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Saturday, 9 June 2007


Prudential Relativism and the Problem of Ignorance

Roger Sandall

(Talk at Warrane College Easter Seminar on “Relativism and Human Rights”, April 7 2007.)

What do I mean by Prudential Relativism? To start with, what I have in mind is the old adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In Nero’s time, presumably, some visitor to Rome failed to do as the Romans did, and ended up thrown to the lions. That it is prudent to trim one’s ethical sails to the wind was the conclusion quickly drawn by his surviving friends—and they were not just being opportunistic. Prudence is admittedly only a contingent virtue, what Immanuel Kant might have called a “maxim”, not an imperative, but in certain contingencies it may indeed help you survive.

Next, what do I mean by “the problem of ignorance”? Here we might also put ourselves in Rome in Nero’s time. And also in the shoes of a visitor. The year is about 50AD. Let’s say our visitor has just arrived in Rome from some barbarous place like Siberia or Scotland, he has not heard the aforementioned famous adage, he is deeply ignorant, and so he asks someone along the Appian Way: What DO the Romans do? Let us also assume that this visitor has heard about the lions, and he wants desperately to do the right thing. Trouble is, he doesn’t know what the right thing is.

Something like this same problem of ignorance arises today, and arises in numerous contexts in our multicultural world, when we have newcomers from cultures A and B and C who quite simply don’t know what the right thing in the host culture is. Originally, say 50 years ago, most immigrants wanted to know what the right thing was and made efforts to find out. Recently, however, another complexity has been added, with entire government departments set up to tell them that their thing is the right thing, whatever sort of a thing it might be, and they should do their thing willy-nilly, and, indeed, that they have an internationally certified human right to do so... But of course that’s another story. Or not really the story I’m telling here.

So back to my argument… which involves a little thought experiment trying to compare and contrast a pure condition of ethical knowledge, on the one hand, and of ethical ignorance, on the other, and trying to see how and when prudential relativism becomes a part of our moral environment.

First, let’s imagine a small village in the jungle where everyone knows the rules. Or a medieval village in the 12th century. In this ethical universe there are three absolutely binding commands: do not lie, do not kill, and do not paint graffiti on your neighbor’s walls. Not only are they absolutely binding, everyone knows them, everyone respects them, and everyone obeys them. Just as economists propose states of perfect equilibrium between economic demand and economic supply, what I am here proposing is a state of stable equilibrium in which ethical demand (the law) is in perfect equilibrium with ethical supply (lawful human conduct). And this could of course be any small and virtuous community in times gone by.

[Or for that matter it might be a monastic community today. I saw an ABC documentary about New Norcia in WA last evening. They have a Benedictine monastery there, and this kind of closed religious community exemplifies the sort of indissoluble combination of law and conduct I am talking about, where rules that are known are dutifully and invariably performed.]

But now let us consider the opposite case. Not a universe of knowing ethical agents in stable equilibrium. Instead, a situation where nobody knows what the rules are—and chaos threatens. A primeval tribal world where man is wolf to man. A world so unstable that at any moment the air may become thick with arrows, spears, clubs, flying stones and profanity. Not a village, either—and certainly not a monastery—but a path through no-man’s land in the jungle. So there is territorial uncertainty too: nobody is quite sure whose turf it is. This sort of situation is found not only in parts of the Persian Gulf, as we have seen in the past few days, where marine boundaries are notoriously hard to see: it can also be found in parts of the Amazon and in places like Papua New Guinea, when tribesmen of one group encounter men of another group, and are uncertain about each other’s rules of engagement.

* * *

But first a little digression… There’s a recent book on ethics by the very aggressive unbeliever Anthony Grayling with the challenging title “What is Good?” This is a perfectly reasonable question, with a lineage going back to Socrates and I suppose before him too, and it’s just the sort of question academics love to ask. But in the primeval world another question of much greater urgency must usually be dealt with first—especially if you are on the trail, and you dimly see a party of strange warriors with bows and arrows coming toward you.

That question is, “What is Safe?” Having first established What is Safe, you can draw up a chair beside the fire, and get out the port, and discuss “What is Good?” later.

End of digression. Now it happens that a recent BBC documentary about West Papua actually showed a situation of primeval uncertainty of the kind I was talking about a moment ago. And to cut a long story short, when they had overcome their initial fear and suspicion—we’re talking about different tribal groups intermittently at war—each man embraced his opposite number, hugging him firmly, and smiling determinedly, smiling incessantly, smiling desperately and smiling non-stop. Because that was the safe thing to do. They were obviously reluctant to stop hugging each other, because it was only while being hugged that they felt secure.

Not having a common language in which to explain their particular ethical systems, or comfortable chairs in which to sit around arguing after dinner about “What is Good?”, they resorted to the universal symbolism of the embrace, and the friendly facial signification of the smile. All this, as I think I said, was in West Papua, where they also produced a continuous sound a little like an unbroken ululation, “wa-wa-wa-wa-wa”, on and on and on, a vocal reiteration to strengthen the expressive symbolism of the smile. It was not clear to me whether they did or did not have a common language; but both parties did understand that “wa-wa-wa-wa-wa” was a friendly noise, and that as long as you kept it up you meant well and would come to no harm.

* * *

Here we might add an anecdote from the past. This one from Mexico 500 years ago. Cortes and his chaplain Father Olmedo were on their way to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, when along the way they came to a large and impressive Indian town. Cortes was not a conquistador for nothing: and he didn’t mess about when it came to conversion. Through his all-purpose Indian factotum, mistress, and interpreter Marina, he informed the Indian governor of the town—the ‘Cacique’—that human sacrifice was atrocious, that the stench near the sacrificial pyramid was disgusting, that the Indian idols were contemptible, and that the Indians were sunk in iniquity of the darkest and foulest kind. He had a statue of the Virgin Mary ready, and was about to climb the pyramid and place it on top. Prescott tells us that

The Cacique listened with civil, but cold indifference. Cortes, finding him unmoved, turned briskly round to his soldiers, exclaiming that now was the time to Plant the Cross! They eagerly seconded his pious purpose (but at this point) Father Olmedo, with better judgment, interposed.

He represented that to introduce the Cross among the natives, in their present state of ignorance and incredulity, would be to expose the sacred symbol to desecration, so soon as the backs of the Spaniards were turned.

The only way was to await patiently the season when more leisure should be afforded to instil into their minds a knowledge of the truth.

Prescott writes approvingly that

the sober reasoning of the good father prevailed over the passions of the martial enthusiasts.

I think we may take it for granted that Father Olmedo was in some sense sympathetic with the modern ideal of human rights. Certainly he felt that Aztec human sacrifice was a denial of just about everything human—or divine—that you can think of. He certainly did not believe that when in Mexico you should do as the Mexicans did. But, at the same time, he saw that a too peremptory policy would be counterproductive. The Indians were “ignorant”, and until their understanding and “knowledge” were improved, they could hardly be expected enthusiastically to embrace the faith. At the same time we can see that Cortes, although he clearly understood the horrors of Aztec human sacrifice, could himself be said to be deeply ignorant of many aspects of a civilization that had a number of other and more meritorious features.

* * *

What conclusions about “prudential relativism” can we draw from all this? From the examples of this moral dichotomy? On the one hand the closed village or closed community where there is perfect knowledge of a particular ethical universe, and everyone knows how to behave. On the other hand, the more open and anarchic condition of dangerous ignorance we have now in many places, resulting in a state of deep ethical uncertainty, instability, and inevitable compromise.

Well, I suppose the first and obvious thing to say is that most of us live today somewhere in between these two worlds, compromising one way or another. I fear there’s no going back to the world of solidary unity, of symmetrically matching belief and conduct, of the medieval village or the jungle tribe. All of us today—especially as we move from one country and one continent to another—find ourselves from time to time having to follow that wise travel advisory: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” As an initial guide, as a precautionary rule, it is prudent to do so, and, moreover, it may be regarded as basically safe.

On the other hand, it would be entirely erroneous to draw the conclusion drawn by professional relativists that different truths, different views, different values and different laws, are all “equally valid”—Aztec human sacrifice alongside the teachings of Jesus—and that this ridiculous dogma of ethical equivalence constitutes a rule we should all respect today.

Once again, only intellectuals in universities could ever believe this sort of thing. Father Olmedo knew it was rubbish. And every Papuan tribesman knows it is rubbish too. For consider what happened in the tribal situation I described. They did not in fact behave as if man is wolf to man. Both sides tacitly recognised the universal value of human life to human individuals; each side recognised that they had a common interest in survival, whatever his particular tribal beliefs; no man wanted to die unprepared, unconfessed, “unhouseled” and far from home. Both sides probably included men with families they wanted to see again.

Looking a little more closely at the Papuan case, what probably happened was a compromise of a deeply human kind. On the one hand the tribesmen would have had the normal human instincts of qualified benevolence toward other men—even other men who may have trespassed on their territory. Aboriginal tribes had a keen sense of tribal territory: a keen sense of mine and yours. But transcending this were the sentiments emphasized by David Hume, who thought that human nature was much the same the world over (a view I, and I suspect most old-time Aborigines, happen to share). So if there was a severe drought and food shortage across wide areas of the Australian desert, Aboriginal territorial “rights” might be relaxed somewhat to allow the occasional starving or thirsty stranger to eat and drink.

On the other hand, in addition to a qualified benevolence of the sort Hume understood as universal, there would also be an element of calculation of a more harsh and Hobbesian kind, and a rational estimate of the costs and benefits of dealing civilly with strangers. We might note that, in the case of the Papuan tribes in the BBC movie, where both were in a kind of ethical no-man’s land, the men resorted to a universal language. They were smiling, hugging, and making reassuring friendly noise—wa wa wa wa wa. In this way they were communicating with each other, stranger to stranger, creating a safe environment where, whatever their differing beliefs about God and creation and the answer to the philosophical question “What is Good?”, they could live for the time being safely side by side.

* * *

90% of the anthropologists you hear from are relativists of one kind or another. But to me the really interesting thing has always been that although there is indeed an amazing diversity of customs and beliefs, this variety is only superficial. Overall, the human picture is one where universals, categorical imperatives if you like—respect for truth (do not lie), respect for property (do not steal, or paint other people’s houses with graffiti), and respect for life (do not kill)—are an underlying moral foundation that can usually be found everywhere, in every culture, whatever the visibly colourful diversity of dress and cuisine displayed.

Roger Sandall é autor do The Culture Cult e o seu site é aqui