I was going to write a post reporting on a recent research paper; however, I came across an article that I thought was worth linking and discussing on a bioethics blog. Denyse O’Leary, a journalist who writes for several blogs and whose work I have followed, posted this article recently at thebestschools.org. See here for “Is it still wrong if another culture says it is right? A teacher’s surprising discovery.”
In sum, students in a philosophy class were hesitant to say that a cultural practice was wrong, in this case a woman was mutilated and left for dead for fleeing an abusive man that she was forced to marry, because they did not want to criticize another culture. The post recounts the teacher’s surprise that the students, who obviously had a strong reaction to the woman’s story, were not willing to say that this cultural practice is wrong. The teacher was trying to use this as an obvious example before engaging in more difficult examples.
Denyse O’Leary’s assessment of why the students respond this way is worth reading as well. She considers virtue and vice in our culture. The one action that is still considered a vice is judging others, particularly other cultures. The hesitancy to judge other cultures is understandable. History has shown the failings of cultural imperialism, and often those of us who have grown up in a global and diverse world want to avoid assuming my culture is the best, let alone in a position to judge other cultures. This feels arrogant, and undoubtedly some people have taken their notions of superiority too far. However, does that mean that everyone is right and no one is wrong? Does this mean that there aren’t some things that are just straight up bad to do no matter the time and place?
I recently read Harold Netland’s book Encountering Religious Pluralism. Netland focuses his discussion on missions, in particular, but there is a relationship between religious pluralism and cultural relativism. In his assessment of missions, he points out that “the modern missionary movement has had an ambivalent relationship with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western imperialism, leaving a legacy that, among other things, has helped make the agenda of religious pluralism attractive today…For many in the West are drawn to pluralism in part out of a deep sense of postcolonial guilt…” (Netland, 30). And perhaps this post-colonial guilt drives the cultural relativism that we see today.
Other cultures do challenge our notions of right and wrong, and, I believe, help protect against legalism and superiority. For example, growing up in the U.S., I thought it was morally wrong to drive on the left side of the road. The only people who drove on the “wrong” side of the road were crazy or drunk (or both). As I got older and learned about other countries, it turns out that there is nothing inherently righteous about the right side of the road. Road rules are culturally relative.
However, not everything that is legal or acceptable in other cultures is morally relative or morally neutral. This is not to “rank” or make claims about the superiority or the inferiority of other cultures, but it is okay to recognize that there are some cultures that engage in unethical activities. Mutilating a woman who flees her abusive husband is morally wrong, no matter its legality or acceptability. The U.S. has a history of racial slavery that may have been legal at the time, but was still wrong and a violation of human dignity. Today, adultery is legal in many countries, but that does not mean that breaking a marriage vow is right. And while many people would consider adultery debatable, almost every culture recognizes that stealing another man’s property (in the broad sense, not just land) is wrong, yet the laws on this vary from country to country.
As bioethicists we need to be open and understanding of other cultures and not impose our particular preferences on others as if our preferences are morally superior. However, we also need to recognize no culture is perfect and therefore every culture has norms that are at least questionable if not outright wrong, which is not an issue of preferences but of ethics. While it may be difficult to discuss a culture’s ethic when they may have different moral foundations than we do, we can find common ground in certain things. The inherent worth and dignity of human beings is a good place to start.