Jan 25, 2018 in History

Is an Encroachment on Other Cultures Allowed?

In terms of philosophy, the situation in question is rather ambiguous

If I knew that my neighbor was torturing his kids in the name of education, and this was perfectly moral according to the ethical community of which he was a member, I would definitely not interfere with my neighbor’s affairs. I would act like this merely because I do not like to interfere with somebody’s life, but from the philosophical standpoint my passive behavior also seems quite reasonable.

Firstly, it is essential to examine the situation in the light of the “greatest happiness principle,” which runs as follows: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Great Philosophers. John Stuart Mill. n.d.). Therefore, moral acts are believed to increase the total amount of utility or happiness in the world, and it is immoral to pursue one’s own happiness at the expense of social happiness. According to this principle, my neighbor’s actions are moral since he is contributing to overall happiness. It can be assumed that education contributes to happiness of my neighbor’s ethical community since torturing in the name of education is considered perfectly moral in it. Thus, the neighbor acts morally.

Nevertheless, taking into consideration the fact that happiness is defined as pleasure and the absence of pain, which are the only things “inherently” good (Great Philosophers. John Stuart Mill. n.d.), it seems that torturing one’s kids is immoral since the latter are not likely to find pleasure in being tortured (if they are not sadists, of course). Likewise, if one considers the figurative meaning of the phrase “torture in the name of education,” kids are also not likely to benefit from constant preaching and efforts to make them learn. Besides, if the kids’ father is a sadist and derives pleasure from torturing them, he is pursuing his own happiness. His actions can be called immoral if he does not contribute to social happiness, which is not the case. It follows from this that torturing in the name of education is good, especially if one agrees with Mill, claiming, “Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” Education really belongs to sophisticated, complex pleasures, so that it is worth victims.     

Therefore, I would not intervene with my neighbor’s actions since he is contributing to utility in the world and his actions are considered moral in a society he lives in. I have simply no right to encroach upon traditions and values of another society. Proceeding from the assumption of cultural relativism that “different societies have different moral codes,” (Rachels. n.d.) one can assert that what is considered good in one society can be perceived as bad in another. However, it is incorrect to criticize other cultures and traditions merely because somebody dislikes them. As William Sumner (1906) puts it,

The “right” way is the way which the ancestors used and which has been handed down

The tradition is its own warrant. It is not held subject to verification by experience. The notion of right is in the folkways. It is not outside of them, of independent origin, and brought to test them. In the folkways, whatever is, is right. This is because they are traditional, and therefore contain in themselves the authority of the ancestral ghosts. (Sumner. n.d.)

Furthermore, cultural relativism argues that “there is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another”. Likewise, “the moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society” (Rachels. n.d.) It follows from this that if in my country (within my society) it is considered immoral to torture somebody in the name of education, I cannot evaluate the same societal code of another society as worse than my own. This is explained by the fact that “the moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.” For this reason, it is “mere arrogance for people to try to judge the conduct of others”. On the contrary, “humanity should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures” (Rachels. n.d.).

Taking into consideration the theses of cultural relativism, it can be claimed that no line between respect to values of other communities and intervention should be drawn, i.e. values of other communities should not be encroached upon under any circumstances. Nonetheless, I tend to agree with James Rachels’ opinion, who claims that the “cultural differences argument is invalid” since the fact that people believe different things to be true does not lead to the conclusion that there is no objective truth. Therefore, although there may be culture-specific moral codes, this does not change the fact that there are objective, universal moral principles that are, at least, implicitly recognized in all societies (Rachels. n.d.).

Proceeding from this assumption, it seems reasonable to me that values of other cultures are to be intervened with only if they clash against some higher, universal moral principles. For instance, infanticide, on the one hand, is perfectly moral for the Eskimos since it is their cultural peculiarity; on the other hand, bloodshed is not a good practice in general because it contradicts the universal moral principle of not harming others. In other cases, if there is no sharp distinction between the universal morality and that of other communities, their values should not be intervened with but understood and accepted.


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