Morality & Relativism
“Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature”
‘Caesar and Cleopatra — Act II’
George Bernard Shaw
This quote, from George Bernard Shaw’s play: Caesar and Celopatra, comes after a Briton is amazed — rather, disgusted — that Cleopatra has married her own blood; that is, her own brother. Theodotus, understanding the Egyptian culture, explains that marriage by Egyptian Kings & Queens is only accepted within their own bloodline, as it was a widely accepted custom in Ancient Egypt.
Ironically enough, while the Egyptian royals intermarried within bloodlines, one of the worst insults in Rome was that one was sleeping with a sibling (as seen by rumors of Emperor Nero/Caligula sleeping with his sisters during his reign). Sometimes, customs, morality and accepted norms are simply a product of where one is raised.
We can all recall a personal experience or story in which an individual was out of their element and was confused by the cultural norm. These can be as harmless as shaking a woman’s hand in Mexico — where it is the norm for a kiss on the cheek — to more extreme differences such as the tradition of female genital cutting (FGC), which is practiced in many African countries, the Middle East & parts of Asia. Both customs, are traditions that are embedded and locals see no wrong in them (some even see them as a necessary good). Yet, when asking outsiders, the customs are awkward, nonsensical and in the case of FGC, downright cruel.
This is where Caesar’s quote rings so true; many in the Industrialized/Developed nations consider FGC as cruel & inhumane. On the other hand, many locals see it as something to be celebrated and necessary to live a healthy life. Some of its staunchest defenders are female elders.
When taking the wider perspective, we ask ourselves: Who is to say what is wrong and right? Are some cultures inherently better and worse than others? Who decides? Is morality a social construct?
It’s easy to fall into one camp or the other regarding morality: you’re a moral relativist (to each culture to its own norms), there is objective morality throughout space (our way is the best and only way) that all the people of the world should adhere to or you are a nihilist (there is no such thing as morality, wrong/right).
This brings us more questions rather than answers. Nevertheless, one should spend some time in thought contemplating these complex issues and figure out where exactly they stand. Context should matter — but there are certain lines that should never be crossed, regardless of culture. Individuals, governments, NGOs and other governing bodies should develop a framework to work on, build off of and allow for objective decision-making, with a general theme of contextualizing the issue and how to resolve it.
Even in these more extreme cases, white westerners going to a remote village in Chad and telling the elders that their tradition is cruel, yields unhealthy results in women and is ultimately immoral will only be met with strong resistance. We must go forth in a humble, empathetic manner — understanding that our customs are not the laws of nature, neither.