Former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about the religious education she received as a teenager living in Nairobi, Kenya:
I found it remarkable how many esteemed Muslim thinkers had philosophized at such length about precisely how much female skin could be bared without causing chaos to break out across the landscape. Of course, almost all these thinkers agreed that once a girl reaches puberty, every part of her body except her face and her hands must be covered when in the company of any men who are not immediate family, and at all times outside the home. This was because her bare skin would involuntarily cause men to feel an uncontrollable frenzy of sexual arousal. But not all thinkers agreed on exactly which parts of a woman's face and hands were so beguiling that they must be covered.
Some scholars held that the eyes of women were the strongest source of sexual provocation: when the Quran said women should lower their gaze, it actually meant they should hide their eyes. Another school of thought held that the very sight of a woman's lips, especially full ones that were firm and young, could bring a man into a sexual state that could cause his downfall. Yet other thinkers spent pages and pages on the sensual curve of the chin, a pretty nose, or long, slender fingers and the tendency of some women to move their hands in a way that attracted attention to their temptations. For every limitation the Prophet was quoted.
Even when all women had been covered completely from head to toe, another line of thought was opened. For this was not enough. High heels tapped and could trigger in men the image of women’s legs; to avoid sin, women must wear flat shoes that make no noise. Next came perfume: using any kind of pleasant fragrance, even perfumed soap and shampoo, would distract the minds of men for Allah’s worship and cause them to fantasize about sinning. The safest way to cause no harm to anyone seemed to be to avoid contact with any man at all times and just stay in the houses. A man’s sinful erotic thoughts were always the fault of the woman who incited them. (Infidel, p. 110, emphasis added)
Someone who accepts all five claims of MCR might say the following: there is no objective fact of the matter regarding whether rape is the moral responsibility of the rapist or the victim—no truth about the morality of rape that applies universally, to all societies. In some societies, such as ours, it is viewed as morally wrong to rape someone, but in other societies, it is thought the that the rape is the fault of the rape victim and thus she who should be blamed. Neither way of thinking about rape is objectively better or worse than the other. We believe one thing, they believe another, and that’s all there is to be said about it.
[3.6.] A Full Statement of MCR.
Moral-Cultural Relativism (MCR) is an ethical theory consisting of a group of separate claims (from EMP pp.16):
1) Different societies have different moral codes [i.e., different collective beliefs about morality].
2) The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society.
3) There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one society’s code better than another’s. There are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.
· This is another way of stating “full blown” moral skepticism—so MCR includes full-blown MS as one of its claims; in other words, MCR is a form of full-blown moral skepticism.
4) The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.
5) It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures. We should always be tolerant of them.
These five claims are independent of each other. It is possible for some to be true and others not.
[3.7.] The Generalized Cultural Differences Argument.
Many defenders of MCR use the following as a reason for thinking that part of their theory is correct (EMP p.18):
The Generalized Cultural Differences Argument (GCDA).
1. Different cultures have different moral codes.
2. Therefore, there is no objective “truth” in morality. Right and wrong are only matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
· This argument has a single premise. There is nothing wrong with this. An argument can have any number of premises whatsoever, not just two.
· This is an argument only for the first part of claim (3) of MCR; that is, it is an argument for full-blown moral skepticism.
· It uses the same sort of reasoning as the Limited Cultural Difference Argument that we saw earlier (the argument about infanticide), except that it applies that reasoning to every moral issue, not just to one.
IMPORTANT: Rachels refers to the GCDA and different forms of the LCDA as simply the “Cultural Differences Argument.” He discusses a LCDA about infanticide as an argument for limited moral skepticism in RTD ch.2, and he discusses the GCDA (under the name “Cultural Differences Argument”) as an argument for claim (3) of MCR in EMP ch.2. You will be responsible for knowing the differences between the two types of CDA:
· the generalized CDA is an argument for full-blown moral skepticism, which is part of MCR.
· a limited CDA is an argument for moral skepticism limited to just one issue (e.g., infanticide, or funerary practices, or polygamy, etc.)
Is the GCDA sound? In other words: (1) is its premise true, and (2) is it valid?
It is unsound, because it is invalid. The problem is that the claim that people disagree about which practices are moral or immoral does not, by itself, show that there is no such thing as objective moral truth. It is possible for two groups of people to disagree about something even though there are objective facts about that something.
This does not mean that the argument’s conclusion (full-blown moral skepticism) is false. Again, from the fact that an argument is unsound, you cannot tell whether its conclusion is false. The GCDA might be a really bad argument for a true claim.
So even though the premise of the GCDA is true (because different societies really do have different moral codes), it is still an unsound argument.
[3.8.] Arguments Against MCR.
We have seen that the GCDA does not work as an argument for MCR. But this does not show that MCR is, on the whole, false. To show that MCR is false, one would need to do something besides show that an argument for MCR is unsound. One would need to provide a sound argument against MCR.
In EMP ch.2.4, Rachels gives three arguments against MCR. Each argument describes a consequence of MCR (a claim that is implied by MCR), and in each argument, Rachels asserts that that consequence is false.
If even one of Rachels’s three arguments against MCR is sound, then MCR is false. The arguments are:
· The Moral Inferiority Argument
· The Moral Criticism Argument
· The Moral Improvement Argument
1. If MCR is true, then no customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.
2. But some customs of other societies are morally inferior to our own.*
3. Therefore, MCR is not true.
As an example, Rachels mentions political oppression in contemporary China. Other examples of seemingly inferior customs of other societies abound; for example, slavery, including the use of child slaves as camel jockeys, is still practiced in some other cultures.
Is it sound? In other words, (1) is it valid, and (2) are the premises true?
Stopping point for Tuesday September 10. For next time:
• as always, study today’s lecture notes;
• finish reading EMP ch.2
• you may have a pop quiz on both of these at the beginning of the class
Note that your first major test in this class is two weeks from today: Tuesday September 26. The study guide is now on the class web site.
 Reporter Bruce Bawer touches on the same attitude toward women as that described by Ayann Hirsi Ali (see the previous set of notes). Bawer describes the point of view of someone who sounds like he or she would accept MCR:
... in September …, the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet reported that 65 percent of rapes of Norwegian women were performed by “non-Western” immigrants–a category that, in Norway, consists mostly of Muslims. The article quoted a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo (who was described as having “lived for many years in Muslim countries”) as saying that “Norwegian women must take their share of responsibility for these rapes” because Muslim men found their manner of dress provocative. One reason for the high number of rapes by Muslims, explained the professor, was that in their native countries “rape is scarcely punished,” since Muslims “believe that it is women who are responsible for rape.” The professor’s conclusion was not that Muslim men living in the West needed to adjust to Western norms, but the exact opposite: “Norwegian women must realize that we live in a multicultural society and adapt themselves to it.” (Bruce Bawer, “Tolerating Intolerance: The Challenge of Fundamentalist Islam in Western Europe,” Partisan Review LXIX (3), 2002.)
The attitude of the professor of social anthropology quoted in this story is that Norwegian women should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the culture of Muslim immigrants—a culture that (at least according to this professor) treats rape as the moral responsibility of the victim rather than of the rapist.
 Strictly speaking, the claim is really two different claims: 1) there is no objective moral truth, and 2) there is no universal moral truth. Objectivity and universality are not the same thing. It is possible for morality to be objective but not universal (e.g., if there are things that are objectively right for one group of people but objectively wrong for another) and it is possible for it to be universal but not objective (e.g., if morality is determined solely by what people believe about morality, but everyone happens to believe exactly the same thing about morality).
 For details on modern forms of slavery, including the use of child camel jockeys, see http://www.antislavery.org/. For more information on child jockeys, see Paul Peachey, “UAE Defies Ban on Child Camel Jockeys,” The Independent, March 3, 2010, URL = < http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/uae-defies-ban-on-child-camel-jockeys-1914915.html >, accessed January 20, 2013.
This page last updated 9/10/2013.
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