THE METAETHICAL ISSUE: IS MORALITY RELATIVE OR ABSOLUTE?
With a wider understanding that culture is anything that can be shared, thought and learned, it is implicitly important to know its relations and participation in other sciences concerning the study of natural phenomena and societal issues.
ANTHROPOLOGY: A Science or an Ideology?
Anthropologists would argue that their discipline is more an ideology rather than a science. It is necessary therefore to be able to distinguish the very difference between the two. But this paper does not aim to concur nor counter-argue how anthropologists define themselves and the discipline where they belong, since I will be biased if I do so. This issue is highly debated up until today and to reconcile the two is the safest way I can so please bear with me as I go through this paper. Anthropology itself is the study of humankind. For Golub (2013) it is a “science” that studies the diversity of man. Conducts that are influenced by one’s own culture can happen in various ways and in different places. It is divided into four major subdisciplines namely: Physical (Forensic and Paleoanthropology), Archeology, Linguistic, Cultural and Social Anthropology. The latter was commonly subsumed within Cultural Anthropology. Thus, making the subdisciplines only four and I will only be dealing with Cultural Anthropology (Social Anthropology) as my course in this paper vis-á-vis Physics.
Social Anthropology, as defined by Oxford University Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology uses very practical, empirical methods to investigate some quite philosophical-looking problems about the nature of human life in society. On the other hand, physics in a broader sense, is the study of natural phenomena.
We study culture in a systematic, empirical and objective way as the same manner with Science. But not at all times, culture has to be scientific, rational and logical. You can only apply these at some aspects of culture like explaining how and why a certain society does a particular belief, what can be the scientific explanation for this?; to think objectively but not being dependent with science-based culture (in a wider perspective, science can be considered culture as well). However, you will be taking risks if you do so. Why? Because culture is nothing but a set of beliefs and practices in a society even without having been influenced or governed by scientific principles. You have to be relatively objective rather than scientific. Thus, Anthropology according to Wagner (1981, p. 2) “which never leaves the boundary of its own conventions, which disdains to invest its imagination in a world of experience, must remain more an ideology than a science.” In making assumptions with the subject culture, we have to be objective both relative and absolute (Absolute Relative and Relative Objectivity) which means, the anthropologist himself belong to the culture and that implies we should not have biases in making suppositions with one’s own culture. Instead, we should impose equality within the subject matter and since there is no universal method for ‘grading’ culture, we must assume that every other culture is equivalent and no culture is better than another. This assumption is called “Cultural Relativity.” In this work of Wagner, he emphasized the word “relative” which leads me to “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.”
In search of Cultural Anthropology’s Physical science attribution I have found out that the concept of Cultural Relativism and Albert Einstein’s Relativity really exists, but is seldom combined because of several criticisms and argumentations to be received by whoever tries to attempt. The fact that science and anthropology are on the hot seat of distinction, this theory of Einstein and Relativism principle is one of the interesting yet dangerous attempt to know whether or not these two are related. It was another issue to address with but I invoke myself to take the challenge; guided by the different ideas of earlier philosophers, anthropologist and those who have prior knowledge in Physics. My goal here is just to present both sides of the issue in order to associate Physics with my degree course.
ARE RELATIVISM AND RELATIVITY RELATED?
Many would disagree that there is no way, unjustifiable and insignificant to relate these two concepts since they are dissimilar in many aspects. But let me go first with the view that relativism and relativity can be associated. Park (2014, pp. 44-51) in his defense “Cultural Relativism and the Theory of Relativity” prior to his 2011 work published in Cultura: International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, addressed all the criticisms he received with Cornea (2012) and other critiques regarding cultural relativism. Park defended his ideas of using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in explaining how cultural relativism work and to defend this principle from others. Here are the following explanations of Park on how relativity can be used upon the context of culture: “Morality is relative to a culture just as a motion is relative to a frame of reference.” According to him, it is necessary to evaluate an act with respect to another culture the same thing with the motion of an object. The motion of a material object must be measured with respect to another one. Moreover, in order to know whether a certain object is at rest or not, we have to look on its frame of reference because it solely depends on it. Likewise, we can determine the rightness or wrongness of an act depending on the culture to which the act is assessed. In addition, since there is no standard or rule of morality, no culture is better than the other just as nothing is a better frame of reference because there is no absolute space. (Park, 2014, p. 47) Cornea (2012, p. 35) opposed this analogy of Park stating that it is not valid to associate the two because Einstein’s Relativity Theory is much more of ‘absolutism’ rather than relativism. Given the fact that the speed of light is constant with respect to all frames of reference, then, there must be a “universal, identical, unattainable, equally distant and unsurpassable absolute.” Here comes my dilemma in relativism principle of culture. But Park (2014, p. 5) gave his distinctions between two different uses of analogy namely justificatory (an analogy or comparison is made between two different things but could give same response/result, i.e. the effectiveness of a certain drug tested on a mouse with the belief that both have physiological capacities and the result of the latter could support the former) but it could lost its plausibility once the analogy was falsified. The second one is clarificatory use [to clarify the belief, i.e. the superposition principle of an electron’s spin-up and spin-down as can be seen from the gears of a car in all seven possible states (Lockwood, 1996, pp. 159-160)] However, the justificatory principle of electrons and a car could not be easily broken and may be useful insofar as the superposition applies. This analogy can be weakened by saying that you can go inside the car but not in an electron but to say this is absolutely inappropriate and even if the analogy was broken, the superposition principle will remain and is plausible even without the car. Park continued with the supposition that morality and motion are similar. For him, the justificatory analogy of this can be problematic yet the clarificatory is not. Therefore, one may contradict his idea that morality and motion are similar via the justificatory use but the idea remains plausible in the clarificatory way.
ABSOLUTISM: The Dilemma of Cultural Relativism
In lieu of what I have just cited as examples above, even “relativism” itself is questionable for some philosophers (absolutists) and historians because for them absolutism that follows a universal moral rule and/or standard should be the very basis of determining whether a certain act or for this matter “culture” is right or wrong, moral or immoral. For example, torturing babies to death for fun is immoral since the rule of law dictates that babies are not supposed to be tortured (Park, 2014, p. 47). Hence, aside from the questionable relations of Cultural Relativism and Relativity, another philosophical principle and metaethical issue arises. But relativists in contrast with the absolutists have a convincing explanation for this.
Another instance from which Park, Cornea and Pojman debated about is the example of a serial killer. Cornea and Pojman asserts that cultural relativism as made mention by Park needs cultural approval in order for an act to be considered right or moral. Pojman accuses relativism as to have horrible consequences and doesn’t legitimize the international court. Given that, the killer “would be morally pure in raping and killing innocents simply by virtue of forming a coterie” (Pojman, 2008, p. 18). By virtue of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Park made a more convincing excuse. He gave an example of a car travelling at a speed of 50 km/hr with respect to the ground, but with respect to the bicycle it may be travelling at only 30 km/hr and at rest with respect to another car, so on. With regards to his statement that a relativist “would cheerfully grant that any act can be made moral by forming a culture that approves it” (Park, 2011, p. 166), based on the relativity theory, Park concluded that “a car can travel at any velocity as long as you consider the frame of reference.” Applying this to culture, a certain culture, in this case, the serial killer’s behavior is not acceptable with the non-killing culture. Thus, the act still remains wrong. (Park 2014, p.46)
On other hand, Cornea (2012, p. 36) responded to this and critiqued Park that the analogy could be valid “if and only if the car is moving by inertia.” For Cornea, the car is moving because of the engine, inertial forces, air resistance and friction and “it is not the ground but the car that is really travelling at 50km/hr. Furthermore, he contradicted Park’s idea that a car can travel at any speed you want; he made this via the properties of the speed of light. He insisted that one (car) cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Thus, you can only say the assumption by regarding the speed of light. In short, one could travel at any speed below the speed of light. (Park, 2014, p. 46) Immediately, Park answered Cornea’s contradiction by citing another example from which his ideas with the car cannot be applied. That is in the case of two stars moving with respect to each other. In addition, Park used the idea itself of Cornea to support his argument that one cannot travel faster than the speed of light or you can travel at any desired speed, but below the speed of light just as a certain action is moral insofar as we appeal to the culture that praises it.
I was quite amazed how Seungbae Park defended his argument with regards to cultural relativism. It was a strange act to support such philosophical, ethical and anthropological term via the science yet he managed to do so. Relativism is a sensitive term that does not only apply to culture but also in philosophy and ethics. We can imagine how Relativism works in relation to Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Although, we have looked into the possible connections of the two, we might also have been mistaken the way we analyze Relativity vis-à-vis Relativitism. No one knows whether or not Einstein also intended this theory for morality’s sake.
In this paper, I have touched several issues concerning Social Anthropology and Physics. All of these lead me to a conclusion that Anthropology is an ideology and a science at the same time, bounded by its principles including cultural relativism which has been guided by Science’s Relativity theory through time. Hence, they are interrelated. Anthropology may not leave the boundary of its own, but no one can argue with me that these two could meet in certain aspects or conditions. Thus, Cultural Relativism can be associated with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity just as a certain culture is related to the motion of a material object. Along with these, I have also presented how Relativism itself experiences its own issue against Cultural Absolutism and Einstein already took his view with regards to how we must look and grade cultures. But I want to take my stand that all cultures must be both equal (relativism) and absolute. The universal law of morality, if there is such thing as universal standard, must go together across different cultures. I bet, it should be the very essence of what Wagner earlier called “Absolute Relativity”. In the end, we as stakeholders of varying cultures will be the one to choose because humanity is more complicated and perplex than any academic discipline could imagine.
Cornea, A. (2012). Relativity and relativism: On a failed analogy. Cultura: International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, 9(1), 29-42.
Golub, A. (2013). How to explain anthropology to a physicist. Retrieved November 23, 2015 from http://savageminds.org/2013/07/18/how-to-explain-anthropology-to-a-pshysicist/
Lockwood, M. (1996). Many-minds interpretations of Quantum Mechanics. The British Journal for Philosophy of Science, 4(2), 159-188.
*Park, S. (2012). Defence of cultural relativism. Cultura: International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, 8(1), 159-170.
*Park, S. (2014). Culture relativism and the theory of relativity. Cultura: International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, 25(1), 44-51. Retrieved November 23, 2015, from http://www.lmaleidykla.lt/ publ/0235-7186/2014/1/44-51.pdf
Wagner, R. (1981). The invention of culture. (Rev. ed.). E-Book. The assumption of culture. London: The University of Chicago Press.
Oxford University Official Web Site. Oxford University Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Definition of Social Anthropology. Retrieved November 23, 2015, from https://www.isca.ox.ac.uk/prospective-students/degrees/social-anthropology/
This was submitted as the author’s final paper in Physics 11 Class under Mr. Alipio Garcia (Professor in Physics, Department of Physical Sciences, University of the Philippines Baguio)