One of the comments on Mark Satta’s recent very hot post about universal salvation has been zooming ’round my brain, and demands, I think, a PEL episode at some point. A comment by our listener Bear stated:
My questions about Atheists wanting to redefine orthodoxies of particular belief systems, be it Christian, Buddhist, Mormon, Islam &c., demanding those within the belief system to accept certain propositions internal the belief system. For example, telling very conservative Evangelical Christians or Buddhists that they must accept and not condemn sodomy, and they must accept what greater society thinks about these things.
This is not an abstract concern, I have seen this regularly.
When does the internal beliefs of a group become public debate? How much can a society demand that a religious group abandon its beliefs and conform to the rest of society?
This is asking the question (from the inside of a religion rather than the outside) that Dylan brought up back in our new atheist episode. Dylan’s point as I recall it was that it’s less useful (and hence interesting) to argue about the contents of religious belief than to talk about how people with different beliefs can get along politically: how do we make intolerant and exclusionary people “play nice” with the rest of society whatever their beliefs may be? This question itself is a partial answer to Bear’s question: we in the rest of society have an interest in niggling into the internal beliefs of a religious community insofar as the religious community is being hostile, intolerant, or insulting. Likewise, of course, those within a religious community have an interest in altering the thinking of outsiders if they are on the receiving end of those attitudes.
This two-way relation alone is sufficient to break down the sanctity of the internal ethical deliberations of any given value culture. I think a good way to think about why this is the case is in terms of different conceptions of ethical relativism. Now, when I use the term “ethical relativism,” I don’t want us to get lost immediately in the issue of ethical realism vs. irrealism; I’m less interested here in the ontological status of moral facts than what you might call the semantic character of ethical claims: how we actually use moral terms, and when we typically assent to someone else’s moral judgment as being correct in some instance.
What you might call actor-based cultural relativism would entail that for an ethical claim about some action to be appropriate, the speaker and the actor require a shared value culture. This is what is normally associated with the term “relativism,” and it’s pretty counter-intuitive. If people in some ancient culture used to perform human sacrifice or had slaves or had sex with goats, then we outside the culture (according to this type of relativism) really aren’t qualified to condemn them. Though closed religious groups today do not, of course, hold cultural relativism of this sort as a legitimate ontological position (i.e. they don’t believe there are different moral facts reigning over different communities; on the contrary, they think that there is only one set of moral facts, and they’re in possession of them, while outsiders aren’t), from a practical, political standpoint, this is how they behave. “We in our tradition share a value culture that dictates our ethical beliefs. You outsiders don’t play the same language games we do when it comes to making value judgments, so you can’t helpfully engage in our internal debates, and likewise, since we don’t share your base moral assumptions, we’re not going to be able to usefully enter into your discourse.”
An alternative to actor-based cultural relativism (where, again, the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on the actor’s community, and only by somehow entering into that community can a speaker make correct value judgments about that actor) is speaker-based cultural relativism (and yes, I’ve made these terms up; if there are more standard technical terms for what I’m talking about, please let me know), which says that the appropriateness of value claims depends on the speaker’s value culture, not the actor’s (i.e. the target of the ethical judgment). So in this case, an outsider to a value culture can legitimately issue praise or condemnation about those within that culture, and the correctness of the moral judgment is a matter of that speaker’s culture. So you and I can legitimately debate about the correctness of the ancient human-sacrificing goat-fuckers, and if I argue that they were just great, you can try to convince me that, “come on, man, you KNOW that’s not the case,” if I look into my conscience (which is served up by culture, or maybe human nature or even God, but in any case, something that we in the same value culture share). At the same time, we’d fully expect that some far-future goat-fuckers might condemn us for our narrow mindedness about this.
If you take this second type of relativism seriously as an ontological claim about moral facts, then it requires a lot of explaining, and you probably get chased into some form of emotivism, or Humeanism, or whatever. But laying the ontological question aside, and again just comparing this to the alternative as a structure for judging the semantic character of ethical claims, it works OK, I think. We outsiders can condemn you insiders, and you insiders can condemn us outsiders… but unlike for actor-based cultural relativism, where the story ends there, for speaker-based cultural relativism, we still have potential grounds for trying to convince each other, based on what shared culture we do possess. Because face it, no value culture is totally insulated from the outside. We are political animals, and if there are other people on earth with us, and we haven’t ruled them out as legitimately being people (i.e. worthy of our respect; Aristotle certainly just writes off broad swathes of them), then we want to be able to look them in the eye and speak the same moral language, play the same language games. We just do. Whatever the actual source of our moral sentiments, we WANT to think of them as objective and hence shared, if only the other guy would just admit it.
So I think the reaction by religious groups to “just stop judging us! We have the right to have views that seem assholish to you!” is a very late historical development, a by-product of the liberal society that they claim to reject, and in basic denial of the semantic character of moral judgments, which is to apply universally. You can’t both say that all unbelievers are going to hell, or that God hates fags, and then claim that making such a claim is not an aggressive, hostile act, but instead is just a matter of one’s personal belief or something internal to the faith. As speaker-based relativists, we aim our moral judgments at each other, regardless of our targets’ faith or country or sub-culture. We want those people to share our judgments even as we expect (as relativists) that they certainly won’t. By making a moral claim, you are engaging, politically, with the rest of the world, and so the world (insofar as they’re paying attention) engages you back in the same way. I think if we recognize this as a case of speaker-based ethical relativism, instead of us just having incompatible absolutist ethical views, that puts us in a better position to attain common ground, by recognizing the common (biological? spiritual? evolutionary?) elements in our moral judgments.
So when a non-believer tries to quote scripture to the effect that Jesus really didn’t hate gays after all, or that there’s a lot of crap in Leviticus that we ignore, so we should ignore the anti-gay prohibitions as well, he’s not being disingenuous and sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong. He’s just trying to use the only tools apparently at his disposal for trying to achieve shared moral intuitions with the believer. He’s saying “hypothetically, IF you believe what you say you do, then these common moral intuitions that we in fact share should cause you to interpret your scriptures so that you don’t end up an asshole.” What’s important here isn’t his competence in textual exegesis in these foreign-to-him scriptures, but his appeal to your better nature to please, stop being such a jerk.
Taking the conflict from the other side, what can we say about, e.g. the current Middle East Muslim demands that we Westerners adopt standards that don’t permit defamation of their religion? The fact that many of them are interested in convincing us of this means that they haven’t given up either on our capacity to understand their offense, even if we don’t share their core beliefs. They’re urging us to understand our own creed to respect others’ freedom in such a way that we deem it improper to say mean things about their prophet.
Such openness toward dialogue may well not lead to any kind of satisfactory resolution in the short term, but I expect that our common human nature and the way cultural transmission works will in most cases lead to the more cosmopolitan view winning out over time. I would be very surprised, for instance, if circumcision is still around 200 years from now, or if particularly touchy Muslims are still getting upset over cartoons. (Frankly, I’d put meat-eating in that same doomed category, but that’s going to take much longer, I think, as that hasn’t yet become merely a minority fetish.) Certainly we should not get huffy about someone attempting to start a dialogue over this kind of issue, as if each value culture were an island unto itself with nothing to say to another.
If anyone can name a good reading in this area, I’ll take a look at it for a potential episode. I’m sure my sketchy account here could use some seasoning…