Morality in Multiple Dimensions

In college, I got into a lot of debates about moral relativism, cultural imperialism, and epistemological modesty.  When we were picking fights, it was useful to be able to get a quick sense of your sparring partner’s positions, and my friends and I had an easy way to do triage:

During the British occupation of India, were the British imperialists right to condemn sati (the practise of burning widows alive on their husbands pyres)?  Were they right to want to eliminate it?  Were the women wrong if they assented to their own deaths?

No fair sidestepping to fight about how the British went about uprooting the tradition.  That’s an admittedly tough problem, but it comes after you evaluate the status quo and decide you have a duty to stand athwart it yelling “Stop!” You may be powerless to act effectively, but once you’ve decided that a cultural practise has to be destroyed, you’ll always be searching for a way to help.

Some of my relativist friends or non-relativists who were more suspicious of neo-colonialists were wary.  How would these well-meaning Britishers recognize the limits of their understanding of a culture they didn’t share?  How did I propose to keep every moral dispute from turning into a war of annihilation?  A Lewis quote from Mere Christianity gave me some good tools to work on this problem:

A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally “modest,” proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies…When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable: for it is uncharitable to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable.

Here, modesty seems to be a universal value along the lines of “Don’t use your sexuality as a weapon against other people” but the culture you live in has different expectations of what counts as inappropriately aggressive sexuality.  This seems like the right balance of universal morality and culture/time variant instantiations of these principles.

Zoomed way out, you’re back to the golden rule of loving your neighbor as yourself, but since that tends to be too abstracted to trip our conscience, we talk about specific aspects of this disposition: modesty, charity, etc.  And, since I’m usually thinking topologically, these might analogous to projections of a four-dimensional object into a three-dimensional space.  (Ignore that last if it wasn’t helpful).

Remember conic sections from middle school? They’re projections of a three dimensional object onto the 2D plane

These aspects of do-as-you-ought-to-be-done-by are still universal, but they’re a little more concrete because they’re limited in scope.  It’s easier to recognize that I’m deficient in one of these particular virtues and try and improve than it is to cultivate Virtue-writ-large.  By the time I get to quotidian moral decisions, I’m looking to see which virtues I’m conforming to in carrying out a particular act.

To answer that question, I need to combine understanding and love of the virtues with my knowledge of the facts on the ground; it’s Aristotelian practical wisdom.  If I’m extremely ignorant of the cultural situation I find myself in, I’ll be slower to act, but the example of sati and others will remind me that sometimes outsiders are right.  That’s why I use do-as-you-ought-to-be-done-by, not do-as-you-would-be-done-by.  Sometimes we love our neighbor incorrectly because we love ourselves wrongly first.

Oh, and one other big class of error to watch out for: every named virtue is a facet of big-V Virtue, so if we’re elevating one way of showing respect to others as the highest good, that should be a red flag that we’re erring.

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  • Patrick

    There is a difference between explaining what your moral system is, and explaining why your moral system ought to be found compelling by others. What reason is there for concluding that this is anything other than a castle in the sky?

    • The Ubiquitous

      Judge, the Negative team does not adequately address the issues at hand. In debate, one of the core issues is topicality. Applied here, we see clearly that the Negative team’s comment about the compellingness of a moral system has little to do with either rice or tea in China. We implore you to vote Affirmative on this ballot.

  • Ray


    I think your example works well with my hypothesis that morality is just like law, but differently enforced (while still being a human invention.) Just as humans have chosen to be ruled by laws that respect the intent of an action, we subscribe to moral ideologies that take intent into account.

    I think the problem with your exposition of your moral framework is not that it’s abstract, it’s that it’s vague and open to interpretation. This is why morality, unlike other ideologies, has near-universal support. It’s vague, so people can read whatever explicit ideology they’d like into it (much like the concept of God incidentally.) That said, I can’t say I’m against morality exactly, since I approve of most of the things people read into it. However, I do wish people would stop pretending they’re talking about the same ideology as one another when speaking of morality. I think we can do just fine by being forthright about what values we support and what values we would like others to support and negotiating collective action on that basis without pretending we all want the same things.

    • Emily

      But I think it has to be vague and open to interpretation to be flexible enough to apply in a wide variety of situations. Even if you talk about “specific values,” that doesn’t give you a road map to how to navigate every context in which they might help guide you.

      • Ray

        Well, it’s perfectly possible to make your moral code as unambiguous as you’d like at the expense of brevity. You can list exceptions to general principles, you can list specific rules for specific situations, you can give operational definitions of the things you value and assign numeric weights for assessing their relative importance. The only problem with this is that if you state clearly what you mean by morality, other people will discover that when they assented that they wanted to be “moral”, they didn’t mean “moral” in quite the sense you did. We leave the definition of morality open to interpretation, not because we can’t fill in the detail, but because filling in the detail would damage the consensus that “morality” is a good thing.

        My objection is merely that we should be honest about how we have only loosely defined morality, while strategically leaving the details undefined. This means that some actions we personally disapprove of are not unambiguously immoral — but this does not mean we are morally required to disapprove of them any less, or that we are morally forbidden from doing everything we can to stop them. Nor does it mean we can’t persuade SOME other people to disapprove of the action in question as well, by way of moral arguments. It just means we can’t persuade everyone committed to being “moral” in some abstract sense to join our cause. But we already knew that.

  • Ray

    Oh. Also, how is defining the morality by “do as you *ought* to be done by” not circular? what is”ought” supposed to mean here other than the action which is most moral?

    • The Ubiquitous

      “Ought” shows a deference to cultural norms, or the placement of the plane on the 3D object in question, whereas “would” preassumes your own cultural norms, or the placement of the plane you’re most familiar with. What we suppose is the reality of the shape of Virtue and what we are willing to “let slide” is the placement of the two-dimensional plane called Mores. Let me more clearly explain it, though, if you’re uncomfortable with the conic sections language.

      Western man explores the jungle and comes across some natives. Local custom insists he extend his middle finger to the chief as a show of deference and respect. Mr. West, wanting to show respect but oblivious to cultural differences, refuses. Later that night, over delicious Mr. West stew, it occurs to one of hunters that a Western custom to show respect is shaking hands rather and that extending the middle finger is a sign of disrespect. He tells the chief and everyone has a good laugh about it.

      For what it’s worth, even this comment is an example of what I mean. It is little more than the translation of a transcendent thing into the understanding of our local languages.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    Leah, you need to be more clear about what you’re trying to solve. If you want to know whether morality is objective and universal: say so. The fact that you kept wondering whether morality is “independent of human minds like numbers” made me think that you were asking whether morality was some form of platonic object.. when it turns out that your concern was far more mundane.
    please be more clear about what you’re trying to solve so you won’t leave visitors scratching their heads as to what the heck is going on.

    • Christian H

      I don’t think this is quite fair, Daniel. Leah was asking whether morality is independent of human minds in the way that [she and many others think] numbers are. Because the question you wanted her to explicitly ask–“Is morality universal and objective?”–is one that she’s already explicitly asked before on this blog, she is (it seems to me) finding new ways of approaching that question in order to generate more productive arguments. More productive here means that everyone understands what everyone else thinks (and what they themselves think!) a little better because they’re forced to answer new and unusual questions on the same issue. Rehearsing the old arguments is sometimes not very helpful, and left-field questions can sometimes uncover unexpected assumptions or weak spots.

      And because it is Leah, and because she’s a quasi-Platonist, she will choose math as her idiosyncratic entry point. (Note: idiosyncracy is good here because it generates the new and unexpected line of inquiry I described in the previous paragraph.)

      At any rate, I wasn’t scratching my head over anything: I felt like I knew what was going on. But maybe that’s just because I’ve been here since pretty darn close to the beginning and have figured out Leah’s patterns.

  • Maiki

    I do like the definition of Modesty here. It is quite succinct and awesome. I don’t know how it applies to “sati” though. What is the virtue? Not killing people or not committing suicide? Survival? It seems like the killings are not out of anger or despair — you might not even be able to claim a vice other than wrong belief/cultural associations on the value of human life.

    • Maiki

      I guess I see my point is that morality constitutes not only Virtues/Vices (Standards of Behavior) but also Standards of Objects. E.g. The Value of Truth, the Value of the Person (whether human or undiscovered alien life form with our properties), the Value something else. These “standards of what is Good” need to be defined in order to derive the Virtues/Vices. I think if we agree on the values of the objects, the virtues/vices can be rationally and clearly defined. But many cultures have not agreed on the value of the objects. Is it out of bad thinking or is there something else needed?

      Also, it is easy to argue why Truth is a good thing (without it, we can’t really have a discussion). It is harder to argue Truth is a good thing always and everywhere above other Good things. etc. etc.

  • Brian Green

    Just found this fun quote in Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, p80.

    “We can regard the mere capacity to have any purposes at all as a good in itself…. Since indifference is clearly not possible here (what is denied becomes a negative value), at least he who does not embrace the paradox of a purpose-denying purpose must concur in the proposition that purpose as such is its own accreditation within being, and must postulate this as an ontological axiom.”

    Just thought that would be fun to share.

  • Christian H

    “In college, I got into a lot of debates about moral relativism, cultural imperialism, and epistemological modesty.”

    You do not mention (explicitly) epistemological modesty in this post again. I’ve been wondering this before, too, because it’s not the first time you’ve brought the concept up only to drop it almost immediately. I’m beginning to suspect that you use the term in a way different than I do; I think that you use it to mean something almost equivalent (if not equivalent) to relativism. I usually use it to mean something more like Richard Beck’s “tentativeness,” which doesn’t posit a plurality of truth (which relativism does) but instead denotes an attitude toward a singular truth (roughly). Could you write a post sometime explaining specifically what you mean by epistemological modesty? This would help me a lot, and you could also link to it whenever you need to refer back to the issue. Also, I wonder if it might help you out, since I often find that terms that readers find are unclear turn out to be unclear in the author’s head, and she wasn’t aware herself that they were unclear. (Or, at least, that happens to me all the time when I get essays back.)

    • Emily

      I’d be interested in knowing what that meant as well.

  • Emily

    I think your and Lewis’s general approach to relativism makes sense, but I have issues with “cultural relativism” because it implies that within *other* cultures, people agree on values and their execution, which is pretty blind to power imbalances and very, very deeply rooted inequalities. In our own contexts, we might try to change practices that are part of a long established status quo and do express some commonly held virtues but, say, value and privilege men over women; why should “culture” be an unassailable category in others?

    I know I’m walking on shaky ground here because I don’t think the solution is applying some kind of universal ethical framework that would itself be culturally biased (i.e. built on western ideas that privilege individuality over family), but I think it is worth being skeptical about claims of morality in different cultural contexts. Who says an act is moral, how is that enforced, whom does it benefit, and what kind of distribution of power does it support? Essentially, what’s the moral logic at work within that culture that makes an act seem virtuous, but also what’s the social logic, and what’s the position of your informant? Sometimes knowing about the latter can change how you think about the former.

  • DelphiPsmith

    When, as often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable: for it is uncharitable to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable.

    Well, that depends. Rosa Parks shocked people by sitting at the front of the bus. Sometimes shocking people has a larger purpose than simply getting a rise out of then; sometimes the purpose is to point out that hey, that thing you thought was shocking? Guess what, it really isn’t at all (or shouldn’t be). Defiance is not always uncharitable. It might be uncomfortable, but if it weren’t for a little discomfort now and then, nothing would ever change.

    • leahlibresco

      Discomforting people to try to break through dissonance or detachment is different from shocking them to take pleasure in their discomfort. This was my problem with PZ’s desecration stunt — it was much more about hurting people and vengeance than it was about teaching.

      • Darren

        Nicely said!

        I have been struggling with this conflict myself, valuing courtesy, but recognizing that poking the sacred cow can sometimes be appropriate.

        I also appreciated the Sati dilemma. The question of whether the women should be allowed to self-immolate if they willingly consented is particularly interesting and dovetails nicely with the recent discussion over consensual fornication.

    • The Ubiquitous

      Mdm. Smith: It is uncharitable — unloving — to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable. It is the pleasure Mdm. Libresco points out as wrong, not unilaterally the causing discomfort.

  • The Ubiquitous

    Love the conic sections analogy. Flatland for the win.