Cultural Relativism, Columbus, and Darfur

Megan McArdle and Bryan Caplan rehash the cultural relativism debate in context of yesterday’s celebration of Columbus Day. Caplan argues that one can either condemn Columbus as a barbarian or embrace cultural relativism. McArdle, who enthusiastically does the latter, goes further and contends it’s unreasonable to hold those living abroad to our cultural norms.

Both, I believe, are conflating units of analysis: individuals and societies.

Columbus was a product of his time and culture and surely shouldn’t be held to our evolved sensibilities, given that he not only lacked the advantages of a few centuries of accumulated wisdom but was in an entirely different set of circumstances. It’s a hell of a lot easier, after all, to be “enlightened” and “altruistic” with a full belly and a life of relative comfort. Similarly, it’s unreasonable to expect an illiterate nomad in modern day Sudan to conform to the standards of an educated Western suburbanite.

That doesn’t make the actions of Columbus or the Janjaweed militia any less wrong; it just makes them less personally blameworthy. While the analogy is imperfect, the rationale is basically the same as the one behind our policy of not punishing very young children or the severely mentally retarded for murder: actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea.

This does not mean, however, that we simply shrug our shoulders and turn a blind eye to violations of international norms. We can simultaneously understand the position of the frustrated terrorist or tribal militias out committing genocide and condemn their actions. We can simultaneously exempt those who don’t know better from punishment and hold their leaders accountable.

While it may be unreasonable to hold individuals to modern standards, we can do so for societies. Christopher Columbus should be judged in his context; his culture, however, was in many ways inferior to our own. Similarly, mass murder remains morally repugnant even if the typical Sudanese peasant doesn’t quite comprehend why.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. “his culture, however, was in many ways inferior to our own.”

    What?! Someone dared to say it?

    Relativism is just moral democracy, with no tallying of the votes. I’m surprised that someone would be so devoted to democracy that they’d be willing to found their morality on it.

    But one does have to ask whether a society which is better than another on one point is worse than that society on others (not so much for the sake of saying everyone’s equally bad, but for finding ways of improving oneself and one’s society).

  2. AllenS says:

    Remember, Chris did not start out to conquer, but to merely find a short cut to India and access to the spice trade.

  3. bob in fl says:

    “his culture, however, was in many ways inferior to our own.”

    Really? His culture preached peace & forgiveness to others while killing & enslaving darker skinned people. Our culture has not fought a war against other caucasians since WW II. also…
    ————————————————–
    “Remember, Chris did not start out to conquer, but to merely find a short cut to India and access to the spice trade.”

    Nevertheless, when he got there, he killed, enslaved, & conquered. His intent means nothing; his actions reflect his morality. The Iraq war is also a “shortcut to profits”, with the same results. Sudan , seems to me, is a variation of the same theme.
    ————————————————–
    “But one does have to ask whether a society which is better than another on one point is worse than that society on others (not so much for the sake of saying everyone’s equally bad, but for finding ways of improving oneself and one’s society).”

    Thank you, Micah. Societal values are but a collection of individual values combined. Another thing we need to remember is that our values are not what we think they are but are how we act. Self evaluation needs to look not at our beliefs, but at our actions instead. Our cultural actions are in some ways no better than those of Spain & Columbus of the 15th century. Just the fact that we celebrate Columbus Day reveals our true morality.

  4. C.Wagener says:

    Gosh, if we just focused on killing white people I’d sure feel better about ourselves. And by the way, the folks in Iraq are caucasians (and Bosnians are too).

    If you don’t agree with me your all brown skin killin’, worse than Hilter bastards.

  5. lunacy says:

    What color are the folks in Kosovo?