and my reality, but we needn’t think these realities will converge upon a single reality independent of our own individual perspectives.

This view is famously self-refuting. Suppose that you go to study under Protagoras, and he tells you all about relativism.  Why is he telling you this?  Presumably he is trying to teach you something he believes is true.  If he did not think it was true, why would he assert it and try to get you to believe it?  It is obvious that, whether he admits it or not, Protagoras thinks that relativism is true, and not simply for him.  And he has to think this, otherwise believing in, asserting, and teaching relativism to his students are pointless and absurd exercises.  Protagoras’s theory is self-refuting, because its content is at odds with the nature and purpose of theorizing and teaching in general: putting something forward as true, as something that other right thinking people ought to believe.

To defend these claims I should say more about truth in general and how it relates to judgment, assertion, and belief.  But first, let me say something about what I (following Aquinas) think truth is.  Traditionally, philosophers have thought of truth as the way things are, so truth is related to being.  Propositions—the judgeable contents of judgments, assertions and beliefs, like ‘it is raining now in Anchorage Alaska’—are either true or false.  So, it either is the case or is not the case that ‘it is raining now in Anchorage.’  I don’t know, and so I don’t have a belief about it either way, but the way things are right now in Anchorage is going to settle whether anybody’s belief is good or bad.

Now, Aquinas thinks that truth is not simply the way things are but the way things are in relation to the intellect.[ii]  The intellect, or the capacity for knowledge and understanding, relates one to being by way of truth.  A judgment or belief is good or bad if it is true, and for it to be true is to relate the person to reality in the proper way.  For instance, to know that there is a podium here is to be related to the podium in a certain way.  As Aquinas says, it is an adequatio between the intellect and the thing (res).

So, to believe some proposition, p, just is to take p to be true; to assert something is to say that this is the way you take things to be.  Aquinas would agree with the Harvard philosopher Richard Moran, who argues that belief is transparent to the truth.[iii]  That is, from the first-person perspective, I treat the question of my belief about p as equivalent to the question of the truth of p.  This means that if I am deliberating about whether to believe that it is raining in Anchorage, I am deliberating about whether it is true that it is raining in Anchorage, is to deliberate about whether it is actually the case that it is raining in Anchorage. When I am trying to make up my mind about what to believe, I am trying to figure out the truth—the activity of theoretical deliberation is unintelligible without reference to the truth.

To see how close the connection is between belief, truth, and reality, consider the following scenario.  Imagine someone thinking to himself, as he looks out the window, that it’s raining, and then conjoining this with the thought that he doesn’t believe that it’s raining.  This doesn’t seem possible.  For this reason, Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that, “if there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’ it would not have any significant first-person present indicative.”[iv]  The reason for this is that to believe something is to have settled the question for oneself about the way things are.  Of course, I may be wrong.  But to believe something is to make a claim that can in principle be correct or incorrect, and the measure here is truth, the way things are, or reality itself. From the first person perspective, the commitment to something beyond my own psychology is unavoidable.  To believe and to judge is to transcend one’s own perspective, it is to put oneself in relation to things and to be held accountable to things beyond one’s self.

For this reason, Aquinas says that truth is that towards which the intellect tends by it nature, and that it is through intellect that we are open to reality.  For Aquinas, truth is a relation between two terms, reality (res, things or beings) and intellect, our capacity to judge or know. I think we can think of truth in this sense as something along the lines of a constitutive principle, one that both defines and measures the activity of the intellect.  That is, truth, as the constitutive aim of belief or judgment, both defines a belief as what it is—it is an aiming at truth—and it provides a measure of whether the belief is good or bad, because it is a good belief if it is true and a bad belief if it is false.  As thinkers, believers, and asserters, we cannot escape truth.  We are naturally and inescapably oriented towards truth in virtue of having an intellect in the first place—in virtue of being rational animals. We cannot turn our backs against the truth without thereby rejecting what we are.

Let us return now to global relativism.  According to global relativism, everyone’s beliefs are true in a private sense.  But now we can see that the idea of a private truth, of one’s own personal authentic truth, is nonsense.  To make a judgment, form a belief, or to assert something is to do something essentially public; even if I never share my belief with anyone else, it still has an essentially public character, because belief makes a claim about the way things are independently of my perspective upon them. In judging, asserting, or believing, I am holding myself accountable to the world, to reality, which is a publicly accessible thing.  Therefore, if you say you believe that there is no objective truth, no way that things really are, this amounts to saying that you don’t believe in belief.  But of course, to say that you believe that there is no belief is to have a belief and to take that belief about belief to be true.  There is no way to escape a commitment to truth; as rational animals, it is part of our nature.

This brings us back around to the ultimately self-defeating nature of global relativism.  The relativist cannot help but assert his relativism, and in so doing, he cannot help but take it to be true for more than just himself. The relativist cannot escape what he is: a creature with intellect, by nature oriented to the truth.

Tomorrow: Partial relativism and skepticism

[i] http://www.vatican.va/gpII/documents/homily-pro-eligendo-pontifice_20050418_en.html

[ii] ST I Q16

[iii] Richard Moran, Authority and Estrangment, Princeton University Press, 2001

[iv] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. By G.E.M. Anscombe, Pearson, 1973.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

Capstone Conference Day 2: photos & tweets

Our scholars presented their findings at our “capstone” conference October 13-14, 2017 at the University of Chicago, which we captured in photos and tweets. Visit our Flickr page for the full album and our Twitter page for more observations. Below are highlights from Saturday, October 14.

Screenshot 2017-10-24 13.08.16Screenshot 2017-10-24 13.08.05Screenshot 2017-10-24 13.07.58

Saturday, October 14 – Ida Noyes Hall, Cloister Club

9:00-10:00 am Owen Flanagan, James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy, Duke University

10:15-11:15 am Angela Knobel, Associate Professor of Philosophy, School of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America

11:30 am-12:30 pm Candace VoglerDavid B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago and Principal Investigator for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life

2:00-3:00 pm Panel  Transcending Boundaries II

Heather C. Lench, Associate Professor of Psychology and Department Head, Texas A&M University

Marc G. Berman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Director, Environmental Neuroscience Laboratory, University of Chicago

Robert C. Roberts, Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy

3:15-4:15 pm Nancy Snow, Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing, University of Oklahoma

Capstone Conference Day 1: photos & tweets

Our scholars presented their findings at our “capstone” conference October 13-14, 2017 at the University of Chicago, which we captured in photos and tweets. Visit our Flickr page for the full album and our Twitter page for more observations. Below are highlights from Friday, October 13.

We’ll post highlights from Saturday, October 14, tomorrow.

Friday, October 13

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9:15 am Welcome by Principal Investigators Jennifer Frey and Candace Vogler

 

23944290488_a05d70b234_z.jpg9:30-10:30 am Kristján Kristjánsson, Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics; Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham

10:45-11:45 am Dan P. McAdams, Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University

1:45 – 2:45 pm Panel: Transcending Boundaries I

37765192702_9ccb0c79ab_z.jpgTalbot Brewer, Professor of Philosophy, University of Virginia and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture

Michael Gorman, Associate Professor of Philosophy, School of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America

Jean Porter, John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

3:00 -4:00 pm Tahera Qutbuddin, Professor of Arabic Literature, University of Chicago

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4:15 – 5:15 pm Panel: Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life Visiting Scholars

Fr. Stephen BrockProfessor of Medieval Philosophy, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome

Anselm Mueller, University of Chicago

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7pm – Keynote: Jonathan Lear, “Gettysburg”

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Racism and Negligence

 

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Torch-bearing white nationalists rally around a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017. (Edu Bayer/New York Times)

For those who thought the racial tensions that have long shaped the fault lines of American politics could continue to be ignored, Charlottesville was the seismic event that shook up this complacency. Like many an earthquake, much of the damage was not limited to the initial event; the political aftershocks have done equal, if not greater, damage. For when torch wielding Nazis and white supremacists march in large numbers, chanting racist slogans, screaming slurs, and threatening violence against minorities, when one of them drives his car into a crowd, killing one and injuring nineteen others, we should be able to expect our President, at the very least, to denounce them immediately and unequivocally. And yet this did not happen; incredibly, the opposite did.

 

Civility and a commitment to equality for all are American values that transcend partisan interests. We have a right to expect our leaders to form a government for everyone, and strive to keep the peace for all of the people. President Trump appeared to be trying to do this, denouncing “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, many sides” (emphasis mine). However, this initial response was, as many have pointed out, disastrously off base: the bigotry was clearly on one side, and there is no moral equivalence between the promulgation of fascist and racist ideology and principled opposition to it. While the counter-protest was far from perfect, it was not worthy of our president’s equal condemnation.

 

Presidents are supposed to unify their citizens in times of crisis, but in the aftermath of Charlottesville the only thing that seemed to unify most Americans was disappointment in the president’s inability to carry out this vital task. In a rare moment of concession to his many critics, Trump later denounced the hate groups by name. But this rare act of humility was short-lived. Just a few days later Trump lashed out at the press and doubled down in defense of himself; notoriously, he even went so far as to claim that there were “some very fine people” involved in the “unite the right” rally. And just in case anyone doubted what his true priorities were, the following week Trump held a rally in Phoenix, not primarily aimed at defusing racial tensions or uniting a divided populace in turbulent times, but solely in defense and even celebration of his troubling remarks.

 

We are about a month on from Charlottesville; nuclear threats, destructive hurricanes, and football now dominate our news feeds, and it would be all to easy to forget about it. But forgetting about it is a kind of political negligence, a failure to give it the importance it deserves. Negligence is a too little considered feature of our moral and political life. It is also important to the analysis of what was so awful about Trump’s post-Charlottesville behavior.

 

Consider his defense of some of those marching for “historical preservation” in Charlottesville. Negligence is a key to grasping why these defenses are indefensible. Let us set aside the issue of whether it is legitimate to support confederate monuments, as it is beside the point. As is well known, the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville was organized and promoted by white supremacist groups. The names listed to speak at the rally comprise a veritable who’s who of fascist and racist political leaders in America. These are men who openly admire Hitler, adopt Nazi imagery and rhetoric, and who advocate some form of racial apartheid in our country. A rally that is organized, promoted, and features speeches by such men is arguably a racist rally, no matter what cause it serves; but it is most certainly a racist rally when the cause is the defense of the statues of men who devoted their lives to the perpetuation of enslavement of blacks in the South. Any right thinking person who merely cared about preserving historical monuments as a testimony to history would not make common cause with Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists.

 

Even if we concede the very remote possibility that one of these warm hearted historical preservationists somehow missed the fact that the organizers, promoters, and speakers at the rally were all extreme racists, at best we could say their actions were grossly negligent, which makes them very far from being “very fine.” Failure to know what’s going on isn’t admirable, nor does it inoculate one against censure or blame. Ignorance doesn’t always excuse.

 

Determining culpable ignorance is an important aspect of morality and the law, and is part of any theory of negligence. Negligence comes from the Latin phrase “nec eligens” which literally translates to “not choosing.” Negligence is a normative and not merely descriptive word. There are an infinite number of choices I didn’t make this morning, but most of them, like the choice I didn’t make to begin writing the next great American novel, are of no consequence. Only a very small range of what I don’t do counts as a blameworthy failure, and the determination typically depends on the roles that can be legitimately assigned to me (for instance, as a parent, I am culpable if I oversleep and fail to get the kids to school on time).

 

We know as a matter of common sense morality and the law that we are responsible for what we fail to do, even when that failure is completely unintentional. Now, a prudent citizen should be well informed about the kinds of civic engagement he participates in; therefore a failure to notice that an event is organized by and prominently features white supremacists is a classic case of culpable ignorance.

 

Even so, one might still argue that culpable ignorance does not necessarily imply racism. Fine, but footage of Charlottesville reveals that once there one could have had no doubt that this was an event for promoting racist ideology. At that point, one is further at fault for not realizing that marching in the rally not only would not advance the cause of preserving history, but would also deepen racial tensions in Charlottesville and possibly lead to racially motivated violence.

 

To march alongside virulent racists shouting racist slogans and slurs displays a culpable lack of concern for members of the minority groups being targeted. We need to be clear that one is a racist not simply if one has active animus directed towards racial minorities, but also if one lacks active good will towards them; one lacks such good will when one does not care at all, or does not care enough about their well being and security to act (and not act) towards them in certain ways. One should care enough about minorities not to march alongside those that seek to marginalize and defame them. Failure to care enough about the manifest harms to these communities by placing the importance of historical preservation above their safety and well being is racist.

 

Charlottesville should still deeply trouble us. We cannot make racial progress, however, if we cannot come to a reasonable agreement about what racism is. If elements on the left can sometimes be blamed for making us all racists just in virtue of being born into a racially unequal society, elements on the right can sometimes be blamed for making the racist into a fantastical unicorn by imagining criteria for it that almost none of us will ever meet. A sensible understanding of the complexities of racism would steer a steady course between these two extremes, and we need such an understanding if we have any hope of having a reasonable public discourse about race in this country. A small step in this direction would be to acknowledge that racism of neglect is a real and damaging.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

CFA and CONFERENCE: God, Virtue, & Moral Absolutes: Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” At 60


God, Virtue, & Moral Absolutes: Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” at 60, a graduate student conference sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, will take place at the University of Notre Dame on January 21-23, 2018.

Keynote Speakers

Alasdair MacINTYRE, University of Notre Dame

Cyrille MICHON, University of Nantes

Rachael WISEMAN, University of Liverpool

Jennifer A. FREY, University of South Carolina

In 1958, the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe published “Modern Moral Philosophy,” one of the most influential essays in contemporary philosophy. Reacting against a half-century of British moral philosophy, Anscombe charted a path to a revival of Aristotelian moral inquiry, boldly defending three controversial theses. First, that it is “not profitable for us at present” to engage in moral philosophy until there has been the development of “an adequate philosophy of psychology” (i.e. a proper understanding of action, habit, choice etc.). Second, that the concepts “moral obligation and moral duty” presuppose the existence of a divine lawgiver and, in the absence of a belief in such a deity, should be abandoned. Third, that twentieth-century English philosophers are separated by differences “of little importance,” with such authors generally rejecting the existence of absolute moral prohibitions, should consequences be sufficiently detrimental. These claims have played a large role in the forging of contemporary research projects on virtue theory, theological ethics, the history of moral philosophy, and other matters of practical and speculative importance.

Call for Abstracts
We welcome papers from a variety of fields of moral inquiry, including but not limited to philosophy, theology, political science, psychology, and law. Suggested topics include:

  • Divine Command Theory
  • Virtue Theory
  • Neo-Aristotelian Ethics
  • Theories of Intention and Action
  • Natural Law Theory
  • Exceptionless Moral Norms
  • The Relationship Between Legal and Moral Categories

Please submit an abstract of no more than 300 words by October 1, 2017 to  kscott3@nd.edu.

For more information in the full Call for Abstracts, click here.