IT’S GENERALLY ASSUMED that it’s a good thing to be tolerant of other people’s cultures. The person who prefers to “live and let live” or to “let bygones be bygones” is often assumed to be a good, if not reasonable, person.
Reserving judgments might be a good thing.
We shouldn’t judge, right?
Everything’s relative, right?
Need I inform anyone that a person whose moral position is based on the idea that ethics are relative practices ethical relativism.
Ethical relativism is:
Ethical relativism is the theory that holds that morality is relative to the norms of one’s culture. That is, whether an action is right or wrong depends on the moral norms of the society in which it is practiced. The same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another.
Wait! Don’t scoff just yet.
We can see that ethical relativists mean well and we shouldn’t fault them for their good intentions.
But we know all those good intentions are lining the pathway to Hell.
We can’t help but feel that there are some acts that are inherently wrong and that adhering to ethical relativism doesn’t allow us to call out wrong acts.
If we say that a particular culture’s moral codes are different and therefore we cannot pass judgment, we might end up abetting injustice or worse. We can’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) shrug off something like genocide by saying “different strokes for different folks” nor should we think that a practice such as spousal abuse is morally acceptable based on its prevalence in a particular culture.
However, if there is no universal, objective moral standard and no moral system is better than another, then we have no moral high ground from which to criticize when we witness injustice or wrongdoings in other cultures. Ethical relativists can’t decide when one side is right and the other is wrong –
Something that might come in handy when attempting to dissuade a group of Scottish villagers from sacrificing you to their pagan gods so their crops will grow.
Police sergeant Neil Howie sets down his plane on the remote Scottish isle of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. During his investigation, Howie finds that the natives of the seemingly quiet Scottish hamlet aren’t just a little odd – they’re pagans. What follows during the next ninety minutes is public group sex, bar patrons spontaneously breaking into song about the innkeeper’s less-than-chaste daughter, schoolchildren singing odes to phallic symbols, naked flashdancing, foreskins in jars, and dead rabbits; ultimately culminating in the immolation of Sgt. Howie inside a giant rattan action figure.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is The Wicker Man.
This cinematic gem from 1973, written by Sleuth playwright Anthony Shaffer, and starring Edward Woodward as the unfortunate Sgt. Howie, bears the rare distinction of being the only movie in film history that musician Rod Stewart allegedly tried to get banned – and not because he thought it was a bad movie.
It all has to do with Britt Ekland and some dancing…
The rumor, according to the National Enquirer, is that Rod Stewart supposedly attempted to buy the rights to The Wicker Man in an attempt to prevent anyone from seeing his then-girlfriend Britt Ekland, who appeared in the film as Willow Mac Gregor, the landlord’s daughter, nude. Stewart himself dismissed the allegation as mere rumor. In the end, if Rod Stewart had attempted to get the film banned, it would have been a useless gesture since the offending nude scenes were performed by a body double.
Anyway, Sgt. Howie is sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison, who has managed to elude her family and small village community for, as the letter addressed to Sgt. Howie states, “many months”. Howie is frustrated by the Summerislanders lack of cooperation with his investigation into Rowan Morrison’s disappearance.
Unfortunately, Sgt. Howie is as rude and nosy as he is persistent, and Howie continues to search for the missing girl, despite the fact that the islanders, including the girl’s mother, refuse to give a straight answer about the whereabouts of the missing girl.
As Howie searches for Rowan, he discovers a horrible reality about the residents of Summerisle. The islanders aren’t God-fearing Christians, like the devout Sgt. Howie, but pagans who worship the old Celtic gods. The people of Summerisle reject Christianity (this offends Howie), and Howie suspects that the island’s May Day ritual may be more than a frivolous re-enactment of ancient rites, but a full-scale human sacrifice made to appease their pagan gods.
Howie concludes that Rowan is not merely missing, but that she the intended human sacrifice.
Sgt. Howie, horrified by the thought that an innocent child is the intended victim of a barbaric pagan ritual, races to find the missing girl before it is too late.
Although Sgt. Howie fails to find Rowan Morrison, what Howie does find is that it is he who is the intended offering, and Howie is sacrificed to the gods, burned alive inside the Wicker Man.
The film’s protagonist, Sgt. Howie, is a Christian thrown into the strange world of paganism. Howie is a modern man with a modern religion who views the old gods and blood sacrifices of the pagans of Summerisle as not only useless but morally reprehensible as well. Howie regards the pagan practices as heathen and blasphemous and demands to know why the children of Summerisle have “never heard of Jesus”. When Howie speaks to Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee (the first man I usually think of when I think of a Scotsman), Summerisle explains to the morally outraged Howie the religious practices on his island:
Lord Summerisle: Now, those children out there. They’re
jumping through the flames in hope that the god
of the fire will make them fruitful. Really, who can hardly
blame them. After all, what girl would not prefer
the child of a god to that of some acne-scared artisan?
Sgt. Howie: And you encourage them in this?
Lord Summerisle: Actively. It’s most important to teach new
generation born on Summerisle be made aware that here
the old gods aren’t dead.
Sgt. Howie: And what of the true God? To whose glory churches
and monasteries have been built on these islands for
generations past? Now sir, what of Him?
Lord Summerisle: He’s dead. Can’t complain. Had his chance.
And in the modern parlance, blew it.
Sgt. Howie: What?!?!?
Lord Summerisle tells Sgt. Howie that the Christian God is not worshipped on his island because the Christian God failed to deliver the residents of Summerisle from their miserable hand-to-mouth existence and spiritual apathy. Returning the people to their beloved old pagan gods, Lord Summerisle explains, renewed the spirits of the tiny island and provided the people with bountiful crops. As long as the people please the gods, Lord Summerisle says to Sgt. Howie, they will be rewarded.
But, Howie soon discovers the crops on Summerisle have not been bountiful.
And on Summerisle, failed crops can only mean one thing to the pagans of Summerisle: the gods are displeased and need to be appeased. If the people of Summerisle want the gods to bless them with an abundant harvest, the gods demand the “fruits of the earth”; a human sacrifice.
Unfortunately for Sgt. Howie, he’s exactly the kind of human sacrifice the people of Summerisle need to please the gods.
Lord Summerisle tells Howie he was chosen to be sacrificed to the gods because he is the “right kind of sacrifice”. Sgt. Howie qualifies as the “right kind of sacrifice” on four counts:
* He has come to Summerisle of his own free will.
* He has come with the power of the king (as a man of the law).
* He is a virgin.
* He is a fool.
Of course the news of an impending “date with the wicker man” does not settle well with Sgt. Howie. As a Christian, Howie believes that sacrificing him for the sake of Summerisle’s crops is not only futile… it’s murder. The soon-to-be immolated Howie tells the village people that killing him will not only fail to bring back their failed crops, but that the island’s residents will bear the sin of having murdered an innocent Christian man.
Ultimately, Sgt. Howie’s entreaties to the people of Summerisle are of no use. He is placed (or forced) inside the Wicker Man and sacrificed to the island’s pagan gods. While Howie burns to death, the villagers sing a triumphant let’s-roast-a-cop-in-the-fire song, certain that Howie’s death will win favor of the gods and Summerisle once again will be blessed with a bountiful harvest.
At the close of The Wicker Man we know that Sgt. Howie is dead. He is burned alive; sacrificed to the pagan gods of Summerisle. We know that the people of Summerisle truly believe that their religion demands that they appease the gods if they want the gods to bless them and bring back their failed crops. We know they believe if they do not comply with what the gods’ demands, the people of Summerisle believe they will be punished. If the island’s crops die, the people of Summerisle know their lives are doomed as well. For the people of Summerisle, Howie’s death, albeit an unpleasant experience for the Sergeant, is necessary to save the lives of the residents of the island.
We understand that the people of Summerisle believe that they are acting according to the will of their gods, but we also know this: Sgt. Howie also believes that his Christian God demands that those who believe in HIM must reject the sinful pagan rituals practiced by the people of Summerisle. Sgt. Howie believes that his God forbids human sacrifice and believes that God will punish those who unlawfully shed the blood of the innocent.
Wait a minute; we should be thinking there’s something seriously wrong, here.
The people of Summerisle believe that they have done the right thing by doing what their gods demand, but we also feel that a serious moral transgression has occurred.
When Howie is burned alive inside the Wicker Man, we’re aware that Howie did not go to his death willingly; he didn‘t willingly sacrifice himself for Summerisle‘s crops. If we had been present on the cliffs of Summerisle during the island‘s May Day celebration, we would have witnessed this exchange between Sgt. Howie and the island’s schoolteacher, Miss Rose:
Miss Rose: You will undergo death and rebirth. Resurrection if you like. The
rebirth sadly will not be yours but that of our crops.
Sgt. Howie: I am a Christian. And even if you kill me now, it is I who will live
again. Not your damned apples.
Obviously Sgt. Howie and the people of Summerisle are stuck in the midst of an ethical dilemma. The people of Summerisle believe that their gods dictate the sacrifice of Sgt. Howie while Sgt. Howie believes his “sacrifice” is murder and morally unjustified.
Usually when we are faced with an ethical dilemma, we assume that a single moral theory will provide a workable solution for our ethical conflict. If everyone on Summerisle were Kantians, we could easily determine which side is morally correct. As Kantians, we can say that Sgt. Howie’s sacrifice was morally impermissible if we hold the maxim “murder is always wrong”.
It is also worth noting that the people of Summerisle can also use a loose interpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative to permit Howie’s human sacrifice. The Summerislanders would have no problem universalizing their maxim: if killing a person will save the community, and the gods require a human sacrifice, then it is morally permissible to sacrifice a human. Sacrificing humans may be permitted by Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative, however, the Summerislanders might run into a problem with the second formulation of the categorical imperative, using people as a mere means, on the grounds that Howie was not a willing sacrifice.
… AND that this interpretation is predicated on expected consequences, which makes it kind of utilitarian.
If the people of Summerisle were utilitarians, they would simply calculate the expected benefit (consequence) of sacrificing Sgt. Howie to the pagan gods against the cost of another failed harvest.
This unsolvable ethical conflict between the people of Summerisle and Sgt. Howie perfectly demonstrates the problem with ethical relativism.
An ethical relativist believes that there is no universal moral standard for right or wrong and we simply cannot determine which side is morally right. Our problem, and the problem with ethical relativism, is that both Sgt. Howie and the people of Summerisle believe that their religious beliefs are morally correct and that each operates from a divine mandate that cannot be defied.
If each side believes that their side is the only morally correct point of view, how do we assign moral rightness or wrongness when each side claims that their side is morally correct?
Unfortunately for us, on Summerisle the conflict isn’t so easily solved and we use ethical relativism to decide between two conflicting ethical theories.
According to the ethical relativist, the fact that different cultures have different standards of right and wrong (this is called the diversity thesis), means we cannot objectively determine the rightness or wrongness of a given act. As a result, all moral claims have equal moral value.
All an ethical relativist can say is that Sgt. Howie has one set of morals and the people of Summerisle have another, and since we cannot judge another culture’s morals or practices, we can only assume that both moral systems are equally right.
Naturally this position does no good for Sgt. Howie. We cannot hold that it is morally permissible to sacrifice Howie to Summerisle’s pagan gods while we simultaneously hold that Howie is correct in condemning Summerisle’s religious practices. Howie can’t be immolating inside the belly of the Wicker Man and in his airplane flying as fast as he can away from that damned pagan island at the same time. So what do we do? The natives are lighting their torches and we’ve got to make a decision, quick. Who is morally right?
Obviously, a moral relativist would have no idea how to answer this question.
Of course this way of thinking gets us absolutely nowhere.
So naturally, this is where our conversation on ethical relativism should end.
… and by saying “should end” I’m saying no one should follow ethical relativism.
Now, at this point, we may be tempted to throw up our hands and abandon, at least for now, hopes of ever finding an ethical theory that not only gives us a clear cut means of sorting out moral rights from moral wrongs, but also doesn’t stick us with categorical imperatives that stop us from doing what we want to do.
Perhaps we should try another ethical theory.
Maybe we should all become egoists.
*I am writing about the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy not the 2006 remake staring Nicolas Cage. Although I am a fan of the original film and personally not opposed to remakes, I do, however, regard the 2006 remake as the cinematic equivalent of a large dose of syrup of ipecac. It’s not as bad as Plan 9 From Outer Space or a Coleman Francis movie, but it’s close.
**THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ANOTHER FORM IN THE BOOK MINDLESS PHILOSOPHER: HOW PHILOSOPHY TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT POPULAR CULTURE AND ON THE (now defunct) BLOGGER BLOG “THE KANTIAN EGOIST”.