In the 1950s, Richard Brandt became interested in the Hopi (a tribe from present-day Arizona/New Mexico/Colorado). At that point, the traditional Hopi culture had continued without much social contamination, and anthropologists were keenly interested in their ways and worldview. Brandt became interested in the Hopi for his own ethnographical reasons: he wanted to investigate an ethical theory.
Mainstream academic philosophy in the early 1950s had, following the work of the great R. M. Hare, arrived at exactly the conclusion that Bob, ucsbalum, and sob1989 presented last week: a particular moral statement (like 'It's wrong to harm animals just for fun') has two bases: 1) a general moral principle (like 'it's wrong to cause pain just for fun') and 2) a factual belief (like 'harming animals causes pain'). Moral disagreements arise from conflicts between two different factual beliefs, rather than between two different general principles. For instance: Those who think it's morally permissible to harm animals may believe, say, that animals don't feel pain, while those who think it's impermissible disagree with this; but both sides agree that causing pain is, in itself, immoral.
I want to clarify two points about the mainstream moral theory here. First, mainstream moral theory (as exemplified in Hare’s view) did not hold that these moral principles had to be absolute. In saying that we all hold causing pain to be immoral, it doesn’t follow that it must always be immoral to cause pain. It might be that in some particular case one can’t avoid causing pain, or one chooses to cause pain in order to spare some people or animals a greater amount of pain, or the pain is administered as part of a punishment required by justice, or whatever; and causing pain in such circumstances need not be immoral on this view. It’s just that, all other things being equal, it’s wrong to cause pain; to put it another way, if you have a choice between causing pain and not causing pain, then you’re wrong to cause pain unless you have a good moral reason for not doing so. Hare and others felt that general moral principles like these were more or less self-evident and would be held by any thinking person. Second, it doesn’t follow from the fact that a culture accepts a non-moral view that it has any good reason to; it might just be a pretty transparent rationalization. For instance, some Catholic theologians in the 17th century argued that animals cannot feel pain because God explicitly claims (in the first chapters of Genesis) that we can do whatever we like with them, and God would never have said this if they could be caused pain by our treatment of them. A stupid argument, of course; but the important point is that these theologians at least saw the need to make it: they sensed that there would be something very wrong with our treatment of nonhuman animals if it caused them pain, so they convinced themselves of the nonmoral fact that it didn’t. They took the time to come up with a stupid argument like that because even they didn’t want to say “Sure, we cause animals horrible pain: so what?” As so often, we can glean people’s moral convictions as much from what they feel the need to justify as from what they explicitly state.
Anyway, back to the middle of the 20th century, and Brandt contemplating this theory of moral disagreement. Was it true, he wondered? It struck him that it was in fact an empirically testable theory, at least in part. If, for any moral disagreement between cultures, one could point to a non-moral belief on each side that caused the difference, the theory would be confirmed; but if there were moral disagreements between parties or cultures who didn’t seem to disagree on any relevant non-moral facts, that would disconfirm the theory! So the thing to do, he thought, was not just to sit in his armchair mulling over that view of disagreement: it was to look at the evidence! Unfortunately for him, it had been decided some decades before that philosophy should be a non-empirical discipline: those in his field should not concern themselves with empirical findings, but should confine themselves to a priori questions (those that can be solved without drawing anything from experience, just as mathematical questions can). So he had to turn to anthropological accounts of the subject; but he discovered then that the work of the researchers was pretty well useless for his purposes. Anthropologists, lacking a proper training in philosophical ethics, just didn’t know the right questions to ask. At that point, he realized what he needed to do: go track down a radically different culture, and do his own investigating! So off he went to visit the Hopi.
One strange (and disturbing!) thing Brandt noticed about the Hopi was their callousness toward animals. They would treat the harm of animals as incidental in their games and sports, and (as he told Steve Stich) Brandt was particularly struck by the use of birds and other small animals as playthings for children. Adults would trap birds, squirrels and so on in the wild, take the animals home, and tie them to a stake driven into the ground. The children would then ‘play’ with the animals by torturing them, breaking their wings and other limbs, cutting them, and so on until the little animals died a horrid death within a few days. Then the adults would throw the animal away and replace it at the next opportunity. There was no apparent point to all this: the animals were not pests, they were not eaten as food, no skills were developed by the children in tormenting and killing them; and so on. So Brandt asked some of the Hopi adults whether they thought that the animals could feel pain. The adults were incredulous: wasn’t it obvious from the cries and thrashings of the animals that they were in pain? Of course they did!
Over the course of his visit, he tried many other questions that might point to a non-moral disagreement between his culture and the Hopi. Did the killing of the animals make the children better warriors, or better adults, in some way? (No, it’s just playing!) Did the harming of the animals help society in some other way? (No.) Was there a religious or traditional reason for this? (No, these are concerned with more important things than children’s games). Did the animals do something in a previous existence to deserve this fate, or will they be rewarded in some afterlife? (According to Steve, Brandt recounted being rudely laughed at for these nutty suggestions). Brandt tried to find a disagreement on a non-moral point throughout his visit, but never succeeded. While it’s possible that he missed some key question, the evidence seems to strongly suggest that the Hopi simply did not believe that causing pain is, all other things being equal, morally wrong. They had norms of hospitality toward strangers and in-group norms toward members of their tribe, but the avoidance of pain simply did not seem to be a fundamental moral value with them, much as we tend to find it so obvious that we can’t even imagine how to argue for it.
I’ll go through two more cases briskly, now that you have the idea:
Gladiatorial games, in which participants (volunteers, criminals or innocent slaves) fought to the death against one another or wild animals, were enormously popular for several centuries in the Roman world. Audiences would flock in huge numbers to enjoy these gory and cruel spectacles. The Romans didn’t seem to find any of this morally abhorrent. It’s well-known that some later Christians were opposed to gladiatorial events (though somewhat inconsistently: the Christian emperor Constantine officially banned the staging of gladiatorial contests, but then violated his own law!), but it’s not as well-known that the reasons given for the moral condemnation were not quite the same as our reasons. St. Augustine, like many other Christians of his day, seems primarily concerned with how engrossing the games are, how they lead one away from the contemplation of God and the soul, and how they promote the view that one can attain true glory in the physical world (as the most popular gladiators did). As Jesse Prinz points out, it seems reasonable to conclude from this that the Romans didn’t really think it was morally wrong (all other things equal) to have people (including the innocent) and nonhuman animals die needlessly in horrible pain and for others to delight in watching it. And yet, we nowadays disagree strongly with this and consider the Romans to have been deeply wrong.
According to the straightforward view of morality I discussed earlier, this can only make sense if there’s some non-moral fact that we know (or at least believe) while the Romans did not. But what is this fact? What do we now know that they didn’t? The Romans all knew that the gladiators could feel pain: nobody denied it.
<a Finally, please consider another case Prinz discusses: Chinese foot-binding. I spared you the grotesque photos of the bare feet of women who actually underwent this procedure, but the image of the feet in shoes should give you a good impression of what this involved: the woman’s feet barely protrude past her ankles. This practice persisted for centuries throughout China, and was only really stopped on a mass scale following 1949 when the Communist party took power (though there had been growing Christian opposition to the practice for decades before). The most powerful men throughout China would have grown up with such women all around them: their mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters would have been crippled for life, left barely able to walk; the process was extremely painful and made Chinese women extremely uncomfortable throughout their lives. Toes would often fall off after necrosis of the foot set in; and the smell of rotting flesh during the process was apparently quite intense. Some women died from the pain. The Chinese were, in most other ways, a very advanced society. Why would they have allowed this to happen right before their eyes, to their own family members? Was there some non-moral fact that the entire culture failed to notice? If so, what is that non-moral fact that we realize (and that post-1950s Chinese did as well) but that Chinese people from the previous generation missed?