Monday, October 13, 2014

Starks, Dothrakis, and Terminus: Are All Cultures Morally Equal?

As previously noted, the writers for the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series (such as The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy) offer an array of essays over a number of thought-provoking topics.

 My first post from Game of Thrones and Philosophy covered several essays on politics; the second post looked at competing ethical theories; the third addressed our ability to know anything. This post will  highlight Katherine Tullmann's "Dany's Encounter With The Wild: Cultural Relativism in A Game Of Thrones."Let's start with a brief quiz.

  • Between Tyrion's relationships with prostitutes, Cersei and Jamie's incestuous relationship, Jon Snow's brief affair beyond the Wall, and the marriage of Ned and Catelyn Stark, which one do you think is better or worse than the others?
  • The Dothrakis embrace pillage, rape and murder while the Starks attempt to fight with honor. Are they morally equivalent in their approach?   
  • The Dothraki weddings turn into orgies; the Red Wedding ends in bloodshed; other weddings involve food, celebration, laughter and life. If I say the third scenario is clearly better, is that simply a personal opinion with no moral ground?
  • Is it good or bad that Essos allows slavery and Westeros does not? 

All these situations which occurred in George R.R. Martin's fictional kingdoms have appeared in some form in our world as well. Cultural Moral Relativism claims that since the consensus on what constitutes moral behaviors differs from one culture to another, no one is in the position to judge what other cultures do. We might not like the way some people live, but none of the cultures are necessarily right or wrong; none of them are even better or worse than the others. They are just different. A relativist may have very strong opinions about which situations he or she prefers, but there is no objective, unmoving foundation upon which to stand. Tullmann summarizes the problem well by referencing the Dothraki use of rape:

"It's not something to get used to, like eating horse meat... There's a difference between accepting that different cultures have different moral practices and a moral relativist's claim that we should therefore e tolerant of all differences we encounter... No matter what culture we are in, some actions are wrong."

It's one thing to celebrate our many superficial differences - skin color, diet, language, art, music, community celebrations, etc. It's quite another to approach moral distinctions the same way. Considering how we tend to respond to certain situations, I think most of us intuitively agree. The Penn State scandal, Dr. Gossnell’s killing of newborn children, the bombings at the Boston Marathon, and the footage of yet another journalist beheaded by ISIS all remind us that some things are genuinely, truly wrong.

The Season 5 premier of The Walking Dead makes this point even more starkly. (Starkly…never mind).  We found out that Terminus is populated by a coldly cannibalistic society. When Rick advocates killing them all because "They don't get to live," an online AMC poll showed that over 90% of voting viewers agreed with him. No matter how you feel about that response, it is certainly revealing. People might claim that no one culture or way of doing life is better, but I suspect the gut level response of everyone to the Slaughter of the Four and the kitchen full of uh, meat, was not, "Well, to each their own." It was horror - which is the proper response.

The guests on "The Talking Dead" noted that even the twisted Governor offered a better life. Indeed. And in spite of Rick's flawed leadership and character, his community offers an even better life. There are moral distinctions that can be - and must be - made. Surely this counts at least in some measure against Cultural Moral Relativism as a foundation on which to build an ethical code.

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