Friday, April 20, 2012

Moral Philosophy: Cultural Relativism and Subjectivism applied to caning case study in Mylasia.

    This paper is going to discuss cultural relativism and cultural subjectivism in detail, and then apply the concepts we learned in chapter 2 and 3 of the book, “The Elements of Moral Philosophy” written by James and Stuart Rachels, to the selected topic: caning of women in Malaysia as discussed in a newspaper article from the region.  This will be followed by my own views on the topic of caning which I will attempt to support based on the teachings of this course.  Because the paper has so many different topics, each topic will be treated individually with its own opening, body and closing statements and the paper as a whole will have an opening (this paragraph) and a closing.  For the most part I followed the structure in the book to structure my paper to make evaluating my paper easier.

Cultural Relativism.
    Cultural relativism on its surface looks very good.  It seems to stress acceptance and tolerance above all else.  But like any simplistic view of a complex world, this view is flawed in many ways.   The book breaks down the main points of cultural relativism as follows:
  1. Different cultures have different moral codes.
  2. The moral code of a society determines what is right in that society.
  3. There are no objective standards that can be used to judge if one society is better than another.
  4. The moral code of our own society has no special status.
  5. It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures, we should be tolerant of others (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 16).

Each of these claims stand on their own, and there are many cultures where 2 and 5 conflict, where the norm of a society is to inflict their morals on other cultures.  Such as the democratic societies that attempted to force their own form of government on the Middle East at the beginning of the 21st century (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).
    The book then talks about a “Cultural Difference Argument.”  
  1. Different cultures have different moral codes.
  2. Therefore, there is no objective truth in morality.  Right and wrong is merely a matter of opinion (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 18).
The book gives an example of differences in eating the dead between the Greeks and the Callatians.  But the argument ignores the fact that both cultures do have a common purpose in how they treat their dead.  Both cultures were respecting their dead.  The book gives an example of infanticide in Eskimo culture, compared to most other cultures, which forbid infanticide.  The commonality between all cultures is that we try to do what is best for the most people.  The Eskimo culture only allowed infanticide because of the lack of resources in the region, so that it was a choice between all your children starving, or a few children living.  Even then the culture tried to find any option to spare their child.  It was only when there was no other choice that infanticide occurred.  Another example is that Hindus refuse to eat cows, even if they are starving.  This appears to be different than our own values, but the reason that Hindus refuse to eat cows is because they believe that when Grandma died she was reborn as a cow and they share our value that eating Grandma is bad (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).
    These common values are what unite most cultures, even though the details of how to honor that value might be different.  We want to protect our children.  We value truth telling. We enjoy talking with each other.  We wish to have friends and a spouse (sometimes more than one, even on our own culture).   Murder is discouraged in most cultures.  When a culture disintegrates so far that these common values are no longer honored, then that culture will not last long.  There are a minimum set of cultural rules that have to exist in any society for that society to continue to exist (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).
    In the end cultural relativism depends entirely on force for its justification.  The most powerful culture makes and enforces the rules for everyone else and that becomes a new cultural norm for that region.  Another problem with cultural relativism is that not only can you not criticize other cultures, you cannot even improve your own culture.  Because nothing is better than anything else, you cannot argue that doing something different in your own culture would be better.  We cannot say that free speech is better than government control of all speech, because the culture that restricts speech is no better and no worse than the culture that allows total freedom of speech.
    But then how can we define if social practice is good or bad?  The book asks, “Does the practice promote or hinder the welfare of the people affected by it?” (Rachels, 2012, p. 27) This is a standard that can be used to judge cultures, even your own culture.  Because you are evaluating it by the effect on the people inside the culture it doesn’t have the appearance of being imposed on a culture from an outside agency (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).
    Western cultures are very hesitant to criticize other cultures because we have had a bad history of imposing our views on many other cultures.  Often we feel that if we judge another culture to be deficient in some way that we must then act, so by not judging we are not forced to act to correct the defect we perceive in other cultures.  Unfortunately, Western culture has a tendency to act even when we should not.  We should be free to judge some of the worst actions of other cultures, based on the the question the book asked. If a culture is harming its own members without any benefit to those people, then we should condemn those cultural practices verbally.  This does not mean that we have to intervene militarily, ever, but we could just not trade with those cultures whose cultural practices we find abhorrent and tell them that what they are doing is wrong (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).
    Overall relativism appears to most cultures as being condescending. In order for one culture to “tolerate” another culture there must be an inequity of power between the two cultures.  This power is used to impose one culture’s views onto another culture.  Saying that no culture is better than another culture means that you can no longer improve your own culture, because you can’t say the changes you are making will be “better.”  This means that in order to evaluate your own culture you have to say that a different way of doing this is better and prove that to others in order to convince them to support your changes.

Cultural Subjectivism.
Whereas cultural relativism encompassed entire cultures from the outside, cultural subjectivism is the viewpoint of an individual.  Individuals just have opinions and those opinions are not better or worse than anyone else’s opinion.  Subjectivism is just about how people feel about things and nothing is good or evil (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).    
    The simple argument in support of cultural subjectivism goes like this: When one person says, “X is morally acceptable,” and someone else says, “X is morally unacceptable,” they are disagreeing.  However, if Simple Subjectivism were correct, there could be no disagreement.  Therefore, Simple Subjectivism cannot be correct  (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 35).    If nobody can be wrong, then that means that everyone is right all the time.  If you like to kill and eat people; no problem, simple subjectivism says that you are right. Anyone that disagrees with this is just expressing their opinion and it is not any better or worse than your own beliefs.  Clearly this simple view is wrong.  Both views cannot both be true when they are in clear conflict with each other.
    Emotive argument has a similar problem, just that the argument is wrong not based on opinion, but on how you feel about what you say.  What the emotive argument fails to take into account is that people not only have feelings about what they say, but they also have reasons based on statements of fact (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).
    Although these reasons are not as solid as physical facts, these reasons can be used to support a moral statement.  I can argue that a friend is wrong to do something and list reasons why I feel the way I do and if they cannot justify their position with reasons as good as mine, then I was able to support my argument and logically prevail over their argument.  Just about any court trial will seek to do the same thing.  Each side will lay out arguments, facts and emotive and subjective statements.  The judge and jury will evaluate both sides and the one with the more convincing argument will win, most of the time.  In this case the moral statement will be one adjudicated by laws passed by the government, either at the federal, state, or local level (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).
    It is important to separate out two points.  Whether the argument is correct, and whether you can convince anyone of your argument.  History has time and time again vindicated individuals that were reviled in their own times.  Galileo spent his old age under house arrest for publishing astronomical information that conflicted with the doctrine of the Church of his day (Drake, 1980).  Yet we now all know that Galileo was mostly right, and the Church was completely wrong.The modern Church even took the time to issue a public apology and pardon.  And that was a matter of science which can be shown logically to be true.  The Church of Galileo’s day resorted to threats of violence and the punishment of house arrest when they lost their argument.  This is where Moral Subjectivism leads; when nobody is wrong or right, then the side that can inflict the most violence wins.  Just like Moral Relativism, might makes right.  Even if you know you are right, how can you convince anyone without resorting to violence?  (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).  
When you go into matters of moral philosophy you can find yourself convinced you are right, but unable to convince anyone. And you will see people who are convincingly wrong in your own eyes be able to convince many people with arguments that make no sense to you.   Hatred of people that are different than the norm is one of the things that is difficult to understand.  Homosexual people are condemned by many in the world  (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).
    Imagine growing up, finding that you are not like other people.  All the other boys and girls in your class are attracted to members of the opposite sex, but you find yourself falling in love and wanting to be near others of your own sex.  It is nothing you are choosing, this is merely how you feel and you cannot change it, despite a strong desire to change.  Certainly, being gay is not going to make life easier.  Understanding this view of the world is what enabled me to finally overcome a lifetime of socialized homophobia that I was unfortunately afflicted with from growing up in Southeastern Ohio.
    I had to overcome strong feelings that had been indoctrinated in me and reason about what life is like for gay people before I was able to understand that gay people have no more choice in who they are attracted to than I do to whom I am attracted.   I am still not comfortable around gay people, but my reason overrides my early training.  We all have strong feelings about events and people in our lives.  It is important to not just accept that our feelings are always right, but to be able to think and reason about why we believe what we believe, to question even the most fundamental ideas in our lives.  If we can find reasons to support our feelings that are positive and affirming it can make us stronger and our feelings more clear.  If we find that some of our feelings are unfounded, or wrong, then we can work hard to change those feelings, and suppress them until they fade away.

Case Study: Caning of women in Malaysia.
The case study we are analyzing is based on the caning of three women in Malaysia for engaging in sex outside of marriage.  We were given an article in a document on the Sakai website. This is an analysis of the facts of the given case:
Facts of the Case
  1. Three Muslim women were caned for engaging in illicit sex.
  2. The three, aged between 18 and mid-20s, had each delivered a child out of wedlock.
  3. The first women in Malaysia to receive such punishment under Syariah law.
  4. The punishment at the Kajang Prison did not leave physical scars on their bodies.    
  5. Aishah was sentenced to six months jail, RM3,000 fine and six strokes of the rotan.
  6. Ayu was sentenced to a RM1,000 fine and caned four times.        
  7. Nur, who has a three-year-old toddler, could not find father to give her away at wedding.
  8. Confessions and acceptance of the punishment from each woman were printed in the article.
  9. 32-year-old Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno was sentenced to be caned for drinking beer last July. The sentence against her was not carried out.  Was very controversial.
    All of the above points are from the article given to us for the case study (Anis, 2010).

Caning from a Cultural Relativism Viewpoint.
    These women broke the rules of that culture and as members of that culture they should be punished under the laws that they live under.   Their culture is different than ours and we should tolerate and revere the differences. We cannot claim that they are right or wrong because there is no objective standard we can use to judge their actions  (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).  We cannot say that our culture is better because we do not cane individuals and we cannot say that their culture is worse for caning these women.

Caning from a Cultural Subjectivism Viewpoint.
    As long as the women believed that the punishment was fair and agreed to be punished by the religious court, then they are correct.   Anyone in that culture that is objecting to their punishment is also correct because they are all just talking about their opinion, or about how they feel about caning women.  And no feeling or opinion can be either right or wrong.  It is just how people feel  (Rachels & Rachels, 2012).

My Views on this Caning Case Study. 
Because this is the first time that this punishment has ever been applied to women in Malaysia, you cannot say that this is a cultural practice that has the force of tradition.  Therefore you cannot claim cultural relativism.Their confessions could just be because they don’t want additional punishment, so they could be lying to reduce their punishment.  Because there is a good chance that they are being dishonest about their claim, then you cannot claim that their statements are true from a subjective viewpoint.  
    I believe that punishing people for the natural act of reproduction is wrong.  There are many reasons why someone could be unmarried and pregnant.  They might be too poor to be able to afford to be married in that culture.  Being poor does not mean that their right of reproduction should be removed.  Their family might disapprove of their choice of mate.  Someone older than the age of consent should not need the permission of others when selecting their mate.  The case where the woman was punished because she couldn’t find her father was very unfair.
    I am hoping that their punishment really did not scar them, but even without physical scars the threat of physical violence against them and others like them in the future will be a constant stress on everyone in the culture.  There is obviously a large debate going on in the country if caning women should be added added to the punishments being given out by a religious court.  The woman with the drunk driving conviction was sentenced to be caned, but the sentence was never carried out because of a large negative reaction (Anis, 2010).  
    The grabbing of new powers and punishments by a religious court is especially disturbing.  They are actually going against their own culture in claiming these new additional powers.  Where does the ability to add new punishments end?  Can they arbitrarily sentence someone to death under their interpretation of religious law?  I would hope that the civil courts will smack down the religious courts and apply strict limits to their ability to punish people that submit to their jurisdiction.  
    When punishments become overly harsh and for arbitrary reasons then people begin to disrespect that society.  It is completely natural for women to have children, in or out of marriages.  To punish someone for a natural act that is a biological imperative is especially disturbing.  Bringing new life into the world is not an act that deserves punishment.  The fact that this court is grabbing new powers it has never had before is something that will disrupt their society.  In the end I believe there will be a backlash against these courts and their arbitrary punishments.
    In this paper I have described cultural relativism and subjectivism as described in our class book and applied what we have learned in the class to analyze the case study from those two perspectives as well as our own perspective.  I tried to support my arguments with logical statements that are true if the underlying premises are accurate.  

Anis, Mazwin Nik. Caning 'has done us a world of good' © 2010 Star Publications (Malaysia) Bhd (Co No 10894-D) .
Drake, S. (1980) Galileo. Hill and Wang.
Rachels, James & Rachels, Stuart. (7th edition, 2012). The Elements of Moral Philosophy.

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