Let’s assume that human sacrifice is wrong. I don’t mean sacrificing one’s life e.g. defending one’s country. I mean more the kind of sacrifice depicted in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. The horrific scenes depicted in that movie are verified by scholarship. The city state ravaged the hinterland for countless prisoners who would be offered as a blood sacrifice to the diverse gods. Scholars differ as to whether 200,000 people a year were sacrificed, down to only 20,000 a year. I have seen the movie a few times, and the horror does not diminish.
Assuming that mass murder is wrong, a student blurted out this estimation in the classroom recently, according to a parent. The students were studying Aztec culture (or Mayan) and the issue was broached. After hearing the student announce his moral judgment on the issue, the teacher of that student adjured the student regarding tolerance for other cultures.
Such adjurations for tolerance are very familiar to me, as many have been directed toward me over the years. I have been trying to account for what seems to be a growing decrepitude in the capacity for moral judgment, especially among the young. (The student, who was a student of mine, is thoroughly versed in the unsustainability of moral relativism and the “tolerance” that proceeds from it, and therefore has been trained to understand that moral judgment is not intolerance.)
Here is my theory. As the ethos of racism and sexism, etc., is countered, a new ethos is advocated, the ethos of inclusion. Along with the ethos of inclusion, another cultural norm is advocated, that of not only the respect for diversity, but that diversity is a moral good in and of itself. Part of the ethos of diversity is multi-culturalism, that teaches, roughly, that all cultures deserve our respect and ought not to be judged from the privileged position of one’s own culture. In essence, when studying other cultures, moral judgment is to be suspended.
Why is this idea of suspending moral judgment not sustainable? As I have watched all my four children go through the study of American history, they have been taught that mass murder and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, and the slavery of African-Americans is, well, just wrong. I don’t recall any of my children being adjured not to judge American culture at the time. They were, in fact, taught to judge that a moral evil had been committed.
The duplicity goes deep. We are taught: lying is wrong, hitting is wrong, stealing is wrong, touching others without their permission is wrong (and in the U.S. military is considered assault), discrimination based on race, culture, gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, or gender indeterminacy is wrong. The moralizing by the government, the media and the school system is incessant and by and large necessary and a good thing. We don’t say, “well that is just their culture” when considering the violators. If it is their culture, that culture must be condemned.
But somehow, calling Aztec mass murder “wrong” displays cultural insensitivity, not just a good moral instinct. (I wish that was an isolated example). Here is how it has been explained to me. ‘We are permitted to judge our own culture, because it is ours. We ought to refrain, however, from judging the cultures of others.’
Why, I ask? Is it because moral judgments are not universal, e.g. that mass murder of innocents is not always wrong everywhere? Or is it because we don’t want to sound bossy, that we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
Here is what seems to come to me, from an educator’s perspective. Do we spend time teaching children about how to know right from wrong (more complex than it sounds but doable), or do we refrain from this, and teach them not to sound bossy and hurt other peoples’ feelings (unless of course those people are on our culture’s list of Known Offenders, in which case it is okay.)
I teach moral realism, that there are better and worse answers to moral questions, and one must apply moral judgments to other cultures (and our own), and I am sure that I sound bossy and intolerant at times. I think this is better than the next best thing.
Rabbi Finley , Ohr Ha Torah Congregation, Los Angeles, CA