Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Never judge, never criticize, never take a position"

Anyone teaching in the humanities or the social sciences has had an experience much like this:
In "Moments of startling clarity: Moral education programming in Ontario today,” Stephen L. 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 if they were fellow human beings with men:
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. 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.”
Anderson reflects,
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.”
One reason might be this: For thousands of years, most thinkers assumed that virtue was something specific; it could be described, and could be distinguished from not-virtue (vice). Courage, for example, was a virtue—a cardinal virtue. Cowardice was a vice. One ought, they said, to aim for courage because it is intrinsically worthy, and avoid cowardice because it is intrinsically a disgrace. Those thinkers are—in the students’ terms—judgmental!

In recent decades, a new view has taken root. The new view is that courage and cowardice have no intrinsic reality. Neither does the classical virtue of justice or the vice of injustice. It all depends on how you feel about things, which in turn depends on your culture. That underlies the students’ inability to move from “I feel bad” to “This is wrong.”

One outcome has been the popular convention that all cultures are of equal value. If Afghan men see their treatment of women as just, then it must be so. We lack any legitimate basis for saying it isn’t. .... [more]
Thanks to Tom Gilson for the reference.