Originally posted by Nolan Yuma Janssens on his independent publication, Without Borders.
“It’s our culture” is a common rebuttal when people criticize cultural practices such as eating shark soup, child beauty pageants, swimming with dolphins, bear baiting, eating Fois Gras, binge drinking, Zwarte Piet, bullfighting, child fellatio, female genital mutilation, ritual child sacrifice, attending a Nicki Manaj concert—this list could go on and on. Some of you might wonder why some of these events and practices are even on this list. Is that because culture taught you what is right and wrong? Or do you think we’re born knowing what is wrong? In other words, are you a moral relativist or absolutist?
I’m neither and both. Relativism and absolutism aren’t and shouldn’t be dichotomic. I’m an absolutist because I know we’re born with an innate sense of morality. We are born wanting to help others. Many studies suggest that from very early in ontogeny, young children have a biological predisposition to help others achieve their goals, share resources with others, and inform others of things helpfully (Warneken & Tomasello, 2009).
If wanting to help each other and share our resources is universal and innate, why the hell don’t we do it more? CAPITALISM, THE PATRIARCHY, CORPORATIONS! Well yeah, but no. We’ve been shitty to each other long before money-hungry men controlled the world. Yes, we’re born wanting to help each other. But we’re also born preferring attractive people (Quinn et al., 2008). Does that mean it’s morally correct to pay more attention to Brad Pitt than Boris Jonson? I don’t know how to answer that question either, but you get my point.
Culture and society influence our innate drives. Do hormones and genetic predispositions play a role in our ability to behave morally? Of course, but it’s culture that teaches us how to act on our instincts. Some evolutionary psychologists also theorize that racism came into existence because we’re born to fear people that look different than us because they might carry diseases. On the flip side, we’ve also found that averageness is the most attractive (Valentine et al., 2004). No, this doesn’t mean fives are more attractive than tens; the averageness of a mix of faces is more attractive. Why? The theory is that mixed people have a stronger chance of being immune to different diseases, and that’s why they’re more attractive.
As you can see, we’re innately shallow assholes and altruistic cooperators who tend to be racist and attracted to mixed races. In other words, we’re confusing AF, and we can’t always rely on our innate drives to decide what is morally correct. So, does that mean we should be conventionalist relativists and argue that our morals come from the society, culture, and historical norms of our time? Or should we be subjectivists who believe values and morals are made entirely by an individual? There must be some way for us to agree that child molestation, rape, and binge-watching the bachelor is wrong. Does that mean we should be absolutists and believe there is a universal moral order? I doubt absolutism is a constructive way to approach morality. Relying on our universal innate drives doesn’t work, and that usually leaves people believing in some godlike or religious universal truth, which in many cases comes from people’s interpretations. Again, relativism and absolutism aren’t dichotomic.
So, how do we decide what cultural practices to condemn, and when can we do so? Or maybe we shouldn’t condemn them at all. Kohlberg’s Stage Theory of Morality puts morality in stages linked to cognitive development. Still, much of the research has been discredited because the dilemmas were artificial, samples were biased, and tribal societies were shown to have no evidence of the post-conventional level of thinking. It assumes Western cultural environments are at the top of the hierarchy (Cheung, 2019). This imperialistic way of thinking triggered the relativist approach and Shweder’s “Big Three.”
Different cultural groups emphasize three primary moral codes: the ethic of autonomy, the ethic of community, and the ethic of divinity. The ethic of autonomy is associated with concerns about harm, rights, and justice issues. It protects the freedoms of individuals as much as possible. People might ask themselves the following question: Was someone harmed? Was someone denied their rights? Did someone act unfairly? And did someone suffer emotionally?
The ethic of community is tied to an individual’s interpersonal obligations and that one must protect social order by fulfilling one’s obligations to others. Concerns are related to the following: Did someone show a lack of loyalty? Did someone’s actions affect your group? Did someone conform to the traditions of society? And did someone show disrespect for elders?
The ethic of divinity is associated with concerns about sanctity and “natural order.” In other words, preserve standards mandated by transcendent authority. People might ask themselves: Did someone do something disgusting? Did someone act in a way that God would approve of? Or did someone act in indecent ways? (Cheung, 2019). You might have noticed that individualistic cultures are closely related to the code of autonomy, and collectivistic cultures align the codes of community and divinity, but I’m sure that most of us ask ourselves questions from all three codes when deciding how to behave in certain circumstances.
Shweder argues that no one code is better than the others, but in real life, we aren’t born adhering to one code that Schweder coined. Even if we ask ourselves questions from all three codes, we still won’t be able to decide what’s wrong for all human beings, not just one culture. For example, let’s consider the example I used in my article, The Men Who Swallow, where I describe the Sambian tradition where little boys ingest semen by performing fellatio. Many of us will say it is unfair, harmful, disrespectful, and disgusting. In all three moral codes, we think it’s wrong; however, the people within that culture might not think so because they have different belief systems. Does that mean we should just let cultures continue with practices as they please? I don’t think so. Those oppressed and mistreated don’t always know the other options until they learn about them. We live in a globalized world and should learn from one another. The mixing of cultures and knowledge gives us better food, medicine, art, and ways to progress as a species.
People who have lived in multiple cultures have the right to try and change harmful cultural practices. It is only by looking across different societies that one can understand what is either typical or unique about one’s own. And so, if you’ve never experienced another country, you’re not defending or helping your countrymen by saying, “It’s our culture” when someone points out your tradition or behaviour is harmful. But even worse is when people who don’t know a culture show up in a country and start telling people how to behave. But where does that leave us when deciding when and how to change a cultural tradition, practice or behaviour?
It leaves us with education. And the best type of learning is done through travel. We, the inescapably foreign, have a responsibility to share our stories and experiences so that we can reflect on our behaviours and practices. And that’s what I’m trying to do with my podcast. I believe that sharing stories from around the world cause people to make ethical decisions that are best for our species, and sometimes that might mean adjusting your culture. Travelling helps us break free from cultural barriers and discover the essence of humanity. We don’t have the right to condemn a culture for doing something that looks harmful from an outsider’s perspective, but we do have the responsibility to spread information so people within that culture can decide for themselves.
As you’ve seen from the jokes throughout the articles, I think corporate-controlled soulless music and superficial, mind-numbing reality TV are wrong. But does that mean I have the right to stop you from enjoying it? No, because you were given a choice to enjoy those things. We might have different opinions, but opinions shouldn’t define who you are, and if they do, you’ll never grow and change. In other words, if you want me to binge-watch The Bachelor with you after going to a Chainsmoker’s concert (that you paid for, of course), I’ll do it.
Hopefully, you’re also aware that I think things like rape, child molestation, environmental destruction, and racism are atrocious. Does that mean I have the right to stop you from enjoying it? Fuck yeah, because the victims don’t have a choice. Does that mean I have the right to give you the death sentence? No, because that doesn’t allow you to educate yourself, learn from others, and hopefully become a better person. Do I want to see a rapist die for what they did? I sure do—well, as long as there’s no blood involved. But I’m educated enough to know that a prison system like Norway’s, where they rehabilitate criminals, has much better results. You might argue that rehabilitation works in some cultures but not others in the same way that getting people to open up about their trauma works in some cultures but not in others, but that’s not true. Education and research led to better rehabilitation methods, just like education and research helped people to understand that therapeutic methods should differ from culture to culture. A lack of education (and hate) causes people to support the death penalty, not the other way around.
And that’s precisely why we need to focus on education and facts, not religious dogma and intuition when deciding what cultural practices are wrong. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn about religious teachings and reflect on our intuition; we should learn the facts about how religion and intuition influence our behaviour.
Using education to ensure something is moral (in the sense that it’s best for humanity) also works for less concrete examples such as cancel culture. Even if you have benevolent intentions, you’re making a morally flawed choice by taking away information. I understand that information can be dangerous, but that goes for everything we need. Just like I’m against the people who burned scientific books and banned sexually liberating literature, I’m against the people who stopped publishing books with racist and offensive content. Burying our history won’t better educate people to change their behaviour. And what about when we’re talking about something as complicated as the ethics of social media algorithms? If you’re using knowledge about the human mind to put them in echo chambers or to sell products, you’re not educating people; you’re manipulating them.
To be moral in a way that defies cultural barriers, we must live with an open mind as we read, listen, and travel as much as we can. And who knows, maybe you think I’m mistaken in saying education and giving people a choice is the best way to decide between right and wrong. But to convince me, you’ll need to educate me first.
Cheung, B. (2019, March). Lecture 25: Religion, morality, and justice. Lecture, Vancouver ; UBC.
Quinn, P. C., Kelly, D. J., Lee, K., Pascalis, O., & Slater, A. M. (2008). Preference for attractive faces in human infants extends beyond conspecifics. Developmental science, 11(1), 76–83. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00647.x
Valentine, T., Darling, S., & Donnelly, M. (2004). Why are average faces attractive? The effect of view and averageness on the attractiveness of female faces. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 11(3), 482–487. https://doi.org/10.3758/bf03196599
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2009). Varieties of altruism in children and chimpanzees. Trends in cognitive sciences, 13(9), 397–402. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2009.06.008