Thanks for the links, Tim. It looks like we’ve got some pretty heady company in this discussion. Here are my thoughts on the discussion over at Concurring Opinions.

Initially, I have to give Braman some credit for his forceful defense of the tenets of cultural relativism. And, I must admit, I agree with some of these tenets, at least in the abstract. I would not contest the claim that an increased openness to other points of view and a greater emphasis on dispassionate assessment of empirical data are both desirable goals. Putting the merits of cultural relativism aside for the moment, I think it’s interesting that Braman at least appears turns his back on cultural relativism to some extent when he writes of female genital mutilation:

“I’m also open to the idea that, when done safely and when not physically traumatizing/destructive (at least when it is no more physically injurious than the typical male circumcision) and when done in a social context that lends it positive meaning, it may not be as abominable as I was previously inclined to think.”

Braman seems to be appealing to some fairly objective, concrete standards here. Granted, one could reasonably interpret this passage as simply claiming that female genital mutilation is perhaps not so “abominable” that it should be outlawed in all cases in the United States. I think this is a fair reading of Braman and is very likely what he was arguing. What I find problematic, however, is that implicit in Braman’s statement is the idea that he is making an outright assessment of the practice in general, finding it less reprehensible than once thought.

After all, why should we be concerned with safety? Or with the avoidance of traumatizing or destructive practices? Or with supporting “positive meaning?” If Braman is arguing that these are merely metrics that will help us determine whether the practice should be embraced in the United States, he is being intellectually honest. (In my opinion, this is a bizzare mental exercise. If these metrics could be successfully met, the practice would be bear little or no resemblance to the practice as currently conducted in many cases.) But to the extent that Braman would like his claim to be taken seriously by any culture other than the United States or a culture that practices female genital mutilation, he is being intellectually dishonest. How can cultural relativism reach beyond any particular culture? On what ground, if any, can this theory rest?

If cultural relativism is not completely right, as is my working assumption, we will need to find some sort of objective morality.

How do we begin to argue for an objective or innate morality? Psychologist Steve Pinker has recently noted that “[t]he moral sense, then, may be rooted in the design of the normal human brain.” Pinker’s article surveys various psychological research that demonstrates clear neurological reactions in patients encountering “moral” dilemmas. In short, when we make a moral decision, it lights up a particular part of our brain.

I am painting with an incredibly broad brush, of course. Pinker himself recognizes the potential for culture (and personal biases) to shape moral values. This is evident as Pinker humorously notes that, for some, “[d]riving a gas-guzzling Hummer is reprehensible, but driving a gas-guzzling old Volvo is not; eating a Big Mac is unconscionable, but not imported cheese or crème brûlée.”

There is no question that morality and society share a powerful and meaningful feedback loop. I think the so-called “white male effect” currently subject to academic scrutiny is a perfect illustration of this fact. The important thing to bear in mind, I think, is the fact that it is a feedback loop and not a one-directional system in which culture dictates morality.

Daniel Corbett

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