We live in an age of moral confusion. Is homosexuality immoral? Can female genital mutilation be justified? Is forced child marriage ever acceptable? Our present confusion is partly a result of the globalised age in which we live. Never before have we been so exposed to the enormous diversity of cultural norms and moral values that exist in different parts of the world as we are today. And never before has it been so obvious that people in different cultures see morality in very different ways.
One response to this moral diversity has been to view morality as culturally determined. People who subscribe to such cultural relativism believe that there is no way of objectively deciding what is right and what is wrong. Banning women from driving is fine in Saudi Arabia, and forcing children to marry is acceptable in India, the argument goes, but both practices would be morally wrong in Scandinavia. Taken to its extreme, cultural relativism would hold that hanging gay men would be wrong in San Francisco but is justifiable in Tehran.
In their efforts to gloss over real differences in values and avoid embarrassing confrontations, cultural relativists argue that all religions, cultures and beliefs deserve equal respect, even if they differ from your own. I strongly disagree. Cultures, religions and beliefs do not deserve respect – people do! If a culture, religion or belief causes needless suffering for people, then it is not to be respected. Moral relativism is wrong because it allows any practice, no matter how barbaric, to be justified in the name of custom and belief. It sets us morally adrift, unable to recognise right from wrong. The most powerful arguments against moral relativism, I believe, are the voices of those who find themselves the victims of oppressive cultural and religious practices, and who ask that their humanity too be respected.
A Scientific Definition of Morality
Sam Harris, in his book The Moral Landscape, argues that the definition of morality must include a concern for the well-being of other conscious creatures. Morality, Harris argues, really relates to the intentions and behaviours that affect the well-being of others. I find Harris’s definition of morality deeply convincing.
But this definition immediately raises the question as to why the well-being of others should matter to us. The answer is that concern for the well-being of others is deeply engrained in our biological and psychological make-up. Indeed, the ability to feel concern for the well-being of others is a fundamental part of the definition of what a human being is.
Concern for the well-being of others constitutes a bottom line in our definition of humanity. Acting without concern for others – by inflicting needless suffering, by considering others in purely instrumental terms as things to be exploited and destroyed – violates our humanity. Being able to recognise this distinction between concern and total disregard is what morality is. And as Harris argues, being able to make this distinction is hard-wired into our physical and psychological make-up. Morality is a scientific fact.
The Importance of Culture
In his book Amador, Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater offers his fifteen year old son advice on how to live a good life. Savater reminds Amador that a human being is not born a man or a woman in the way that a peach grows as a peach, or a leopard arrives in the world as a leopard. Human beings, he says, unlike leopards or peaches, undergo a long cultural apprenticeship in which we come to learn who we are and to act with humanity towards others. ‘Humanity is not a given,’ Savater writes. ‘We possess the possibility of becoming human, but we will never be so if not for others. No one becomes human alone.’
The crucial truth that Savater is pointing to is that although morality – our biological ability to recognise concern for others as right and to recognise total disregard for others as wrong – is innate within us, the values of the culture in which we grow up can either nourish this biological heritage or negate it.
Article prepared by Marc Rosenberg