Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Moral beliefs, objectivity, and cultural imperialism

Something that has been on my mind a lot:

There seems to be a sort of paradox when I think about discussions of morality and ethics. I think this has come into a kind of stark relief since I go not only to a school where many students are very vocal (rightly) about moral beliefs, but also about the dangers and missteps of oppressions like colonialism, racism, (hetero)(cis)sexism, ableism, and the like. The latter concern (that of oppression) is usually voiced through modern academic theory of some sort. Post-colonial, queer, or any other number of poststructuralist/postmodernist kind of theories are used to try to 'decolonize' or queer theology or generally argue against these oppressions. And usually the irony is that these are done in a modernist way: stating that something is objectively wrong.

I'm not sure where I stand on this, so bear with me, and if I say something that appears incredibly problematic or stupid, then tell me. What I'm saying is that i'm not playing devil's advocate or whatever. I'm going to start off with the idea that there is some sort of objective morality, and then kind of think through how that might be problematic, at least in a post-colonial sense.

Ok, so let's say that we have things that we can all agree are pretty dang terrible. And that these things are universally terrible, insofar as I mean that somehow they can be seen as being intrinsically evil/bad (I don't care about Nietzsche, I'm going to equivocate those two). I mean, in some sense, we can see how that is the case. In fact, I would say this is how most people would really act. To take an example: Many people would say that genocide is a bad deal. Or rape. I'm trying to do this in a way that doesn't make anyone feel like I'm using their history to win debate points, but those are two things that could conceivably be seen as intrinsically bad.

With that in mind, the problem comes from the fact that once one makes any one thing an intrinsic evil, it seems impossible to me that one doesn't cross into the line of cultural imperialism. Using rape as an example, one could easily rate societies by prevalence of rape, and that would seem to imply that those societies with the highest prevalence of rape were in some way, less moral or ethical than those with lower incidence of rape. Now that is simplistic, but you can see what I'm getting at here.

Not only that, but let's imagine that there were a society that had some sort of institutional or societally required rape and/or genocide. We would, granting an objective view of those acts inherent badness, have to determine that that society is structurally less ethical than a society without this institutionalized unethical behavior. I imagine that you can start seeing how this might lead to some really messed up ideas. In this instance, it would be morally justifiable to try to end the incidences of rape or genocide in these other societies, and this has been the story of cultural imperialism for the past hundreds of years. Although, granted that the colonial powers in many cases were not attacking things that seem as intuitively immoral as rape or genocide, it is the same basic worldview that we are trapped in when we start making any moral claims at all.

So is there a way of voicing any sort of moral claim without in some way sanctioning cultural imperialism?

This is where the more post-colonial theories come into the picture. The use of things like morality and ethics in order to colonize other people has not only been overt in the past, but continues to be so today. For an instance of this, look at the French government's recent fiasco regarding the niqab and women's veils. Many western feminists argue against this upon their idea of what is objectively bad for women, but many people would say that this objective morality is really a subjective cultural one.

The very premise of postmodernist arguments (which are the basis of postcolonial ones) is that the absolute truths and idea of objective knowledge, and progress are themselves cultural constructs. So this presents the picture of a complete ethical relativism in a cultural sense. The problem I see with a lot of these theories is that they seem to at the same time enforce cultural/ethical relativism, while at the same time enforcing an objective morality. I mean, one of the base ideas of most of the authors that we cite have argued that morality itself is a construct of society; those who don't (Mary Daly, being a feminist example) are in some ways the bane of the poststructuralist/postmodern concept of how ethics and morality are formed.

For instance, I would say that many of the people who I know who use these critiques of colonialism/heteronormativity/etc do hold some sort of beliefs on some sort of morality. For instance, I try to make world a more livable place for queer people. Any activism is the statement of some sort of moral belief, in this way.

What is hard to understand about this is that we take this post-colonial or post-modern view in a macro sense, but refuse to use it in a micro sense (even though the same critiques would still apply). Like, the critiques against enforcing one's morals upon other cultures could just as easily apply to our own cultures; in fact, the migration of peoples makes it impossible to really distinguish in any meaningful way. To say that we can have moral statements and pronouncements about our home society/countries seems to be acknowledging the nation state as a unified thing. Put more plainly, what right do I have to be angry over making being queer illegal in Montana, since that is simply a different culture than mine? Wouldn't it be similarly culturally imperialistic to make prescriptions to Montanans, just to a different degree than maybe Uganda?

Taken even more to closer view, the same critiques exist in inter-personal interactions. Someone could be raised in a different culture, and to say that my viewpoints are right and theirs need to be changed is the exact same argument that colonizers make.

Another problem comes from the very nature of naming oppression or colonialism is in itself a value judgment of an objective nature. Although we are to believe that morality is a social construct, and not objective, somehow we are still to treat oppression as if it is objectively wrong. Which starts to raise the question: in a postmodern viewpoint, how can one actually say that colonization is bad, and decolonization good? In a framework with no objective criterion, then there is simply things that people do. To make the claim of queer theory or postcolonial theory, there seems to be a paradox: one has to maintain the objective morality (against oppression or colonialism) that is critiqued as a contributor to colonialism.

Maybe I'll write more on this. But that is what I'm kind of thinking about now: is it possible to take the tenets of a post-modernist/poststructuralist or post-colonial theory earnestly and consistently, and be able to make any claim about ethics?

1 comment:

  1. I think that there is no perfect way to reconcile the subjective and the objective, which is what it seems like you're trying to do. We have mathematics and certain absolutes that we can say are objectively true, but beyond that everything has to have a margin of error to allow for differences in perception or conceptualization.

    I could be wrong on this (am probably wrong on this) but I think that existentialism, if that's what you're getting at, sort of throws objectivity out the window and says "Just do what seems right to you because it is useless trying to find an objective reason to act". I think Sartre held opinions along those lines. So, create your own morality as well as you can and hope for the best?