In this piece I want to discuss universalism and relativism in so-called "conservative" and "liberal" views, and I want to offer a significantly different alternative to either of these universalist systems (relativism is a sort of universalism which is even more authoritarian than the conservative counterpart in part because it pretends to be anti-authoritarian). The alternative I will offer is structuralism, which holds that actions are only moral or immoral in the context of cultural constructs and social imperatives. Structuralism is not moral relativism because it provides an avenue for moral critique, which relativism attempts actively to forestall, but it is not universalism either because it admits that for any social problem there may be many valid solutions. The solutions are, however, constrained by other factors, including other solutions. I will look specifically at the issue of murder below.
Summing up the three basic positions:
- Universalism says, "What is True for Me is True for Thee"
- Relativism says, "What is true for me need not be true for thee"
- Structuralism says, "What is true for me is true for thee, to the extent thee is in a social place comparable to me."
Post-structuralism will be discussed a little bit below. Post-structuralism for the most part looks less at questions of truth and more about how structures affect people and how they navigate those. When we get to discussing the role of stigma in a just society, the analysis offered will be very post-structuralist.
Like it or not, most of the actual judgements that both liberals and conservatives make are at least latently structuralist in nature. Very rarely do people say "we criminalize theft because stealing is wrong." Instead we look at specific harms caused by theft and conclude that we must punish thieves. What is not structuralist, however is the way that these judgements are applied to others, particularly in other places and times. This is true on the left and the right, but particularly on the left. The left tends to be more universalist than the right which is rather amusing given that the common accusation is that the right is out to "impose their beliefs" on the left.
Universalism and Relativism in Liberalism
Liberalism, as Oz Conservative points out, is a social philosophy which holds that autonomy is the greatest good, that we should all be full authors of our lives, unbound by ties we do not choose, and that the ideal of the state is to ensure "ordered liberty" (as if we wouldn't have to choose between order and liberty).
In pursuit of this goal, three seemingly incompatible tools are used, moral relativism regarding personal choices, universalism regarding cultural constructs, in the form of discourse on human rights, and an isomorphism between technological progress and social progress. People are not seen as having a right to culture, but rather as being victims of culture. Just as throughout history technology has been advancing, the argument goes, so too has society been advancing towards greater true knowledge and towards greater freedom.
All history mythologizes the past to some degree (history being an argument using the past as a basis), and liberal history sees the past as a progressive march towards greater knowledge and freedom. In doing so they must skip over important details, like how much informal autonomy women in ancient Athens could actually get away with, and treat internationalism in history with so much convoluted justifications as to make it hard to understand what the perspective on internationalism actually is. It's hard, for example, to justify the idea that we should see a single global authority and at the same time argue that the Reformation was good because it broke the stranglehold of the Roman Catholic Church on European continent. Catholicism was the main internationalist movement regarding authority at the time (and unlike Islam there actually is a central authority) and so it is hard to square the reality of the reformation with the liberal aspect as it is taught in history.
In the area of human rights, such rights are not seen to include a right to culture. Human rights are also believed to be self-evident, and they provide a framework for universalist imposition of culture across barriers of space and language. It is in essence a form of cultural imperialism.
But human rights cannot be readily defined in such a way. We may think to ourselves that private property rights are human rights, but there are cultures, particularly foraging cultures whose view of property rights is both functionally viable within the scope of such a culture and at the same time entirely incompatible with any human right we could define for a modern society.
Similarly there are many who believe there is a right not to have culturally mandated ritual surgeries generally, such as circumcision among the Jews. The idea here is that such surgeries are only appropriate for consenting adults, and since children have not consented to be a part of their culture, it is inappropriate to permanently engrave culture on the body. This is, in essence, the basis of the outrage against female genital cutting as well. To be sure, such practices may be critiqued on other grounds, namely health impacts of the practices but to be sure, human rights to the liberal mindset is simply the right to be free from coercive constraints imposed by culture. A right to culture is thus impossible to see as a human right in the liberal mindset. Liberalism thus both undermines and denies a "right to culture." It is therefore entirely incompatible with indigenous rights and autonomy, just as it is incompatible with household rights and autonomy.
At the same time, the emphasis on individual autonomy suggests that we can't judge others for their choices. This is a reaction to stigmatizing people for certain poor choices, but it leads to relativism in the sense that we can't judge others. Judgement is, however, not just about right or wrong, but about insight, understanding, compassion, and empathy. One cannot determine whether something is right or wrong without insight, understanding, and (I believe) context, and one cannot arrive at these in a just way without compassion and empathy. Relativism thus leads paradoxically to a world without compassion or empathy, without insight into the nature of the problems of the present and hence without an ability to differentiate right from wrong in context. One need not hold that all morals are objective to see that the idea that we cannot judge to be a dangerous one. For if we cannot judge for others, we cannot judge for ourselves. Worse, if we cannot judge for others, we cannot learn from their mistakes.
I see this approach of relativism and human rights to be illnesses of the modern world, an effort to corrode the very cultural aspects of ourselves that make us human. Culture makes us human, and by denying a right to culture, liberalism reduces us to machines or pieces of social machines (nations, corporations) while denying us basic humanity.
Universalism and relativism in Christian Social Conservatism
On the surface, Christian Social Conservatism offers an alternative to liberalism, and I would suggest it is a step in the right direction. However, this movement has been heavily liberalized to the point where it isn't really an alternative at all. I see this movement as grasping for some way out of the modern world's great illnesses, but not quite getting there. Christian Social Conservatives are thus, in essence, conservative liberals (as opposed to the liberal liberals of the Democratic Party and the radical liberals of the Tea Party).
Christian Social Conservatism is based on the idea that Christian tradition offers the best way out of the problems of the present. It is backwards-looking, conservative, and holds important aspects of liberalism to be wrong, but in the end, many of the thinkers in this movement are torn between theocracy and technocracy, and this shows in public health statistics.
Additionally foundational values of Christian Social Conservatism include the same values as Liberalism. This movement merely tacks on additional ones. Radical individualism is still there. Innovationism and technocracy are still there. In fact in some areas these are heightened.
One major difference is that Christian Social Conservatives tend to see Christianity as faith and tradition replacing the "human rights" discourse of the liberals. Additionally the basic liberal narrative of self-authored lives is used to justify plutocracy in some corners of the movement.
Relativism is a bit harder to pin down in Christian Social Conservatism
However if you look at Protestants, one tends to see a view that belief is more important than action. You will be forgiven. Just believe and ask for forgiveness. This allows a certain degree of relativism in through the back door.
More functionally, the Catholic social conservative traditions have placed a great deal of emphasis on subsidiarity, the idea that it is spiritual or moral theft to userp the role of a piece of society and hand it to a larger one. This encourages experimentation and a degree of relativism as well (though with boundaries). Catholic thought, being primarily Aristotelian, tends to be much more functionalist and structuralist than Protestant thinking.
The Structuralist Alternative for Heathen Conservatives: Background
Modern Heathenry has been based to a large extent on the idea that structuralism can bring back (in a modern form perhaps) the ways of our ancestors. Structuralism is the predominant way we tend to look at the historical and modern world as heathens (in this way we are about half a century out of date regarding anthropology).
Part of the lure of structuralism is that it provides powerful tools of looking at social patterns. We can look at hos social patterns interact with other social patterns, how they functioned, what the results were, and so forth.
Structuralism itself came into the fore in the early years of the 20th century, with the linguistic discovery that "primitive" languages uses imitation less than modern languages (before it had been hypothesized that languages evolved from imitation). The result of this discovery lead linguists to posit that there were no innate words for things, that meaning emerged not from the atoms of language (words and grammar) but from the interactions between different words. Language was seen as a system of difference and meaning arising from that system as a whole (briefly paraphrasing De Saussure).
Structuralism was later applied to literary critique, sociology, anthropology, comparative religion, and many other fields. It developed into a complex set of tools for addressing questions of social systems generally, well beyond language.
Post-structuralism emerged with thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and anthropologists such as Victor Turner who noted that structuralism could never, really, capture the individual human angle. As Derrida pointed out, structuralism could not accommodate a fluid center. Moreover Turner's field research (along with that of Albert Lord) showed that previous efforts had tended to discount the role of human creativity in ritual, epic poetry recitals, and the like. Post-structuralism tends to add back to structuralism the perspective of the individual navigating the structures.
The Structuralist/Post-Structuralist Alternative for Heathen Conservatives: Morality as Contextual and Socially Constructed but Necessary and "Real"
A structuralist perspective on morality would start (largely following Claude Levy-Strauss) that morality is a functional part of society, that things which are bad to think are bad to do, and cause harm. Therefore one would look at modern and historical stigmas, crimes, and other things socially condemned and see what functions those judgments have.
A key caution here is that evolved systems (and this includes culture) tend to have multiple functions on any part, and have many parts for one function. Thus a stigma against premarital sex may help preserve the parents' interests in choice of marriage for their children, but it may also ensure that children can threaten the family honor in order to challenge parents who may be too strict in such a matter. These concerns may cut opposite directions but they work together for social justice and harmony.
This brings me to an important point about stigma in an honor-bound society. In our, largely honorless society, we tend to think about stigma as largely a bad thing. But in an honor-bound society, stigma works in part by giving many people an incentive to make sure that shameful acts are forgotten or hidden. In an honor-bound society, shame is public and contagious, while we are used to thinking of it being individual and isolating.
This view of morality is that morality arises from social realities and is shaped by how we use the structures. Morality is a tool for an effective society, but it is socially constructed based on context. Nonetheless it is real and necessary.
Structuralism and the Problem of Murder
Usually at some point people ask "what about murder?" Murder is, everywhere immoral and illegal. Therefore it must be universally such.
However when one digs deeper one finds that different societies have very different views of what is murder. In medieval Iceland it was not so bad to kill a person but it was really bad to pretend you didn't do it. Some other societies have blood feuds today. And so it turns out that the definition of murder is, well, socially condemned killing.
Societies have to, in order to function, curtail some degree of violence. People need some assurance that they will not be killed in their sleep by rivals, ambushed on the trail, etc. Murder definitions themselves tend to provide two functions, first to protect people from at least some forms of violence, and secondly to demarcate behavior so dangerous to society that it can justify a fight to the death. Thus the issue is not that murder is wrong (that is assuming the conclusion at best and a tautology at worst), but rather that the lines drawn regarding where and when killing becomes murder are drawn in a way to generally protect people.