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Abetting Moral Relativism


Abetting Moral Relativism

Thomas Whitley

My colleague Sam Houston and I recently wrote a piece for Religious Studies News about the destruction of antiquities in Mosul that reflected on the reaction to this destruction, particularly among those in the academic community. The piece, Idols or Artifacts? An Exercise in Self-Reflexivity When Pondering ISIS's Destruction of Mosul's Antiquities, makes the point that the nearly unanimous decrying of the group's actions takes many things for granted, especially that these things are worth preserving while other things are not. We point out not only the arbitrariness with which categories such as "antiquity" and "art" get created and maintained, but also the thoroughly political nature of these antiquities in Mosul and the colonial history of this museum in Mosul.

Religious Studies News is a publication of the American Academy of Religion, so the piece was promoted on the AAR's Facebook page. Russell McCutcheon pointed me to the posting and the sole comment on the post:

The comment says, "It is an unfortunate situation when academics abet moral relativism in the guise of scholarly objectivity." I admit that I had to think a bit about how our piece could be perceived as abetting moral relativism. My conclusion was that since we do not outright condemn the actions of ISIS, but rather try to understand the reaction to their actions that we are advocating a moral relativism. After all, who can say that the actions of ISIS are "bad" if the categories used to label the pieces they destroyed as "art" are ultimately arbitrary? I can see how the commenter could get to that point, though I do think that the last half of our piece addresses this point.

What is more, the commenter's point seems to actually prove our point for us. That is, for the commenter it is self-evident that the actions of ISIS are "bad," and Sam and I deserve blame for not unequivocally calling them such. The commenter presents his perspective as natural, as obvious, and as having a firm (and true) moral foundation. Because he possesses this self-evidently true moral foundation, he is able to easily recognize when others do not likewise possess it. Further, he clearly understands our motivations. We really have an agenda of pushing moral relativism, but have hidden this agenda in talk of "scholarly objectivity."

In 16 words, then, the commenter has demonstrated precisely the response to these actions that we had in mind when we worked on this piece. What factors have led to the commenter seeing the actions of ISIS as so obviously bad? What has caused him to value these pieces over other pieces?

I can assure you that Sam and I do not have any secret moral relativism agenda. Indeed, this piece was exceedingly difficult to write because not only were we analyzing responses like those made by the commenter above, but also because we were analyzing our own responses to this situation and those like it. We were attempting to be honest about our perspectives and the ways in which we present them as natural and self-evident while also trying to provide a way forward in thinking about and caring about such events that is honest, nuanced, and not orientalizing. This was quite difficult and we're still not sure that we've moved the conversation forward at all.

Apparently, however it was not difficult for the commenter to dismiss what we wrote and the work we were doing because we did not fit neatly into the categories under which he is working and which he is attempting to oppose on the world around him. Pierre Bourdieu spoke of the desire of every social agent to have the power to create the world through naming. The commenter is acting on this desire by dismissing us as "moral relativists," which I gather is meant in a pejorative sense (though certainly not all would understand this label as such). He then connects his naming-act with a questioning of our trustworthiness (we were writing under "the guise of scholarly objectivity," according to him). The comment, then, is an attempt to be productive. That is, it hopes to accomplish something. By discrediting us, the commenter's perspective is able to gain ground against us nasty moral relativists - at least in his mind. Such a struggle, though, is not a zero sum game, as I have pointed out before. Nevertheless, for the commenter, we are moral heretics who cannot be trusted and he is going to make sure that everyone who sees the AAR's posting of our piece is aware of this.


Image: Poster of Hitler, who is often used as the modern depiction of pure evil, via wikipedia.