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Last week (July 13, 2015) Alex Rosenberg, professor of philosophy at Duke University asked Can Moral Disputes be Resolved? in the New York Times “Philosopher’s Stone” series. He strongly, and in my mind ludicrously, suggested the answer is "No."
Take honor killings, the killing of a family member—typically a woman—who is seen to have brought disgrace on one’s family. We have a strong revulsion to such killings, yet the practice persists and is considered morally acceptable in some cultures around the world. As we know, the practice also has religious grounding. See, e.g. Leviticus 20:9, 21:9; Exodus 21:17.
Rosenberg cavalierly dismisses 2,500 years of western philosophic and religious tradition and concludes that "honor killing is wrong" is not an objective fact we can find out in the world. It simply registers our emotional response:
If “honor killing is wrong” reports our emotional horror at the practice, and not its objective wrongness, then even worse moral catastrophes will be hard to condemn. Many people will not find this a satisfactory outcome. They will hope to show that even if moral judgments are expressions of our emotions, nevertheless at least some among these attitudes are objective, right, correct, well justified. But if we can’t find objective grounds for our emotional response to honor killing, our condemnation of it might turn out to just be cultural prejudice.
For the time being, Rosenberg continues to look at human biology and evolution for answers. He doesn’t exude confidence that this will lead him to an answer that “honor killing is wrong.” He implies that "even worse moral catastrophes will be hard to condemn." But …, of course, he’s looking in all the wrong places. He's framing the issue all wrong.
Moral reasoning—reasoning that would show our moral convictions as “right, correct, and well justified”—is not something that can be found under a rock or in biology. Morality is not a question of ontology: it’s a matter of tradition and practice!
The fact that there are different traditions, and that different traditions look at moral questions differently, does not mean that moral questions don’t have answers that are “right, correct, and well justified.” We don’t throw up our hands in despair and say “it’s just cultural prejudice,” or “it’s all relative” as if this were some devaluation of the enterprise. Tradition and cultures matter, and within a given tradition and culture moral questions will have a “right, correct, and well justified” answer. Even if adherents of a given tradition can disagree about what the answer is! Moreover, traditions and cultures can be compared, and there are reasons to prefer one tradition over another when we examine them side-by-side, and there are reasons for traditions to evolve over time.
In the next two posts I will look, first, at the question of how rights evolve within the context of our U.S. constitutional tradition as explained by Lawrence Tribe (a Harvard constitutional law scholar) at a Chataqua memorial lecture in honor of Justice Robert Jackson, and, second, at Yaacov Yadgar’s just published article about “Traditionism” which examines how tradition forms our identity, helps us to make sense of our world, and how, as bearers of tradition, we must engage in a practical dialogue with our tradition in order to carry it forward.
Tradition is the place to look for “right, correct, and well justified” answers to moral questions. Even if biology can help shed light on moral disputes, biology cannot provide the answers. Or another way to put this: the fact that different traditions reflect different answers to questions about honor killing is not a bug of morality that prevents a “right, correct, and well justified” answer, it’s a feature of morality. The same is true about the fact that different practitioners of a tradition may come up with different answers to a moral question; it is not a bug of morality, it's a feature.