because we cannot understand other cultures

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  1. 1. because we cannot understand other cultures, we cannot judge other cultures This she calls moral isolationism, a position which further holds that the world is sharply divided into separate societies, sealed units, each with its own system of thought. Further, [Moral isolationists] feel that the respect and tolerance due from one system to another forbids us ever to take up a critical position to any other culture. Moral judgment, they suggest, is a kind of coinage valid only in its country of origin. (116-117) 1) there is a contradiction between the claim that we cannot understand these cultures, and the claim that we must respect them. She claims that a) we have to understand someone and/or some culture well enough to make a favorable judgment - i.e., there is a contradiction between the moral isolationist's claim that we cannot understand others and so we must respect them, and b) we can understand people in other cultures. 2) does the isolating barrier work to also forbid others from criticizing us? If we accept the critiques of "Western civilization" offered by members of other cultures -- (I think here of Montaigne's Essays, which include an acceptance of "foreign" critiques of European culture) -- then we must consistently be willing to accept the possibility of our offering critique of other cultures. 3) does the isolating barrier assumed by the moral isolationist block praise as well as blame? If we accept the possibility of praising elements of other cultures, then there is no isolating barrier which would forbid critical assessment.
  2. 2. 4) what is involved in judging? Here she introduces an important distinction between crude judgments (of the sort the moral isolationist objects to) and judgment per se. She seems to be arguing that to object to crude judgments is not to object to the possibility of judgment per se - but this is the conclusion the moral isolationist draws. In this context, she also points out that "there is much that we don't understand in our own culture too" (118). If the M.I.'s argument were correct, then we could not judge within our own culture those elements we don't understand. Is this a consequence of his/her position the M.I. is willing to accept? 5) "If we can't judge other cultures, can we really judge our own? Our efforts to do so will be much damaged if we are really deprived of our opinions about other societies, because these provide the range of comparison, the spectrum of alternatives against which we set what we want to understand. We would have to stop using the mirror which anthropology so helpfully holds up to us." (118) Her point here is that judgment requires some external criterion/criteria - and this can be provided, it would seem, in part by other cultures. Unless, of course, we accept the M.I.'s initial premise that cultures are hermetically sealed off from one another. Her central argument applies to ethical relativism as well: the consequence of accepting the claim that "we cannot judge others" is the more radical paralysis of "we cannot judge": The power of moral judgment is, in fact, not a luxury, not a perverse indulgence of the self-righteous. It is a necessity. When we judge something to be bad or good, better or worse than something else, we are taking it as an example to aim at or avoid. Without opinions of this sort, we would have no framework of comparison for our own policy, no chance of profiting by other people's insights or mistakes. In this vacuum, we could form no judgments on our own actions. (118) In addition to this paralysis, the M.I. position - like that of ethical relativism - is internally self-contradictory: We are rightly angry with those who despise, oppress or steamroll other cultures. We think that doing these things is actually wrong. But this is itself a moral judgment. We could not [consistently] condemn oppression and insolence if we thought that all our condemnations were just a trivial local quirk of our own culture. We could still less do it if we tried to stop judging altogether. (118) So the real consequence of M.I. is inaction and the suspension of all moral judgment. But her hypothetical M.I. interlocutor is not willing to accept this consequence. On the
  3. 3. contrary, after asserting that one has no right to criticize another culture, she imagine that the M.I. will go on to justify the Samurai's position: He will try to fill in the background, to make me understand the custom, by explaining the exalted ideals of discipline and devotion which produced it. He will probably talk of the lower value which the ancient Japanese placed on individual life generally. He may well suggest that this is a healthier attitude than our own obsession with security. He may add, too, that the wayfarers did not seriously mind being bisected, that in principle they accepted the whole arrangement. (118) In doing so, of course, the M.I. assumes that it is possible to understand, explain, and morally approve of foreign customs - in part precisely by appealing to our values of discipline and devotion, as well as our "thoroughly modern and Western idea" of consent: Isolating barriers simply cannot arise here. If we accept something as a serious moral truth about one culture, we can't refuse to apply it - in however different an outward form - to other cultures as well. If we refuse to do this, we just are not taking the other culture seriously. (119) In addition to her pointing out these various problems and internal contradictions, Midgley finally attacks the fundamental assumption regarding culture: If there were really an isolating barrier, of course, our own culture could never have been formed. It is no sealed box, but a fertile jungle of different influences - Greek, Jewish, Roman, Norse, Cletic and so forth, into which further influences are still pouring - American, Indian, Japanese, Jamaican, you name it. The moral isolationist's picture of separate, unmixable cultures is quite unreal....Except for the very smallest and most remote, all cultures are formed out of many streams. All have the problem of digesting and assimilating things which, at the start, they do not understand. All have the choice of learning something from this challenge, or, alternatively, of refusing to learn, and fighting it mindlessly instead. (119) She suggests that the M.I.'s picture of isolated cultures has been fed by the earlier tendency of anthropologists to concentrate on the small and remote cultures not affected by this characteristic encounter with the Other. But even here, she argues, anthropologists were able to interpret and make judgments about what they saw, as did the tribesmen they studied. "Morally as well as physically, there is only one world, and we all have to live in it." (119)
  4. 4. 1. Correct. You answered: d. All of the above.. What criticism does Midgley make of moral isolationism? The correct answer was: d. All of the above.. 2. Incorrect. You answered: a. We should never judge others because we don't have enough information to do so reliably.. What does Midgley say about the practice of judging? The correct answer was: b. Judging is simply forming an opinion and expressing it, which is often appropriate.. 3. Incorrect. You answered: a. Moral judgment is a luxury that we should indulge in when we are able.. Which of the following claims about moral judgment would Midgley accept? The correct answer was: c. Moral judgments is a necessary part of life.. 4. Incorrect. You answered: a. By appealing to the unique cultural values of Samurais.. How does Midgley think that one could go about trying to justify the practice of Samurais? The correct answer was: b. By appealing to the values of one's own culture.. 5. Correct. You answered: a. Cultures are a mix of many different cultural influences.. Which of the following does Midgley think best describes the cultures of most societies? The correct answer was: a. Cultures are a mix of many different cultural influences Moral Isolationism is the view of anthropologists and other that we cannot criticize cultures that we do not understand. 2. Explain the Japanese custom of tsujigiri. What questions does Midgley ask about this custom? Tsujigiri literally means as crossroads-cut. Tsujigiri is a verb on classical Japanese which means to try out ones new sword on a chance wayfarer. A Samurai sword had to be tried out because, if it was to work properly, it had to slice through someone at a single blow, from the shoulder to the opposite flank. Otherwise, the warrior bungled his stroke. This could injure his honor, offend his ancestors, and even let down his emperor. So tests were needed, and wayfarers had to be expended. Any wayfarers would do provided, of course, that he was not another Samurai. Scientist recognizes a familiar problem about the rights of experimental subjects. 3. What is wrong with moral isolationism, according to Midgley? According to Midgley, moral isolationism would lay down a general ban on moral reasoning. Essentially, this is the programme of immoralism and it carries a distressing logical difficulty


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