General and Off-Topic Comments

We realize that the most interesting discussions sometimes arise tangentially.  If you have a question or comment that does not directly relate to a specific Apple Eaters post, or if you have a general suggestion or criticism of the blog, please post it to this page.



6 Responses to “General and Off-Topic Comments”

  1. Tim Says:

    I want to take this opportunity to let you guys know what an awesome job you are doing on this blog. As a father of three and a busy little codemonkey, I have little time to sit and break down arguments rationally. I suppose that is the fate of many individuals in our society. It is wonderfully fulfilling to take a moment during my busy day to use these posts as a mental springboard for my own analysis. It is also a relief to realize there are others out there actually concerned with living in a moral and logical reality. I was lucky enough to tell Jim personally how much I appreciate the blog, but I wanted to also express my appreciation to you, Liza. Great work.

    Now, I am struck by a discussion I had with my father in law about cross-culture morality. He was expressing his disgust of ‘Western Culture’ pressing its mores onto other cultures through advertising, publishing, tv, music, etc.. His point (I think) was that there are certain moral ideals and judgments that we, as a society, try to push upon other cultures in an effort to ‘civilize’ them. I suggested that modern cultural mores are more of an amalgam, or perhaps a culmination, of many cultures together, and that through education and reflection, moral distinctions could be drawn and explained. He countered by telling me a story:
    ‘A poor day-laborer sat on a market sidewalk in Iran waiting for his master (employer) to show up. This was before the revolution, so the people still enjoyed many freedoms that they now are denied. A woman came into the market wearing a ‘trendy’ outfit: a miniskirt. When she bent over to pick up fruit, the laborer saw she was wearing no underwear. Now the laborer was from a small, conservative town, and had no prior exposure to this. He jumped up and started raping the woman. Many people began to beat him, but he continued. The police came and pulled him off of the woman, and the following day the newspapers all throughout the province told the story of this poor, helpless, uneducated man who did not know what he was doing was wrong.’

    Now my response to this was that if this man truly did not know the consequences of his actions, then he should be removed of the power to perform those actions. I would be interested in hearing your opinion on the subject of cross-culture moral analysis. At what point do our subjective viewpoints nullify our ability to draw moral conclusions of other cultural mores?

    • Liza Says:

      Thank you for your positive feedback, Tim. It really made my day.

      Your question is interesting. In the example you gave, I am inclined to say that the poor day laborer is not necessarily a good representation of the mores of conservative Iranian culture. After all, the people who beat him and attempted to stop the rape were also a part of that culture, and they obviously saw something wrong with what he was doing. It’s possible that the man genuinely saw nothing wrong with the act, but normally people do respond to social censure even when they believe they are justified in their actions. The fact that the man would continue with the rape in the middle of a public area while people beat him and tried to make him stop suggests to me that he must also have had poor impulse control or other psychological problems. Your point about cultural moral relativism still stands, however, and it raises a very important question: What are we to do about countries and cultures that tolerate, condone, and practice acts which we find morally abhorrent?

      Let’s use the example of conjugal rape. In the United States today, men who force their wives to have sex can be charged with rape. This wasn’t the case 100 years ago, and it isn’t the case in many countries today. The laws of many countries do not even acknowledge the possibility that rape can occur within a marriage because married women are supposed to submit to the will of their husbands. They are, in a very real sense, the sexual property of their husbands. And the laws reflect the attitude that women are to be protected from sexual violation from other men because that kind of violation is harm to another man’s property, not harm to another person with rights of her own.

      Now, I think conjugal rape is wrong, and the fact that it is socially and legally acceptable in other cultures does nothing to change the wrongness of it. No doubt, my values are heavily influenced by my culture and upbringing. I can’t give you a meta-ethical proof that rape is wrong without appeal to the underlying value assumption that women are equal to men and ought to be accorded the same legal rights and responsibilities that men have. Of course, this value assumption is subjective. We cannot appeal to the intrinsic justice of equality when debating with people who deny that equality is intrinsically just.

      So, what are we to do about it then? There are two options for resolving inter-cultural moral conflicts: Using power or using reasons. Now, in practical terms, power is always leveraged as a means to change existing norms or laws. It is naïve to think that mere appeal to reasons will do anything to change the existing values of another person or group. We need to give people reasons, which is to say we need to manipulate the circumstances in such a way that it is in the interest of the opposing side to come around to our way of thinking. This is a power play, but some uses of power are a great deal more insidious than others.

      The obvious insidious example is that of military force, and the rhetoric of a “cultural war” implies this use of force. But, despite how the Bush administration tried to spin it, we don’t fight wars for the purpose of changing the moral norms of another country. It’s not predictably effective to change norms that way, and it’s an incredibly costly strategy to pursue for a merely altruistic goal. Wars get fought for strategic (we hope defensive) and economic reasons, but the net result is that they change the political and economic landscape which, in turn, changes the cultural landscape from which norms arise. This isn’t the only way to change the political and economic landscape, however.

      If your father-in-law values the existing conservative cultural norms of Iran, then he is right to fear the influence of media and marketing from other parts of the world because it is most certainly changing those norms. I don’t view this as a bad thing, but of course I am biased in favor of my own values. I think is likely that practices such as conjugal rape will be condemned in cultures where they are now condoned as those cultures are exposed to the egalitarian values of more secular societies.

      The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill liked to defend free speech on the grounds that it created a “marketplace of ideas,” and he had the hopeful belief that the “best” ideas could be “sold” through good reasoning in this “market.” I am not as optimistic as Mill about whether the best ideas (especially values) will sell better, but I think the marketplace metaphor is useful when trying to understand changing cultural mores across the globe. Markets aren’t conscious entities, and the process by which we come to accept a particular value (moral or otherwise) is largely unconscious as well. This is why advertising works so effectively, and it is why authoritarian regimes rally propaganda and fear it from outside sources.

      If we want to change the moral norms and practices of other cultures, the most effective route may be to introduce new values into their “market” of ideas and then to “sell” those values aggressively. This, like military intervention, is a power play -an imposition of our will upon theirs- and it is naively self-righteous to pretend otherwise. It is also a necessary precondition for the kind of reasoned exchange that we hope can be the foundation for just laws and social mores. Before we can debate laws, we must share values.

      I’m not sure if I answered your question or just went off on my own tangent above. Please let me know if this is an adequate response or if I have missed your point.

      • Tim Says:

        I definitely see where you are going with this. I suppose the problem lies in that he (my father-in-law) has a strong sense of cultural relativism, and truly feels that it is impossible to judge another culture from without. Obviously, this is not true. As our cultures inevitably become global, there would no way to communicate, barter, or ally if we could not make value judgments about others and draw global distinctions, such as a UN Resolution. At the same time, I definitely feel the weight of his argument, which compels me to postpone judgment on specific acts which occur in a culture I am not a part of. So I guess my question is: Through what mental process can I ethically justify value judgments of a culture that I am not a part of? Obviously, he grew up in a culture that has different viewpoints not only on social equality, but on what being equal really means. For instance, it is easy for him to say that women are equal to men, but not so easy for him to say they should have the same rights. This is particularly difficult for me to debate with him, as I do not separate the two.

        At any rate, thanks for the response, I know time is short and so is my lunch break.

    • Liza Says:

      “Through what mental process can I ethically justify value judgments of a culture that I am not a part of?”

      If you accept the subjectivity of value, then you aren’t going to be able to say: “There is a moral fact of the matter, and I am right and they (those who do not share my value) are wrong.” As a consolation, you could say “I believe that X is right (where X is some moral claim such as ‘women ought to have the same political rights as men’), and, though I recognize that those in other cultures believe that X is wrong, I have a better justification for my claim than they have for theirs.” Of course, the only way to keep this modified judgment from becoming viciously circular and incoherent (“better justification” sounds like just as much of a culturally-biased value judgment) is to define the terminology in such a way as to distinguish between controversial and non-controversial value claims. “Better justification” needs to be an uncontroversial evaluation, meaning the criteria for it is mutually agreed upon. For example, the “better justification” would be the one that is internally coherent, and follows deductively from agreed-upon premises. This is the only way you’re going to make any headway when arguing about morality: You have to start with agreed upon premises about value and try to convince your opponent that your moral conclusions derive from these premises and that his do not. Alternatively, you can resign yourself to the fact that “judging” really just amounts to having value preferences, and you are just as entitled to yours as anyone else is to his.

      Re: Value Judgment

      I am curious about your father-in-law’s belief that it is “truly impossible to judge another culture from without.” As I mentioned above, I think that “judgment” in this case just amounts to having your own values and moral preferences. So, to me, it’s rather difficult to imagine not “judging” in that sense. But, I think you (and he) must mean something stronger when you say “judgment.” Perhaps the judgmental person you imagine is saying something like “My beliefs about right and wrong are objectively true.” This isn’t something you can prove, but you are entitled to secretly feel that way, providing you realize people with opposing beliefs will also feel that way. Or maybe you imagine an even stronger kind of judgment where a person believes something like, “My moral values are totally independent of my culture and upbringing, and therefore I would believe exactly the same things were I raised in an entirely different time and place.” This last version is, of course, absurd, but I don’t think you’re in any danger of falling into it, given that you recognize that culture does exert an influence on our values and beliefs. So, I guess my question to you is, “What’s so bad about judgment?”

  2. UKwildcat Says:

    Jim how have you been? Do you still have my email? I miss the conversaions we had on RX.

  3. Patrick Says:

    I just read your article, “Silly Utilitarians, You Can’t Derive an Ought from an Is” and wanted to offer a reply. I know, it’s a really old post.

    “So far from thinking that the moral concepts are indefinable, Hume actually defines the virtues in terms of the responses of an ideal spectator. Hume thought that we share a ‘moral sense’, a disposition to approve of some things and to disapprove of others, which operates in much the same way in most human beings so long as it is not clouded by misinformation or perverted by self-interest. To say that a trait is a virtue is to say that we would be inclined to approve of it at our unbiased best. “The hypothesis which we embrace is plain. It maintains, that morality is determined by sentiment. It defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary. We then proceed to examine a plain matter of fact, to wit, what actions have this influence.” (Enquiries: 289). Thus NOFI is not incompatible with naturalism. Hume himself was a naturalist, since he supposed that there are moral truths which are made true by natural facts, namely facts about what human beings are inclined to approve of. There are many philosophers who think that Hume’s No-Ought-From-Is is somehow equivalent to Moore’s Naturalistic Fallacy, a confusion that is enshrined in many text books and encyclopedias of philosophy. This is simply a mistake.

    1) Moral beliefs have an influence on [people’s] actions and affections.

    2) Reason alone [that is beliefs derived from reason unaided by desire] can never have any such influence.


    3) Morals… cannot be derived from reason.”

    This view is completely compatible with Mill’s utilitarianism which is based on a sentamentalist metaethics. Is-ought is only a problem for a metaethics which attempts to derive morality from reason. Different kinds of utilitarianism that don’t try to derive ought from is can therefore avoid the objection.

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