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After an interesting discussion in my Cyberspace and the Law class this morning, I would like to throw out another question with which cultural relativism must grapple: what should we do about Internet censorship?

For instance, would a cultural relativist support a group like the OpenNet Initiative, whose goal is “to identify and document Internet filtering and surveillance, and to promote and inform wider public dialogue about such practices”?

On the one hand, this goal aims to promote a more open global dialogue about the issue, something which seems to be at the core of cultural relativism. But, on the other hand, don’t we have to assume an objective ethical baseline (censorship bad) in order to achieve this global platform?  As a logical matter, some methods of filtration and blocking must be removed in order for this dialogue to even take place.  How can cultural relativism reconcile this tension?

Daniel Corbett


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

We’re not the only ones contemplating cultural relativism. Over at Concurring Opinions, there is a debate budding about Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting. Blog author, Donald Braman links to the Yale center investigating cultural cognition (relinked here). The comments that follow are equally worth the read.

– Timothy DeHaut

I’m going to try to address your thoughts, Morgan, along with the comment Chris posted to my earlier entry.

Morgan, your point (“Theology ought to be put through the same kind of rigorous wringer as empirical science“) is a strong one. I, too, am a firm believer in reason, empiricism, and cold, hard facts. And I think we generally make things better by expanding the use of these methods. The technology that makes our lives better each day is one of the benefits of living in a secularizing, modernizing world.

But I don’t think the spiritual realm can be properly touched by science. Sure, scientists will try to infer from “gaps” the existence of God, but I think what I said in my first post establishes where I stand on this matter. While well-intentioned, these scientists may actually be doing a disservice to religion by trying to make the spiritual conform to the material.

In short, I can’t offer any material “evidence” for the existence of God. I know it’s been attempted, but I don’t find these attempts particularly appealing or useful.

Which brings us to you, Chris. You argued that “to believe in something without evidence is faith” and that Dawkins is criticizing this. You’re right in the sense that Dawkins, like many scientists, thinks it foolish to believe in something without evidence.

This argument is flawed because the acceptance of any realm requires a “leap of faith,” to use John Hick‘s term. To accept the existence of the material world and defeat solipsism (the belief that “it’s all in your mind”), one must take a leap. To accept in the existence of some sort of moral framework, a further leap is needed. And, finally, to establish the existence of a spiritual realm, we need yet another leap of faith.

Dawkins has spent his career studying the material world, but to get there he had to take a leap of faith. He had to take another leap in order to be able to deploy such pithy normative arguments as “Atheists should ‘come out of the closet’.” Taking the leap to the spiritual level may be less accepted and may lead to more disparate conclusions across cultures, but there is nothing irrational in itself about choosing to believe in something outside this world. And, for reasons I’ve given earlier, once people make this choice, they’ve waived off any serious critiques from other paradigms. Each realm has its resident expert: the scientist, the moral philosopher, and the theologian. True there’s some overlap, but at the end of the day, they must all confine their arguments to their camp. Science has gotten better, in large part, because morality and religion have started to keep their distance. Why should it be any different with religion?

Finally, Morgan, to come back to the general question your last post begs– “Why should a thinking person believe in God?”– my best, and perhaps only serious response is to point you back to Pascal’s Wager, and simply say, “Why not?” As Pascal told us, we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain when we choose to believe in God.

Daniel Corbett 

We all know the story of the Palestinian childern who spaked a bloodbath by throwing rocks at Israeli tanks. This is the textbook case of a “disporportionate reaction,” a phrase that musters leers from many international relations scholars. What prompts reactions like this? Are we hard-wired to react? To over-react?

Self-defense is a natural occurence. But maybe it’s our puzzling neurological framework that makes international affairs as messy are they are. Human beings have an innate tendency to overreact, writes Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist. Psychological studies have shown that human beings have outwardly-directed memories. In other words, we are much more aware of others’ actions than our own. Small wonder then, given this fact, that recent study has shown humans will respond, on average, with 40 percent more force than the initial attack.

He hit me first, so I’ll hit him back– harder. This is not a new phenomenon by any measure, but Gilbert seems to think it has some bearing on international relations:

Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others — and to start trusting others themselves — there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback.

I’m a bit more skeptical.

In short, Gilbert’s insights are incredibly useful in the realm of interpersonal relations, but perhaps irrelevant in the realm of international relations. True, I as an individual can “turn the other cheek.” Mental life, as Gilbert duly noted, is a private affair. Ultimately, we are only responsible for our thoughts and our reactions. And I don’t think it’s too much to expect some people to act according to a virtue of harmony rather than a neurological dictum. But if this theory is to have any relevance in IR– if we are to see the better world Gilbert envisions– there must be a groundswell of individuals acting against their neurological urges. Politics makes clear the fact that the human animal is still, at some level, bound by biology.

If there’s an answer to the vexing problem Gilbert has presented– violence, instability, and fractionation– it lies not in understanding human psychology, but in understanding human institutions. Diplomacy, economics, and international law have enjoyed mostly good track records because they framed their debates in stark terms. They looked at the reality of human psychology– our imperfect, often selfish dispositions– rather than hoping for a transcendent moment of collective human virtue. And through these dark, pragmatic lenses, we have begun to see (at least on the whole) a paradoxical movement by societies toward these virtues.

Morgan and readership, a few questions for you: First, am I underestimating the human condition here? Can people really overcome their nature en masse? Economics assumes a rational, selfish actor– is this accurate? What are the dangers in assuming this?
– –Daniel Corbett

True, Morgan, we don’t have at hand a tidy constitutional argument against traffic enforcement cameras. Our argument hangs on a messy premise: that there should be a “human element in law enforcement.” How can we defend such a claim? You are right that we won’t find our answer in the the constitution or the rule of law. We’d be barking up the tree, because, as you noted, you (and countless others) have indeed broken the law. Simple as that. So the debate then shifts to matters of institutional policy and implementation, how cops do their jobs.

The letter of the law says nothing of how many cops should be on the street. Nor should it attempt to. Rather, it simply determines legal questions such as the correct speed limit. We could have, under the rule of law, a state of perfect enforcement, a cop on every corner. Every speeder, every red light runner, and any other violater of law would be caught and punished accordingly. They were in the wrong, and they were caught. No problems from a legal perspective here.

But why do we limit the scope of law enforcement?

We do it for a number of reasons. Sometimes, for instance, it’s because a new technology is not as perfect and certainly not as desirable as we once thought. And other times it’s because, simply put, we don’t want a cop on every corner. We can argue this along myriad lines. Economically, there is a point at which administrative and judicial costs (because we won’t jettison that pesky thing we call due process) will exceed incoming revenues. In other words, a glut of speeders would create a case backlog that would be– well– not worth it. Or we can take this on from a very different perspective and focus on the new technology’s effect on personal autonomy. If I know there is a finite number of cops on the road, I can make a choice whether to speed. I assess the costs and the benefits for myself and, likely, extract some benefit from making that choice. But in a world of perfect law enforcement, that choice is gone. One will blindly obey the speed limit, for fear of being caught at any time.

What changes about law when the choice to break the law disappears? Is it still a “law” as we know it?
Daniel Corbett

It’s happened to two of my friends already. And Morgan, unfortunately, you’re one of them.

Yes, you’ve been nabbed (twice, is it?) by the newest, and perhaps most irksome, law enforcement technology: the traffic camera. Cities across the country have installed the cameras in an effort to expand law enforcement’s watchful eye. Some have hailed these efforts as an essential step in making our roads safer. But others, often those who have received their bills– er, tickets– in the mail, have lashed against the technology for its imperfections and its prying nature.

What are these cameras and how do they work? Under the general mantle of “road-rule enforcement cameras” there are various cameras with many different designs: to catch people speeding, running red lights, or even driving unauthorized in bus/HOV lanes. These technologies trace their roots– as do many “nanny-state” innovations– to the UK. And it’s certainly worth noting that if I run a red light in Pittsburgh, up to 80 percent of the revenue from my ticket will not go to my city, but instead will be sent overseas to the UK or Australia to the corporations that manage traffic cameras. So much for the revenue generation trope local governments often try to play.

OK, so maybe we don’t buy that argument. There is little appeal to a cash-strapped municipality asking its citizens for more money. But what about the public safety argument? Don’t traffic cameras make us safer? Well, if we look at a study by U.S. Department of Transportation,  “the results do not support the view that red light cameras reduce crashes. Instead, we find that RLCs are associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes.” The study found cameras have a statistically insignificant effect on severe and fatal crashes, but cause a 40 percent increase in less serious crashes, especially rear-end accidents. Makes sense, right? People are slamming on their brakes because they’re afraid of that eerie white structure protruding above their heads and the $150 ticket that looms in the mail.

So why are we seeing a proliferation of these cameras? First, it isn’t just corporate greed. Local and city governments, by dint of the sheer number of extra tickets, often make more in revenue than they would otherwise. So why not put in a few more cameras? Second, the public safety numbers can support either side. And it’s a lackadaisical citizenry– people who will trade their freedom for protection– that allows governments to push these cameras on them in the name of the public good.

So how do we respond? Jim Raussen R-Springdale is an Ohio senator who is currently fighting the plan in his home state. He is proposing a bill that would require that a police officer be present in order for any ticket to be written.

Raussen’s efforts, I believe, are a step in the right direction. Our law is a human system– messy, confusing, and often brilliant in adapting to particulars. If we take the human element out of law enforcement, we are taking out one of its most essential components– its problem-solving ability. A police officer can often see by the look on your face, your circumstances either in your car or with fellow motorists, things crucial in fairly deciding whether you should be ticketed. A machine cannot make a gut-level decision like that. So for now, we need humans, not machines, running law enforcement.

Daniel Corbett 

    By the time waters had receded in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina had wrought twin disasters. One was the obvious flesh and blood tragedy– thousands of human lives were lost in the disaster. The other disaster was for FEMA, for Bush, and for all the civil servants whose bungling in the face of devastation was a sharp blow to their credibility.

    One lesson we can take away is this: "Ordinary people can solve communication problems much quicker than clueless government officials when catastrophes like hurricane Katrina strike." So says Steven Berlin Johnson, in an article for Discover magazine. Why is this the case? The simple answer: as technology continues to grow, there is more and more intelligence in mobs.

    When Katrina struck, panicked survivors went to sites like Craigslist, Yahoo!, and the Red Cross website. But the information on these sites– by virtue of the sheer number of people affected– was too much to sift through. Survivors were lost in what is often termed "data smog." How would they find their way through all this?

    The answer did not come in the form of a systemic plan, be it state or private sector. It came, instead, through the diffuse actions of thousands of tech-savvy volunteers. In response to the tragedy, David Geilhufe and his small team formed the PeopleFinder Interchange Format– "a service that gathered information from all over the Web through something called "screen scraping," an automated process that involves grabbing the relevant information for each person—name, location, age, and description—and depositing it in a single database." The team's efforts were picked up by a few prominent bloggers, who spread the word. Almost overnight, Geilhufe's team had expanded to a decentralized army of thousands, all helping survivors connect and communicate.

    Johnson notes that only through spontaneous order could such a sucessful task be executed:

"PeopleFinder was the kind of data-management effort that could have taken a year to execute at great expense if a corporation or a government agency had been in charge of it. The PeopleFinder group managed to pull it off in four days for zero dollars."

Daniel Corbett

    Social science has yet another ultra-specialized subfield to add to its constellation of disciplines. It's called "happiness studies," and it's growing quite rapidly. Will Wilkinson at Cato has even started a side project– Happiness and Public Policy— devoted to the intersection of the two fields, which admittedly come to loggerheads from time to time.

    And for good reason. How can you implement something so elusive, relative, and hard to pin down? Happiness scholars, for their part, are doing their best to puzzle this out, as well as dive deeper into questions of what happiness is. 

    A recent article in the Toronto Star provides a nice discussion of the movement, which formalized itself in 2000 with its own peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Happiness Studies. The article details some recent findings in the discipline.

1. Happiness is not purely experiential. Something scholars term "affective forecasting" refers to the uniquely human ability to anticipate experiences and predict their potential happiness.

2. It's the duration of happiness, and not the intensity, that matters. Day-to-day pleasures like well-fitting clothes, or say, a nice lambic ale, often make us happier than monumental triumphs such as winning a million dollars, or being elected president. 

3. Even though we can predict happiness, we're not always good at it. A die-hard sports fan will often anticipate the dire emotional consequences of his or her team losing it all; and will, in reality, bounce back from such a setback much faster than anticipated. Research on Holocaust survivors, most of whom went on to live normal, productive lives, suggests the extent to which humans can overcome.

    It will be interesting to see where this scholarship moves. It is certainly a wonderful new lens through which we can view policy and social ordering. But I think it must be kept in check by other considerations– economic practicality, individual rights, etc.– and must not be overly essentialized. 

Daniel Corbett 

Pop quiz: “Everybody’s Going to be Happy.” The title of a Kinks song, or the brazen proclamation of a new generation of politicos? The answer, of course, is both. Politicians, philosophers, and social scientists of all stripes have long been interested in happiness. And for good reason. Premising our social arrangements on anything else seems– to be blunt– inhumane. The real question, then, is not whether human happiness should be a factor in policy formulation. Rather, it’s a question of where this happiness is situated– is it a serene “inner peace” or “self-actualization,” or is it simply the overall well-being of society, based on economic metrics?

A new wave of political thinkers seem to think it should be the former. The argument goes something like this. 1.) Happiness cannot be measured solely by economic well-being; in fact, the two often share an inverse relationship. 2.) The only way to increase happiness in society is to pursue explicitly policies designed to do so. Enter British economist, Richard Layard. Recently, Layard, who advises Britain’s New Labour party, made a bold claim: in order to further the happiness of its citizenry, the UK needs to employ 10,000 new therapists.

To say nothing of the economic costs, (primarily because Layard has done his homework, and I have not) it is foolish to pursue such a plan for a number of reasons. Sociologist Frank Furedi does a nice job of making this argument in a recent article for the Telegraph. He questions their short-sighted definition of happiness, which is essentially in terms of survey results. He also questions the broader question of the therapeutic state. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of his article is his treatment of education.

“The ascendancy of therapeutic education is not confined to the state sector. Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington College, hopes to turn his school into a very happy place. He has teamed up with the Orwellian sounding ‘Well-being Institute’ of Cambridge University to produce happy children. He writes that producing ‘happy young adults is my highest priority as head’. Excellence and high achievement? Umm. Seldon castigates ‘driven people’ who are ‘missing the point of life’.”

Missing the point of life? OK, Mr. Seldon, I’ll bite. We’re missing the “point of life.” But what, precisely, is that point? And why should it be in the purview of educators to emphasize one particular point? Wouldn’t we be better served letting individuals choose for themselves what is valuable in their lives?

This is a puzzling irony in progressive politics. There is the idea that we should strive to be a tolerant and pluralistic community, but there is also the competing idea that there is a hierarchy of worldviews. For progressives (just like the conservatives they loathe) some ways of life are simply better than others. Here, that way of life is one that curses standardized testing, materialism, and our hyper-competitive culture– one that stresses inner sanctum and contentedness.

Don’t get me wrong; I am without a doubt a fan of contentedness. I will cast the first stone at ugly instanciations (think: MTV’s “Pimp My Ride”) of the afforementioned sins. But I do so as a matter of personal taste and belief. I do not think my views can, or should, be mapped onto society. Why? Simply put, plans to reorder society– to make it happier, better, or more moral– in accordance with one person or group of people’s conception of what’s right are destined to fail. For a drastic example, look to prohibition in the United States during the early 20th century.

At the end of the day, I, like most people, want society to be happier. (Ironically, it’s often taken unhappiness, or ambition, to do this in the form of economic progress.) I just part ways with the purveyors of the new happiness on one fundamental idea: I think inner happiness, values, and the “point of life” are questions best left to individuals, not policymakers or state-appointed therapists.

Daniel Corbett

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