A Puzzle about Anti-Universalism

David, Søren and I have spent the last few days at the WCB in Singapore – one of us will open a “How was it for you?” thread in the next couple of days – and a theme or subtext of many of the talks was an endorsement on Ethical Anti-Univeralism (EAU).  Very roughly, the proponent of EAU is painting a picture like this:

  1. Alice is from culture A, and adheres to a certain set of moral beliefs and norms
  2. Bob is from B, and adheres to a certain other set of moral beliefs and norms
  3. Some of Alice’s moral beliefs are incompatible with some of Bob’s (and vice versa)
  4. Alice and Bob ought to respect each other’s culture, with its attendant moral beliefs and norms
  5. Respect for a culture means not criticising or trying to alter any of its moral beliefs and norms, and/ or not trying to replace them with one’s own.

Is EAU tenable?  I’ve never been able to see that it is.  Part of my reasoning here is political; part of it is straightforwardly moral; the other – and most serious – part is metaphysical (or perhaps logical).

I think I can afford to be brief with the first two objections.  The political objection to EAU is that it’s socially very conservative, and that it’s arguably politically undesirable for a community to decide ab initio that it’s going to keep on doing things the way that it always has done for no better reason than that it’s always done them that way.  Yet it’s not at all obvious that there’s any power to this kind of defence of the culture; for Alice to say that practice p is part of her culture is, in effect, to say nothing more than that p is something frequently done by people who believe that p is a good thing to do.  Well, fine: but this tells us nothing about whether Alice and her companions ought to change their minds.  This argument clearly focuses on the “protagonist” – the person whose culture, norms and beliefs are under scrutiny.  The moral objection concentrates more on the antagonist: to tell Bob that he ought to respect Alice’s culture is frequently to hamstring him morally.  Suppose Alice’s culture does something that Bob finds morally repulsive: EAU seems to force him to bite his tongue.  In other words, EAU is the death of moral debate.

But the big puzzle about EAU to me is metaphysical.  I can’t see how it’s coherent.  After all, applied to practical ethics – and implicit in a lot of the papers I’ve heard over the last couple of days, is a claim like this:

1. We ought to respect/ tolerate/ defend other cultures’ moral beliefs and practices

because

2. There are no universal moral standards.

For the life of me, I can’t make sense of this.  Proponents seem to be skewered by one of the horns of a dilemma.  After all, (1) looks to be a universal moral claim; it says that all people ought to respect other cultures as a matter of principle.  But if you can have one universal moral principle, it’s hard to see why there can’t be others; indeed, believing that (1) seems to be incompatible with a belief that (2).  On the other hand, if you believe (2), it’s difficult to see why you should believe (1); after all, if there’s no universal moral standard to tell you that your attempt at moral imperialism is wrong, and as long as it’s permissible according to you – and it’s hard to believe that there could be a system of first-order moral beliefs that wasn’t backed up by a second-order belief that the first-order beliefs are at least better than the alternatives – then that’s all you need.  If Alice believes that (2), she seems to have little to say to Bob when he parks his moral tanks on her lawn that could convince him to move them.  All she can do is complain that Bob is trying to get her to change the way she lives – and Bob at this point can just nod, agree that that’s exactly what he’s about, and say that he’s glad she noticed.

So that’s the problem.  If you think that Ethical Universalism is wrong, you seem to have no defence against cultural imperialism that would stand a chance of undermining the imperialist’s project.  Conversely, if you want to defend yourself against the universalist, you can only do so by appealing to a universal norm.

Have I missed something?  Is there a coherent defence of EAU that I’ve missed?

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