Saturday, October 1, 2011


When Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind back in the 80s, he would play a gotcha game with his students.  His students would get up and make a typical post-1960s speech about how we shouldn't interfere in other cultures and then talk about how all morality was all relative.  Then he'd ask them about the burning of women in India or the Nazis and they would stammer something about tolerance or they would say "wow, that's really wrong" and thereby enter into a contradiction.  On my facebook page a while back I gave a link to a David Brooks article that showed that based on several studies that American students not only have no sense of morality, but they can't even think in moral categories.  

The change is demonstrated by my experience when compared to Bloom's.  In the 80s, they were at least willing to talk about the Nazis as evil and thereby contradict themselves. When I started teaching, I thought I could teach my students a lesson about the need for universal moral claim by using the same trick.  The response was even more disappointing.  The first time I used it against a student that had asserted cultural relativism and asked "if killing Jews is just part of Nazi culture, then does it mean it's OK?"  I received the response "I don't know.  I'll have to think about that."  I was so angry I told her I couldn't believe her response.  I never saw her again after that class, she immediately dropped.  This last week I had a girl who claimed to be a Christian assert to me that each society needed to decided individually what was right and wrong, and that there was no basis beyond that for morality.  "So," I said, "was it wrong for the Nazis to kill the Jews.  I mean, it was their social convention, right?"  She then told me that they were sincere in their belief that they were making the world a better place by killing Jews and therefore we should respect their decision.  I couldn't believe it.  Deeply depressing stuff.


  1. Stunning! The next time you try this trick, you might want to try asking if slavery in America was okay. I think the culture in which kids have been raised won't allow them to say it was relative or okay. Killing of Jews is too abstract, but throwing JayZ in chains, now that can't be right.

  2. Or simply approach it from the clash of interests: the Jews would prefer not to be burned, and there were dissidents in Nazi Germany. Were they wrong? How are we to adjudicate morally between the interests of the people who want to rape and kill and those who would prefer not to be raped and killed? Or those who would stand in the way of the rapists and murderers?

    The reference to suttee provides an excellent example here, with General Charles Napier's response to priests claiming it should be respected as a sacred ritual:

    "Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to our national customs!"

  3. Brian, slavery is the one I usually go with as well. I think given our history and the fact that most people find it abhorrent is helpful.

    But in the end, a relativist will either be honest and say "yes, slavery is fine if the culture allows it," or (in my experience, more frequently) refuse to answer the question or pretend it's apples and oranges.

  4. A few more thoughts: if what the student is defending is actually a kind of global isolationism, then he or she is espousing a value higher than simply popular will within cultures. The Nazis did after all have more of a popular mandate for their imperial designs than they did for internal genocide. It is an enduring feature of history that human populations/cultures/ethnic groups interact, expand/shrink, and yes, war and occasionally be subsumed by another. Why, if the people want to war, would it be wrong for them to do so? And if justice involves rolling back the results of historical conflicts, how far back do we go? 1949? 1939? 1914? (1492 anyone? 732?)

    The point is, if you are dealing with those who are just morally retarded and not nihilists, you need to extract from their challenges the overriding values that they do hold, if your aim is to establish that a universal foundation for morality exists (to Christians! Oy Vey.).

    If on the other hand, the student comes around saying that he guesses that cultural will is supreme, even in matters of expansion and conquest, then you're dealing with a garden-variety Thrasymachus, and even Socrates couldn't bring him around. My imagined cynical response to such a person would be to declare myself supreme in the realm of the subject matter of the class; therefore, insofar as we disagree you are wrong, and you need to come around if you expect a decent grade. I wonder how that would fly.

  5. or try asking them if forcing under age woman to marry is okay like they did under Warren Jeffs, or if we should punish Muslims that beat their wives because in that culture that is okay.

    I am sure that you can think of a million others, but if that dude's assessment is correct, and I have no reason to think that it isn't. None of that will fair any better i suspect.

  6. Seems similar to teaching 8th graders. If it is not about them, they cannot relate.

  7. Dr. Kilcrease,
    Here I am trying to respond in a comment box, and so I'm probably not going to have the resources to provide footnotes and an elaborate argument,and in the face of your big brain, I feel a little intimidated, but:
    1. I'm not a big fan of cultural relativism - I think it can be shown that some cultures are better than others...but do Nazis qualify as a culture? It seems to me they came to power through intimidation and fear and propaganda (and the concentration camps were by no means a transparent government function) and many who suspected or knew (too many) were not willing to risk their own lives and stand up in the face of thug-ish brownshirts or secret police (many lutheran ministers were reduced to taking an oath to Hilter). That is, Nazis were not equivalent to German culture, but a perversion. Some (like Bonhoeffer) did recognize that Nazis were wrong, but it took courage to stand up to them, and it cost Bonhoeffer his life. Interestingly, Bonhoeffer bought into the idea that the solution was to take Hitler's life through an assassination plot.
    2. Our own proponents of the religious right (springing from our own American culture - a grand experiment with results we can mostly still be proud of) seem to support military solutions that include the use of armed drones that launch missiles at specific individual suspects, occasionally incurring collateral damage. Are these targeted assassinations a fruit of our own culture? Let an Arab nation plot the death of an ambassador with a hitman, and listen to our congress cry foul.
    3. I like Mr. Cuming's idea about approaching it from the perspective of 'clash of interests'(especially the perspective "I don't want to die...or be tortured, or be imprisoned,...or have anyone interrupt my pursuit of happiness!" and once this is expressed, it isn't a big step to empathy for others who likely share this perspective.). I think this approach leads most logically to morality springing from natural biology. (All life seems to take a hankering to surviving) with various survival strategies evolving over time. Culture and morality may be our specie's strategies for survival (which I suppose implies that sacred texts are a fruit of our cultures, which we already seem to agree, cannot all be right.) In a world of limited resources, arguments about who gets what are going to be inevitable. It seems politicians eventually will have to repeatedly answer the question, who will live and who will die and I suspect the answers will still be based on family, money, and 'tribal, ethnic, national' associations.
    What is surprising about Jesus, and also troubling, is the idea of self-sacrifice and non-violence. Are these spiritual metaphors, or a handbook for political action?
    It doesn't seem to me that the possession of a non-universally accepted sacred text makes answering these questions any easier.