Correspondences: On Moral Relativism and Scapegoating

Dear T.

In respect to understanding moral relativism, I have found it helpful to consult The Big Lebowski (1998). Come to think of it, that movie also embodies the scapegoat mechanism in its nascent form as a kind of “deflection.” Thus the outer “nihilists” appear as the enemy that is correlative to inner apathy (i.e. basically nihilism) of the protagonist. 

More on relativism: I have found it useful to distinguish between relativism in respect to culture and relativism in respect to morality. The first is an anthropological fact and as such is essentially incontrovertible. The second is a much different claim because this moves from an anthropological observation or description to a moral assertion or prescription

If you asked contemporary people, most of them would actually say they believe in moral relativism. This is especially true of liberals and politically correct types. At the same time, they often hold very firmly to other principles that are mutually exclusive of the moral relativist outlook. Accepting moral relativism often entails affirming things that would give most people serious pause. For instance, many people have noted that U.S. colonists in Alaska were inconsiderate of Native ways and that if they had accepted a cultural relativist view, they might have been less cruel. Again, I think cultural relativism is implicit in the fact that the two cultures were different, so we would have to ask whether a moral relativist approach would have lent more compassion to the settlers, missionaries, and prospectors. Here is the problem: it would only have done so if the American culture from which these settlers, missionaries, and prospectors hailed had “respect for other cultures” as one of its relative morals. If the answer is “yes,” then Native Alaskans as a whole would likely have fared a great deal better than has been their unfortunate plight. On the other hand, if the answer is “no,” then not only does nothing stop these people from exploiting the Native lands and cultures, but it also undermines any basis for criticising them. After all: “Custom is the king o’er all,” as Pindar observed. “These people” of course includes Alaska Natives now because the colonisers were defined on a state or national and not an ethnic or tribal basis. So Alaska Natives are in a unique position to identify with both sides of this event without binding their identity exclusively to either. At the same time, everyone has this possibility of mutual identification since we have all found ourselves in both the role of the victim and that of the persecutor in various times in our lives. Someone who denies this and wishes to wed himself exclusively to one role or the other is doing so in spite of what he would discover through impartial investigation. Finally, “these people” is also, in a sense, none of us except insofar as we effectively execute one of these actions ourselves.

Another problem with moral relativism is that it seems to condemn all reformers as immoral. The moral titans of history like Soicrates, Jesus, St. Francis, MLK, and Gandhi were all flouting the mores of their respective cultures. Moral relativism says that morality is just to abide by those norms. Ergo, these figures who challenged them were acting immorally. This is a hard conclusion to stomach, to say the least, and yet it is one that the moral relativist must accept. You said your head might fall off your shoulders in attempting to understand these concepts but, if it’s any consolation, that’s only bad because it is customary for the head to remain attached.

Apropos scapegoating: this is an infinitely complex, fascinating, illuminating, and somewhat dangerous topic but I will try to give you my brief thoughts on each of your questions.

What of cause and effect, action reaction? This can be thought of in a number of ways. Every action performed with an attachment to a given outcome springs from prior karma and propagtes future karma which conditions the next action. Only a deed sprung from a new beginning, in freedom, out of love, and for the sake of the deed itself does not create karma in this way. We can experience this because life loses its friction. Is scapegoating real? Yes. Do we put people through things because of our own insecurities? All of the time. Thus inflicting harm on people who have done nothing to deserve maltreatment? Yes, and the beginning of atonement for this is to acknowledge that we are guilty of it. If the scapegoat is real, is the scapegoat then ignorant for unwillingly allowing maltreatment? Not necessarily. The scary thing is that sacrificing a scapegoat actually works because, almost as if by magic, it transforms a situation of mutual animosity to one of unanimity. Unfortunately, scapegoating generates the karma for more scapegoating because the underlying causes of animosity remain unaddressed. It is like taking heroin for mild depression. We do it all the time, both individually and collectively.

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