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Am I a Relativist? Well, It Depends.

October 11th, 2007 · 9 Comments

Megatron approvingly cites Bryan Caplan on an apparent contradiction opponents of multiculturalism are prone to:

Critics of multi-culturalism often mock its proponents for (a) cultural relativism and (b) disrepecting Columbus. The problem, as I’ve explained before, is that Columbus was a pioneer of slavery and barbarism. The only way to excuse his behavior is to say “Oh, you can’t judge Columbus by our standards. In those days, people thought that slavery was OK. Everyone was doing it.”

If that excuse makes sense to you, you’re a cultural relativist. Change your heroes, or change your meta-ethics!


Now, I’m all for leavening our appreciation of figures like Columbus (or Jefferson or whomever) with the recognition that they participated in all sorts of morally hideous practices. But I’m also not sure this is as incoherent as it seems on first blush if we keep clear about the distinction between how we evaluate:
  • An action or practice

  • A culture in which that action or practice is prevalent or condoned, and
  • A member of that culture who commits the action or follows the practice

It seems to me perfectly consistent to say that (1) slavery, murder, and the exploitation of less technologically advanced peoples were precisely as wrong in 1492 as they are today, but (2) someone like Columbus, a man of his time and culture, should not personally be judged by that timeless standard, as though he were our contemporary.

This all is perfectly obvious when it comes to factual questions. Tomatoes are a healthy, non-poisonous food, and this was as true in 1600 as it is today. The fact is timeless: For most people, there is no good reason to avoid tomatoes on health grounds today, and there was no such reason in 1600. But an individual in Shakespearean England who firmly believed that all tomatoes are Killer Tomatoes was not being unreasonable or irrational, as we would be apt to judge someone who held that belief in modern America.

Just as important, though, is a difference in function between retrospective appraisal and present judgments that have an exhortative function as much as anything else. To take the most extreme perspective, from a God’s-eye-view, both individuals and whole societies are playing out their respective sociological, psychological, biological, and physical scripts. Insofar as the historian tries to approximate that perspective, condemning Columbus is just sort of frivolous, except to the extent that we in the present require reminders that, yes, slavery is indeed very bad. And for the most part, we don’t. But things are very different from a participant perspective. It may be that every murder is just the upshot of a series of external causal factors, but since we hope our judgment is one of those causal factors, we don’t therefore take a more indulgent attitude toward murderers. And so it is with cultures: About those long dead, we have the luxury of saying “well, it wasn’t very attractive, but that’s how they did things, and perhaps it was even an improvement on what came before.” We’re more critical of those still active because our concern is with where they’re going next.

Tags: Moral Philosophy


       

 

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Laure // Oct 12, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    I’m sorry, but tomatoes are really awful. Possibly evil.

  • 2 That Fuzzy Bastard // Oct 13, 2007 at 1:08 pm

    Not that this is hugely relevant to your point, but as I understand it (based on, well, a New Yorker article I read years ago), Columbus was actually unusually brutal for his time. There are diaries from shipmates on the expidition who are horrified by his treatment of the savages, suggesting that even by the standards of the era, Columbus was a uniquely vicious bastard.

  • 3 Jacob T. Levy // Oct 13, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    As I read things, TFB is right. It was only a generation later that Casas was writing intensely moralized accounts for European audiences about how monstrous and brutal the conquest of the Americas was, and not much later than that Vitoria was explaining how the whole enterprise was a horrible violation of Christian doctrine and natural law. And even Columbus’ immediate contemporaries and crewmen were capable of saying that the slaughter and slavery were morally terrible.

    It’s easy to commit anachronism in our moral judgments, but it’s also easy to overstate the gap between generations in basic moral knowledge.

  • 4 Timon // Oct 15, 2007 at 11:43 am

    Actually, it was de las Casas who was the pioneer of slavery, in that he proposed the importation of Africans to do the work that was killing the Tainos in the Caribbean. What we think of barbarism was a progressive reform, motivated by genuine humanitarianism. Then as now, the only way to judge moral culpability is from intention and belief. The “reconquista” that Columbus was a part of began in the 9th Century in Asturias and continued straight through the last Moorish kingdoms and down to Tierra del Fuego. They really did believe that God wanted them to bring Christianity to the world, that they were doing the heathens a favor, and that they were centuries in to a millennial religious obligation. We are not baptizing Iraqis with buckets of holy water and mops, as Columbus’s contemporaries were doing in Granada, only because now know it doesn’t matter.

    And to illustrate more vividly why many of us find these kinds of rhetorical digs with stupid lessons from history to be so annoying, I give you the (comparably valid) Ann Coulter version of Bryan Caplan’s point: no matter how bad, brutal, cruel and stupid a situation is, it can always be made worse by progressive reform.

  • 5 Timon // Oct 15, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Actually, it was de las Casas who was the pioneer of slavery, in that he proposed the importation of Africans to do the work that was killing the Tainos in the Caribbean. What we think of barbarism was a progressive reform, motivated by genuine humanitarianism. Then as now, the only way to judge moral culpability is from intention and belief. The “reconquista” that Columbus was a part of began in the 9th Century in Asturias and continued straight through the last Moorish kingdoms and down to Tierra del Fuego. They really did believe that God wanted them to bring Christianity to the world, that they were doing the heathens a favor, and that they were centuries in to a millennial religious obligation. We are not baptizing Iraqis with buckets of holy water and mops, as Columbus’s contemporaries were doing in Granada, only because now know it doesn’t matter.

    And to illustrate more vividly why many of us find these kinds of rhetorical digs with stupid lessons from history to be so annoying, I give you the (comparably valid) Ann Coulter version of Bryan Caplan’s point: no matter how bad, brutal, cruel and stupid a situation is, it can always be made worse by progressive reform.

  • 6 Sam Hutcheson // Oct 16, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    Uh, call me simple or something, but if Columbus can’t be judged by a moral stricture then it is utterly meaningless to call that moral stricture “timeless.” You’re example of the ignorance of tomatoes doesn’t really apply to moral calculus, IMHO.

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Oct 17, 2007 at 5:42 am

    I’m not sure how to reply (other than with the invited “you’re simple”). If the analogy doesn’t apply, why not? If we can say a fact is timeless but the reasonableness of believing it varies over time, why can’t we say a moral stricture is similarly timeless, but the judgment we pass on someone who violates it might vary over time?

  • 8 Julian Elson // Oct 17, 2007 at 6:46 am

    Columbus’s brutality is one factor (along with the politics of the Indies at the time, Spanish subordinates’ discontent with being under an Italian’s command, etc) that lead to him being shipped back to Spain in chains.

    I think there are five scenarios we can look at here:

    1) Columbus, regardless of his moral values, was not motivated to act morally. He might have had moral values that contradicted ours, or might have had moral values that were like ours, but either way, since he did commit immoral acts, and wasn’t morally motivated, we can call him a bad man.

    2) Columbus was motivated to act what he believed to be in a moral manner, but he had a false conception of morality (e.g. “harming people isn’t wrong if they’re not Christian”), and committed immoral acts that he believed to be moral. This false conception of morality was a result of prevailing cultural norms at the time, his family, and other inescapable influences on belief formation. In this case, it seems to me that we still think Columbus was an objectively bad person, in a way that might be described as “typically bad” from a bad society, culture, and background, but singling him out for special condemnation isn’t warranted.

    3) Columbus had a false conception of morality, but the process of his forming beliefs about morality were motivated by some immoral motivation (like racial hatred) or some non-moral motivation that frequently conflicts with morality (like greed). This seems to be somewhere between #1 and #2, but either way, it seems that Columbus was bad.

    4) Columbus had a false conception of the factual state of the world. For instance, he might have believed that temporal life was an infinitesmal fraction of the total span of existance, most of which took place in the afterlife, and thus that conquering people to bring them under the Spanish crown and Catholic Church was the right thing to do, not for false moral reasons, but for reasons that we ourselves would recognize as moral if we accepted Columbus’s beliefs about the factual state of the world, such as helping people avoid suffering. (Whether we actually agree with Columbus’s morality here — such as whether it’s okay to coerce people for their own good — is disputable, but if we really did live in a world where being a Christian was the only way to go to heaven, everyone else went to hell, then I don’t think it would obviously be wrong.) Colubus’s false beliefs about the factual state of the world were a result of his family, culture, education, and other inescapable influences on belief formation. In this case, I think that we can say that Columbus was wrong, but not a truly bad man.

    5) Like 4, except that now Columbus’s false factual beliefs are a result of motivated belief formation whose motives are immoral or conflict with morality.

    Is this on the right track?

    Megatron seems to be referring to #2 when he talks about anti-Cultural Relativists.

    I think looking at Columbus and saying “what he did may have been wrong, but given his cultural background, special condemnation isn’t warranted” is an eminently reasonable approach. Yet if this is the case, it’s also just as reasonable to say that Columbus’s achievements of navigation and exploration were a result of his background and the historical circumstances of the time, i.e. “Columbus happened to be the one who stumbled across the West Indies, but given European exploration and trade of the time, someone had to do it eventually, so Columbus wasn’t really a noteworthy individual; rather, what were noteworthy were the circumstances of increasing European contact with the world, the end of the Reconquista and the attendent leaving of the Castillian war machine in need of fresh targets for conquest, etc.”

    So, assuming that we accept 2) as an explanation Columbus’s actions, if we look at him as an individual, who achieved amazing acts of exploration and navigation, and also committed heinous acts of brutality, then we must give credit to his genius and imagination, and also lay blame on him for his evil actions.

    Or, alternatively, we can say that he was typical Genoan — perhaps at the upper end of his society’s distribution of ambition and intelligence, as some people are bound to be — who committed acts in accordance with the prevailing false conceptions of morality of his time, and is worthy of no special condemnation for that, and also achieved incredible acts of exploration, along with Ferdinand Magellan, Amerigo Vespucci, etc., as a result of his cultural background, political circumstances, technological changes in seafaring, etc.

    That’s how it seems to me in a fit of 5:50 A.M. insomnia, at least.

  • 9 Julian Elson // Oct 17, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    BTW, it seems to me that the problem a lot of people have with saying Columbus was bad in scenario 2), the one where Columbus forms a false conception of morality due to circumstances and belief-formation processes that aren’t motivated by another terrible, is that it involves moral luck, and a lot of people basically don’t want moral luck to exist. As a result, you see various attempts to spare someone like Columbus from having been morally unlucky, either by saying that what Columbus did wasn’t really wrong given his circumstances and background, or by saying that Columbus was aberrant even for his time in his cruelty, and that morality among ordinary Spaniards wasn’t so different from today, so we can condemn Columbus as an individual and discount cultural influences.

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