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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner

I recently finished reading James D. Wallace’s Ethical Norms, Particular Cases (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 148. It is a wise little book of moral philosophy, not profound or ground-breaking mind you, but containing more real truths than most other books on the subject. In it, Wallace defends a version of what is commonly called, in philosopher’s parlance, moral particularism, the basic idea of which is that moral decision-making is more properly done in light of the detailed knowledge of the moral situation, not by appeal to abstract, general rules.

Towards the end of the book, Wallace makes a point with which, at first, I found myself nodding in agreement. But then small doubts came creeping in. The point, roughly is that, when faced with some practice or activity that seems morally wrong — Wallace’s example is widow-burning — we have two choices: we can either force the other party to stop, or we can try to convince them of the wrongness of what they are doing. If we cannot do the latter by giving them concrete reasons for why it is wrong, then appealing to universal moral principles is even less likely to produce the desired effect.

Someone whose moral sensibility is too dulled or perverted by bad customs to be able to see that widow-burning is an abominable practice is not going to change his beliefs on the basis of a lecture on Kant’s Categorical Imperative. We are better advised to stick to the particularities of the situation at hand. “We may suppose that we are articulating universal moral norms that apply to everyone, whatever their way of life, but it is apt to appear to our hearers that we are doing something more parochial.” In short, our universal moral principles are apt to sound rather un-universal to those who will not or cannot accept them.

Anthropology versus Moral Philosophy

So much I will happily grant Wallace. However, there is a further claim he makes that I am not so comfortable with. He says that if we want to be effective at giving particularistic reasons to a widow-burner, we are required “to understand their activities, purposes, and norms, their way of life”.

Must we? After all, we are moralists, not anthropologists. We can put this into perspective by dividing human customs and practices into roughly three categories, which can be characterized according to the kinds of reactions they tend to evoke in outsiders.

First, there are many human practices one could be faced with that, though they seem strange, would likely elicit only a shrug from us. We might even take part in them if invited to do so, for example, the Italian practice of kissing people, both men and women, on both cheeks — after all, when in Rome…

Second, there is the class of practices that drift a bit beyond “strange” and into the realm of “disgusting” or “revolting”. Perhaps the commonest examples here are the countless dietary practices found across cultures, or perhaps the various forms of “beautification” by self-mutilation (of which, incidentally, our own culture provides numerous examples). In the case of this class of practices, although our reactions to them might be strong and visceral, we do not feel the urge to put an immediate halt to them. Although it is unlikely that we can be brought to take part in them, others are welcome to do so if they wish — after all, live and let live…

With these first two categories of practices, I would agree that there’s probably little harm done in taking the anthropologist’s stance. Strictly speaking, I would argue that they are not really part of the domain of moral philosophy anyway.

However, things are very different with respect to the third category, which consists of practices manifesting fundamental differences in moral values (widow-burning being an example). Here, the anthropologist must yield to the moral philosopher, for these are cases where the practice is not just strange, or revolting, but also should not be done by myself or others.

To summarize, then, here are the three categories of practice (P) and the reactions they evoke:

1. P is strange, but I might engage in it myself, given the right circumstances.
2. P is disgusting, and I probably would not engage in it under any circumstances, but others are welcome to if they wish.
3. P is morally wrong, and no one ought to engage in it, and I would stamp out P if I could.

Now, it is sometimes the case that we misclassify an instance of class 1 or — more often — of class 2, as a case of class 3. This is where forbearance has a role to play, for on such occasions we might be confusing disgust with moral disapprobation. Where this is the case, we should examine our own judgment; however, we are not required to “understand” (in Wallace’s sense) the other’s practice, or if so, then only very tangentially. Certainly, we needn’t go so far as to play the anthropologist here.

Furthermore, such examination of our judgment is more appropriately done according to the criteria of our own moral values, beliefs, and principles, not according to the criteria of the moral values, beliefs, and principles of the people in question. To use an analogy, we judge something to be a crime in light of what our law says, not according to what the laws of other nations say, and certainly not according to the standards and objectives of criminals themselves.

Taking the Pill

There is not just something wrong-headed about trying to “understand” practices like widow-burning. I wish to make the controversial claim that to even try to understand it is itself morally suspect. The anthropological approach misunderstands the nature of morality and moral judgment, lumping moral norms with other types of norms, despite fundamental differences.

What makes moral norms fundamentally different from other social or cultural norms? This can best be seen by trying a little thought experiment. Ultimately the success of the experiment will rely on your intuitions about the situations described matching mine, which is always a danger in this kind of exposition. But here goes…

Imagine you are graduate student in anthropology. You are doing research in the field, and the culture you are studying presents you with a class 2 practice that you find personally revolting. Let’s say it involves eating some disgusting kind of food, perhaps something like a giant hissing cockroach, and maybe while it’s still alive and wriggling. You are invited to partake, and it might be insulting to refuse. Besides that, the objectives of your research require that you integrate into this culture as much as you can in the time available to you for study. And yet, because of your visceral feeling of disgust, you can’t bring yourself to eat the many-eyed, many-legged, hissing, wriggling thing on the end of the chopstick in front of you.

However, before you left on your journey, your PhD supervisor gave you one of his special pills, the effect of which is to block feelings of revulsion, much as aspirin blocks headache pain. Would you take the pill? If your intuitions are like mine, then although you feel disgust while gazing upon your intended meal, you would be sufficiently motivated to take the pill. After all, it’s in the service of science.

Now imagine this second scenario: you ate the bug, went on to get your PhD, published a book about your experience, and now you have gone on another trip to study a different culture, to write a different book. This time the people in question present you with a class 3 cultural practice. They are about to roast a live and screaming baby on a fire and they invite you to place the baby on the fire yourself, a ceremonial office of great honour. Not only do you feel revulsion, but you feel you must do what you can to put a stop to this horrible practice. You certainly believe that you ought not to take any part in it.

However, before you left on your journey, a colleague gave you one of her special pills, the effect of which is to block out feelings of moral aversion, much as aspirin blocks headache pain. Would you take the pill? If your intuitions are like mine, then no, you would not take the pill. Someone with enough motivation to take the pill must, I contend, be morally suspect ab initio.

You see, morality doesn’t only require having the right values and adhering to the right principles. It also involves an added element, which is having a certain attitude of commitment towards those principles and values. You cannot really call yourself a loyal spouse if you’d be willing to take a pill that enables you to cheat on your husband or wife guilt-free. If the lack of a pill is all that comes between you and immorality, then your integrity must be open to question. It is intelligible to want to overcome squeamishness. It is less intelligible to want to overcome one’s moral values — unless they aren’t really moral values in the first place.

My unwillingness to take the pill, even in the face of countervailing temptations, is a fairly reliable sign that the values in question are moral values, rather than some other kind. Nobody said morality is easy. As a matter of fact, more often than not, it is precisely the purpose of morality to act as a bulwark against the frequent and strong temptations to transgress. If nobody ever did anything wrong, there would be nothing for moral philosophers to talk about.

If I am committed to certain moral values, it’s not just that I don’t wish to experience the guilt or shame associated with transgressing those values. More fundamentally, I don’t want to be the kind of person who would transgress them.

Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner

Let’s change the roasted baby example somewhat. Rather than removing moral disapprobation, let’s instead say that the pill in question makes you understand the practice, like a good anthropologist should. Would you take it now?

This question is a bit tougher. It would very much depend on what is meant by “understand” in this context, and what other effects such “understanding” might have. If, as the French saying goes, tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner (“to understand everything is to forgive”), then I would have to say no. Such understanding might be fine for practices of class 1 or 2, but not for class 3.

I suppose we could distinguish between two kinds of “understanding”. Understanding1 happens at a purely intellectual level. It finds expression in sentences like “I understand that culture C practices P for reasons x, y, and z”, or “Hitler wished to exterminate the Jews because he blamed them for Germany’s humiliation in the First World War”. Understanding2 on the other hand, happens at a deeper level, involving a certain degree of acceptance, forgiveness, justification of, or participation in, a practice. It is the root of the French tout comprendre, etc.

Perhaps Wallace merely wants us to understand1 class 3 cultural practices. On the surface, there wouldn’t appear to be a problem with this. After all, I can understand1 Hitler’s reasons for implementing the Holocaust without thereby assenting or becoming an anti-Semite in the process. On the other hand, I’m dubious about any suggestion that understanding1 would have been of any assistance in convincing Hitler to stop. Even if Hitler were amenable to persuasion, presumably this would be achieved by making the discourse run in the opposite direction, by making him understand2 my reasons as to why his practice is wrong. If the goal here is persuasion, why do I need to know his reasons? After all, Hitler’s reasons are irrelevant to my purpose… unless I am trying to remain open to the idea that I might be mistaken. And here there is danger, for it is exactly in such circumstances, where I lack the courage of my moral convictions, that understanding1 can drift into understanding2, and once this happens, I have crossed a moral Rubicon; I have chosen to take the pill, as it were.

Put another way, when we’re confronted with practices that violate our moral norms, we are not in the position to have the kind of gentlemanly academic discussion where we can be “open” to being persuaded by the other. The other is simply wrong, and we must show him why he is wrong. Wallace has not made it clear why “understanding” the other’s motivations is necessary for this task.

Those who, like me, have been raised in a liberal society, and have been taught to be tolerant (to a fault) of just about everything, will be uncomfortable with my conclusions. But trust me, there are others raised in less tolerant atmospheres who are not so squeamish, and the only way to hold our own against them is to have the courage of our convictions. And a conviction is a conviction precisely because it’s non-negotiable.

All of this leads to an obvious question: Does my point of view lead inexorably to a relativistic war of all against all on the basis of conflicting values, in which rational argument must be put aside in favour of brute struggle? I’m not sure, but I hope not. We might take heart in the fact that many have been brought around to “our” moral point of view, and there are others who would gladly embrace our values without being forced if given the intellectual and political freedom to choose.

I say our moral values instead of “Western” values, because the West can no longer necessarily claim them as its exclusive achievement. Ideas that were first articulated in Western nations for historically contingent reasons have found resonance with others, who are embracing them even while the West is losing confidence in them. The future of “Western” ideas and values may lie outside the West.

* * *

I recognize that I have probably attempted to juggle too many ideas in this posting, and that I have raised more questions than I have answered. However, they reflect the rush of ideas that crowded into my head after reading Wallace’s nice little passage.


  1. Thank you for writing this. It made me think.

  2. Thank you for taking an interest, sleepsonfloors (and thank you for letting me know about it!)

  3. Here is a recent newspaper article in which the author proposes the reverse of my experiment, taking a "morality pill" (rather than an immorality pill):