Relativism and Culturism, cont.

(Note: Kristor has a long comment in this entry reflecting on the meaning of John Press’s argument.)

The original entry with the John Press debate has reached its maximum size; the discussion continues here with Mr. Press’s replies to his critics. (However, the discussion also continues in a parallel entry. Sorry for any confusion this creates.)

John Press writes:

To Mr. Auster,

Please do not think that my not referring to Plato or other authors in a particular post is evidence of my not knowing about them or not wishing to reference them. Posts are short. Indeed, I have repeatedly taught Plato at the high school and college level. And the chapter on philosophy in the book Culturism spends a lot of time discussing Aristotle and Plato. I am aware of the sophists’ arguments. [LA replies: I never suggested that your not mentioning Plato meant anything.]

You say that our civilization is founded on a conviction of moral truth. I could possibly agree if you used the word “conviction” knowingly. But conviction is not equal to proof. To back up your argument you must prove that we’re objectively right and the Muslim world is objectively wrong. If, however, you wish to only say that our conviction about being objectively and universally true is important, that is an interesting direction of investigation. But, again, as Johah O. points out, conviction or strong belief are not epistemological proof. [LA replies: “Proof” is an inappropriate term in this context. We’ve not speaking of physical facts that can be demonstrated by physical experiment, but of spiritual realities. The existence of objective moral truth cannot be “proved” through physical experiment. It can be demonstrated, however, through reason and human experience. And there is plenty of such demonstration over the ages. The people who normally demand “proof” of non-material realities such as the existence of good and bad, or of moral conscience, or of consciousness, or of reason, are usually the materialist reductionists with whom I have often debated. I am surprised to find Mr. Press in their company. We’re again left with the odd spectacle of a writer who defends Western culture while insisting that such defense must be grounded in radical skepticism.]

To answer your question about is it wrong to steal: It is not wrong to steal, it is wrong to get caught. Read up on the Spartans. Furthermore, if you read Islamic texts or the Old Testament, enslavement, rape, and pillage are the God sanctioned, moral, fruits of military victory. Kant only works within his own Enlightenment system. [LA replies: Let’s repeat that: Mr. Press says that it is not wrong to steal, it is only wrong to get caught. I’m certainly glad I asked the question about whether it is wrong to steal, because Mr. Press through his answer has made it crystal clear where he is coming from. And again, since Mr. Press places much emphasis on the pragmatic effectiveness of one position versus another, how many people does he expect to follow the culturist defense of the West when Culturalism declares that it is not wrong to steal?]

Though your assertion of “we are right because I say so” is very close to my saying “I prefer the West because I is what I was raised in,” there is a difference. [LA replies: When did I ever say, “we are right because I say so”?] Mine has a historical and cultural inculcation process that runs deep. It comes in education, upbringing, place, and particular texts. Your “I am right because I have always been and am obviously so” argument provides for no training, and only considering the point obvious with perhaps a bit of revelation. This tactic of truth via assertion undermines our connection to place and lived heritage, it does not ground itself in lived experience or transmitted texts. My cultivation argument is a richer guide than mere assertion.

Julien B,

I think your distinction between ethics and etiquette assigns universal validity to the former and local validity to the latter. right? But, I think that within the Western world, there is a firm basis for defending Western values. It is our space. And, no, thieves do not get to violate our ethics. I have not proposed anarchy. And saying our laws apply here also completely bars the acceptance of Sharia law on our soil. That is not relativism, I don’t see it as etiquette. It is ethics.


Let me take your argument in a different direction. I think that alcohol means different things in different cultures. And this case can be made even without evoking its being forbidden in Islam. Socrates and German peasants, as well as American teens and Native Americans, approach it differently. Please give me some examples of that which is universal in mankind. Death by Jihad is not the same as the will to live at all costs. A third wife is not the same as the only wife. A kiss in a disco is not the same as a kiss for the Amish. Etc. I would guess that you’d offer the most extreme of examples, rape is the same in the Afghan culture and for NAMBLA. Hmm. Really?

As you surmised, the real question for me, especially excluding the extreme polarities that seem to become the focus of discussions on normal life (e.g., “What if she were raped by her father?” in the abortion issue), is does cultural diversity exist? You hit the nail on the head for the implications of that question. If diversity is ephemeral and only includes small physical differences like the ability to process alcohol, why limit immigration?

And, “whence culture?” Not from race. Plato’s skin color did not write the Republic. Kant’s methodicalness is a reflection of his Germanic culture. Mostly, as in the chapter on Culturism in World History shows, culture comes from original stories.


Interesting points. I think the view of our culture as being fragile and under siege has been the basis of our culturist self-protection since the Puritans. My chapter on culturism in U.S. history details this. In Europe you have a point. But, as an American, I am more interested in recovering our traditional ways of thought. And, yes, I believe that Bush made his argument for Iraq on the basis of our values being universal. Is that a false straw man? I think it true. Mr. Auster, would you agree that Mr. Bush thought our values universal and so easily transplantable? [LA replies: With respect for Mr. Press, how is one to take him seriously when he says (a) that “it is not wrong to steal,” and (b) that he is “interested in recovering our traditional American ways of thought”? Evidently he is not aware that the belief that it is wrong to steal is central to our traditional ways of thought.]

John Press writes:

Please forgive me if I misunderstood you about Plato. I got the impression from your sentence, “Mr. Press doesn’t seem to be aware that this is a discussion that has been going on since the dialogues of Plato.” I am sure I read more into the sentence than you intended.

You said that, the West’s morals being universal, “can be demonstrated, however, through reason and human experience.” I’d love to read your rendition of that argument. It sounds Kantian. The use of the generic terms “reason” and “human” seems to assume that diversity is ephemeral. I don’t think all cultures take rationality as the grounding of their values. But I’d love to hear you elaborate.

And, I retract attributing the “we are right because I say so” argument to you. This was written as I heard you asserting the universality and superiority of our western values without any backing. I should have asked if you had any backing. My apologies. I look forward to reading about your system of moral grounding. [LA replies: The backing is our entire tradition.]

But while reviewing your verification through reason and human experience would be stimulating, I doubt I’d be convinced. More importantly, I’m much more interested in the practical strategies for saving the West than epistemological arguments. I’d love to turn the discussion towards the practical implications of these positions and the potential of countering multiculturalism with the words culturism and culturist.

Concerning stealing, I am very glad we’re having this discussion because it is helping us to understand each other. This discussion has been about the existence of an ultimate basis of universal morality. The stealing example is given to challenge that view.

But, according to culturism, within our particular Western culture stealing is absolutely wrong. The Ten Commandments, Plato, Jesus, Kant, and George Washington condemned stealing so it is wrong in the West. I hope that greatly clarifies the culturist position.

LA replies:

I think our respective positions are clear enough and the discussion doesn’t need to continue any further. As for arguments demonstrating the truth of objective morality, there have been plenty of discussions at this site on that subject going to the limit of my ability to discuss it, not to mention 2,000 years of Western religion, philosophy, and law, though if others want to enter the fray with brief statements on the basis of objective morality, they are welcome to do so.

I’ll just say this. When a person says, “Stealing is wrong,” he is not saying, “It is my opinion that stealing is wrong.” Nor is he saying, “George Washington said that stealing is wrong, and so stealing is wrong in the West.” No. When a person says, “Stealing is wrong,” he means that stealing is wrong. And furthermore, when those you falsely call your authorities, such as Moses or Jesus or Plato, said that stealing is wrong, they didn’t mean, “I say that stealing is wrong, therefore stealing is wrong in the West.” They meant that stealing is wrong. Your relativist reconstruction of what it means to say that stealing is wrong is alien to the Western tradition that you say you’re defending.

LA adds:

I say that you falsely call them your authorities, because they taught absolute moral truth, while you state the opposite, even as you claim to be following them.

Julien B. writes:

I would suggest the following definition of relativism (or the kind we’re talking about here): it’s the view that what is true ethically depends on what people believe to be true ethically, so that an ethical statement S can be true for one culture but false for another simply because the first culture believes S and the second culture denies S. This is what I’m saying is false and incoherent. And since it is, there’s no need to try to find a middle ground between universalism and this other, crazy position. (We don’t need a little incoherence or craziness.)

However, there is something true that might be confused with relativism, which has to do with how we apply universal principles. Compare ethical thinking with medical thinking. Suppose a doctor’s basic principle is “It’s good to make people healthy” or “I should do my best to save lives.” Does his commitment to that universal claim mean that he has to treat children the same way as old people, or treat people with Parkinson’s the same way as people with bronchitis? Of course not. As an intelligent person he needs to apply that principle in specific circumstances that matter. This doesn’t mean that there are no universal principles of medicine. It only shows that the universal principles must be understood and applied in light of different circumstances. Specifically, it doesn’t show that what is true medically is relative to what people believe to be true. If some people think that bronchitis can be cured by leeching, they’re simply wrong about that. (And if they think it’s not true that we should try to save lives, they’re wrong about that too.)

Bartholomew seems to be stressing that, because of this, there are some less than universal principles. In my medical analogy, these would be things like “Give the patient penicillin” or “Remove her tonsils.” But so long as these more specific rules can be explained and justified by appeal to universal ones, in the way I’m suggesting, this has nothing to do with relativism. For what makes a rule appropriate in one case but not the other has nothing to do with people believe to be true. Instead, it has to do with the variety of situations in the one, objective reality, all of which can be understood by means of a single concept of objective truth.

In the same way, our ethical system consists of universal claims about how people should live, or what’s good, or how society should be. But no set of principles is going to be enough all by itself to tell us what to do in the many different circumstances in which we find ourselves. Take the utilitarian principle that suffering or pain is intrinsically evil, and that, therefore, we should do what we can to minimize it. If we accept that principle, we may find that its correct application in one situation involves doing something contrary to what the principle would dictate in another situation. If going to war is the only way to prevent massive suffering, then in that situation the utilitarian will favor war. But if war is going to produce massive suffering without preventing suffering, in a different situation, the utilitarian will in that case be against war. This is not relativism. On the contrary, it’s how universalism can accommodate the cultural variation that misleads people into thinking there’s something to relativism.

LA replies:


Kristor writes:

I think Julien B. has done an excellent job of parsing the distinction between universal moral laws and their local implementations in various cultures. I would, however, extend his analogy with medicine. The universal moral law is analogous to the universal principles of medicine, and local medical cultures are analogous to local moral cultures (so that the variations in practice or diagnosis among physicians within a given medical culture—“take out her tonsils” versus “give her penicillin”—are analogous to the variations in the characteristic moral responses of moral agents operating within a given moral culture—“I shouldn’t steal no matter how hungry my children are” versus “My duty to my children surpasses all other duties”). Thus the difference between Western and Chinese morality is analogous to the difference between Western and Chinese medicine. In the West, we do antibiotics; in China, they do acupuncture and herbs. But despite their differences, both cultures are aimed at the same objective, and neither can reach it except by an appropriate grasp of the objective reality of the human body in health and illness. Nor is either of them wrong altogether in its interpretation of the universal principles of medicine; a medical culture that is altogether wrong can’t work at all, except by accident, and so won’t last long. But it is certainly possible that one medical culture may more closely approximate to universal medicine. Indeed, given the general objective truths of human physiology, it is necessarily true that of any array of medical cultures, one of them must be more accurate and comprehensive than the others, even if only by accident. So likewise with moral culture.

Note then that the very notion of stealing implicitly presupposes the notion of the propriety of private property. One can’t steal something that belongs to no one. Thus stealing as such presupposes that stolen property properly belongs to its owner, and not to the thief. Stealing, that is to say, is inherently and objectively improper. It is wrong per se; i.e., its impropriety is so objective, that it is a matter of mere logic, an analytical consequence of the meaning of the terms: when we look at what the term “stealing” means, it is clear that the act of stealing is wrong by definition.

All moral precepts are susceptible to this same form of analysis. Rape is not rape at all unless it is an aleatory transaction that improperly takes a good without permission; likewise murder is not wrong, and nor is state sanctioned killing in combat accounted as righteousness, unless killing is inherently and objectively evil. Only because killing is inherently and objectively evil does it call for moral or legal regulation. It is only evil that calls for moral deliberation, for we seek the good without constraint, and by default. Thus for any activity of life that is purely and objectively good, and that is nowise fraught with the potential for doing evil, so that it presents us with no difficulty about how to avoid or minimize the objective evil that it may produce, the moral law is in every culture silent. For example, the moral law is everywhere silent on breathing.

Now, unless the evil we ponder be objective and absolute, there is no way for such deliberation to be about real factors of existence, or therefore any way for such deliberation to gain any traction in human life, or to be of any use to us. If there were no absolute evil and good, we would not bother ourselves with moral deliberation. Furthermore, essentially all human deliberation is moral, in that all of it is aimed at the proper and appropriate guidance of behavior. Essentially all human deliberation therefore depends for its meaningfulness, efficacy and usefulness on the existence, accessibility and intelligibility of moral absolutes.

So Mr. Press can prefer the West to Islam, but unless there are moral absolutes, and unless he implicitly believes that the West cleaves closer than Islam thereto, he can’t say that it is right to prefer the West to Islam, or to advocate culturism, or whatever. It can be right, or correct, to prefer the West and so forth only if the West is really and truly better than Islam. And anyone who does in fact prefer the West to Islam is by that preference implicitly claiming that the West is more faithful to reality than Islam, so far as he himself can tell; for were it not so, the West would be bound, on the whole, to deliver no better life to its adherents than he could have achieved by converting to Islam, rendering his preference for the West incorrect—i.e., wrong. If the West is not better than Islam, there is no reason in objective reality why anyone should prefer it to Islam; so any such preference entails an assertion that there is such a reason, and that it boils down to more than, “I prefer the West because I prefer the West.”

Thus Mr. Press’s visceral loyalty to the West belies his insistence that it is no better than the East. And this may be why he so strongly insists that he is not a cultural relativist. His loyalty to the West implies its superiority; for absent that superiority, his loyalty would be senseless, a mere jerk of the knee.

Kristor continues:

And Mr. Press knows that his preference for the West is more than a mere jerk of the knee, or he would not be so vehement about it.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 16, 2010 01:18 AM | Send

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