Hopi Animals, Roman Gladiators, and Chinese Feet: Problematic Moral Disagreements

Hopi BirdGladiators<a

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?

74 thoughts on “Hopi Animals, Roman Gladiators, and Chinese Feet: Problematic Moral Disagreements

  1. Cultural diversity is often over-rated: having recently watched some divisional games in the NFL I wonder how different we are from the Romans.
    Thanks for this description of your conversion experience. Does your position hold that
    1. Slavery is unjust.
    2. Slavery is just.
    these two claims are both true?


    • Thanks, Bob.

      1) “Cultural diversity is often over-rated: having recently watched some divisional games in the NFL I wonder how different we are from the Romans.”

      True, there are some commonalities. But here’s the general problem: according to the straightforward view that you and others are maintaining, all cultures share their fundamental moral principles and differ in their judgments on particular cases only insofar as they disagree on some nonmoral, factual matters (religious, or empirical, or whatever). Well, if that’s true, then what _are_ these fundamental moral principles? At the very least, it seems, they must be things like “Don’t cause pain and suffering when you can avoid it,” “Don’t put healthy, innocent people into harm’s way and then rejoice with your friends at their violent death,” and so on. And yet, these examples strongly suggest that these moral principles are _not_ universally held. So, what _are_ the moral principles that all cultures accept, and from which the rest of morality is supposed to follow logically so long as one has the right non-moral information? If there are no such principles, then the straightforward view is in trouble. And the examples I offered call into doubt the existence of those principles. Can you name any?

      2) “Thanks for this description of your conversion experience. Does your position hold that
      1. Slavery is unjust.
      2. Slavery is just.
      these two claims are both true?”

      I should make clear that I didn’t have a _conversion_ experience so much as a doubting experience. I haven’t adopted any particular view, but I’ve become doubtful of a view I used to hold. So I’m not saying that those two claims are both true.

      Still, it isn’t _inconsistent_ to hold that both those claims are (locally) true. There are many other domains in which this causes no difficulty. For instance, everyone seems to accept that the claims
      1. January is not a summer month
      2. January is a summer month
      are both true. (any readers we might have from Australia can confirm the truth of 2 by looking out the window!)


  2. It strikes me as disanalogous to suggest the relativity of the truth of January is a summer month blah, blah… to the slavery claim.
    “I am in CA” is true of me but not of Bob. So what? Slavery is wrong in CA and in BC, isn’t it? In fact “Slavery is wrong” may be one thing all contemporary cultures agree on.
    If moral judgments are relative to our culture then how do you explain change or growth in our moral judgments? Was Aristotle right in his support of slavery? Was he right in his treatment of women? He believed he was right, I suppose, but that is not the same as being right, is it?
    Should we be tolerant of every cultural practice? Was the Holocaust OK because the Nazis believed that it was??
    I agree that some but not all aspects of morality depend upon convention. Just as fashion is conventional – wear a cover in the place of worship or do not – depends on convention …


    • I hope you’re right, ucsbalum. I wouldn’t _want_ it to be true that moral rightness and wrongness changes just like fashion, or that it’s just conventional, or that the Holocaust was morally OK for the Nazis but not OK for us. But my question is, are we justified in _believing_ that our moral judgments (like ‘slavery is wrong’ or ‘the Holocaust was not OK’) are objectively true? You say that ‘Slavery is wrong’ may be one thing all contemporary cultures agree on. I’m not sure about that; but even if it’s true, then why only _contemporary_ cultures? Why did so many older cultures think it was OK?

      I share your _feeling_ that there are some things that are just wrong, period, even if everyone in the world thinks it’s OK. Slavery and genocide are two good examples. In fact, I believe that some things are objectively immoral precisely _because_ I feel so strongly that slavery, genocide, and some other things are wrong regardless of what anyone thinks. However, does this _justify_ me in believing that these things are objectively wrong? There are, after all, cultures (past and present) with radically different views from mine, who feel it’s objectively _permissible_ or even _necessary_, morally speaking, to support slavery or genocide. For me to be justified in believing that these things are objectively wrong, I have to be justified in thinking that these other people and cultures are just mistaken about morality, and that they’re objectively mistaken in saying that _you and I_ are the ones mistaken about morality.

      Perhaps we’re OK when it comes to Aristotle’s moral views on women. He thought women did not deserve equal consideration with men, and this can be traced back to his _non-moral_ beliefs about women: he thought they were incapable of serious thought. Even Kant, just a couple of centuries ago, said something very similar. But we seem justified in pointing to a _factual_ error in Kant and Aristotle. Both those philosophers erroneously believed that women faced psychological limitations compared with men. And the source of this error is not difficult to discern: parents very seldom took the trouble to educate their daughters back then, since it was taken for granted that women would be married off at the first opportunity and that their life-skills should be oriented toward domesticity. Also, women were not welcome to attend philosophy classes, and so on. So we can see a clear factual error that accounts for what Aristotle (and Kant) felt about the moral status of women.

      But what factual error accounted for Aristotle’s moral beliefs about slavery? Or more topically, what factual errors account for the moral views of the Hopi, the Romans, and the Chinese in the cases I outlined in the post?


  3. Thanks, justinfromcanada. Good questions, all!

    Aristotle had a bunch of factual errors about a whole range of issues! Ever wonder why he is still read in philosophy classes but not so much in biology or physics classes?
    Slavery? Weren’t all non-Greek males sub-human and so it was OK to treat them like non-human animals. Same for women. Factual errors.I remember doing a four part series on abortion many years ago for the local paper and discovering while researching it that Aristotle believed that it was OK to abort a female fetus way into the term but not a male!

    On the cultural relativists’ view how do we grow morally and break away from the silly/evil/wrong/ practices of our culture? I wrote in my introductory chapter:
    It seems obligatory in a book like this to state where I “am coming from.” I am not a Jew. I am not a Christian. I was raised in a Christian family. We attended an Episcopal church when I was a small boy; after my mother remarried we attended a Lutheran church where I was confirmed at a young age. Shortly after that we started to attend a Methodist church, but none of these changes was, to my knowledge, based on any matters of doctrine, but rather on social reasons. I remember getting in trouble with the Lutheran pastor as a child because in Bible class I would ask real questions. “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me,” it said in the catechism. Why? The canned answer was: “The Lord, thy God, is a jealous God.” “Why is he jealous?” I would ask, “what would God have to be jealous of?” “Don’t ask questions,” the pastor would say, “just memorize the material.” That was the lesson of the church: do not ask questions; just memorize the stuff. There really was no life in the church. People came in, sat down, listened quietly, put some money in the collection plate, and then left to carry on with their lives as before. After hearing a sermon on the evils of “drink” and card playing, in which the punishments for disobedience were extremely uncomfortable, we would all get in our car and go to one of my step-uncle’s for an afternoon of drinking beer and playing pinochle. I learned to hate Jews (for they were somehow responsible for killing Jesus), Catholics (for they had all the riches), and Methodists (I cannot remember why). I learned hypocrisy, racism, and sexism (now called the “traditional” values by nostalgic writers who find the word “traditional” all fuzzy and warm). I read the Bible frequently because the stories were full of violence, sex, and mystery. I remember asking my mother what `womb’ means and she was very nervous and asked me where I had heard that word. When I told her I found it in the Bible she did not seem to know what to say. I had her! She arranged for my step-father to teach me about the “birds and the bees.” He in turn sub-contracted to a teen-aged farm hand who gave me a brief but descriptive lecture about things that I already knew. (The lecture, I remember, started like this: “So, you want to know about f…ing…,” my teacher at least exhibiting a sense of the dramatic.) – from Reading the Bible, p.6
    In spite of being raised in a culture steeped in “traditional values” like sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-intellectualism, etc. how is it that now I am nearly a perfect moral being?? 😉


    • I’m going to have to read that book one of these days! Sounds great.

      From your perspective and mine, you’ve morally improved a great deal. From the perspective of the culture you come from, you’ve morally regressed. And what about from the perspective of the Hopi? Of the Romans? Of the Chinese?

      Now, it’s surely true that not all perspectives are created equal. You ask why we don’t teach Aristotle’s physics or biology anymore, and you know the answer you compel me to give: _Aristotle had his facts wrong and we can _prove_ it using tests that even _he_ would have to accept as decisive_. Our science vs. Aristotle’s science isn’t a problematic clash of perspectives: one is clearly correct and the other is clearly incorrect, _and this can be seen regardless of the perspective one starts from_.

      The same can be said about the non-moral facts that underlie many of Aristotle’s moral claims. And since even Aristotle himself would have been rationally compelled to accept that he was wrong about (say) his claims about the fetal development of male and female humans, if he saw the empirical information we have collected today, he also has good reason to call into question all the moral claims he _based_ on those refuted empirical claims.

      But… can this always be done? Once again, let me repeat the challenge of my post, which nobody has touched! _What are the non-moral facts that the Hopi, the Romans, and the Chinese were unaware of and that explains their different moral views on animal torture, gladiators, and foot-binding?_


      • Like so many philosophical discussions I feel somehow that I’m missing something. I don’t know quite what jfc is asking for. A moral theory? Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Nihilism? It seems over the past week we have had several facts offered that would be enough to change a Roman Hopi Chineses mind about the practice they are following.

        Mostly however it is about a basic principle, no fact – sentient beings seek pleasure and avoid pain. A tiny bit of empathy is all I need to see that binding feet hurts. So, stop. When I see a bird that has flown into a window and falls to the ground dazed I react by wanting to help it. I don’t formulate a theory! I think, “Poor Bird: the window confused it” not “what does my culture say I should do now”.


        • Hi, sob1989.

          What am I asking for? As I’ve been saying: a non-moral fact that we know and the Hopi/Romans/Chinese didn’t and that justifies our side of the dispute over moral opinion.

          Again: the model that we’re working with is that when Culture A and Culture B disagree about the morality of some action, the reason is that Culture A and Culture B accept the same deep fundamental moral principles (‘It’s good to be empathetic’, or ‘It’s good to maximize everyone’s happiness over the long run’, etc.) but they disagree about some non-moral fact (what happens to a girl’s vagina if untreated as she progresses toward womanhood, whether nonhuman animals can feel pain, etc.). Bob and ucsbalum (and you?) suggested this account of moral disagreement because it allows us to maintain that some cultures get things right and others get things wrong, objectively speaking.

          Of course, you could disagree with Bob and uscbalum and propose an alternative and plausible account of moral disagreement. But this might be the one that has the best chance of making sense of moral objectivity, and if you accept it you need to say what _nonmoral_ fact we know that these other people didn’t.


        • OK, you see that binding feet hurts, and that birds that fly into windows are unhappy, hurt and frightened. You also see that torturing animals and forcing innocent slaves to fight one another in gladiatorial contests causes fear and suffering.

          I see and know all those things as well. So did the Hopi, the Romans, and the Chinese. None of these groups denied that, and (as I explained) the Hopi explicitly said that it was ‘obvious’ to them that the tortured animals were in pain.

          And yet, you and I both believe strongly that the right thing to do in such situations is to reduce the harm and help the hurt and frightened. It’s not just us: if you want to make clear to a movie audience in our culture that someone is a nasty character, you need only show him torturing a small animal or forcing helpless slaves to fight to the death (just think of how that effect was used in _Django Unchained_). But the Hopi, the Romans, and the Chinese thought there was nothing wrong with this.

          We disagree with them on this, and they disagree with us. But we don’t feel that this is a case of two equally good views that we can’t decide between: we feel (and you insist) that there is something we just ‘get’ that these other cultures didn’t. But someone from those cultures would say that _we’re_ the ones that don’t get it.

          Is there some fact out there that justifies our thinking this? Let’s leave aside the dogmatic approach of banging the table and insisting that our moral views are correct, which they could do just as well on their side, so it settles absolutely nothing. Is there any _objective_ reason for thinking that our fundamental views are the right ones, and that _they’re_ the ones missing the truth?


    • And the Romans came to give up on their practice too as they came to realize how barbaric it was. And now we have the NFL, CFL, NHL. boxing and so on ….


      • “And the Romans came to give up on their practice too as they came to realize how barbaric it was”

        Did you read the original post?? I explained that this _isn’t_ what happened. The Romans maintained this tradition for centuries and it was only abandoned when a _different_ culture (Western Christianity) took control of the Roman Empire and changed the values. And even then, the main objection of the early Christians was _not_ that it was barbaric but that it was distracting.


  4. Before converting I would want to know more about the three putative cultural practices related here as accurate descriptions. I would suspect Fox News, power elite, alpha males as agents of perpetuation in these and similar projects to maintain power. Getting and maintaining power is the goal of all alpha males in all cultures. We use all sorts of bs to achieve and keep power. On occasion we are challenged by a person who says to power , BUT THAT IS NOT RIGHT!


    • Morning, Bob.

      1) “Before converting I would want to know more about the three putative cultural practices related here as accurate descriptions.”

      I don’t have an ideology for you to ‘convert’ to: I have no answer to this difficulty, but am just pointing out a disturbing glitch in the picture of moral knowledge and disagreement we became used to in learning and teaching about morality. But if you find conflicting information about the historic details of Chinese footbinding, the treatment of animals by the Hopi, and gladiatorial games, I’d certainly be grateful for the chance to hear and discuss it.

      2) “I would suspect Fox News, power elite, alpha males as agents of perpetuation in these and similar projects to maintain power.”

      Power-hungry people seeking to manipulate social opinion for their own ends while a minority try to resist them does seem to be a common theme. But why think this explains the phenomena? Why would our imagined power-hungry members of the Hopi tribe find it worth their while to engage in an intensive propaganda campaign to persuade everyone that the suffering of animals doesn’t matter? And why wouldn’t it be easier for these imagined power elites to just have the religious visionaries tell the people that animals can’t feel pain or that there’s some divine purpose that justifies allowing children to harm them?

      But even supposing these questions could be answered and it turned out that every culture’s moral views are created and controlled by self-interested power elites: would that be _good_ news for the view you and others want to defend? These power elites would then be versions of Descartes’ evil demon: knowledge that they exist and are successfully manipulating everyone’s moral sense and making deeply immoral things appear trivially permissible should cause us to lose faith in our moral judgments!

      3) “On occasion we are challenged by a person who says to power , BUT THAT IS NOT RIGHT!”

      If relativism were true (and I’m not saying it is — again, I’m not a relativist!), then ‘But that is not right’ could still be said. It would mean something akin to what we mean in North America when we say ‘But January is not a summer month!’

      Perhaps there are further reasons why we should find that unsatisfactory. Perhaps there are good reasons for us to _want_ it to be the case that we can say ‘But that is not right’ and mean it objectively. Even then, it seems to me that we’d need reasons for thinking that it _is_ the case! Just as someone who needs to win the lottery in order to save herself from financial ruin isn’t thereby justified in believing she’ll win, it seems we need more than the desirability of objective morality for us to be justified in believing it.

      4) Anyway, my original question still stands! If the disagreement between us and the Hopi, the Romans and the Chinese is a matter of their getting some non-moral facts wrong that we’re getting right, _what are those non-moral facts_? The differences of opinion could be caused by power elites in the Hopi, Roman and Chinese cultures who brainwashed the populace to accept false non-moral information that made these things seem morally permissible. Still, _what is that false non-moral information_? Any ideas? And if there doesn’t seem to be anything for all we look and ask (after the manner of Brandt), then doesn’t that weaken the plausibility of this account of moral disagreement?


      • Wow. I struggled on my phone to tap out a little response and you are back right away with a paper! (It took me minutes to get the phone to accept ‘bs’ – kept changing it to ‘be’ or ‘by’! :)) You should get a book out of your contributions!
        Quick response to _what is that false non-moral information_?
        It usually, in most if not all cultures, has to do with religion and the gods and respecting the traditions and practices that have been passed on by those gods to the tribal leaders. The levers of power are long and the tribal leaders are good at moving them – still are. Usually some shaman, priest, rabbi, prophet claims a unique source of knowledge – Mother Spider, or Yahweh, Zeus, or some other god who has established the rituals and practices to be maintained on the authority of those supernatural entities. Scriptures are written to support those with power. Games and TV shows are produced to keep the masses busy. Over and over and over people are told to obey their leaders who are after all gods on earth.
        But once in awhile a person stands up to power and says “But that is wrong” – and that is the beginning of a dialogue about what the tribe is doing and what it should do. Usually we kill that person. Either with hemlock or by crucifixion.
        But, finally argument and marshaling of facts ensues as some moral negotiation and change occurs.


        • “Quick response to _what is that false non-moral information_?
          It usually, in most if not all cultures, has to do with religion and the gods and respecting the traditions and practices that have been passed on by those gods to the tribal leaders.”

          That explanation sometimes works, but not this time! Brandt specifically asked the Hopi whether they believed that the animals deserved their agonies as part of some sort of cosmic justice, or whether they would be rewarded in the afterlife for being the playthings of the cruel children. He was laughed at!

          In all Brandt’s further investigations, he discovered that the Hopi view of the moral status of animals had no religious basis. In fact, their religion had nothing to say on the matter. The Hopi acknowledged that the animals certainly felt pain, but weren’t troubled by this fact; so there was no reason for the religion to address the non-issue.


        • sounds right to me – and re. Chinese feet: parents believe the non-moral fact that their girls will not be able to flourish (marry a nobleman) unless they have these tiny feet.


        • ucsbalum says: “re. Chinese feet: parents believe the non-moral fact that their girls will not be able to flourish (marry a nobleman) unless they have these tiny feet.”

          Yes, and that non-moral fact that they all believed in was correct! Why was society set up that way? Why would the noblemen not have married a woman with healthy, unbound feet? Because of a cultural norm. And it is origin of _that_ cultural norm that I want to question, rather than the reasons of the individuals within the culture to follow the norm once it’s been accepted by the culture.

          In the case of the Africans with female genital mutilation, we could plausibly tell such a story: the culture came to adopt the norm of FGM because they had the false belief that an untreated vagina will grow into a penis. (I’m not sure if this really is the reason why they adopted the norm, but it’s at least somewhat plausible). What I’m looking for is the equivalent for the pre-1950s Chinese: What false non-moral belief did that _culture_ accept that led it to adopt the practice of foot-binding and think it was morally unproblematic?


  5. I’m no anthropologist but I am a skeptic. Especially about what other tribes believe! My extended mind (google) has this entry:
    The Hopi maintain a complex religious and mythological tradition stretching back over centuries. However, it is difficult to definitively state what all Hopis as a group believe. Like the oral traditions of many other societies, Hopi mythology is not always told consistently and each Hopi mesa, or even each village, may have its own version of a particular story. But, “in essence the variants of the Hopi myth bear marked similarity to one another.” It is also not clear that those stories which are told to non-Hopis, such as anthropologists and ethnographers, represent genuine Hopi beliefs or are merely stories told to the curious while keeping safe the Hopi’s more sacred doctrines. As folklorist Harold Courlander states, “there is a Hopi reticence about discussing matters that could be considered ritual secrets or religion-oriented traditions.” David Roberts continues that “the secrecy that lies at the heart of Puebloan [including Hopi] life…long predates European contact, forming an intrinsic feature of the culture.” In addition, the Hopis have always been willing to assimilate foreign ideas into their cosmology if they are proven effective for such practical necessities as bringing rain. As such, the Hopi had at least some contact with Europeans beginning the 16th century, and some believe that European Christian traditions may have entered into Hopi cosmology at some point. Indeed, Spanish missions were built in several Hopi villages starting in 1629 and were in operation until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. However, after the revolt, it was the Hopi alone of all the Pueblo tribes who kept the Spanish out of their villages permanently, and regular contact with whites did not begin again until nearly two centuries later. The Hopi mesas have therefore been seen as “relatively unacculturated” at least through the early twentieth century, and it may be posited that the European influence on the core themes of Hopi mythology was slight. [emphasis added]
    Don’t convert without further study! 🙂


    • Interesting. But even if the Hopi might have concealed some of their _beliefs_ from outsiders, what Brandt observed was a set of _practices_!

      Wherever he went, there were children sitting in front of their homes tormenting (and later killing) small animals that had been tied to stakes by the children’s parents. The children didn’t do this secretly, and weren’t ashamed at being caught. Their parents, in turn, went out and trapped birds and other small animals to be used for this purpose, just as parents today might go buy a baby toy at the store. There were no cases of adults rushing up to the children and their parents to bawl them out for their inhumane practices. And when Brandt spent a good deal of time asking the Hopi about this, they seemed to have a very hard time understanding why he found this upsetting or even worth discussing.

      Now, admittedly it’s _possible_ that all this was an enormous hoax and that the children and adults were scarcely concealing their moral outrage at their own actions and suppressing their sense of empathy in order to pull off some big anthropological swindle, and that the Hopi adults Brandt met were putting on a show of not caring about the welfare of the animals, and so on. But is that really the most _plausible_ explanation? I really don’t see it! What’s wrong with the simple explanation that they just didn’t care about the suffering of animals? It’s certainly what their actions seemed to betray. If I ever saw someone torturing animals for fun and encouraging his or her children to do so, I would conclude that the person didn’t care how much pain animals felt. I wouldn’t conclude, without good supporting evidence, that the person really felt just as much empathy as I did for the animals but was pretending not to for some reason.


  6. Two things:
    1. justinfromcanada – Is slavery unjust?
    2. Bob – I share your skepticism. One of the good things about this discussion is it reminds me of our long ago 112 class. I remember your anthropology story that went something like this: A British anthropologist departs for a study/visit to an African tribe. He wants to learn about the tribe’s language. He meets and greets the chief. While in the chief’s digs he points to various items. A rug, a bird, a floor, a weapon, etc. and asks “What is your word for this (pointing)? Each time the chief says “Doix”!
    The Brit goes home and writes a paper for the Royal Society of Anthropological Philosophers. The abstract: “This is a very primitive tribe. They cannot linguistically distinguish one thing from another.”
    Meanwhile the chief calls his tribe together and reports: “This was one stupid dude. He had an opportunity to learn some new words, but instead he just asked me over and over, ‘What is the word for finger!’


    • 1. Is slavery unjust? Well, _I_ certainly think so, yes!
      2. Bob’s joke about the anthropologist and his finger was very insightful: I’ll have to steal that and use it sometime!

      However, I’m still baffled by the notion that you and Bob are ‘skeptical’ and are resisting being ‘converted’ to my way of thinking. It’s precisely the opposite, as far as I can make out. I used to confidently hold the same belief about moral objectivity and disagreement that you’ve both described. However, I’ve listened carefully and (to the best of my ability) impartially to the evidence against that view, and am now _uncertain_ what to believe. I haven’t abandoned my view for another: I’ve just weakened my conviction in my original belief and am now really not sure what to think. I presently have doubts, but not beliefs. So, again, there’s nothing for me to convert you to.

      You and Bob, by contrast, are insisting that your belief is _correct_ and refusing to accept the _doubts_ that I’m raising. Now, to be skeptical is to doubt something, and to be converted is to accept a doctrine. I’m the one who doubts, and you’re the ones who accept a doctrine. So how can you be the skeptics while I’m the converter?

      This is a point worth emphasizing, I think. Jonathan Haidt, summing up the considerable body of research on the process of changing our minds, put it this way:

      When we hear something that disagrees with our beliefs, we say to ourselves: ‘Do I _have_ to believe that?’

      When we hear something that agrees with our beliefs, we say to ourselves: ‘Do I _get_ to believe that?’

      Since our psychology is naturally dogmatic in this way, it’s no wonder we so seldom manage to change our minds or each other’s! We make ourselves impervious to learning.

      I do my best to force myself to change those habits when I can. When I come across information that puts pressure on my existing beliefs, I do all I can to subvert my hostile reaction to it. I try never to think of the belief that the evidence calls into question without remembering the counter-evidence. This is an uncomfortable thing to do, but I feel I must give it my best! I hope you feel this way also.

      in this post, I’ve presented some information that present problems for a belief you and I once shared. Of course, we’ve all been trained in disputation enough to know how to kick up all sorts of dust: it _might_ be that the Hopi are all faking it, or it _might_ be that the anthropologists all made some big mistake that we don’t know of, and there are all sorts of other ‘mights’ that one can kick up forever if one is asking, “Do I have to believe that?” I’ll bet you dollars to donuts you wouldn’t be raising every doubt in the vicinity if someone provided you with evidence that your beliefs are _correct_ — would you?

      For myself, the question whether it’s possible to kick up a million ad hoc reasons for doubt and for not taking the counter-evidence seriously (‘Do I _have_ to believe this?’) is not that interesting: I already know the answer is yes, and that if everyone did that whenever they felt like it we’d never get anywhere! I’m interested in the question whether it’s _reasonable_ for us to believe the evidence, unsettling though it is.


  7. for jfc:

    (And then a young woman rose gingerly to her feet and said, “This is wrong!” – the rest is history.)


    • The NPR has an interesting piece on the practice that talks of the origin of foot binding:
      Their description seems to support your notion of the powerful imposing a practice on the rest of the culture. Or, following custom, “Liuyicun resident Wang Lifen, 79, describes her own attitude as a child, saying, “I didn’t want to bind my feet, but the whole village told me that I had to. So I did.” “


        • Thanks, but this still leaves the original mystery completely untouched! It doesn’t tell us _what false beliefs the Chinese had that caused them to think this practice was a good one to institute and preserve in the first place_.

          According to the view that’s under attack here, moral differences of opinion between cultures are due to one culture accepting a FALSE non-moral belief that leads them to the wrong moral conclusion even though they accept a good general moral principle.

          I’ve been waiting since the start for anyone to tell me what FALSE non-moral belief the Chinese accepted in this case. So far, people have only given me (for reasons I can’t understand) the TRUE non-moral belief that _particular_ Chinese people would have had _after the practice had already been adopted_ that led them to continue it: the TRUE belief that they had better conform to the cultural idea for their own private interest. I hope it’s clear now that that doesn’t rescue the ‘straightforward’ view from refutation.


  8. There are a number of agreements here. Let me list a few:
    Moral philosophy is complex
    I am biased about the social sciences
    I am comfortable in my skin
    Imperialism sucks
    Morality is not a rigid science
    Fashion is not a moral problem
    Many aspects of multi culturalism are great
    If we discover sentient beings on a moon of Jupiter they will differ from us
    I look forward to the next jfc installment and more deliberation!


    • Sounds Bob-like. I guess I’m still confused. Justinfromcanada says “All that is the statement of a rather persuasive metaethical view. Up to a couple of years ago, I held it as well. Tomorrow, I’ll start to present the evidence that convinced me otherwise.” but then later says he hasn’t converted to a relativist viewpoint. So, what have you been convinced of, jfc? I guess we’ll find out soon!


      • Well spotted, sob. Sorry to have written so unclearly. What I meant was that the evidence convinced me that things couldn’t have been as simple as I had thought. So I _did_ come to believe that my previous view (the ‘straightforward’ view I discussed in a previous post) must be false. What I didn’t do was to adopt a different positive view.


  9. Why do people do dumbshit things?
    – everyone is doing it!
    – the king ordered it!
    – the good book orders it!
    – it feels good!
    – the tribe will banish me if I don’t do it!
    – training, training, training


    • Why does _the culture as a whole_ come in the first place to accept that certain things are morally right or wrong? That’s the question. And the answer is not that everyone’s doing it (since they aren’t at the time), not that the king ordered it (since he didn’t at the time), and certainly not training (since there was no training to do that at the time!)

      There’s no mystery about why people conform to the ways of their culture: just about why cultures come to accept the moral views they do.


      • Look at the NPR report. A person with great power and by evolutionary chance had tiny feet. Those in power thought it would be cool if all their subjects had tiny feet. They had the power – they ordered up some tiny feet. What’s puzzling about that? (a tiny feet gene plus a mighty powerful authority = a cultural practice) That’s an alternate and believable scenario requiring no anthropology! Let’s call it the “tiny feet meme” and then it spread across the tight cultuure.
        Queen Elizabeth I had bad facial skin so she used an acid to make her face very white. Soon all woman in Elizabethan England who could afford it were doing the same. So what?


        • Tara, thanks for the excellent link and for hitting the nail right on the head.

          The key thing to remember, Bob, is that on the view of moral disagreement _you proposed_, the reason one culture is justified in deeming another culture morally mistaken on some matter is if the first culture can point to an error on a non-moral, factual matter that the other culture is making.

          My challenge in this thread, which has still not been met or even really attempted, is for you or anyone else to tell me what non-moral, factual error the Chinese (and Hopi, and Romans, etc.) made in this case!

          On the view of moral disagreement _you_ previously presented, either the Chinese must be making such an error that we can identify or else we have no good basis for thinking that they were morally in error about foot-binding.

          Now, what you provide here is not an apparent non-moral error by the pre-1949 Chinese. It’s an anthropological account of how it came to be the fashion to bind women’s feet.

          I don’t contest that anthropological account at all, but it doesn’t address the moral question. The moral question is _why did the Chinese think that it was _morally permissible_ for this fashion to be adopted, when it wasn’t morally permissible?_

          Perhaps your answer is that moral beliefs are simply dictated by fashion and other cultural pressures and there’s nothing else to explain. OK, but in that case you can’t maintain the view that moral beliefs are formed by our ability to access objective moral facts, and that the Chinese are failing to access those facts because of a non-moral error! If you abandon that view and say that morality can change with the fashion, then why should we think that our morality is correct and that the old Chinese morality was not?


  10. Regarding the Hopis, the question of animal torture and other “objectionable” beliefs was solved years ago. For example, the Hopi Indian Tribe, Law and Order Code (Title III – Criminal Code), Chapter 3, states:

    3.3.15 CRUELTY TO ANIMALS. Any Indian who shall torture or cruelly mistreat any animal by torturing, tormenting, depriving of necessary sustenance, cruelly beating, mutilating, cruelly killing, or overdriving any animal, unnecessarily failing to provide any animal with proper food or drink, or cruelly driving or working any animal when such animal is unfit for labor shall be deemed guilty of an offense.

    “Book of the Hopi,” a wonderful book by Frank Waters and illustrated by Oswald White Bear Frederick was published 50 years ago when a group of 30 Hopi elders decided to share their “world view of life” with Mr. Waters.

    The book is available at Amazon.com.


    • Yes. And this is what Bob and I have been saying for a week. I don’t see any connection between morality and fashion or morality and fads. I’m not sure blogging is the best way to do philosophy.
      Interesting discussion but I have to work! It’s a moral matter that I do so!!


      • Wait — _what_ have you and Bob been saying for a week? I’m so lost!

        I spent a couple of days carefully — painstakingly, in fact — laying the groundwork, getting you and Bob on board, making absolutely sure you agreed that, on your view, the only possible explanation for a moral disagreement is that one or both sides is getting some non-moral fact wrong.

        Then, in this post, I pointed to three cases of moral disagreement where there seemed to be no non-moral fact that anyone was getting wrong. The point was to make you and Bob either come up such a fact that the other side was getting wrong or else abandon the view you had previously agreed to.

        And yet, neither of you have proposed _any_ possible non-moral fact that the Hopi, Romans or Chinese have got wrong, and in spite of this you haven’t abandoned the view you clearly agreed to before (which would be refuted if there were no such non-moral facts that the Hopi, Romans,and Chinese had got wrong)!

        I’ve been told about the social pressures of societies, and how fashions get started, and many other things. I don’t understand why! What’s needed is simply an account of what non-moral fact the members of culture got _wrong_ that led them to think these things were moral when they aren’t.

        What’s going on?


  11. ucsbalum wrote: “And that’s how the practice started. What’s the mystery that jfc is puzzled by?”

    The mystery, again, is this:


    On the view that you, Bob and others clearly said you accept, whenever a culture thinks some practice is moral when it’s really immoral (or vice versa), it’s because the culture is getting some non-moral fact wrong.

    For instance:
    – Those in Culture X wrongly think it’s morally obligatory for boys to ingest men’s semen from age 7, because they have the _false non-moral belief_ that this is necessary for the boys’ health as they grow into adulthood.
    – Those in Culture Y wrongly thinks it’s morally obligatory for girls to undergo FGM because they have the _false non-moral belief_ that this is necessary to stop the girl from growing a penis.
    – Those in Culture Z wrongly thinks that eating live animals piece by piece is morally permissible because they have the _false non-moral belief_ that animals can’t feel pain.
    – Etc.

    Since, _as you agreed_, your view entails that there will always be a false non-moral belief that explains why one group is getting the wrong moral answer, I’m asking you what the false non-moral belief is in the Hopi, Roman and Chinese cases.

    Again: what’s needed here is a _false_ non-moral belief that explains why the culture came to think the practice was _morally permissible_.

    Telling me that the culture came to adopt the practice because there was a powerful ruling class that wanted it, and so on, doesn’t fit the bill for two reasons: first, it isn’t a _false_ non-moral belief; and second, it doesn’t explain why people came to believe it was _morally permissible_!

    So: do you, or does anyone else, know of any plausible non-moral facts that the Hopi, Romans and Chinese got _wrong_ that explains why they thought these practices were _morally permissible_?

    Just to make sure things don’t get muddled again, I’m going to repeat the question one more time:


    I hope this does it! I can’t think of a plainer way to say it than that.


  12. To them, it WAS morally permissible.

    P.S. My virus protector keeps stopping an incoming virus every time I go to this site (Hopi Animals, Roman Gladiators, and Chinese Feet: Problematic Moral Disagreements). Time to end my comments right now.


    When did you argue that they thought these practices were a matter of morality? Perhaps they did AFTER the practice was established.
    What I thought I had been saying over these many days is that these practices WERE non-moral practices, whose existence could be explained in non-moral ways: mimicking, orders from on high, alpha males, whatever; and then the power structure (Fox news, priests, shaman, leaders. etc.) keeps those practices alive by threats and treats. heaven and hell.
    Isn’t, e.g, “girls who do not suffer FGM do not grow a penis” a non-moral biological fact? “Tribes who use nitrogen as a fertilizer grow more corn than those who sacrifice virgins” – a non-moral botanical fact?


    • Bob, I quite agree that they probably came to think these practices were morally permissible after the practices had been established. And yes, I agree that the existence of the _practices_ (not the beliefs!) can be explained by some sociological factors. Nothing I’ve said has disagreed with any of that, and none of that has to do with the challenge that I raised in the post. The challenge, again, is against the view you and others said you held — that when people come to hold false moral _beliefs_, its always because they accept some _false_ non-moral beliefs (such that if that belief were corrected, they would no longer hold the false moral belief).

      If you think that false moral _beliefs_ can be explained by sociological pressures (the power structure, etc.) even in the absence of false non-moral beliefs, then you’re abandoning your previous view that all false moral beliefs are caused by false non-moral beliefs! Is that what’s going on, please? Are you abandoning that previous view?

      Yes, ‘Girls who do not suffer FGM do not grow a penis’ is a false non-moral belief. It’s because of false non-moral beliefs like that that you and ucsbalum were originally drawn, as I was, to the view that all moral disagreements can be explained by reference to false non-moral beliefs.

      The challenge of _this_ post is for you to say what the false, non-moral beliefs could have been that led the Hopi, the Romans and the Chinese to their false moral beliefs. Or do you agree with me now that there are no plausible false, non-moral beliefs in those three cases (for starters)?


      • I repeat: “Isn’t, e.g, “girls who do not suffer FGM do not grow a penis” a non-moral biological fact? “Tribes who use nitrogen as a fertilizer grow more corn than those who sacrifice virgins” – a non-moral botanical fact?”
        These non-moral facts might well change the practices of those who believe them false!


        • Agreed! And I repeat in turn: what are the false non-moral beliefs _that the Hopi, Romans and Chinese_ could plausibly have accepted that could plausibly explain their views on the morality of animal torture, etc.?

          And please remember that we know the Hopi beliefs were _not_ associated with religion, or shamans, or anything like that, that the animals they tortured were not pests or eaten for food, and so on (as I explained in the post).


  14. Well, jfc kept saying that the tribes in his stories “think it’s morally obligatory for boys” to do X. And you kept saying “So what if they did?” thinking doesn’t make it so. It may be thought to be a moral obligation after the practice is in place, but that in itself does not make it a moral practice.
    Isn’t the claim that people in tribe x believe P a non-moral claim? I.e. don’t anthropologists claim to be doing empirical science?


    • I think I agree with the first part of this, sob1989, but I’m not quite sure I get what you’re saying.

      As for the second part: yes, the claim (made by an anthropologist, or whoever) that the people in tribe x believe P is a non-moral claim _about_ that tribe. If the anthropologist gets his or her facts right, it’s a _true_ non-moral claim _about_ the beliefs held by the tribe. What’s needed, here is something quite different: a _false_ non-moral belief held _by_ the tribe, rather than _about_ the tribe.


  15. B: I repeat: “Isn’t, e.g, “girls who do not suffer FGM do not grow a penis” a non-moral biological fact? “Tribes who use nitrogen as a fertilizer grow more corn than those who sacrifice virgins” – a non-moral botanical fact?”
    These non-moral facts might well change the practices of those who come to believe them false!

    Jfc: Agreed! And I repeat in turn: what are the false non-moral beliefs _that the Hopi, Romans and Chinese_ could plausibly have accepted that could plausibly explain their views on the morality of animal torture, etc.? [glad you agree!]

    B: I do not know for all three because, as I said earlier, my research has not been with those tribes! But my examples, which you agree with, are intended to cast doubt on your entire enterprise. Remember, once we believed that the earth was flat, the sun rotated around the earth, that eating pork was evil, and that women were second class humans. Similarly, I suppose, some or most Chinese parents long ago believed that binding their girls’ feet was the only way to a successful and flourishing life for those girls. (Another false non-moral belief.) And again, some girl at great sacrifice to herself stood up to power and said, BS. Discussion ensued. Wise men argued. People on their tiny feet protested . The old power structure collapsed. Confucious came on the scene. He opposed footbinding on the grounds that it ran contrary to filial piety.

    Jfc: (imagined) – But, dammit, Bob, I want false non-moral beliefs for MY examples!

    B: It’s kinda like the coloured hats problem. I want to think about my hat puzzle. You can work with your hat puzzle. Take the late-19th-century campaign against foot-binding in China. The custom began to die out in the first decade of the 20th century. In most places, it happened quickly. The American political scientist Gerry Mackie, an expert on social norms, gives the example of a large group of families in a rural area south of Beijing, in which 99 percent of women born before 1890 had bound feet, and none of the women born after 1919 had bound feet. The campaign against foot-binding didn’t work immediately. But when it took hold, that thousand-year-old practice essentially vanished in a single generation.

    Jfc:(imagined) Irrelevant! In 1918 it was moral and in 1919 it was immoral. Can’t you f**ing see that?

    B: Morality had nothing to do with it. Parking lot….

    NB: Article


    • Hi Bob,

      You say that your examples are creating a problem for my enterprise (just as I think my examples are creating a problem for yours). But let’s review, please:

      Bob’s view: “_All_ cases of moral disagreement can plausibly be explained by at least one side getting some non-moral facts wrong.”

      Justin’s view: “_Some_ cases of moral disagreement _cannot_ plausibly be explained by at least one side getting some non-moral facts wrong.”

      Have I got your view right? If not, and you admit that there are some cases of moral disagreement that cannot be explained this way, then it looks like there are difficulties for your picture of objective moral knowledge, etc.

      As you can see, I’m not for a minute denying that there are _some_ cases in which non-factual errors contribute to moral errors (and hence to moral disagreements). So your cases don’t put any pressure on my ‘enterprise’. I’m not committed to a categorical claim! But you are committed to a categorical claim (unless you’re abandoning your view), so even a single counterexample falsifies your position.

      It’s a little as though you’re saying “All people are shorter than 6 foot 6” and I’m saying “Not always: some people are 6 foot 6 or taller.” I reel off for you the names of three famous basketball players who are taller than 6 foot 6, and you say, “Well, I’m not interested in looking at that evidence. Instead, look at my evidence — here are a bunch of people who are all shorter than 6 foot 6!”

      You propose the following as the false non-moral belief the Chinese used to accept: “A girl whose feet are not bound cannot have a flourishing life.” That could mean two different things:
      a) It could mean “A girl whose feet are not bound will face _social obstacles in our culture today_.” If that’s what it means, then it wasn’t a false non-moral belief, but a _true_ one! So that cannot salvage your view.
      b) It could also mean “_Regardless of how society might change_, it will never be possible for a girl to grow into a woman with a healthy and happy life.” That interpretation really _does_ involve a false non-moral belief, and it alone makes sense of your story of the girl who said “BS” to it all. So yes, if _this_ is what the Chinese believed, then it would have been a false non-moral belief that would (if it was accepted) have accounted for the moral error on your view. But…

      … how plausible is it to think that the Chinese overwhelmingly believed that? This is a massive country with a significant educated class, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of other cultures. And the idea is that despite all this, even the most intelligent Chinese people had no clue that a woman could be healthy or happy in any culture (including the wide range of cultures the Chinese interacted with) unless her feet were destroyed? Is it really plausible that they were all that dull? And further, we have to believe that because a girl in the middle of this culture suddenly figured out what the other hundreds of millions could not, and said “BS”, that everyone in China suddenly started thinking about their non-moral hypotheses about child development and psychology and said, “Hey, maybe she’s on to something,” and that the _empirical_ information they discovered was what caused the whole culture to do an about-face within one generation?

      And did the millions and millions of parents of the new generation all say to each other, “By golly, it sure _seemed_ as though any woman who hadn’t had her feet bound would die at age 20 from a heart attack or suffer from depression or something no matter what, which is why we mistakenly thought we had to keep the old tradition going; but now that we know from this new research that it’s possible for women to be healthy and happy with their feet intact, we can do it all differently”? Where was this research that put them right on the non-moral fact that women can be healthy and happy without foot-binding, if _that’s_ what convinced them?

      This really doesn’t seem plausible! Perhaps others think otherwise?


      • Where was this research that put them right on the non-moral fact that women can be healthy and happy without foot-binding, if _that’s_ what convinced them?
        As I understand it the best research comes from the missionaries who took the time to learn the language and live in the culture before calling the people names and employing what Bob calls “the finger-wagging” sense of ought. Then and in the native language they could communicate the non-moral fact that painful foot binding is not necessary for a flourishing life. And that means reform of the power structure is going to be necessary. Maybe the best way to think about your relativity talk is to wrap an “IF….THEN…” around it.


        • ucsbalum, I’m starting to think you’re addressing someone else! I’m not proposing ‘relativity talk’; I’m not calling Chinese people names… whom are you talking to, please?

          Just to clarify: you’re saying now that there _is_ _MEDICAL RESEARCH THAT THE _CHINESE_ DISCOVERED_ that showed them that women could be physically and psychologically healthy without footbinding, and that _that_ was what caused the change in the Chinese moral view?

          If you’re not saying that, then you’re way, way off topic! Just to remind you: what follows from the view _you_ say you believe is that the Chinese who morally approved of foot-binding must have believed a FALSE, NON-MORAL CLAIM and were led to the wrong moral conclusion for that reason. The false, non-moral belief that Bob suggested was responsible for the false moral belief among the Chinese was that women cannot be physically and psychologically healthy if they have not undergone footbinding. If Bob is right about that, then the shift in the Chinese moral view on footbinding must have been brought about by the discovery that that medical view was incorrect.

          So: if you _are_ saying that, then please tell me what this medical discovery was that suddenly made the rounds in China after 1949 and caused all the Chinese to change their moral views within one generation! If it was that impressive, it must have been reported prominently in all the Chinese newspapers for ages. Chinese parents must have been shocked at the sudden medical discovery, which showed that they had horribly mistreated their daughters for no good reason. Discussions of the groundbreaking medical research must have been written everywhere: in letters, in diaries, everywhere!

          Can you please point me to it?

          And can you also please explain to me how the Chinese could have had regular contact with other cultures for millennia without noticing that, in _all_ those other cultures, the women did not have their feet bound and were healthy and happy? I find that even more puzzling! But if this was the non-moral fact that the Chinese were getting wrong, there must be some explanation of how that misunderstanding was possible among millions of people for thousands of years. And yet, no anthropologist that I know of has mentioned this. Can you please explain it?

          Or… maybe this _isn’t_ actually a false non-moral belief that the Chinese had before 1949. That’s my suspicion.


  16. I am willing to wait for the rest of your presentation, jfc. We may have exhausted this stream. Comments are closed. ♥

    By popular demand comments are once again open! Sorry about that. I have had email from some viewers asking me to open the comments again. One wrote:
    For personal reasons I don’t want to go public with my name or email address etc., (please do not reveal) but I do need to say that it seems to me that the foot binding is not unlike the practices in contemporary society that urge/force women to mold their bodies into some unnatural shape to please men. The “moral problem” is one of sexism and treating women like chattel to be used by men. As has been pointed out by others Roman Gladiators change to be NFL/NHL players; foot-binding changes to breast augmentation; Hopi treatment of animals changes to slaughter houses. The relativity talk only works if there is a significant difference between “them and us”.
    Nothing changes.
    The theoretical meta-ethics talk doesn’t touch the real problems.”


    • If you can read this then comments are open again! By popular demand!! 🙂
      I’m sure someone will let me know if the door is still closed!
      (Be sure to clear your browser”s cache.)


    • jfc will have an answer, I think, but from a relativist point of view, your comments merely report what your culture might believe here and now.


    • Hello, secret correspondent of Bob! I’m glad you’ve joined the discussion. Why don’t you adopt a code name like most of the rest of us? It would allow you to stay as anonymous as you like while making it easier for the rest of us to discuss this with you.

      Before I get to your main line of thinking, I want to remind everyone yet again that I am not arguing for moral relativism here, and am not using ‘relativity talk’, and so on. What I am doing is raising some difficulties with a common way of thinking about morality and moral knowledge. Even if there’s no way to get around those difficulties (and I’m not sure there isn’t one), there is a wide range of remaining possibilities: there might be objective moral facts that we can never know, or perhaps we only _sometimes_ know the objective moral truth, or perhaps there are no moral facts at all (relative or otherwise), or perhaps there are objective facts that we can know very well but they turn out to be different from the ones we think we know, and so on… and, among all those possibilities, there is moral relativism. I’m not a relativist, and I haven’t been ‘converted’ to relativism, and I’m not arguing for relativism, and I’m not trying to convert others to relativism: I’m merely pointing out some difficulties with one popular view that is not relativism. I hope that clarifies it once and for all!

      Now for your main comment. You take the bold line that there is no “significant difference” in moral view in any of the cases under discussion (and presumably, you don’t think there is in other cases either). On your view, we share with the Hopi a common moral view on animals because we have slaughterhouses; we agree with the Romans in their moral attitude toward pointless violence inflicted on people for entertainment because we have the NFL and the NHL; and we agree in essence with the old Chinese about the morality of footbinding because we see women as chattel here today and mold women’s bodies in ways that will please men, just as the Chinese used to. Is that right?

      I’m not sure I understand how literally to take you when you suggest that there is no significant difference between our views. Could you please clarify by answering the following questions?

      1) I predict that, if I were to take my young niece and nephew to a crowded playground tomorrow and supply them with small animals to torture and kill, parents would rush up to condemn me and I might even end up being arrested (unlike in the Hopi culture where nobody found this remarkable). Do you agree or disagree with this prediction?

      2) I predict that, if a major sports promoter tried to start up gladiatorial games in major North American cities later this month — in which criminals, war captives and volunteers would be forced to fight to the death against one another and wild animals while the spectators cheer — there would be a huge public outcry against the practice (unlike in ancient Rome, when centuries went by with nobody criticizing the inhumanity of gladiatorial entertainments). Do you agree or disagree with this prediction?

      3) I predict that, if a North American family were to go on a talk show this week to explain that they plan to bind their young daughters’ feet when they turn five because they consider their daughters to be chattel and have found some rich husbands who have a fetish for footbinding and will sign a legally binding promise to marry, most of the viewers would be horrified. The scandal would be discussed everywhere, and in all likelihood the children would be taken away from the parents by the state (to public applause). Do you agree or disagree with this prediction?

      4) If you agree with any of my predictions, then could you please clarify what you mean when you suggest that there is no substantial disagreement between us and them?

      5) Moving beyond the Hopi, Roman and Chinese cases, do you think that _all_ cultures’ moral views, past and present, are substantially identical? Or do you think there are some cases in which one culture’s moral view is objectively inferior to another’s?

      6) By “Nothing changes”, do you mean that there has never been any moral progress? Or something else?

      Thanks in advance for your answers: they’ll make clear what view you actually hold.

      One last thing: you say “The theoretical meta-ethics talk doesn’t touch the real problems.” I must admit to finding this puzzling. What ‘theoretical meta-ethics talk’ are you referring to? Bob, ucsbalum, and sob1989 responded to my original accounts of initiation rituals in Papua New Guinea by clarifying a commonly held assumption about moral disagreement and error. I challenged the view they had articulated with some new cases. Now, you come along and challenge the case I made for _my_ challenge. Who’s engaging in ‘theoretical meta-ethics talk’ here? If we are, then aren’t you, also?


  17. Pingback: Two things | Episyllogism: philosophy and the arts

    • On my part, sfualum, I have to admit that this thread (up until recently) almost convinced me to discontinue the series with apologies to Bob and stop posting on this blog. I had wanted to engage with others in a philosophical exploration of the issues (as has finally started now), and instead I found myself just repeating over and over and over the thing I had already made clear in the original post (i.e. that according to the straightforward view, anyone in moral error must have a _false_ non-moral belief) — and as soon as this was recognized, the thread ended for a bit!

      Discussing interesting cases with others and trying to sort out their puzzling philosophical implications is interesting, useful and fun for me. Dealing with people who just want to dismiss challenges to their views by hook or by crook, and who don’t bother reading original posts carefully because they think they’ve seen it all before, and who have to be strong-armed into considering the issues because they just want to froth at the mouth about how stupid they think philosophy is, on the other hand? Not my cup of tea.

      On reflection, though, I think I’ve been partly at fault for the horribly frustrating way this discussion thread developed at first. I really wanted to see how people engaged with the actual issues, so I felt the need to jump in whenever someone had misread the original post and got the argument wrong. I didn’t want to let everything go sideways and for the whole discussion to go off-topic from the get-go. And because I jumped into the conversation so often, everyone seemed to reflexively act as though the point was to refute me, not to figure out what the issue actually was and try to work it out. Rather than debate me on the issue (by taking up the challenge and saying what _false_ non-moral fact these people might have believed in — as Bob tried just before the discussion ended — or by finding an alternative view — as Bob’s correspondent did this morning), people who hadn’t taken the time to read my post carefully and find out what the issue was were led into the discussion by a zeal to disagree with whatever they imagined me to be saying on some general principle, even when a decent rereading of the post would have shown them that they were barking up the wrong tree!

      Stephen Wykstra recently came to my university to guest-lead a graduate seminar. One of our technically adept doctoral students went on a tear right from the get-go, attacking the reading this way and that. It wasn’t clear whether the student had got the arguments or position in the reading exactly right, but he sure was determined to show that _something_ in the vicinity was stupid! Professor Wykstra wisely interrupted him after a bit and articulated a wonderful general principle for debate: you’re ready to attack a view only when you can summarize that view so accurately and charitably that even the person who espoused it says, “I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

      I think something like that is needed with the posts I’m doing in this series. It seems that everyone here aside from me is thinking, “I’ve thought about this before, I’ve come to my decision, anyone who disagrees with my decision is trying to convert me to a view I’ve already refuted, and is making one of a small range of typical mistakes in getting there; and the only reason why I have to skim this thing is to figure out which of the familiar mistakes is being made so I can refute this jfc jackass in the comments thread.” This is unfortunate, because what I’m presenting in these posts begins where the familiar line of thinking leaves off and takes the arguments in new directions. I’m quite familiar with moral relativism and its problems: I devoted my whole PhD dissertation to refuting the best versions of relativism I knew of, in new ways! And then, after all that, I’ve come across some new difficulties for the views I seem to have shared with many others here. I mention that in the hope that someone else might say, “Hey, if jfc knew all the arguments I know about moral disagreement, and then he spent several more years researching the arguments in much more depth and confirmed his initial view, and _after_ that found some reasons to feel much less certain about it all, isn’t there a _chance_ that he’s found _something_ relevant that I haven’t and ought to pay attention to — something that goes further than what I’ve thought about so far?”

      At the very least, I think what’s needed here is for someone else to take on the role of clarifying what my posts are really saying and, ideally, defending the alternative position I always try to maintain in the ensuing discussion. Even (especially?) if you feel completely confident in your view, why not try to do your best to attack your own confident position, just to see what happens? You might learn something! Having a diversity of views in the threads will make this process much more productive for all of us.

      In order to accomplish this, I think I need to leave others space to defend the case I’m making against the views we all know and love. If someone else does that, great. If not, well, the comments thread will be much worse for it. Either way, I’ve decided that this will be the last thread I engage in in depth, for now anyway: in future threads, I’ll pop in every couple of days to respond to the comments that look informed and interesting, and that will be that. As the blog always tells us, “This conversation is missing your voice!” I hope others will start to jump in more.

      I hope this works, and I hope that the result on future threads stops you from hating philosophy, sfualum. Otherwise, what will you do? Unreflective anthropology? 😉


      • Sounds fair. I will wait a bit to see if my anonymous e-mailer wants to say more or join us. I will leave the doors open. 🙂 And I will try to quit challenging the anthropological “facts” that you offer. Although it will be difficult. I just keep thinking of Bob Rowan’s (UBC) comment to one of our anthropology profs at Mal-U when people were interviewing to be included in the faculty to launch our own Liberal Studies program. I was in the room as the Humanities Chair. I introduced Prof. A to Bob. Bob R. said, “Oh, yes. Anthropology. That where you go out in the field with a camera and come back to show the films to your students.”
        The interview didn’t go well.


        • Oh, I don’t mind people challenging the anthropological facts! If people have good reason to doubt the empirical evidence, or the arguments in which they appear, then great! I’d love to see the counter-arguments and counter-evidence.

          My only problem is with people who don’t take the time to understand what’s being said before posting a response. All I can do in response to _that_ is to repeat what I already took pains to make clear in the original post. If we’re having a great discussion of the issue and the odd person misunderstands what’s happening, that’s fine; but it gets to be a problem when _everyone_ in the conversation is addressing a straw man!

          Perhaps another technique could be a simple summary of the main points at the end of each post. Here’s an example for all the posts so far:

          1. Reflecting on our moral reactions to news about the ‘knockout game’ and about the marine who intervened in a beating of a stranger at personal harm to himself, we tend to think that
          a) there are objective moral facts (i.e. certain things are right or wrong regardless of what anyone thinks about them)
          and that
          b) we are regularly able to distinguish right from wrong in simple cases (where ‘we’ means humans in general).

          2. However, there are considerable moral disagreements between cultures and within cultures. For instance, members of one tribe in Papua New Guinea thinks that it’s morally obligatory for young boys to perform oral sex on adult males, but morally impermissible for them to be sodomized; members of another tribe in Papua New Guinea think it’s morally obligatory for men to sodomize young boys but impermissible to have young boys perform oral sex on adults; and members of our culture think that _both_ these things are morally impermissible. And we tend to feel that this is a simple case: we don’t think that sodomizing young boy is _sometimes_ perfectly fine, or that it’s on the borderline of moral permissibility, etc.

          3. Such cases of moral disagreement present a problem for those who think both that moral facts are objective matters _and_ that humans in general are able to know right from wrong in relatively simple cases. If we have that power, and if both tribes from Papua New Guinea do also, then we would apparently not disagree with one another. And yet we do, very strongly! So how can the view that there are objective moral facts _and_ that we can regularly distinguish those facts be salvaged in the face of this empirical evidence?

          4. The straightforward way of salvaging the view is to say that, while all humans agree on the fundamental moral principles, we do not all agree on the non-moral facts. The people of Papua New Guinea, just like we do, accept the fundamental moral principle that you should do whatever it takes to ensure that your children grow up healthy and strong. But they also have a _false_ non-moral view — a false biological view, in particular — that being sodomized or ingesting semen is biologically necessary for their healthy development into adults. If only these tribespeople learned the correct biological and psychological facts, they would agree with us about the wrongness of their current practices.

          5. This straightforward response can be generalized as follows: wherever there is a moral disagreement between two cultures (or two people in the same culture), both sides of the disagreement accept the same moral principles but accept different non-moral beliefs. In such cases, at least one side _must_ have a false non-moral belief.

          6. If this straightforward response is right, then we can only be justified in maintaining our moral views in the face of moral disagreement with another culture when we can be sure that they, not we, are the ones who accept a false-non-moral belief.

          7. And so it follows from this straightforward view that if any culture accepts an false moral view, it must accept it as a result of a false non-moral view.

          8. However, we feel confident that the Hopi treatment of animals, the Roman treatment of gladiators, and the old Chinese practice of footbinding are immoral; but in _none_ of these cases does there seem to be a false non-moral belief that caused the false moral belief.

          9. In particular, we know that the Hopi did not have the non-moral belief that animals do not feel pain, or that there is a religious requirement to torture animals, or that the children will only develop into stable adults or good warriors if they torture animals, or that there is any religious reason for torturing them, and so on; etc.

          10. Moreover, in all those cases, the culture overwhelmingly (and often unanimously) accepted the practice as morally unproblematic.

          11. Therefore, unless false non-moral beliefs can be found that explain these moral disagreements (as demanded by the straightforward approach), we must conclude either that we don’t know that footbinding, animal torture, etc. are wrong or else that there’s something wrong with the straightforward approach.

          12. And if there’s something wrong with the straightforward approach, then we need another way of salvaging our belief in objective moral knowledge. But how, if at all, is this to be done?

          Now, those who want to engage in the discussion and disagree with this line of reasoning have many options:
          – They can point to a logical fallacy in the steps from 1 to 12 (which hasn’t yet been tried);
          – They can present anthropological evidence that shows the empirical claims I made are false (which hasn’t yet been done, as far as I can see);
          – They can propose a false, non-moral fact for one of the three cases, as the straightforward approach demands (as you did when you suggested, as I understand you, that the Chinese used to think that a girl would grow up to be chronically unhealthy if she didn’t have her feet bound to the point where her toes would fall off);
          – They can abandon the straightforward response to the challenge of moral disagreement and deny, say, that real moral disagreement even exists (as your correspondent did this morning);
          – Etc.

          I don’t want to stop any of that from happening! It’s all great!

          But not all contributions advance the discussion in those ways. Here are some that don’t:
          a) Dismissive claims that all such cases of moral error can be explained by institutional religious pressure, even though I had already carefully explained in the post that Brandt had ruled out that possibility (Straw Man / Ignoring the Counterevidence);
          b) Responses that misunderstand and misread the clearly-stated challenge and supply _true_ non-moral beliefs held by the Chinese (e.g. the true belief that, _given that everyone else had come to accept footbinding as ethically permissible and normal_, a girl will be rejected as a bride if her feet are not bound), when it was made clear that a _false_ non-moral belief among the Chinese is needed to salvage the straightforward view (Straw Man);
          c) Repeated accusations that I’m a relativist — despite all my repeated explanations to the contrary — because I’m raising arguments that some relativists would, or that philosophy/metaethics gets us nowhere (Questionable Claim/Red Herring);
          d) Persistent reiterations of the claim that everyone’s moral view is shaped by society (if this were meant as an admission of defeat for the view that we can reliably know the objective moral truth, it would be great; but if it’s meant to be a _defense_ of the view that we can know the objective moral truth, it’s an ignoratio elenchi: the issue at hand for those who want to defend the straightforward view is to explain what false, non-moral facts could plausibly explain the moral beliefs of the Hopi, Romans, and Chinese);

          So yes, if there are any anthropological errors in anything I say, I hope readers will bring them to my attention together with proof to the contrary (and a clear statement of which fact I’ve got wrong). I’m not at all opposed to refutation — only to frustratingly irrelevant posts that force me to waste my time repeating things I’ve already made clear!


  18. I was contacted at VIU by our mystery correspondent who explained why s/he wants to remain anonymous and does not want to sign in to the Epi for fear of publicity. So, I will honour the request and share the points s/he made:
    1. We frown on hurting little animals in the park and send money to the SPCA, but have you witnessed a giant chicken producing farm where the birds never touch the earth and they are crowded together in metal cages, force fed and never see the moon? Or seen how your veal cutlets are produced? Or gone on a seal hunt with clubs to bash in the brains of baby seals? Hypocrisy.
    2. What’s the moral difference between dying in the coliseum or dying of a brain injury as an NFL player? Ever seen the ads for mixed martial arts fights? Hypocrisy.
    3. I saw a talk show recently where the parents boasted about how they were forcing their little kids to study church doctrine and learn to pray in order to save them. Morally OK to bind their mind but not their feet? Hypocrisy.
    4. I think there is one moral view and it is based on knowledge of science and human nature. All cultures struggle toward its discovery. We know more now than we did some time ago and we continue to learn. Morality – real morality – is not a game of examples and counter examples, or trolleys and the like. It’s about respect and caring – for each other, for animals, for the earth.


    • Morality – real morality – is not a game of examples and counter examples, or trolleys and the like. It’s about respect and caring – for each other, for animals, for the earth.”

      Good lord… how many readers of this blog can’t leave a post without making some snide, ignorant, dismissive comments about philosophy and philosophers? This is an epidemic! I’m glad to say I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.

      How curious about your correspondent not wishing to sign in anonymously! Oddly, that seems to narrow down the selection to a handful of people… not that I care, really!

      I’m grateful to MC (Mystery Correspondent) for continuing the discussion, but he/she has refused to answer _all_ of my questions (which isn’t very helpful)!

      My first three questions were yes/no questions about whether (s)he agreed with my empirical predictions about what would happen. But rather than saying whether (s)he agrees or disagrees, (s)he made irrelevant comments about the hypocrisy she sees in our society. Fine — I grant that we are hypocritical. I hope that in his/her next post, (s)he will actually say whether (s)he agrees with the predictions I asked him/her about!

      MC also didn’t respond to any of my other questions: (s)he says nothing at all about whether (s)he thinks that _all_ cultures are morally identical or whether (s)he meant to say that there has never been any moral progress when (s)he said ‘nothing changes. That’s unfortunate!

      Instead of answering these questions, (s)he adds to the growing pile of know-it-all, jaded ‘philosophy is dumb!’ comments that really get us nowhere and constitute a black eye on these blog discussions *yawn*. I wish people would stop doing that! Either engage in philosophical dialogue or leave it alone, please. Attacking a philosophical view _is_ doing philosophy, and turning around after launching a salvo and saying ‘Well, I don’t care anyway, philosophy is for losers!’ is less than helpful. And surely(?), MC is capable of telling the difference between using examples and counterexamples to _establish_ points in morality (which is what we’re doing) and saying that morality _itself_ is a game… and doesn’t MC realize that (s)he him/herself is using examples to support his/her view that people are hypocritical? Ugh…

      But let’s not waste our time with that anti-intellectual nonsense. I’d love to continue the discussion if MC is willing to answer my questions and genuinely thought they got us off to an interesting start. Here they are again, MC:
      1) Do you agree with my prediction about what would happen if I gave my young niece and nephew animals to torture in the playground? Yes or no?
      2) Do you agree with my prediction about what would happen if someone tried to get gladiatorial games started here this month? Yes or no?
      3) Do you agree with my prediction about what would happen if some parents went on TV here and now and said they planned to bind their daughters’ feet? Yes or no?
      4) If you said yes to any of the above, then could you please clarify what you mean when you suggest that there is no substantial disagreement between us and them?
      5) Do you think there are any cases in which one culture’s moral view is objectively inferior to another’s? Yes or no?
      6) By “Nothing changes”, do you mean that there has never been any moral progress? Or something else?

      Thanks in advance for answering these questions. You can just write yes or no to five of them and give a short sentence answer to the other.

      If you don’t think you can answer those questions, then thanks for getting the discussion started! It’s an interesting beginning to a conversation and perhaps someone else will pick off where you let off.


  19. Pingback: Which Comes First? | Episyllogism: philosophy and the arts

  20. Pingback: Looking Back | Episyllogism

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