Culture as moral order: when worlds collide

February 13, 2010

Cortez and Montezuma

Christian Smith’s thesis in Moral, Believing Animals leads to a perplexing consequence.  If cultures depend on “particularistic knowledge systems” which float on non-empirical and mostly untestable assumptions, it becomes impossible to adjudicate between the moral orders these cultures represent.  No objective standard, no universally accessible set of facts can ever be found for judgment, on Smith’s account.

This may sound like multiculturalism on steroids, but the implications run far deeper than that.  I believe, for example, that the Iranian people demonstrating in the streets of Teheran today stand for a nobler moral order than do the thugs who beat and imprison them.  I also believe that the way of life in South Korea is vastly superior, in moral worth as well as material prosperity, to that of the North.

Those beliefs would reduced to rooting for my home team against the visitor, in the uncertain world sketched by Smith.  I think my moral order is superior; the ayatollahs, theirs.  We abominated the Nazis and the Soviets, as they did us.  That is all we know on earth, and all we can ever know.

Smith himself makes clear that, as a practical matter, such relativism is impossible, because it is inhuman.  None of us can stand outside moral order.  To do so would not lead us to a higher reality, a kind of God’s eye-view, but to the opposite:  to unreality and incoherence, a lunatic’s perspective.  That is the human condition, and except in pathological cases, there’s no opting out.

But this changes nothing.  Being inside a moral order, I will always believe universal truth justifies my beliefs; being inside another, Kim Jong Il will believe the same.

The bridge thrown out by Smith is rickety and fails to get us over our predicament.  “Sometimes,” he writes, “though not always, people come better to understand their own and others’ views through arguments with rivals.”  Unless by “understand” Smith means “fortify one’s arguments,” that is simply not true.  Moral disputes are invariably bitter and grow more so in disputation.

Beyond “discussing” and “arguing,” Smith has only one additional suggestion.  On occasion, people do reject their own worldview and whole-heartedly embrace another:  they convert.  The most famous convert in history, St. Paul, changed from a persecutor to a persecuted Christian.  He switched narratives, choosing weakness over power.

Here Smith is on to something, though he doesn’t pursue the subject.  We will return to conversions – and the collision of cultures – in a moment.  First, let’s clear the ground.

I agree with Smith that culture is moral order.  I accept his thesis that knowledge rests on unproveable assumptions, and that, in some epistemological fashion, cultures are incommensurable.  But I reject the conclusion that we can’t judge among moral orders without engaging in home-team boosterism.

Smith shows disdain for “antique notions of ‘human nature.’”  Whether he disdains every other notion as well is less clear, but it would be an odd maneuver for someone who describes our species as “moral, believing animals.”

In any case, human nature must be the grist out of which culture, over long periods of time and in contact with a specific environment, evolves a moral order.  Certain human predilections are strengthened, others suppressed.  This generates difference.  But many human needs are so basic that, compared to the similarities, the cultural differences in handling these needs are trivial.

The vast majority of humanity, everywhere and in every age, would prefer happiness over its opposite.  Most individuals prefer high status to low, a spouse to solitude, children to barrenness, wealth to poverty.  Every moral order praises courage, generosity, sacrifice for the community.  Besides difference, there is a large space for commonality.

The existence of human universals, presumably based on our shared ancestry, is well known to psychology and anthropology.  The most persuasive experiment demonstrating the biological limits of cultural differentiation took place on November 8, 1519.  That day, the Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortez met the Aztec king, Montezuma.

The two men gazed on each other across 10,000 years of cultural isolation.  One would have expected absolute mutual incomprehension if moral orders evolve without constraint.  If fact, they understood each other perfectly.  Both assumed a world in which deities ruled the cosmos, kings ruled nations, men married women, languages had meaning, status and wealth were sought after, property was owned and traded, art and music were made – and so on, down the list of universals.

The encounter ended badly for the Aztecs.  They were overwhelmed by a Spanish culture whose moral superiority might be open to debate, but whose material and informational superiority was beyond doubt.  When the two moral orders collided, a judgment was rendered.  Within a few generations, most of Mexico’s Indian population had converted.

Such collisions – of the sort brilliantly analyzed by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel – appear decided by little more than brute force.  Yet this is only one aspect of the resolution – in my opinion, the less significant.

The struggle among cultures serves as functional counterweight to the human obsession with moral orderliness which is Smith’s subject.  It marginalizes the narrower and less inventive worldviews, and rewards the more capacious in terms of promoting both material gain and human satisfaction.  Thus the Shakers, who denied sex, died out – as did most of the Stalinists who denied property.

The projection of human need gives a moral dimension to the relative functional success of a culture.  Sometimes, as with the Spaniards, functional superiority mostly meant literacy, guns, and immunity to disease.  But it is never solely a question of brute force.  If that were the case, Cortez would have spoken Arabic, and converted the Aztecs to Islam.

I note, by way of warning, that many systems I consider immoral claim functional successes to achieve moral justification.  Totalitarians, for example, regularly boast of superior health services and making trains run on time.  The question for me is whether we can judge between moral orders by appealing to another standard.

I think the answer has already been given.  The highest moral standard pertains to our shared humanity:  the fact that, genetically, we are all family, we have in common so many tics and whims and loves and hates.  That moral order is morally superior which best promotes and orchestrates our universal demands – for peace, predictability, religion, a worthy place in the community, marriage and family life, matching our livelihood to our talents, and so forth.

This moral superiority remains true even if a culture is functionally inferior to another – if it is poorer, say, or has less effective health services.  However, I believe that functional success – material wealth and command of the environment – depends to a great extent on the protection of our shared human ambitions.  This may not be an iron law of history, but at a minimum it’s a suggestive trend.

I have said nothing about the individual or personal freedom.  That is a subject for another post.  Suffice it to say here that the individual is determinative in the fate of cultures.  He chooses with his heart and with his feet.  I suspect few persons ever hate or despise the moral order into which they were born – but many have felt a powerful attraction for another.

Conversion, as the story of St. Paul shows, has a moral dimension.  If in the future people were shot trying to escape from South to North Korea, or from the US into Mexico, it would be time to ask whether the moral polarities between those nations had reversed.

Confrontation in Iran