Monday, April 4, 2016

Moral Paralysis

In 2011 (12/5) I ran the following post under the title of The Fatuousness of Relativism. Having just talked about that topic recently in my classes I thought it'd be appropriate to run it again, slightly edited:

Denyse O'Leary passes on a story told by a Canadian high school philosophy teacher named Stephen Anderson. Anderson recounts what happened when he tried to show students what can happen to women in a culture with no tradition of treating women as human beings:
I was teaching my senior Philosophy class. We had just finished a unit on Metaphysics and were about to get into Ethics, the philosophy of how we make moral judgments. The school had also just had several social-justice-type assemblies—multiculturalism, women’s rights, anti-violence and gay acceptance. So there was no shortage of reference points from which to begin.

I decided to open by simply displaying, without comment, the photo of Bibi Aisha (see below). Aisha was the Afghani teenager who was forced into an abusive marriage with a Taliban fighter, who abused her and kept her with his animals. When she attempted to flee, her family caught her, hacked off her nose and ears, and left her for dead in the mountains. After crawling to her grandfather’s house, she was saved by a nearby American hospital. I felt quite sure that my students, seeing the suffering of this poor girl of their own age, would have a clear ethical reaction, from which we could build toward more difficult cases.

The picture is horrific. Aisha’s beautiful eyes stare hauntingly back at you above the mangled hole that was once her nose. Some of my students could not even raise their eyes to look at it. I could see that many were experiencing deep emotions, but I was not prepared for their reaction.

I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture.

They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.” Another said (with no consciousness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

While we may hope some are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is “never judge, never criticize, never take a position.”
This is a picture of Bibi Aisha. She was deliberately mutilated by her family because she did not want to stay in a marriage to which she did not consent and in which she was treated like livestock. Anyone who would do this to another human being is evil. Any culture which condones it is degenerate, and any person who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this, or to sympathize with her suffering, is a moral dwarf.

The shocking prevalence of moral dwarfism in our culture should not surprise us, however. Once a society jettisons its Judeo-Christian heritage it no longer has any non-subjective basis for making moral judgments. Its moral sense is stunted, warped, and diminished because it's based on nothing more than one's own subjective feelings. People come to believe that their moral opinions are no more "right" than the feelings of the people who did this to Bibi Aisha, and so they say things like, "If it's right for them then it's right", or "It's wrong for us to judge others", or "If you say it's wrong that's just your opinion".

This is moral paralysis, and it's a legacy of modernity and the secular Enlightenment.