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November 30, 2000
Is morality relative to culture? I would say that it is—and also that it isn’t. A friend at work was describing part of the Native American culture to me. He told me of a certain group of Indians who felt that everyone’s possessions belonged to the community. When another Indian needed something, he merely had to go over to his neighbors’ land and take it. Within this culture, such acts did not constitute stealing because they believed in a higher principle of “what’s mine is yours,” a rule all mutually abided by. Because their motive was pure, there is no reason why, within this defining culture, they shouldn’t have taken Kant’s advice on morality, making such actions a maxim for all people.
Motive is a major determinant in sorting out morality. For example, if those same Indians, well aware that their white neighbors do not have the same policy, go onto their white neighbors’ land and take one of their white neighbors’ plows without asking, their motive, determined in this case by their interaction with a different but known culture, would definitely make their actions morally wrong.
This is not to say, however, that morality is a subjective matter. While considerations like the above example are flexible because they do not infringe on another person, not all cultural interpretations of morality constitute true morality. And by true morality I mean actions that would not violate another person, their property, or anything else connected to them. Examples of immorality would include lying, cheating, killing, stealing, defacing another’s property, and other similar forms of deviant behavior. Kant put a fine face on the problem when he spoke of always acting according to “that by which you would like to become a moral maxim.”
If I have an agreement with a prostitute, much like the Indians in their culture, and we have sex, does our mutual agreement make our actions morally right? Probably not. We are not the only two people who will suffer the repercussions of our actions. And even if we were, we couldn’t expect it to be a universal maxim, as in many other such instances others would suffer. Our “legitimate” sexual partners would suffer: jealousies aroused, trust destroyed.
Or take a culture such as the Yanomamo, for instance, where aggression is advocated. Nearly half of the male population has killed someone within a lifetime, and husbands brutally “punish” their wives for the smallest “infractions,” using such methods as jabbing them with sharp sticks or burning them with glowing coals. In short, hurting other human beings is rewarded and considered normal in this culture. Because this is all they have known and all they have been taught, does this make their behavior understandable? Yes. Morally right? I don’t think so.
Yes, I understand they need to be taught: that they don’t know better. Let me use an illustration. Is sanitation relative to culture? If a culture practices poor sanitation habits, what happens? There are most often negative consequences for their ignorance, such as increased rates of sickness, infection, disease and mortality. Until they have been taught proper hygiene, their ignorance keeps them from achieving high standards of sanitation, and hence, high standards of health. Sanitation exists, even though they don’t practice it, nor have they heard of it. Are they to blame? No. But does that mean sanitation doesn’t exist? Of course not.
Or to take an example from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity: is math a concrete reality? Are people born knowing how to calculate problems? Would they know how to do math if they had never been taught? They might discover bits of it here and there, but they wouldn’t know it was math; they wouldn’t have the elaborate system we do today. And yet is math a concrete reality? Does its reality depend on whether or not people know about it? Somehow I don’t think so.
Math is an objective reality, its truth learned, its new discoveries supplemented by prior learning. If left in a vacuum, few individuals would discover math on their own. But while two times two will always equal four (as does two plus two); there are many different formulas as to the correct way to administer this objective reality. The fundamental principles of math never vary, though one formula may be appropriate for one situation, another formula appropriate for another. In this same sense, I believe that morality is objective, just as Kant did.
It is still wrong to cheat, to lie, to steal, to kill, or any number of things. And yet, because of the structure of each society, these would manifest in different ways. For the Indians mentioned earlier, taking another person’s possessions was not stealing, because both parties were united in a culture where all property was viewed as belonging to all. When you take something from me, it belongs to you just as much as it belongs to me.
To salute someone with the sign of victory in the United States is a compliment. In Europe, however, this symbol means the same as the middle finger. If, while in Europe, knowing good and well what it meant, you gave someone the flying “v,” you would be violating a moral code. Even if the individual deserved it, it is still defaming to the other person. Anytime that you know what you are doing when doing something harmful, selfish, or vindictive but do it anyway, the action is wrong, regardless of the circumstances.
A given culture would undoubtedly influence the interpretation of where the lines are drawn, but morality is an objective reality quite separate from culture as far as I am concerned. And when I say that a culture “would influence where the lines are drawn,” allow me to clarify. If a two-year-old boy accidentally gets hold of a loaded gun and fatally shoots his sister in the head, he has not been immoral. However, his innocence is quite a separate matter from the aspect of murder, which is clearly wrong. Just because we excuse him does not mean that murder is a subjective concept and that we will in turn excuse someone old enough to know better.
In the same way, just because a savage group of natives do terrible things to each other and their actions are understandable—that is quite a separate matter altogether from the aspect of morality; it is their immorality that is relative to their culture, not the other way ’round.
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