Go to an American or Canadian or British or New Zealand or Australian university, and I dare say to one in Germany, France or anywhere else in the Western world, and you will soon notice two competing claims about the status of individuals and societies. One is universalist; it makes claims as to how all human beings—just by virtue, say, of being human or possessing reason or being God’s children or having a capacity to feel pain and pleasure or being the object of some hypothetical social contract—are entitled to the same general thing when in the same general position. The whole post-Second World War human rights edifice is built on this sort of universalist foundation.
Sure, you can find within that foundation your natural-law adherents, your Kantians, your social contract crowd, your utilitarian Benthamites, and a whole lot more (though not obviously Islamic-worldview adherents, it is worth noting). But effectively this post-war human rights outlook in all its manifestations sees the whole lot of us as in some core way equal—so that the proper scope for free speech or for freedom of association that you ought to have guaranteed to you is not dependent upon whether you are Burmese or British, Confucian or Catholic, plutocrat or poor, born with XY chromosomes or XX, two legs or one, devilishly clever or decidedly dumb.
At times this attitude or worldview may come close to Coke-commercial levels of platitudinous piety, but there is no doubt that this universalism is a powerful prevailing outlook today. And not just in the universities but near on everywhere in the West, in newspapers, in television dramas, from the mouths of top politicians and their bureaucrats and the judges.
It is a new-fangled attitude. You would not have found it in many places a mere century ago. You would not have found it anywhere two centuries ago, or two millennia. Yes, some branches of the universalist outlook tend to confuse their “oughts” and their “ises”—how the world ought to be (where near on all the branches more or less concur) with looser talk about how it is (where the Benthamites and Humeans diverge noticeably from the natural-law brigade).
So take that as a sweeping generalisation about the universalist tendency in the Western world today. But notice that along with that tendency or outlook there exists another that is widespread. We can think of this as cultural relativism or “Who am I to judge?” thinking. This too is everywhere on display as you wander around university campuses in the West; nor is it hard to find amongst the pricier inner-city coffee haunts of the bien pensants as they wait for their barista-made latte (or macchiato or double shot espresso, the list grows daily) to be hand delivered, preferably having used “Fair Trade” beans that were not shipped through Israel; and you can see it reflected nightly in the pre-suppositions that help frame the questions of all those conservative television presenters on “Our ABC”. (Okay, I’m jesting about conservative television presenters being employed by the ABC—or producers, or indeed any top people at all. But I’m not joking about the prevalence of cultural relativist attitudes.) Still, it is most clearly found at universities, I suspect.
The idea behind this second widespread outlook is that people from culture or group X ought not to judge the practices of those in a different culture or group Y. “Who am I to judge?” That’s the motivating spirit of cultural relativism. Of course it only applies to those outside your own culture. Imagine some feminist who would be prepared to devote weeks of her time to trying to stamp out the abhorrent practice of using male pronouns (him for all references to a singular individual human) in her own liberal Western democratic country yet would say nary a word about the weekly stonings to death in Saudi Arabia of women who were alleged adulterers. Or not wish to condemn the fact that women cannot legally drive in that country. Or say nothing of the myriad other things that affect women around the less fortunate parts of the globe that a good many people might rank as more pressing than pronouns. “That’s their culture and it’s not for me to comment,” is the underlying attitude.
If that example veers too near caricature for you, think of the different standards applied to Aboriginal problems; think of the willingness to critique the dominant religion at home but never the dominant one somewhere else (even for the exact same failing); think of those in the West who hold their own culture up to the most exacting and stringent standards while glossing over everything up to and including mass murder, kleptocracy and barbarism in other lands and cultures (and we can think here of countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and a good many in between).
At the very least accept that the underlying tension between universalism and cultural relativism exists. A full-blooded embrace of the former seems to leave little room for the latter’s special treatment or exceptions due to culture (or “otherness”, if you want to use the puke-inducing terminology sometimes employed). Obversely, if standards are all socially inculcated or relative to time and place, then it is hard to see much room for any robust understanding of universal values or levels of treatment or enumerated rights, whether those jotted down by Eleanor Roosevelt or somehow else derived.
I want to consider whether and how these two outlooks or attitudes might be reconciled. To start we need to make a brief digression into the realm of moral philosophy. The Western canon’s thinkers can be grouped into the moral realists and the non-cognitivists or moral sceptics. Immanuel Kant is the doyen of the former. The claim in this camp is that there is a mind-independent aspect to moral judgments. “Bear-baiting is wrong even if everyone on the planet happens to think it isn’t,” gives you the basic idea. Most theological worldviews fit here. Most of the foundations for the modern human rights edifice, whether consciously or not, fit here. (For example, Amnesty International’s claims sit on moral realist foundations through and through.)
The other great tradition in the Western moral philosophy canon is usually traced to David Hume, a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a sceptic. For him, it was feelings—the passions—that moved human actions, not reason. Reason just told us how to get what our sentiments desired. And for Hume moral evaluations were very much mind-dependent. If humans had evolved differently then some core sentiments would be different. There is no mind-independent truth, for Humeans, to any moral claim. Of course there can be universal or near-universal empirical uniformities—say that 99.99 per cent of humans feel disgust at the thought of child molestation or at fathers not loving their children. But these moral sentiments depend upon the way humans happen to be. Evolve to be tigers and you have different moral evaluations. To give a simplified analogy, there is no mind-independent truth about whether chocolate ice-cream is better than vanilla. It depends on the taste buds the evaluator happens to bring to the table. It’s the same general thing, say Humeans, when it comes to moral evaluations. They are dependent on the sentiments being brought to the table.
So that is the big dispute within meta-ethics, or that part of moral philosophy that thinks about the status of moral evaluations. Even after centuries of dispute neither side has a knockout argument against the other. People just split on this core level debate. I mention it because you need a tiny bit of that background to consider how universalism and cultural relativism might be reconciled. And here’s the first thing to realise. If you are a moral realist (so perhaps bring to the table theological pre-suppositions, or Kantian ones, or modern-day natural law ones, or just take your moral realism from the sophomoric building blocks of your Amnesty Internationals or United Nations Human Rights Councils) then cultural relativism makes no sense at all. It is incoherent, full stop. In a world of mind-independent moral truths, female genital mutilation is wrong for everyone (or, I suppose, right for everyone if your perceived moral truth points that way). So is polygamy. So is some level of proper treatment of animals, the planet, fill in the blank of your choice.
Of course, some moral issues will be sufficiently low-key that politeness might dictate keeping silent about wrong treatment in other places. So, too, might pragmatic political calculations occasionally dictate keeping quiet about happenings in some Middle Eastern or Far Eastern place, given we live in a dangerous world in which all countries need allies. But that in no way changes the fact that there is a mind-independent truth to the matter of how religious minorities or women or anyone else ought to be treated. So any full-blooded or even half-hearted embrace of cultural relativism by the moral realist is incoherent. It amounts to genuflecting before the gods of political correctness.
But what can we say about Humeans or moral sceptics? Now let me lay my cards on the table and say that Hume is a personal hero of mine. He was pretty clearly an atheist and yet a genuinely nice and good person, something you can’t say about Rousseau and a lot of other political and moral philosophers. He wrote beautifully. He nailed what it means to allege a miracle; his destruction of the argument from design—a core prop of defences of any benevolent theism—is ten times kinder and more perceptive than anything Richard Dawkins has enunciated on this score, and Hume did not have the advantage of any then existing account of how evolution worked. Adam Smith called Hume the most nearly perfect human he had ever met.
But I digress. What I’m asking here is whether people who see moral evaluations as mind-dependent can embrace cultural relativism. I ask because the temptation may be to think, “If there are no mind-independent moral truths then all judgments are subjective and so I can’t even condemn the neo-Nazi.”
But you should resist that temptation. It turns out that cultural relativism is just as unattractive to the Humean. Why? Well, first notice that this crowd says there are no mind-independent moral truths. But there are plenty of mind-independent truths about the external, causal world. Humeans are not crazy French anti-foundationalist deconstructionists. Gravity exists outside our brains. It is not a function of how we evolved or how men have oppressed women or how the poor have been taken to the cleaners by the rich. Anyone crazy enough to say that gravity is not a mind-independent truth can be taken to your eighth-floor office window and asked to jump. He won’t. Deep down, even if he’s a French philosopher, he believes that gravity is imposed on us humans by the external, causal world.
So Hume was a very great empiricist, one of the British empiricist philosophers with Hobbes, Locke and others. We may not be able to give a deductive proof for causation but we can sleep easily relying on it, said Hume. Indeed it was because of what he saw in the empirical world that Hume thought we need to keep facts and values separate. The best empirical explanation of moral evaluations is that they are not mind-independent. Instead think of morality as a system of constraints on action that evolve in unplanned ways. Some things will get hard-wired into us by the same forces that push evolution. Some things will be the result of social inculcation. You should expect differences. But not all moral codes will deliver the same outcomes in the empirical world of day-to-day life.
Okay, but doesn’t that make cultural relativism plausible? Not really. Sure, everything for Humeans is ultimately dependent on the sentiments the evaluator brings to the table. But that just means that if someone’s core desire is to lounge around in poverty then we can say what sort of culture will give him his wish. If you want instead a materially prosperous and free lifestyle, well then it turns out you need a culture pretty much exactly like the West’s—lots of scope for speaking your mind; no ability to silence opponents by accusing them of apostasy and then killing them; a commitment to the scientific method; just look around you at the best culture yet to have evolved.
For Humeans, cultures are not equal—at least they’re not equal if you start from wanting freedom, material well-being, room to invent jet air travel, birth control, the internet, and a whole lot more. Those require—they empirically require—what we have and what a lot of cultures do not have. Of course if your core desire is to languish in a feudal theocracy which is suspicious of all knowledge not laid down long ago, then there is nothing mind-independently wrong with that. You just have to live with the consequences of your preferences. The same goes for those who don’t wish to work hard or who want to drink or surf all day. The underlying sentiment is not somehow out of sync with some mind-independent moral truth. But we can tell you, right now, where it is likely to lead in the empirical world in which we happen to live.
Put bluntly, some cultures deliver enough learning to come up with antibiotics and some do not, and it is not some cosmic fluke that determines which is which. And some cultures, given the uniform sentiments and preferences most humans have had hard-wired into them by evolution, deliver better outcomes than others. It is as simple and undeniable as that. Some cultures are better than others at delivering what most of us want.
By the way, this sort of thinking meshes perfectly with Benthamite utilitarianism, and that in turn is the basis of economics and basic cost-benefit thinking. What it does not give you is some undergraduate “Who am I to judge?” worldview. Humeans are just as happy to judge as moral realists. In fact they focus that judging even more explicitly on what is likely to eventuate here on earth, right now, rather than on some claim about godly moral truths, or eternal human rights verities (ones that only some committee of unelected ex-lawyer judges can discern on a five-to-four basis). The non-cognitivist Humeans also give a rejection, a powerful rejection, of the gist of cultural relativism and they do so without the need to think that you happen to have moral antennae that quiver at just the right frequency and those poor bastards over in that culture do not. Or that you are somehow, after so many billion years of life on earth, the pinnacle of moral evolution—a presupposition that seems to anchor most everything you hear out of GetUp or the Human Rights Commission or self-styled human-rights lawyers.
You don’t need that sort of moral preening. You just need to ask what someone wants and then ask which culture is likely to deliver it. In answering that question you will see that cultures are not equal, far from it.
What then of the universalising outlook for Humeans? Well, that just depends on how many sentiments you think are hard-wired into almost all of us humans through the pressures of evolution and how many are socially constructed. If the desire for material goods and freedom is due to evolution, then it’s easy to make claims based on how almost all humans happen to be. If it’s some social construct that makes most of us want the best for our kids or lots of freedom to make choices, then claims based on widespread uniformities across all humans fall down. But the evolutionary psychology evidence does not point to social inculcation, despite the best efforts of Stalin and whichever Kim happens to be ruling in North Korea at the moment.
What might we conclude from all of this? My take is that cultural relativism is for losers, whatever your take on the status of moral evaluations happens to be. Worse, if you don’t feel able to judge culture Y from the vantage of culture X, then on what basis can you judge sub-culture A (within X) from the vantage of sub-culture B? Or sub-sub-culture M (within B) from the vantage of sub-sub-culture N? (And note that you can continue to play that game indefinitely until you reach the point of absurdity where you can’t judge anyone or anything, not actually being that other person.)
That claim, that cultural relativism is for losers together with its ancillary that the West’s culture—for all its faults and flaws—is far better than anything else so far evolved, does not require you to be an absolutist about how universal human sentiments and preferences are. There is plenty of scope for reasonable disagreement there. But it does give you grounds for wondering why so many academics and ABC presenters seem to subscribe to what the British journalist Nick Cohen calls the “Kill us, we deserve it” school of cultural self-hatred.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.