Is Morality Determined by Culture?

Many consider “cultural relativism” a new phenomenon. But people have long recognized that cultures differ in their moral beliefs and practices. It was not a modern anthropologist, but the Greek historian Herodotus who observed, “if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others.” (Histories, III.38) Pindar before him had declared, “Custom is king over all.”

For many people today, the mere fact of disagreement between cultures provides sufficient evidence against universal moral judgments. They believe themselves to be following laws that are arbitrary, that could be totally different if they were living in a different time or place. The initial acceptance of cultural relativism, that is, different standards for different cultures, easily turns into a cultural determinism that is, the belief that people are not free to have moral beliefs different from their own culture. People, on this view, could not question or reject the customs in which their culture has formed them.

Certainly as a general rule, many follow their own culture in an uncritical way. But every culture has its dissenters and innovators. Socrates provides a well-known and easily understood example. Although he has been raised in Homeric polytheism of ancient Greece, it has become questionable to him as an adult. When Euthyphro tells Socrates of the stories of warfare among the gods, of the stories of Zeus and Cronos who mutilated their fathers, Socrates asks “Is not this, Euthyphro, the reason why I am being prosecuted, because when people tell such stories about the gods I find it hard to accept them?” (Euthyphro 6A) Socrates’ dissent brought a charge of atheism against him, and he was eventually convicted and executed.

Widowburning2Despite the widespread acceptance of cultural relativism in anthropology, modern research provides numerous examples of cultural dissent. UCLA anthropologist Robert Edgerton treats several such cases in his provocatively titled work Sick Societies. In eastern India, for example, high class women are expected to burn themselves on the funeral pyres of their departed husbands (called “sati” or “suttee”) While some women follow this custom even today, a minority of women do so, and it has always people within Bengal who condemned it. Indeed, one of the goals of the so-called “Bengali Renaissance” under leaders such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the abolition of widow-burning. While some of the influence against widow-burning no doubt came from the British who ruled India in the 19th century, Roy argued against the practice using traditional Hindu texts.

Edgerton also relates the research of F J Porter-Poole among cannibal tribes in the highlands of New Guinea. The practice stopped after western intervention, and researchers were surprised to the degree to which the tribesman welcomed the change. According to Porter-Poole, many of those whom he interviewed and who admitted to cannibalism “acknowledged ambivalence, horror and disgust at their own actsSickSocieties.” Some simply could not or would not conform – they vomited or fainted.

Similarly, anthropologists working among tribes that had traditions of constant warfare were surprised to discover how relieved the warriors were to leave this behind. For example, Yanomamo tribesman in the jungles of Brazil “whose culture exalted ferocity and perpetual warfare, frankly admitted that they disliked having to live in fear of violent death.”

While Pindar and Herodotus are right to emphasize the importance of custom in human life, it is verifiably untrue that all people passively accept what their culture gives to them. Many will avoid carrying out their cultural dissent in a visible or revolutionary way. Indeed, they simply hide the disagreements they have with larger culture, confiding them to a few or none at all. But clearly there is some other source of moral knowledge besides that which culture gives. Human beings are not merely plastic to the exertions of customs. Apparently, something within human nature provides limits, even the strength to resist.

Posted in Philosophy, Relativism, Theology | 1 Comment

Moral Judgments – Facts or Opinions?

Allan Bloom began his Closing of the American Mind with this memorable observation: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, Closing coveror says he believes, that truth is relative.” (25) College education does not make these students relativists – they come to university that way. This is what I have seen myself from high school students over the last ten years.

This becomes evident during an exercise I give to them in which they are asked to distinguish “facts” from “opinions.” I give them twenty statements, such as “Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa” and “Goodnight Moon is the best children’s book ever” and have them label these as one or the other. Among the twenty statements are three moral statements: “Sexual exploitation of minor children is immoral,” “it was unjust for the Nazis for persecute the Jews” and “human sacrifice should not be allowed as a form of religious freedom.” Overwhelmingly, students will label these as “opinions.”

Why? They consider statements “facts” which are provable by observation and experiment, and therefore carry widespread assent. Moral statements are to them disputable and unprovable. They are “intangible” or “emotional” or “cultural.” This makes them opinions. There is almost no crime so heinous – genocide or child molestation or ritual sacrifice – that they will not shrug and say, “but the people who were doing it thought it right.” For them, nothing offers a basis for argument or proof in moral questions. All views have equal weight.

In recent years, I have introduced statements such as “it is a violation of basic human rights for Muslim countries to execute homosexuals.” A minority of students will think that this is a “fact” because it appeals to “rights.” Why? They believe that there is widespread consensus on “rights.” After all, there is a U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. I then offer the following challenge – why is the United Nations belief in “rights” a fact, when traditional Muslim societies disagree with it? Why is the UN right and the Muslims wrong? Students are puzzled by this, and some pipe up that those who called human rights “facts” are being inconsistent.  “Human rights” is just another way of talking about “justice” which is merely another moral and hence “unprovable” belief.

It is a fair question to ask whether students can be broad minded about these forms of injustice because they are in fact well to do suburban kids surrounded by decency and prosperity. Questions of injustice by and large are remote from their lived experience. To put it bluntly, their moral relativism costs them nothing. One has all the comforts of a liberal and non-judgmental outlook without its disturbing repercussions.

One way that I have tried to raise these issues more concretely is by having students read two articles on “honor killings.” This is the old world practice of killing a family member who has in some way disgraced the family; usually the victim is a young woman who has breached a strict code of purity and modesty. While the practice is old world, the stories take place in the new. One girl, Noor al-Malaki was killed by her father in Arizona, after she moved out of the home and adopted a more “Western” way of life. The second, Jessica Mokdad, was gunned down by her stepfather in Michigan for similar reasons. What happens when these different moral “opinions” are among us, not halfway across the planet?


Students are perplexed by what they see as a dilemma. On the one hand, they are of course horrified at teen girls being shot or run over for listening to Beyoncé and wearing blue jeans. These girls are not much older than my students. But on the other hand, they believe the fathers to be following their “culture” or “upbringing” and hence not accountable for their acts. They are uncomfortable with one group of people imposing their “morality” on another – yet they also accept the state’s right to imprison them for their murders.

At bottom, their moral relativism seems to flow from a hidden moral absolute: “Thou shalt not be judgmental.” If I say that my moral code is better than yours, then I am arrogant. Bloom observed among his college students “Relativism is necessary to openness, and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating.” (26) In my case, the students do not receive this from their previous schooling, but largely from the society around them. They absorb it through their music and movies, through their television shows and social media. This often has, I am sorry to say, more impact that what happens in a classroom, for it shapes their emotional responses in ways that school learning does not.

At the same time, this formation in “tolerance” and “openness” can begin a conversation about the basis for those beliefs. For they treat these qualities as moral “facts” not as mere opinions. Indeed, some of the students who are the most dogmatic about relativism are the most indignant when that “openness” is violated. The attempt to cast out nature in place of changing “conventions” is in fact the most insidious of conventions.







Posted in For Teachers, Secondary Education, Theology | 1 Comment

Macbeth’s Porter

I love directing Shakespeare’s plays. Since the words mean everything in a successful performance, I am always faced with the challenge of interpreting every speech, every difficult passage, every seemingly insignificant scene. I delight in discovering the dramatic impact of different possible interpretations in practices with the actors. I assume that every word is pregnant with meaning, both in its immediate context and with respect to the whole, and I am nearly always rewarded. No word is without the touch of the artist, though it take patience and thought and trial to discover it.

This summer I didn’t direct, but I was given the opportunity to portray the Porter in Macbeth. The Porter’s appearance at the beginning of II.3 is a ridiculously comic interlude – the only comic episode in the play – that shockingly interrupts the tension-filled, gory portrayal of the murder of Duncan and its discovery. The drunken Porter comes on to stage with no break in time (the knocks that wrench “Wake Duncan with thy knocking” from Macbeth do waken the Porter), rambles on about hell, equivocators and tailors, then enters into a stand-up routine on drunkenness and lechery with Macduff as his straight man. When Macbeth enters, the Porter is no more heard from. For all of his nonsense, the Porter makes his mark: “I pray you, remember the Porter,” may be ignored by Macduff, but not by the audience.

Some say Shakespeare needed an interlude to give the actor portraying Macbeth time to get the blood off his hands and a costume change, and perhaps he felt it a good opportunity to momentarily relieve the tension of the play, so the words of the Porter need not have any deep connection with the rest of the play.  But this account goes against all my instincts as a reader of great authors and a devotee of Shakespeare. And if one can look past the comic presentation, the Porter’s explicit mention of Hell makes evident what the Macbeths have done to their beautiful castle: Lady Macbeth’s invocation of the demonic spirits has turned to Hell what Duncan and Banquo had admired as a castle wafted by “heaven’s breath”.

Could not equivocate to heaven

As I went over and over the lines, and played through the role many times in rehearsal, I developed a feeling for the moment that resonated well with the rest of the play. The Porter explicitly welcomes three characters into his make-believe Hell. The first two might be the source of news and gossip – a suicide and a religiously motivated traitor who used Jesuit techniques of mental reservation to unsuccessfully try to win acquittal from an Anglican court. But the third one’s sin is so slight – just skimping a little on the advertised quality of goods (“an English tailor come hither for stealing out of a French hose”) — that it might never have been noticed, yet  so common that very few businessmen would be free from its guilt. Here the Porter begins to make the audience uncomfortable. Immersed in the horrendous evil of the murder of Duncan, they naturally would condemn the Macbeths and instinctively flee in horror from their sin. But the Porter points out that Hell is the final resting place not only for horrific betrayers but also for petty thieves. And though he does not go on, the Porter makes calls out “all the professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire.”

The Porter is funny, and laughs himself as he pretends to welcome others into Hell. In his interchange with Macduff, he shows himself to be a prime candidate for hellgate. He jokes about lechery and drunkenness, but shows himself guilty of them. Unwittingly, he shows himself to be as much a victim of the equivocating fiend as Macbeth. We laugh with him and at him, but he disturbs our comfort – are we also losing our everlasting soul to the deceptions of the devil? Will we join Macbeth the “hell-hound”? Will we discover with Lady Macbeth that “Hell is murky?” The Porter must begin to — Shakeespeare gives no direction for the Porter to exit, so he must suffer the news of Duncan’s murder through his drunken haze.








Posted in Literature, Reflections on the Books | Leave a comment

Are there answers for human life apart from science?

There are always students at the beginning of my Moral Theology course who wonder why the class matters. To them, “moral theology” is perhaps a pretentious way of getting immersed in a set of rules dictated by the Church. For a significant number of these students, science offers real knowledge and real answers about the world – definite, quantifiable and widely accepted. But is important for them to understand that science cannot provide all the answers necessary for human life.

Any science textbook worth reading will help the student to see this important point. In the biology text we use at our school, the authors explain that “Pure science does not include ethical or moral viewpoints” and “science can tell us how technology and scientific knowledge can be applied but not whether it should be applied in particular ways.” (Miller & Levine) The beginner of course can read these words without understanding their significance. Examples are necessary.

In 1939, speech researcher Wendell Johnson of the University of Iowa directed experiments on orphan children. Intrigued by the effect of social environment on the development of speech, eleven orphans with speech problems were treated with love and support, while another eleven with no speech problems was belittled and criticized until they stuttered. Science can tell you about the ways in which social environment affect speech development – it cannot tell you not to abuse orphans to obtain that knowledge.

Another example: over a period of four decades, researchers for the U. S.  Public Health Service in collaboration with Tuskegee Institute in Alabama studied the effects of syphilis on a group of infected blaTuskegee_syphilis_experiment_venipunctureck Americans. The researchers claimed to be providing free treatment to the subjects, when in fact the whole goal of the study was to identify the long term effects of untreated syphilis. Many of the men were never told they had syphilis. The study was only stopped after it was leaked to the press in 1972. Science can tell you the long term effects of syphilis – it cannot tell you that human subjects should not be deceived into providing that data.

A third example: one time head of the American Psychiatric Association Donald Cameron carried out a series of experiments on mental patients to “depattern” them, that is, break down their personalities and “rebuild” them. (It is the kind of treatment implied in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity novels). These experiments involved electroSleep Room Collilns-shock therapy, sensory deprivation and hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD. Although the experiments took place in Canada in the early sixties, they were funded secretly by the CIA (In the Sleep Room: The Story of CIA Brainwashing Experiments in Canada by Anne Collins).

I use these three examples because they did not take place in Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan or Communist Russia. They did not happen during the 1700s or the 1800s. These experiments happened during the 20th century in America or with American government funding. Contemporary examples are also available. Witness the experiments of various kinds on human embryos, human persons in their earliest stages of development.

People are repulsed by harmful experiments on human subjects, especially when they belong to vulnerable populations such as orphans, impoverished blacks or mental patients. They take the moral treatment of these groups for granted. But the dogma that the only knowledge that counts is scientific knowledge undermines the very basis of these restrictions.  The principles that declare some forms of experimentation on human subjects as “moral” or “immoral” do not come from science.

The Second Vatican Council rightly expressed anxiety about the sufficiency many feel for science in human life: “today’s progress in science and technology can foster a certain exclusive emphasis on observable data, and an agnosticism about everything else. For the methods of investigation which these sciences use can be wrongly considered as the supreme rule of seeking the whole truth.” (57§5) This is evident in many of our young people. Unless a “fact” is a scientific fact, it is for them no fact at all. For a society that enthusiastically directs its best and brightest into STEM programs, it is a worrisome thing to realize that many of these students have no firmer basis for their moral beliefs than emotion or public opinion.

Posted in Science, Theology | 1 Comment

John Jenkins qualifiedly reaffirms Land O’Lakes

In reflections on the Land O’Lakes document, Notre Dame President John Jenkins explains its vision of faithful Catholic education, which he thinks has been largely ignored, critiques its assumptions about the possibility of theological scholars providing integrating leadership, and suggests that Notre Dame has been a model of what the authors of the document hoped to achieve:

The document’s limitations left questions to be addressed, but the vision in broad outline is one that makes truly serious Catholic research universities possible for our time. It has the vision that has helped shape the University of Notre Dame for the past 50 years.

I am interested in what others think about his article. Perhaps if Catholic institutions had the commitment honored by this take on LO’L, it could have worked.

A common key to remaining faithful for both older and newer schools is hiring faculty who are not merely baptized Catholics, but who are also committed to their faith, letting it shine through their lives and their work.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Cardinal Sarah explains the mutual enrichment between the two forms of the Roman rite hoped for by Pope Benedict. He points out the disaster of rejecting tradition and the promise that tradition offers for authentic development. Much of this is true of education as well.

But most of the time, this “reform” that replaced the genuine “restoration” intended by the Second Vatican Council was carried out in a superficial spirit and on the basis of only one criterion: to suppress at all costs a heritage that must be perceived as totally negative and outmoded so as to excavate a gulf between the time before and the time after the Council….The particular care that should be brought to the liturgy, the urgency of holding it in high esteem and working for its beauty, its sacral character and keeping the right balance between fidelity to Tradition and legitimate development, and therefore rejecting absolutely and radically any hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture: these essential elements are the heart of all authentic Christian liturgy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How to Choose the Right Catholic High School for Your Children

My favorites:

5. The entire reading list is excellent. There is not a single work that students are compelled to read which is objectionable, senseless, or even simply mediocre.


8. The faculty appears to be educated with the same education that the school aims to impart.

9. After spending a day visiting classes a parent would himself like to attend the school.



Source: How to Choose the Right Catholic High School for Your Children

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Destroying Innocence

This disturbing article about Netflix’s new Anne of Green Gables series by AnnaAnne Mussmann hit me close to home. I did not discover Lucy Montgomery’s works until I was an adult on the verge of marriage, but as a romantic I was deeply moved by the 1985 miniseries. I read the entire series to my wife during my graduate school days in Toronto, and to my children when they were old enough to enjoy them. So I join many who will hate anyone who dares to smear this idyllic character.

Mussmann uses the opportunity to reflect upon the importance of idyllic literature for forming the young imagination:

The thing is, children imagine themselves capable of stupendously unlikely deeds….Children read books and see themselves among the heroes. In their hearts, most children are sure “I would have slain the monster.” “I would have freed the slaves.” “I would have defied the lions and died for my faith.” This is an excellent thing, because yearning after what is good plays a crucial role in developing the moral imagination that will shape their future lives and choices.

This also hits close to home.  When I was young, I was completely unsheltered. Drugs, gangs, pornography, swearing were daily fare. I loved to escape from it all through stories such as The Lord of the Rings and movies like Star Wars celebrated all the values I missed in real life. And they had a profound effect on me. I wanted to be someone who could meet Sam or Aragorn or Gandalf and live up to their expectations. So I refused to imitate the real life around me.

If Mussmann is right, Netflix joins a contemporary effort to eliminate hope for a more innocent world from the hearts of our young.

It almost seemmussmann-anna-cropped-300x300s as if they intend to destroy the power of old books and old stories to challenge a postmodern worldview by delivering diluted, re-imagined versions that function as an inoculation. It is almost as if they want to keep us from recognizing that not all beliefs, values, time periods, and stories are the same as ours, lest we begin to question what we have been taught.

I hope that they will realize the justice of Our Lord’s warning:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,[a] it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

An Interesting Look at Authentic Catholic Education

In this recent post, Leonardo Franchi of the University of Glasgow presents his views on the way Catholic schools are and are not instruments of evangelization, drawing on the notions of communio and culture.

In brief, Catholic schools are not schools for Catholics: they are schools for all, rooted in a solid Catholic world view which informs a wider view of education. This is how a vision of Catholic truth (unity) is expressed in different contexts (diversity). The Church’s educational tradition is not, and cannot, be simply geared towards explicit evangelisation and catechesis of the school’s pupil population (of which more later) but is the ‘casting of nets’ in deep waters, an invitation to all to look at the mystery of life and therein to engage with what it means to be a human person.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Discussions Often Surprise

One of the delightful aspects of having discussion classes on original works is how often I am completely surprised by what students uncover that I didn’t expect. Four brief examples from recent discussions:

1) A very simple one: In discussing the Amendments to the Constitution with students, I was pointing out the dates of ratification. One of them asked why Amendment XXVII had such a big difference between the dates of proposal by Congress (1789) and ratification by the states (1992). I thought it must have been a typo at first, but then discovered it was originally proposed by James Madison, but not ratified by the required number of states until over two hundred years later!

2) I have been reading through Dante’s Divine Comedy with high school students as part of their Moral Theology class. I planned in our first discussion on the Purgatorio to talk dante-in-purgatoryabout Dante and Virgil, but I started with a general question, “What is Purgatory like?” Some students early on noticed that Dante was casting a shadow, and that was because they were out on the surface of the earth, and had day and night. This led to a lovely discussion of the extent to which Purgatory (in Dante’s vision, and perhaps really) is very like our life on earth – a sphere of change ordered to our full development – while hell is “timeless” in the sense that it is going nowhere. It provided a wonderful point of view for thinking about Purgatory and our life’s journey.

3) “Original texts” need not always be Great Books; they often are just books that readers serious about learning would read. Even a real dictionary can provoke great discussions. My Latin class with college freshmen has been using a common pocket dictionary instead of a glossary written for students. One student translated “caritas” naturally as “charity”; another student who consulted the dictionary asked why it didn’t list “love” or “charity” as a translation, but instead listed “dearness, high price, high style of living; affection”. The discussion revealed that most students equated charity with giving money to the poor, while the Romans thought of “caritas” as the way you felt toward someone dear to you whom you value as worth a great price. The fact that “charity” is such an important Christian concept suggests that as Christians we are to feel about the poor as Romans felt about their most cherished friends.  Cool!

4) In our latest online webinar, I discussed the Rule of St. Benedict with several teachers. Among many wonderful aspects of the Rule that came up, I was most surprised by how inspiring participants found his instructions to abbots, in which he showed how real authority can be exercised with power, love, and the utmost concern for subordinates. One participant was so inspired she read the entire section to her family. I had never considered how the father of Western monasticism’s words might be profoundly helpful for parents and children today. (You can enjoy listening to the conversation through this link and this.)


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment