Against Culturally Biased Ethics

I am a big proponent of “universalist” ethics, i.e., finding ethical principles which can be shared by all people in the world. Thus, it is important to try to find some common core deep in us all about what might be called good or bad. The hedonist will, of course, claim that the intuition that pleasure is good and pain is bad is the most plausible candidate for that common core. There might be some people who simply do not have this intuition – they might not see anything “bad” in experiencing pain or seeing someone else experiencing it, or anything “good” in experiencing pleasure – but I think it is still the most widespread intuition among human beings.

However, people have other intuitions too, and many philosophers today believe that we must take account of many intuitions, and attempt to achieve some balance between them. (The good thing about hedonism, on the other hand, is that there is just one fundamental intuition, so there is no other no need to find a “balance”.) One risk with this methodology is that it is no longer universalist, or at least not as universalist as it could be. This is because intuitions about what is good and bad are often strongly affected by our own culture (something which the hedonist principle presumably is not, or at least to a lesser degree than other candidates).

A recent reading of Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Ethics made me contemplate examples of culturally determined moral intuitions. Spencer, for instance, observes that many cultures have been extremely aggressive, and some have seen murder as perfectly honorable. Common have also been practices like slavery (including kidnapping women to “marry”), cannibalism, and different forms of stealing and robbery. It seems that thieves – at least successful and cunning ones – have been admired in many cultures. Two among the many examples of the latter are an African tribe called Waganda, in which “[T]he distinctions between meum and tuum are very ill-defined; and indeed all sin is only relative, the crime consisting in being detected”, and the Fijians, among which “[s]uccess, without discovery, is deemed quite enough to making thieving virtuous, and a participation in the ill-gotten gains honourable”. We see, then, that moral intuitions about property rights are very different across cultures.

Even more conspicuous are, perhaps, the differences in sexual mores and family relations. We know that polygamy (and sometimes even polyandry) has been very often approved of. Among some peoples adultery has been accepted, and it is reported that “among the Esquimaux it is considered a great mark of friendship for two men to exchange wives for a day or two” (and they were not the only people doing this).

One could go on indefinitely recounting examples of customs that are very different from the ones we take for granted in our own societies. The point I wanted to make is that people in other cultures throughout history probably felt as strongly as we do that their way of doing things is intuitively correct, and if they were to develop ethical systems built on the methodology that all intuitions should be respected they would simply end up by justifying the existing customs of their own culture. And something seems to be wrong with this approach to ethics. Surely, it cannot be the task of ethics to simply affirm the prejudices and inherited conceptions of our own culture.

In short, when developing an ethical system, one should not assume anything, except the assumptions that are necessary to establish any ethical system at all. And it should be clear that the assumptions of the latter kind are assumptions, and not “truths”. In other words, we cannot simply accept our culturally biased values, unless we can justify why they are acceptable on a more fundamental (“universal”) level. If you disagree with the tribes and peoples who think that killing, stealing, prostitution, or polygamy is honorable, don’t simply assume that they are wrong and that you are right. Demonstrate how they are wrong (and how you are right) with appeal to culturally unbiased arguments. (The same should, of course, hold for those who disagree with you.)

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