On Cultural Relativism and Rape

Christian philosopher Victor Reppert offered up an argument against condemning rape if cultural relativism is the case. He wrote:
I had a teacher at Arizona State who told me that in one culture rape is considered perfectly OK, so long as you do it at the right time. In the morning, it's forbidden. In the afternoon, it is frowned upon. At night, it is perfectly OK, since a woman who is away from the protection of her husband is asking for it. (He never said which campus fraternity he was referring to).

If cultural relativism is true, the rules of that culture, with respect to rape, are justified. There is no "court of appeal" that is over and above that culture and out culture that would permit us to say that their views on rape are wrong and ours are right. For us to suggest that they are "really" wrong in permitting rape is to elevate the rules of our culture to a kind of cosmic status they cannot have. It is to be intolerant.
This is my brief response:

Let's say morals evolve in the same way as species do. Grant me that, okay?

Then I don't see a problem. The caveman who clubbed a woman and drug her into his cave did nothing wrong just as a chimpanzee who exhibits homosexual activity, or a dominant lion who demands sex with all of the females, or a cat who shows no mercy to a mouse.

We humans adopt codes of conduct in order to have the benefits that our higher species need, like friendship, family ties, and so on. That best explains why our moral codes are similar around the world on the major, basic issues, and why they are diverse on the moderate, lesser issues.

So, in a caveman culture rape is considered right. But in ours it is not. Our culture is different. Is it better? I would argue so, at least from our evolutionary standpoint. It's because we have continued to evolve. Because we do our morals have evolved in tandum.

Besides, it's not relativists who argue for rape, anyway, it's religious people, like what we find in Muslim and Old Testament texts.

10 comments:

dvd said...

but once you eliminate the cultural differences, and people still proclaim certain things "wrong" or "right," it does seem like there is some anchor point. does it not? it seems to transcend culture and or personal opinions. perhaps i am missing something.

John W. Loftus said...

Cultural relativism is not the position that an individual person within a culture cannot condemn something. Individual reformers are useful in reforming and changing cultures. It's rather a dialectic where societies change individuals and where individuals change societes in tandum.

Jacob said...

Just to be clear, when you would say that our morals have evolved for the better compared to the society that justifies rape, why are they better? I'm not of the opinion that reasons like 'this increases the autonomy and potential to flourish of women, and reduces unnecessary suffering' are anything other than extremely good reasons. But they're not the kind of reasons this guy will (most likely) be after. He'll be after you pointing to something transcendent and absolute like the Platonic concept of mathematics before he's willing to grant you anything. So unless you offer him anything like that, you'll probably be talking at cross-purposes.

Any given moral system seems to allow for a different kind of life and precludes others. It's false to say that without religious morality there is no morality, just different kinds. As a philosophy teacher of mine once pointed out, even the ruthlessly violent people in Goodfellas still regarded each other, within their own moral system, as 'good fellas'. I think that what you've said about the morals of the lion, the chimp, the caveman &c. fits that view.

It's trying to find some point where you can say 'this system of rules is absolutely better according to this set of irrefutable values that are of the same kind of immutable truths as mathematics' that everything falls down. This kind of extremely hard realism is desperately hard to maintain, but it is exactly what Christians often demand of the opposition, as that is what they believe they are in possession of (Richard Holloway et al. being notable exceptions).

John W. Loftus said...

Yes, Jacob, thanks. I understand. But since this isn't the place to make a long argument on behalf of evolution then if he grants me that, which I asked him to do, then there can be no legitimate objection to what I said. On this supposition there are no "irrefutable values that are of the same kind of immutable truths as mathematics."

Kip said...

I don't think most morals are contingent upon the society or culture -- I think most morality is universal, even if a particular society or culture doesn't recognize it.

I highly recommend a moral theory called Desire Utilitarianism.

James F. McGrath said...

It is intriguing to see that once again topics here and on my own blog are running in parallel. The issue of rape (or, as one of my conversation partners thinks is better, "war brides") in the Bible came up in the comments section of a recent post about evolution and liberal Christianity, of all places.

Sabio Lantz said...

John said:
"Let's say morals evolve in the same way as species do. Grant me that, okay?"

"So, in a caveman culture rape is considered right. But in ours it is not. Our culture is different. Is it better? I would argue so, at least from our evolutionary standpoint."

-------------------
First, I think this is a classic misunderstanding of evolution as advancement. Evolution is only a change for fitness to a given environment, it is not progressive improvement.

Second, our genes care not for our happiness or our well-being. Beware the Naturalist Fallacy -- natural is not necessarily good.

Richard said...

I like your response.

I would also reject the Apologist's assertion that 'if cultural relativism is true, the rules of that culture, with respect to rape, are justified'.

This statement only makes sense if the apologist is playing games with the meaning of 'justified'. There is no objective standard, so nothing is objectively 'justified' or 'unjustified'. We can only talk about something being 'justified' relative to a moral system.

When we take out the linguistic imprecision, the statement becomes, "If moral relativism is correct, then the culture's moral claims are acceptable, under the culture's morality." That's a tautology.

The next claim is implicit. "You can't object to their culture, unless you're objectively correct." This is just silly.

Cultural relativism informs us, but it doesn't paralyze us. This was summed up really well in a quote by General Sir Charles Napier. As a British general in India, he'd heard people defend the practice of Sati defended by appealing to relative values.

His response was You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

So it is, when objecting to rape. A given rapist might feel that he's moral. And he might be justified under his cultural values. I come from a different culture. So, his self-image would be academically interesting, but irrelevant from the perspective of my moral imperatives.

Gandolf said...

Victor Reppert says "If cultural relativism is true, the rules of that culture, with respect to rape, are justified. There is no "court of appeal" that is over and above that culture and out culture that would permit us to say that their views on rape are wrong and ours are right."

No agreed, but im still sure there will be plenty amongst them that might far prefer ours!.

Sometimes concentrating more on bettering and proving your own ways really do have many benefits and is more productive and long lasting in the end rather than trying to use some type of force to achieve it.

Tyro said...

I think we need to draw the distinction between what different cultures do and accept as moral and what we accept as moral. We can observe that different cultures don't condemn or maybe even encourage rape yet we don't need to say that they're right. Some people treat cultural relativism as saying that anything anyone does is good and moral, that because everyone has their own morals we can't criticize anyone else's beliefs.

The second form is weaker and only says that different cultures have different morals, but doesn't imply any of these beliefs are valid or useful. It's a good counter to the "absolute morality" idea that some Christians have, that God gave us our morals and are both perfect and unchanging. Nonsense, we reply, look even Christian morality has changed dramatically over 2,000 years.

If someone wishes to say that rape is moral on some pragmatic basis or because some cultures accept it, that's fine, but those facts say nothing about whether these morals are good, or should be accepted as moral by others. We must remember that we can describe the morals of others without accepting them ourselves.