Friday, April 06, 2007

Accepting cultural dichotomies - The Daily of the University of Washington Online

*face-palm; head-desk*

I had been "forced" to plow through the natural law section of a particular analytical jurisprudence textbook wherein I was of the opinion that the editor of the book was engaging in some rather dubious reasoning in certain of his essays that he had inserted into his book.

One of the more annoying parts was where he conflated moral relativism with moral nihilism where got me rather annoyed because it smacks of shoddy reasoning and more often than more was a serious case of moral imperialism at work.

And then I read this article which did precisely that, the author writing from the viewpoint of moral relativism down the merry path to moral nihilism.

While Afghan women can now legally vote, attend school and walk in public without a burqa, little has changed for women living in the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan since the Taliban’s fall.

The Pashtuns — also called Pushtuns, Pakhtuns and Pathans — live along the “border zone” of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nearly 50 percent of Afghanistan’s, and 15 percent of Pakistan’s, population is Pashtun, meaning they speak Pashtu and follow Pushtunwali, a tribal code with an Islamic influence, particularly in times of war.

Relatively unchanged for centuries and hardly touched by even the British during their colonial rule, the Pashtun society follows a system emphasizing honor, respect and revenge, primarily to uphold one’s honor.

Pashtun women lack almost all rights. They can be beaten for talking back to their husbands, killed by their fathers or uncles for eloping with a man or traded to end a blood feud between clans.

According to Pashtuns interviewed by The Economist, the best way to resolve inter-clan disputes is through jirgas, or tribal courts. Often the court orders a clan to trade a 15-year-old, 10-year-old and 5-year-old girl with the enemy clan, which is called lund pur, or “wet debt.”

Pashtuns believe this exchange creates peace between clans because three generations will be connected through marriage. As one Pashtun proverb states, “Blood cannot wash away blood, but blood can be turned into love.”

Although many reviled the system under the Taliban, many Pashtuns opposed the Taliban’s Shariah — Islamic law — as being too soft. Within Shariah, women are allowed to own land, widows are not required to marry their deceased husband’s brothers or cousins and the trade of girls to settle disputes is not allowed, unlike the Pashtun system. In this society, women are property, forever tied to their fathers, uncles or husbands.

As a woman who believes in equal rights across the genders, I am internally conflicted when I learn about societies like the Pashtun’s, or other societies that have practices such as clitoral circumcision, which prevents a female from achieving orgasm.

Do I have a right, however, to impose my Western standards on another culture? I think not. Although I am strongly opposed to these practices, I don’t believe any Western influence would change the situation.

The Pashtuns have waged bloody wars against governments and groups that attempt to oversee or control their lives. Their cultural emphasis on honor and upholding honor at all costs supports their battles against foreign powers — even the United States.

To change their practices would require oppressing their entire culture.

Taking a step back and looking at our own society, one can find structured patterns of behavior, albeit at a completely different level. The average American child goes to school, then to college, gets married, buys a house and has kids. Until our parents’ generation, most women stayed at home, cleaned and cared for children.

Although we have the freedom to follow a different path, many follow this systematic process without question. In cultures as strict and stringent as the Pashtun’s, no one questions his or her role in life, and actions and decisions follow a scripted tribal code.

Undoubtedly, our culture is diametrically opposed to the Pashtun’s, but there exists a structure in every culture, and to force it to change is to threaten the society itself.

For example, clitoral circumcision is common throughout Northern Africa, and many human rights groups have tried to spread awareness to women about their bodily rights. The great majority of women believe these Western groups are crazy. To them, clitoral circumcision transforms a young girl into a woman, and they choose to partake in the ceremony.

Culture structures our daily lives, and by acknowledging this, we can begin to understand why people participate in activities that we consider inhumane or unethical.

Although my cultural preconditions register certain activities as wrong, others from another culture may see our daily activities as obscene.

I don’t believe I have any right to judge. about giving fuel to the fire. Here was my reply:

It is hard enough to get people to accept moral relativism and multi-culturalism without having to repeatedly defend against charges that it leads to moral nihilism, which (rightly or wrongly), the article gives as its overarching impression.

Assuming that we take at face value her asserted conclusion that she does not believe she has a right to judge, the question remains whether this is a necessary outcome of her moral relativism argument. After all, one could easily argue and accept that a liberal democracy is the most satisfying contingent framework on the very basis of moral relativity itself. For if all norms are subjectively valid, this does not presuppose that one necessarily has to take a hands-off approach because actions accrue as a result of those norms. Those norms in turn affect material tangible beings we like to call humans. Therefore, the appropriate question should what system best allows for all these norms to coexist to their fullest extent because we still have to adjudicate between these various norms if for no other reason than the fact that we co-exist. Therefore a liberal democracy almost by definition allows for a framework of such coexistence by protecting minority viewpoints and culture from the majority while also protecting individuals from oppressive minority cultures e.g. honour killings.

Even if we accept that culture exists outside of individuals and that it remains separate and immutable, it does not answer the question of whether that culture deserves to exist in the first place or that the culture ought to remain immutable and unchanging. Patrick Glenn argues that culture and traditions are composed essentially of information and that unless one if a fundamentalist, that information will change over time and with exposure to other cultures. It’s also worth noting that he denounces both the moral absolutist approach as well as the moral nihilistic approach.

But what is most disturbing in this "I have no right to judge approach" is that it ultimately denies the capacity and capability of every individual to determine at least for herself or himself the validity of norms and the closest approximation of Truth through reason. It denies self-actualization and it denies capacity to act in the face of true evil and oppression. If Ms. McKean does not mean to go so far, she might well like to issue a clarification or a correction.

Thus a moral relativist approach can be compatible with "imposing" a worldview or a framework wherein every individual can achieve freedom of thought and conscience. These things cannot occur where a society is coercive, repressive, thought controlling and totalitarian in those regards.

Respect for a culture does not mean remaining blind to its flaws.

Addendum: Here's a well written response over at The Broken Watch taking issue with certain unclear points of Ms. McKean's article (conflation of ontological arguments with ones based on utility) as well as an examination of the genetic fallacy i.e. just because something is from a particular place does not i) reflect that is is only contextually valid and ii) reflect its inherent validity or lack thereof.

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