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January 5, 2014 / Congau

Morally Irrelevant Culture

Should it not be the goal of all philosophical inquiry to step out of personal cultural bias and reexamine the world from a purely rational perspective? True, it is not really possible because we are all so heavily laden with preconceived baggage that we can hardly get completely rid of it, but we should still try, shouldn’t we?

The Socratic warning that “the unexamined life is not worth living” means continuously and restlessly asking new questions to escape from lazily held majority opinions and one’s own hasty conclusions. Although a full escape is not possible, we must desperately try for the value of our lives.

Yes, that actually means dismissing culture altogether in the search for morality. For what is culture other than practices based on habit rather than reason. It is far more valuable to search for the truth than to preserve some antiquated cultural belief.

But does culture have no intrinsic value at all? Oh, it does, just as any human achievement carries value. If the work of one single human being is given a value, then entire cultures must be much more appreciated. A culture is the accumulation of millennia of human habits and thoughts, and just like an ancient wonder it deserves our awe.

To a certain extent it is therefore reasonable to submit to the demands of our culture. When we find ourselves on morally neutral ground, the courteous thing to do is to follow the cultural rules. When our conduct is not potentially hurtful to others or to ourselves, the moral rules remain silent, and the rules of the community become the highest authority – but only then. If a cultural rule is somehow inflicting pain, a rational person should pause to ask if it deserves his approval.

But this rationalist approach also includes a great deal of respect and understanding of cultural differences. The difficult game of transporting oneself into an imaginary area of cultural neutrality can also be paralleled by a rational journey into a culture different from one’s own. One may ask: Given certain cultural premises, would it not be reasonable to conclude such and such, and then reach the conclusion that what at first sight seemed to be a senseless cultural practice is in fact quite rational.

It seems to me that some of the most serious cultural conflicts between the Western and the Muslim world in recent years stem from this very disability to transport oneself into the valid thinking of the other side. Moreover, the questions of dispute have not really been morally significant at all. The debate in the West has not been about issues such as female circumcision, but rather morally irrelevant issues like the wearing of headscarves or drawing pictures of Muhammad.

Any attempt at understanding culture must somehow involve an experimental removal from one’s own culture.

One Comment

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  1. julienmatei / Jan 5 2014 12:16 pm

    That’s the most depressing truth about human nature:

    Man is the slave of his conditioning.

    Simply put, people cannot think outside the box.

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