The myths that legitimated their hierarchies

Bernard Williams says some things relevant to this idea of ‘betraying your community’ in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, which I was re-reading a couple of days ago.

“The dispositions and reactions that are exercised within one culture are not merely diverted or shown to be inappropriate by the fact that its members are presented with the behavior of another culture. In any case, it is artificial to treat these matters as if they always involved two clearly self-contained cultures. A fully individuable culture is at best a rare thing. Cultures, subcultures, fragments of cultures, constantly meet one another and exchange and modify practices and attitudes. Social practices could never come forward with a certificate saying that they belonged to a genuinely different culture, so that they were guaranteed immunity to alien judgements and reactions.” [p 158]

“Never” is putting it a little too strongly – which is why I said that tropical islands are a somewhat special case, and isolated groups are a somewhat special case, and that it depends, in a recent discussion of moral relativism. That’s because I think groups that really have been entirely isolated from competing ways of thinking may be a somewhat special case – and also because I think it depends for instance on what people within the groups think about their lives. If some people in the groups are being, say, beaten or raped or mutilated or forcibly married to people they dislike, and they are unhappy and know they are unhappy and say they are unhappy – then I think outsiders can make moral judgments. In the absence of those conditions, it’s trickier, though that doesn’t rule out further inquiry and investigation. But that seems to end up at the same place Williams ends up at: whether or not social practices could ever come forward with a certificate saying that they belonged to a genuinely different culture, we both think they could not be guaranteed immunity to alien judgements and reactions.

Williams goes on, a few pages later:

“There is no route back from reflectiveness…This phenomenon of self-consciousness, together with the institutions and processes that support it, constitute one reason why past forms of life are not a real option for the present, and why attempts to go back often produce results that are ludicrous on a small scale and hideous on a larger one. This can be seen, above all, with reactionary projects to recreate supposedly contented hierarchical societies of the past. These projects in any case face the criticism that their pictures of the past are fantasies; but even if there have been contented hierarchies, any charm they have for us is going to rest on their having been innocent and not having understood their own nature. This cannot be recreated, since measures would have to be taken to stop people raising questions that are, by now, there to be raised.

But if the questions are there to be raised, should we not – or, at any rate, may we not – raise them about those societies as they existed in the past? In particular, may we not ask whether those societies, however unaware they may have been, were unjust? Can a relativism of distance put them beyond this question?”[p 164]

He adds: “They may not have been wrong in thinking that their social order was necessary for them. It is rather the way in which they saw it as necessary – as religiously or metaphysically necessary – that we cannot now accept. Where we see them as wrong was in the myths that legitimated their hierarchies. We see our view of our society and ourselves as more naturalistic than their view of themselves. This naturalistic conception of society, expressed by Hobbes and Spinoza at the beginning of the modern world, represents one of the ways in which the world has become entzaubert, in Max Weber’s famous phrase: the magic has gone from it. (The current attempts by Islamic forces in particular to reverse that process – if that is what those attempts really are – do not show that the process is local or reversible only that it can generate despair.)” [p 165]

That was in 1985. He was paying attention.

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