Moral Judgments of Foreign Cultures and Bygone Epochs

Eckhart Arnold

1 Exposition of the Problem
2 Preliminary: The meaning of moral reasoning and discussion in face of the impossibility of proving the truth of moral statements
3 Breaking up the Question: Judgments of Institutions and Judgments of People
    3.1 Judgments of Institutions and Moral Systems
    3.2 Judgments of People and their Actions
4 Objections and Refinement

3.1 Judgments of Institutions and Moral Systems

When looking at moral systems or social institutions abstractly, we do not need to take into account in how far it can be expected from a human being to emancipate herself or himself from traditional moral prejudices and to rise above the level of his or her surrounding. Under this perspective we therefore do not need to have any hesitation to judge rigorously according to our own ethical standards. The reason why we should do so is simply that morals matter. Moral rules regulate how people should treat each other and it is a matter of great importance how people are treated - anywhere in this world. More emphatically we could say that there exists some such thing as a world responsibility which compells us and at the same time entitles us to take up a stance on what happens to human beings anytime and anywhere in this world.[3] On a mythical level our world responsibility is the expression of the unity of mankind that is of the moral bonds that connect any human in this world with any other human being. If we assume world responsibility in this sense we cannot suspend our moral judgment merely on behalf of the remoteness of context - at least not when important matters are at stake.

There should be only two restrictions to the rigour of moral judgment in this case: limits of possibilities and limits of importance. “Limits of possibility” describe the fact that certain morally approvable goals may not be feasible in some contexts. Take, for example, the introduction of liberal democracy. This form of government (most probably) cannot exist if not certain prerequisites concerning social structure, economic prosperity, educational level and the like are met (Schmidt 2000, p. 438ff.). Moreover, in order to install a liberal democracy, a good deal of technical knowledge about institutional arrangements and procedures is needed, a technical knowledge that is in its fully developed form a relatively recent invention. Therefore, it would be absurd to make a moral point of the absence of liberal democracy in, say, medieval Europe. The same holds true for the intercultural case, although it is a little less obvious there. For, if the technical knowledge required to realize some moral goal exists somewhere in this world then it should be readily available anywhere. But there can still be objective limits of possibilities that preclude the realization of this or other moral goods in a certain context. In this case we cannot simply judge according to our own moral standards, which tacitly rely on the existence of certain “objective possibilities” (Weber 1906).

Regarding the limits of possibilities as a restriction of moral judgment, there is a danger of mistakenly or dishonestly assuming limits of possibility where really are none. The problem of determining objective possibilities or the limits thereof is, however, more an epistemological problem than one of moral philosophy. It is precisely the problem that historians and social scientists face when they want to assess the “objective possibility” (Max Weber) of historical developments. As our knowledge of the laws that govern social developments or the course of history is extremely limited, determining the “objective possibilities or impossibilities” of social development is quite a difficult task. The techniques by which social scientists help themselves out when they want to assess the “objective possibilities” that a given historical situation offers include the comparison with similar situations at a different place or time, or looking at the alternatives that were (or are) under discussion among the actors within these situations, presuming that something that was seriously considered by the contemporaries was probably not totally unrealistic. Roughly speaking, anything that ever existed represents a possibility, but it may still not be a viable alternative in a given situation, and conversely, some possibilities may never have been realized or even thought of and still be realistic alternatives.

In the intercultural context the question is frequently raised whether the adoption of certain values, for example modern values like human rights or religious tolerance or democratic government, is compatible with a certain cultural background, say Islamic culture. This is an important question concerning “objective possibilities”, because if there really was such an incompatibility of modern values and cultural tradition, then demanding the the adoption of modern values would entail nothing less than the abandonment of a culture. To answer the question, whether the adoption of modern values is compatible with retaining the traditional culture, a comparison with our own culture might help. There was indeed a time when Christian occidental culture posed quite a contrast to the above mentioned “modern values”. However, the propagation of these values through the movement of enlightenment and ultimately their adoption did not lead to the abandonment of Christian occidental culture but only to a transformation of this culture. There is no reason why a similar transformation should be inaccessible to other cultures, although we will potentially have to face the fact that the members of other cultures may perhaps not want to adopt modern values. But since there is an objective possibility of consolating Islamic culture with modern values, we do not need to have any hesitations about critizising the insufficient observance of, say, the human rights in many Islamic countries today.

The other restriction for the judgment of moral systems and institutions of foreign cultures or past epochs concerns limits of importance of the subject matter at hand. The “importance of the subject matter” depends on the rank of the moral values concerned and on the level of involvedness, which in turn depends on spatial and temporal distance and the strength or weakness of social or just empathetic ties. We can call the principle according to which the importance of a moral subject matter decreases with remoteness the principle of locality. A good example for the employment of this principle are burial rites. In most countries (including western countries) these are strictly regulated by the law and strong feelings are involved with regard to the appropriateness of the respective ceremonial proceedings. Yet, although the burial rites in different countries may strongly contradict each other, this is hardly a matter of intercultural controversy. As their regulation by law testifies, this does by no means entail that they are morally neutral.

There exists, however, a difference here between the intercultural case and the historical case. In the historical case the moral importance may indeed decrease until almost nothing is left. Historians do not really need to argue about the human rights violations that occurred during Alexander's conquests, if only because there are other aspects of these happenings that are of much greater historical interest. But in contemporary times, if in some place of the world severe violations of human rights occur then the moral aspect cannot be ignored.

Thus we could say that the importance of a moral questions is the smaller the farther away it occurs and the lower the rank of the values involved, but that when basic values are concerned it may never become so small as to render the answer completely unimportant. The latter may be understood as a consequence of our world responsibility.

With these restrictions moral judgments of strange cultures and distant epochs according to one's own set of values represent the upper limit up to which a rigorous moral absolutism (i.e. the unanimous application or imposition of one's own values in any context) is sensible. However, it is only so, when we judge abstractly about moral systems or about institutions. When we judge the actions of concrete people this is still too much, because we have to take into account the unavoidable limitations of human nature and especially the fact that anybody's perspective is necessarily limited by the time and culture he or she is born into and lives in. This will be the topic of the following.

[3] The idea of world responsibility is borrowed from the the total responsibility for everything that some strata of the philosophy of existentialism assume.

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