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
4 Objections and Refinement

4 Objections and Refinement

The two-tier approach to moral judgments concerning foreign cultures and bygone epochs permits a multifaceted and - as I hope - much more balanced view than a single set of criteria would. Still, it is open to many objections, the most obvious of which is that it introduces too many and too grave contradictions into our moral reasoning. For example, we can be forced to condemn a certain action taking place in different cultural context because it contradicts one or more of our core values, and at the same time we cannot criticize the person performing this action because he or she acts according to accepted moral standards of his or her culture. I believe that tolerating this kind of contradictions is a lesser evil than either laissez-faire moral relativism or the intercultural arrogance of moral absolutism. (Of course, a certain dose of both relativism as well as Western arrogance is still present in my approach.)

When forming an opinion we can be content with a multifaceted view and, most probably, this is even better than a single sided view. But when we have to take decisions then these must be unanimous. The problem becomes urgent, for example, when we have to decide on how to deal with immigrant subcultures that bring their own traditional values, some of which might come into conflict with moral standards of the host society. There can be only one law in one country, so that at least when the conflict comes down to legal matters, we will probably have to revert to a solution that is more in the spirit of moral absolutism. Still, our judgments will be more reasoned if we keep in mind that the problem as such is not as simple.

Quite the opposite becomes true, when we are concerned with intercultural dialogue. One can hardly start profitable a dialogue on the basis of a claim of moral superiority. A dialogue can only succeed when the partners talk to each other on an equal footing, which requires an attitude that may be termed the willing relativism of dialogue. This does not mean that we are not allowed to stand by our moral convictions, but prima facie we will look at the convictions of the others as equally respectable.

Summing it up, the two-tier approach to moral judgments expounded here will in many concrete situations have to be resolved to a more univocal point of view or judgment. However, putting the step of resolving last (in situations where this is necessary) has the heuristic advantage to allow more well reasoned judgments over the alternative of deciding definitely on a system of values first. It allows us to criticize moral standards that we strongly reject without having to react irritated against the people who comply with them. The moral judgments arrived at by the two-tier approach will therefore probably be more satisfactory than otherwise. The latter does, of course, depend on our moral intuitions or, rather, the self determination of our own moral will.

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