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The Scourge of Moral Relativism

The moral blindness of moral relativism.


Multiculturalism, not to be confused with pluralism (a good idea), argues that one cannot ask people of a cultural tradition to abide by the norms of a host culture. Rather, each culture has its own norms and accordingly it would be racist, sexist, imperialist, or Islamophobic [insert here other slurs] to pass judgments on the cultural and religious practices of other groups. This suicidal cultural ethos cannot sustain itself in Western societies (as per the recent comments to that effect by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy). The reality is that the Western ideals of liberty and all of the associated freedoms (of press, of religion, of speech, of association) are superior to cultural norms where such liberties and freedoms are not permitted. Cultures where women are allowed to drive are superior to those where they are forbidden from doing so. Cultures where homosexuals are protected against hate crimes are superior to those where they are hung in public squares. Cultures where religious minorities are free to practice and preach their religions are superior to those where apostasy, atheism, and the proselytizing of "minority" religions are punishable by death.

There is nothing laudable in arguing that Western ideals are only one of many equally good ways of organizing societies. I grew up in Lebanon (historically one the most progressive countries in the Middle East) so I have immeasurable reverence for the freedoms that many American intellectuals take for granted. I remember a family member once telling me (I am paraphrasing): "Of course, we have free speech in Lebanon. You could say whatever you like." I retorted: "Really? Can you criticize openly the government?" His reply was: "No, no. You cannot do that. That's bad form." This reminds me of Henry Ford's famous quip: "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black." Hence, in Lebanon, we had "complete" freedom of speech other than the long list of speech that was forbidden! Which culture is superior: One that forbids criticisms of a sitting government or one that assiduously protects such criticisms?

Returning to Sam Harris, he would argue that cultures that permit the burning of holy books and the hostile criticism of any religion are superior to those that forbid such acts. Moral absolutes do indeed exist, and one does not need religion to generate these. Incidentally, watch the 30th minute mark of this debate for an anecdote that Sam Harris shares regarding the horrifying moral blindness implicit to the tenets of moral relativism. As Harris states, the person in question is a presidential advisor (to Barack Obama) on bioethics. A bioethicist who cannot unequivocally proclaim that it is morally wrong to gouge the eyes of every third child, is one who should not be advising anyone on anything.

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