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Ian Morton's picture

Difference and Morality as Culturally Relative Concepts

As Emily points out, culture is no simple concept to define; a whole book could be written just on how to define culture. Emily’s principle defining characteristic of culture as something requiring at least two people is an important one; culture is indeed a social phenomenon. And as Emily said, it does logically follow that within a social group there will be inherent differences or degrees of “abledness” amongst the subjects. It seems justified to derive from this that “disabled” is therefore a socially constructed term to describe a socially relative concept, a notion that resonates in many posts (see Danielle, Elliot, JaymElaine)

However, while many people recognize that culture and its labels are relative, or non-universal/objective, only Jessica K. seems to acknowledge that deviancy is also a culturally relative concept. From the discussion in last week’s class, and from some of the posts on this forum, it seems to me that many people in our class allude to or assume a concept of universal morality. Even though the word “moral” was only used once in last week’s discussion, I believe the concept of morality is relative to this conversation on culture and disability.

I do not believe that ethical doctrine is universal or a priori (categorical imperatives). Rather, I believe ethical doctrine is both culturally/socially derived and tentative/subject to revision. If one needs examples, one can consider sexual practices such as incest, pedophilia, and homosexuality, all of which have been both condemned and accepted by various cultures across time (ancient Greek boy-loving, ancient Egyptian royalty incest etc.). With this understanding in mind, one must consider whether or not he/she has a right to push one’s own cultural ethical values on another.

However, what about social obligation? Social obligation is here used to refer to the sacrifices expected of individuals in exchange for the benefits awarded through living in a society. For instance, a chimp must be willing to sacrifice some immediate benefits/desires such as a mate choice or access to a food resource in exchange for the greater ecological/fitness benefits of group life such as protection from predation. Likewise, it seems that an individual living within a society has some degree of responsibility to sacrifice some personal desires (such as a blind person’s desire to drive – as an extreme – or an individual’s desire to speed – as commonplace) when those desires conflict with the values of that society in exchange for the privilege of living within that society. As Krosania proposes, criminals need to adjust to the society they occupy.

I will attempt to bring this rambling together. Throughout our discussions it seems that people are open to others’ differences as long as those differences do not cross a moral/ethical boundary. For instance, a predominant theme was that of an individual being a threat to him/herself or others (see Elliot, ehinchcl, Stephanie, Emily). Jessica K. also guides out attention to the importance of recognizing that one’s differences/disability have a powerful ability to hurt those who are around/close to the individual. With these concerns in mind, it appears to me that many people are of the mind that society should be open to others’ differences, so long as those differences do not cause harm. This therefore enters the realm of freedom and points to the question/problem of freedom.

John Stuart Mill takes up this problem of freedom. As I read Mill, he argues (similarly to our class) that an individual should be entitled to one’s negative freedom (negative freedom refers to a lack of external constraints; e.g. societal standards) so long as that person does not cause harm to others. Mill thereby goes further than us to suggest that an individual has the right to cause harm to him/herself, but he remains similar in his argument to us by saying that society can interfere with an individual’s freedom if that individual could harm others. It is commonly cited that the problem with Mill’s harm clause is that he does not specify what qualifies as harm. For instance, while Mill suggests a man has a right to become an alcoholic, this man’s alcoholism could likely cause harm to those near him. Mill also seems to suggest that man has the right to take his own life, which causes no direct (physical harm) to others, but what about the psychological pain it will give those who knew this man?

With all of the above notions in mind, I think it would be pertinent to consider what we define as harm, what right society has to prevent harm, an individual’s responsibility to society, and whether or not our beliefs about harm are valid on a universal level. I do not want to suggest that because some people in the world don’t consider murder to be morally wrong (murder therefore not as universally wrong) we should allow an individual to go around killing people. I only think it would be interesting to pursue this line of thought a bit further. Though perhaps this would stray to far from the direct issue at hand.


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