Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Presentation on Culture and Values

The following is the text of a presentation on culture and values I gave earlier today to the Inter Club Council at Diablo Valley College. I'm posting it here because I think makes the important metaethical point that inter-cultural dialogue concerning ethical matters makes little sense unless we assume values are objective.

Hi, my name is Jason, and the subject of my presentation is culture and values, specifically as they pertain to the relations between people of different cultures. But before we can see how they are related, we must first know what they are. Speaking roughly, a culture is a collection of customs, beliefs, and attitudes which are shared by a community and passed down largely intact from generation to generation. Values are similar in that they also include beliefs and attitudes, yet they differ in that they might either be confined to a single person or never passed down. Values could exist without culture, but the converse is not true, and hence they can be personal in a way that culture cannot. Culture and values are closely related insofar as they share a normative aspect. To say that something is normative means that it concerns not just what is the case, but also what should be the case. One can believe many things about what is, such as that grass is green or that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but only beliefs about what should be count as values. Our values can encompass anything we treasure, hope for, or regard as ideal. They are important because they are the principles we use to guide our thought and behavior. They determine not only what we do, but also who we are. The identity of a person or a culture is largely defined by the set of values they accept. This is especially true for cultures because every culture must have a set of behaviors it regards as permissible and another that it regards as taboo. Cultures need rules to determine who is part of the “in group” and who is part of the “out group”, otherwise there would be nothing to distinguish one culture from another. Whether or not one counts as part of a culture depends on whether or not one abides by these rules.

Now that we have some understanding of what culture and values are, we can ask ourselves what we should think about circumstances where the customs, beliefs, and attitudes of one culture conflict with those of another. In today’s ever shrinking world we are increasingly likely to encounter people of other cultures whose values are different from our own, and the question of how we should respond becomes increasingly more significant. In my opinion, the two main stances you can take are what I will call multiculturalism and cultural relativism. Though you might suppose these to be the same, I will argue that they are actually incompatible. Broadly speaking, I would say that multiculturalism is the idea that no single culture should be dominant because different cultures are valuable in their own right, and each has something positive to contribute to society. The presence of diverse perspectives and traditions promotes solidarity and mutual understanding, which helps prevent a society from becoming narrow-minded and intolerant. I would say that cultural relativism, by contrast, is the idea that no culture or cultural practice is inherently better than any other. It stands in opposition to objectivism, which holds that at least in some cases one culture’s practice can be better or worse than another’s. I think cultural relativism is accepted by many because they believe it subverts the claims that nations with imperialistic ambitions have often used to justify the subjugation of foreign peoples. Such nations have typically held their actions are justified because their culture is somehow superior to others, perhaps because they are more intelligent, more technologically advanced, or because they alone enjoy the favor of the gods or God. Whatever the reason, their actions are no less appalling. Cultural relativism seems attractive because it promises to do away with such rationalizations. If no culture is better than any other, none can use their alleged superiority as a pretext to oppress another. Yet I think those who embrace cultural relativism fail to see that their view entails they are in no position to condemn imperialistic societies. After all, these societies have a culture too, it just happens to be imperialistic! What’s to stop a member of such a society from saying that their actions are justified after all because imperialism is a part of their culture? Their culture might not be better than any other, but it is also no worse. So who are we to criticize them? If we reject objectivism because of the bad behavior it can be used to justify, we should reject cultural relativism for precisely the same reason.

However, I don’t think objectivism necessarily has the bad consequences its opponents attribute to it, so long as we distinguish it from a superficially similar position which I will call cultural chauvinism. Objectivism requires only that some cultural practices are better or worse than others, and is quite compatible with one culture’s being better than another in some respects and worse in others. Cultural chauvinism, on the other hand, is the belief that your own cultural practices are the better ones. This distinction is important because objectivism allows, as chauvinism does not, for the possibility that your way of doing things may be the one that could use some improvement. Objectivism thus supports the values of reflection and self-doubt, and through them an openness to the ideas of others. All of these are essential if one wants to live in a truly multicultural society where people of different cultures can effectively communicate with and learn from each other. Chauvinism and relativism leave no room for these virtues, the first because it refuses to consider the worth of another culture’s perspective, and the second because it holds that the members of each culture need only look within their own minds to find the truth. These perspectives would also seem to make the notion of moral progress an impossibility, for the value of a cultural practice would be just as relative to a time as it was to a place. Are we really prepared to say that the abolition of slavery, the institution of women’s suffrage, and the success civil rights movement reflect nothing more than a change of cultural taste? On neither of these views is there any need for different cultures to learn from each other. So contrary to what you might expect, I think that it is only on a presumption of objectivism that learning from other cultures makes sense. Once we realize that we each possess but a small fragment of the truth we will be motivated to engage people of other cultures in an earnest dialogue. In that event those of each culture can modify their views in light of the others’ experience to the improvement of all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

New Blog on Dialetheism

I think Dialetheism--the belief that there are true contradictions--is one of the most interesting positions to emerge in recent philosophy. If you think so too, check out Ben Burgis' new blog (Blog&~Blog).

Friday, November 16, 2007

Some Difficulties Concerning the Atonement

One of the central doctrines of Christianity is the Atonement, which in a broad sense concerns how humans, with their sinful nature, are reconciled to God. The Atonement thus fundamentally involves the forgiveness of sins. One problem, then, is why Jesus’ crucifixion and death occur given that they are unnecessary for the forgiveness of sins: God, who is both omnipotent and the subject offended against by sins, could easily have forgiven sins without requiring any such sacrifice. A more specific problem that I have, and one that is in my view more important, is that the purpose of the Atonement stands in conflict with the means God is supposed to have chosen to carry it out. In order for the Atonement to occur as it “should”, it seems necessary that some people sin. For if God deems it appropriate for Jesus to endure suffering and death, who is to inflict this on him? Why would God require that someone—such as Judas Iscariot—commit such a horrible sin in order to bring God’s plan to fruition? This worry is especially troublesome because the purpose of the Atonement is to forgive sin. Taking the above example, one may reply that God did not, as I imply, force Judas to do what he did; Judas betrayed Jesus of his own free will.[1] Yet if no one was under any compulsion to bring about Jesus’ death on the cross, it is possible that none should have done so. But what then? If everyone had “done the right thing”, so that no one betrayed or tried to harm Jesus, would Jesus have caused himself to endure suffering and death? If the answer is no—and it seems to me overwhelmingly probable that it would be—would God then choose some other means of forgiving sins? I think so, but then we again face the problem of why God would not have chosen a means of Atonement that did not involve the commission of sin in the first place.

In conclusion, the doctrine of the Atonement is not without its problems. While these difficulties may not be insurmountable, I think they are worth taking seriously.

[1] For the sake of argument, I am assuming that free will is incompatible with determinism.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Berkeley and Brain Damage

When I first read Berkeley’s Principles and Three Dialogues some years ago, I remember being intrigued by the way Berkeley’s brand of idealism promises to dissolve the mind-body problem. Unlike the forms of dualism proposed by Descartes and Locke, there is no problem of how the mental and physical realms could interact: They don’t, because the physical realm does not exist! Yet one may wonder, as I did, whether in solving the problem of interaction we generate a new problem to take its place. For if the brain is really a family of sense impressions, it appears curious that there should be such a thing, and why damage to it should have any effect on a person’s mental functioning. In Berkeley’s system all ‘ideas’ are passive by nature, and by themselves incapable of producing anything new or causing a change in anything that already exists. In actuality ideas are mere signs which tell us what follows what; it is God who is the true cause of our ideas, the ideas themselves being simply occasions for God’s actions. That being so, couldn’t God have left the mind “floating”, without anything physical[1] to anchor it? I used to think this was a powerful objection to Berkeley’s theory, but now I think that a Berkelian could counter it, at least if they follow Berkeley himself in accepting the existence of God. On the view I am considering, ideas may signify not only other ideas, and even other people’s thoughts and emotions, but the very principles according to which they feel and think. For someone who takes this sort of position, a brain is really a mind’s way of representing another mind. As the mind’s image, the brain would have to be organized so as to display the mind’s structure, which includes all the relationships between its various capacities and functions. Concerning the objection as to why there should be any such image of the mind, and more importantly, why damage to it results in the impairment of mental functions or even death, a theistic Berkelian can give a cogent reply. They could point out that, if there were no such image, or if damage to it did not result in the impairment of mental functions, a person’s mind would be invulnerable, and the person seemingly immortal. If the philosopher who makes the objection is both a physical realist[2] and a theist, a theistic Berkelian can reply that for whatever reasons the physical realist may suppose God had for wanting the mind to be vulnerable, and people subject to death, a follower of Berkeley can suppose that God wanted the mind to be vulnerable, and people subject to death, for precisely the same reasons[3]. This is because an omnipotent being such as God could easily have made the brain, as the physical realist conceives it, to be impervious to damage, either through the institution of natural laws which differ from the actual ones, or through the use of miracles (such as immediately re-growing neurons which have been damaged by a bullet to the head). So I think we can conclude that a theistic Berkelian has no special difficulty in accounting for why the brain (and hence the mind) should be vulnerable; any objection concerning the reasons God may have had for allowing damage to the brain (and hence the mind) is an objection against theism in general. Of course, the dispute over whether theism is tenable is interesting in its own right, as the existence (or otherwise) of God is perhaps the most important issue in philosophy. But that is a topic for another post.


[1] “Physical”, that is, in the sense of being a part of that system of ideas which includes houses and trees and stones, not in the sense that it has a material substratum or could exist unperceived.

[2] I use the term “physical realist” to contrast with “physicalist”. Physical realists believe that at least the physical world exists, physicalists that at most the physical world exists.

[3] If the theists in question are Christians, these reasons may include the Fall, God’s plan for soul-making, and doubtless many others.