This one should be a gimme. We know that honor killing is wrong. We have no doubt that it reflects cultural depravity, no more and no less.
And yet, some cultures believe that it is not only right, but that it’s absolutely the right thing to do.
Now, enter an American philosopher, one Alex Rosenberg who teaches at Duke University. Being a man of his times, up to date on all the latest in neuroscience, Rosenberg tries to persuade us that we should not be so quick to condemn honor killing. He does not quite say it this way, but he means to ask: who are we to judge someone else’s culture?
Whatever the reasoning, one comes away from Rosenberg’s article thinking that he has managed to trick himself into excusing the most abhorrent human depravity. And he is asking us to do as much. He wants to dull our moral sense by dunking us in a warm bath of moral relativism. For now disregard whether he is right or wrong. When faced on the battlefield for armies who are fighting for the right to murder and mutilate their (and eventually our) daughters, should we consider that they hold an interesting negotiating position?
Rosenberg has offered up a fascinating picture of the latest in Western ethical thought. If it ends up convincing us that we cannot rightfully condemn honor killing, where does that leave us? Would Rosenberg make the same moral pronouncement about the Nazi practice of human sacrifice, the Holocaust? Does he believe that we should not have fought Nazi cultural practices, because, who are we to judge someone else’s culture?
Anyway, Rosenberg begins with a definition of honor killing:
Honor killing is the execution of one’s own family member, often a woman, who is seen to have brought disgrace to the family. It is a practice most of us find absolutely wrong, no matter the goal — in this case, restoring dignity to the family. The fact that it is a practice long sanctioned in other cultures does not matter to us. Meanwhile, those who approve of or carry out honor killings reject our condemnation, and most likely see it as a moral lapse of ours.
Some will say that honor killings are wrong because God says so. We might explain this by saying that you gain no honor by killing a child over a lapse of judgment. Perhaps, forgiveness would have been a more appropriate reaction. In truth, so-called honor killings are effectively dishonorable.
After offering up a short course in the history of moral philosophy Rosenberg suggests that we need to bring emotion into the picture. When we condemn certain behaviors as immoral we are making a judgment. We make such judgments because our culture has taught us to feel strongly, and to base our moral being on the fact that we feel strongly about a man who kills his daughter. He does not say it, but it sounds suspiciously like he sees it all as something of a social construct.
But, if there is no higher law or no higher authority, if there is no authority beyond emotions that have been formed by the culture we live in and the company we keep, then we have no right to judge:
Factoring human emotions into moral judgment explains much about them. Why they are held so strongly, why different cultures that shape human emotional responses have such different moral norms, even why people treat abstract ethical disagreement by others as a moral flaw. And most of all, this meta-ethical theory helps us understand why such disputes are sometimes intractable.
Here Rosenberg has neglected to consider another alternative, one that I presented in my book The Last Psychoanalyst. We accept that moral precepts and principles function as the basis for culture and civilization. We know well that different cultures were founded on different principles. Evidently, there is some overlap, but human cultures do not all follow the same principles.
To take the example I used in my book, Judeo-Christian cultures are founded on the principle of benevolence, especially of benevolence toward children. The Bible teaches the importance of saving children, not of sacrificing them. Whatever you think of the God of the Old Testament, He saved Isaac from sacrifice. With many other passages in the Bible, that text established a central tenet of Western culture.
This means that those who belong to that culture are required to protect and provide for children. You might say that they are going to be judged by God, but you might also say that they are judged in more practical terms.
One might object that other cultures should not be judged by their ability to protect and provide for their children, but this fails to recognize that the truth of these precepts is determined by the outcomes they produce. It may feel less than pious, but human cultures can be judged on pragmatic grounds.
Cultures, like civilizations, compete. They succeed or they fail. They thrive or they collapse. The extent to which they succeed or fail provides evidence that can validate or invalidate the precepts that founded them.
In days of old people did not quite use the same terms, but surely there is a direct correlation between a culture based on a single God and a culture based on many gods. As you know, the one God was trying to supplant the multiple gods of polytheistic religion. What else would it mean for God to say: thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Surely, Western civilization has succeeded—in pragmatic terms-- especially when compared to pagan cultures, Muslim cultures and to atheist cultures. This suggests that its precepts represent a higher truth.
No one suggests that Western civilization has been a Happy Valley, nor that it never did anything wrong nor that it never failed. And yet, if we balance the bad with the good, the calamities with the benefits one finds that the record was far more positive than has been those of today’s noisiest civilizational failures. Many polytheistic and pagan religions have failed and have disappeared. Cultures founded on atheism have been abysmal failures. Islamist cultures, the ones that practice honor killings, are awaiting a significant reformation.