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Herb Rothschild Jr.: It's not right just cuz it's ours

For a time, I was related by marriage to a woman who had lived all her life in small towns and hadn’t traveled outside the South. Whenever she heard of some behavior that was beyond her experience, she’d call it “crazy.” To her, the ways she knew were the right ways simply because they were her ways. In a globalized world she was a relic, but for much of human history her mindset was the norm.

In my last column I pointed out that, in their root usages, ethics and morals weren’t distinguished. Ethos in Greek and mores in Latin denoted a group’s behaviors that expressed its collective character, its fundamental values. Thus, they were relative to cultures. But I went on to say that their usage had separated over time, and that it’s now possible (though it’s not consistently done) to use ethics in that original sense but morals to mean rules of behavior which, in fundamental instances, are universally compelling. I gave as examples being generous and not betraying trust.

When people argue for cultural change, they sometimes mean that changing conditions have made some ethics obsolete. One example might be the prohibition on sex outside wedlock. To the extent that its compelling motive was determining paternity and thus assigning responsibility for the child’s upbringing, contraception and DNA testing have combined to render it moot in modern cultures. Some people defend the prohibition morally, but they are hard put to convince others that their sexual morals are universally binding.

Usually, though, when we call for cultural change, it’s because we have brought some facet of our ethos, some value or practice, under moral judgment and found it wanting. Slavery is an obvious example. Subjecting ethics to moral judgment raises challenging questions about respecting cultural diversity, but as the example of slavery attests, very few people really believe that we must regard all cultural ways as morally neutral and thus deserving equal respect. The challenge, of course, is to decide whether we are hostile to an alien ethical practice just because it is alien or because it violates fundamental morality.

So, for example, France’s hostility to Muslim girls’ covering their hair at school strikes me as unjustifiably parochial. In France but not in New Guinea, women must cover their breasts in public. On the other hand, hostility to genital mutilation that deprives females of all sexual pleasure strikes me as justified on moral grounds. The codification of moral norms in documents like the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights indicates a growing global consensus that ethics can be brought under moral judgment.

I keep urging us to change the ethics of our own culture. My narrower call has been for an end to aggression as an acceptable value and practice. Its worst expression is our militarism and the wars it spawns, but our aggression spawns many forms of violence domestically, with women and children as the most frequent victims. Such behavior doesn’t withstand moral judgment. But my call has been broader — a moderation of our emphasis on the individual, on competition, and on the assumption of winners and losers.

I readily concede that, in many of its expressions, such an ethos isn’t immoral, and one might contrast it favorably with the total emphasis on the collective in places like North Korea. It isn’t easy to harmonize the quest for self-actualization and the need for community. I’ll work at that — intellectually at least — in next week’s column.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.