Sam Harris’s error and how not to argue about cultural relativism

by Dave Maier

Photo credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times

So Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and a number of other brash rebels daring to challenge the stifling intellectual status quo, in which one is not allowed to criticize anyone from other cultures, because multiculturalism or Marxism or something, are part of, I am not making this up, the Intellectual Dark Web. Fine, whatever. It’s not that there’s no such thing as lefty orthodoxy, obviously, especially on campus, but these best-selling authors look pretty petty presenting themselves as somehow being silenced.

Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about. In the New York Times piece telling us about all this, I ran across the following exchange:

After [Harris’s] talk, in which he disparaged the Taliban, a biologist who would go on to serve on President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues approached him. “I remember she said: ‘That’s just your opinion. How can you say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?’ But to me it’s just obvious that forcing women to live their lives inside bags is wrong. I gave her another example: What if we found a culture that was ritually blinding every third child? And she actually said, ‘It would depend on why they were doing it.’” His jaw, he said, “actually fell open.”

It’s not unprecedented, or even unusual, that Harris should commit a philosophy fail. But in detaching ourselves from error, we have to be careful about where we end up. It’s not even clear, for example, that his point in the context is threatened by his futile sally. So I’ll be defending him as much as diagnosing his (all too common) error. Maybe I should be on the IDW too. Help, I’m being silenced!

Okay, enough japery for now. What did Harris do wrong here, and why may his main point survive the stumble?

His interlocutor’s challenge seems to him – naturally enough – to be an expression of cultural relativism: his typically Western objection is “just his opinion” and can have no normative force for the alien culture, whose members may have perfectly good reasons for acting as they do, given their traditions and other commitments. In response, Harris reaches for a criticism which transcends all such culturally contextual considerations: he suggests a practice so indefensible that no possible cultural context could save it from justified condemnation – a conceptual slam dunk.

There are two problems with this response, and it’s important to keep them straight. The first is the weakness of Harris’s actual hypothetical, due most likely to a failure of imagination. If in giving a potential justification I am allowed to tell any story I like – any cultural context, however non-actual, in which to embed the supposedly unacceptable practice – I can do this standing on one foot, even for something as gruesome as ritual blinding of children. (I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader, at least for now.) Maybe a better example would have been more effective. But of course Harris didn’t even try to exercise his imagination here, to make sure that nothing could possibly justify anything so seemingly horrible. He thinks that follows simply from his description – that it is a brute moral fact. Even to try to imagine such a justification would be morally corrupt. Thus his open-mouthed reaction to his critic’s reply.

But that reply – that I must at least listen to what the other culture has to say for itself – is perfectly reasonable, as far as it goes. This is the other problem with Harris’s sally: its dodgy philosophical assumptions about what relativism amounts to and how properly to resist it. The moral context complicates this a bit, so to see this let’s pull back to the simpler yet still tricky problem of relativism about (non-moral) facts. Here too a natural tendency among realists is to reply to the relativist slogan “who’s to say?” with what purport to be brute, context-transcendent facts. (There are various sorts of these things, from the empiricist “red here now” to more platonistic deals like the truths of logic; see the history of epistemological foundationalism for the now somewhat tedious blow-by-blow.)

For pragmatists like me, at least, this realist response to relativism tries too hard to do too much: we cannot sidestep the interpretive process and go directly to the world for our facts. But just as this does not mean there are no facts – that no beliefs can be true ones, or that we have no real knowledge, the nihilistic conclusion which realists thought they needed brute facts to resist – so too, in our moral context, the lack of such brute moral facts as Harris offers does not threaten the very idea of even cross-cultural moral judgment. It just means we have to use our imaginations after all.

This means that Harris’s interlocutor has some explaining of her own to do, in responding to his talk as she did. What did she mean by “that’s just your opinion”? Maybe it is indeed an expression of a facile relativism, as Harris seems to take it (his response makes no sense otherwise), suggesting that no outsider may criticize another culture at all. If so, the philosophical issue is a wash (they’re both wrong) and Harris’s criticism of the Taliban stands (i.e., her challenge fails).

So, to be clear: Harris is right that of course we can and should criticize the Taliban for their oppressive and backward ways. (And if to say so is indeed an unpardonable heresy in intellectual culture, then maybe we do need an “intellectual dark web” after all.) Nothing in the philosophically virtuous rejection of a metaphysically overambitious moral realism forbids the very idea of cross-cultural moral judgments. However, Harris’s philosophical error is not without cost. That he believes an imaginative response to the issue is not necessary (it’s a brute fact that putting women in “bags” is morally objectionable) suggests that he hasn’t actually provided one, making a reaction of “that’s just your opinion” understandable if also ambiguous.

That is, maybe her comment was not an expression of relativism after all. (If so, while I referred above to her response to his hypothetical as perfectly reasonable, she might have done better to say instead something like “I’m not talking about hypotheticals, I’m talking about the Taliban.”) Maybe she objected not to the very idea of criticizing the Taliban, but instead to his actual remarks. My point here is not about those actual remarks, so I won’t be examining them closely – maybe they’re actually fine, although the crack about “bags” doesn’t inspire confidence, no more than does his philosophically thin account of morality in The Moral Landscape. It’s not, again, that one couldn’t perfectly well condemn the Taliban harshly, as they are indeed nightmarishly horrible.

In more general terms, then, what might what I’ve been calling an “imaginative” response look like? If we see what looks to us like injustice in another culture, I would suggest, the form of our criticism should depend on how the apparent victims of that injustice feel about it. There’s a big difference between attitudes like “we’re heartened in our struggle against what you rightly call oppression by the knowledge that the free world sees what’s happening to us and is looking for a good way to help” and “what do you mean, we’re oppressed? You don’t know what you’re talking about – that’s your decadent Western bias, nothing more. Go away.” Note that for all that’s been said so far – the advantage of speaking at the general level – we need not (ultimately) accept that latter judgment, and can, if thereby risking condescension, diagnose the problem as a need for consciousness-raising. The point is that the two attitudes are quite different, and thus call for correspondingly different responses.

While crucial to get us started, in practice that distinction requires much more subtlety; those are the two endpoints, while most things are in the middle. This is where the imagination comes in (corresponding to, indeed amounting to, the imagination required for successful interpretation, as in the “merely” non-moral cases noted above). For not only is the proper form of our criticism affected by the attitudes just mentioned, it is inextricable as well from what we might decide to do about it. Ann Coulter believes, or says she does, that we should respond to (for example) Taliban barbarism by invading these countries, assassinating their leaders, and convert them (the population, not the leaders – we just killed them, remember?) to Christianity. Harris’s own solution involves a wholesale rejection of not only Islam but all transcendent religion as an unenlightened relic unsuited to the modern world.

I’m not arguing that these solutions couldn’t possibly be right (although that first one would be just about the last conceivable thing I would try). I don’t believe in a transcendent deity any more than Harris does. But most of the victims of Taliban oppression are Muslims themselves. As described, Harris’s solution is no solution to them. They want to live in a Muslim society. To “fix” their society as Harris would would be to break it. Moving such societies into the modern world – an aim I share – requires careful disentangling of the many threads holding everything together; and that requires imagination (of the sort, again, involved in interpretation: seeing how things look from a perspective you don’t share).

Hmm, I seem to have brought Harris’s actual views into it after all. But again, my point is not about him specifically. If his actual suggestions are more subtle than the ones I’ve seen, then fine – in that case, I retract anything in this post which depends on that. That’s not the important part anyway.

In any case, not surprisingly, there’s a lot more to say about “moral relativism,” even after we discard the facile version that renders cross-cultural moral judgments nonsensical. We need to do a lot more, that is, than simply suggest, as I have, that “imagination” is needed to do such things properly. A number of philosophers defend their views under the name “relativism,” but I think that’s a tactical error; we should use that term (like “postmodernism,” I guess) for whatever it is that we are rejecting as, you know, too relativistic to support the concept of moral judgment (or, again, in the non-moral context, of belief). Still, some of that stuff is really interesting and worth discussing. We’ll leave that for now (have to go do some more reading first!).

One last thing. I mentioned above that if you got to tell whatever story you want, you could whip up an at least arguable cultural justification even for Harris’s supposedly a priori unjustifiable nightmare scenario of ritual blinding of children, and I left that as an exercise for the reader “at least for now.” In fact that is where I’m going to leave it today. Try it yourself. Use your imagination – you’ll need it!