Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Please discuss

If you pick a few trenchant paragraphs out of this essay, you can instigate a good discussion. The discussion might be one of those that recurs over the course of the semester.

Is the discussion about comparative politics? That's one of the topics. You might guess from my choice to post this that I think it is.

The essay is by Adam Etinson, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Of Cannibals, Kings and Culture: The Problem of Ethnocentricity
In August of 1563, Michel de Montaigne… was introduced to three Brazilian cannibals who were visiting Rouen, France… The three men had never before left Brazil… Despite this, they still had enough poise to lucidly respond to Montaigne’s questions about what they thought of their new surroundings.

The observations shared by the native Brazilians have a certain comical quality. Because they looked on French society with such fresh eyes, their observations make the familiar seem absurd. But they are also morally revealing… [T]he Brazilians were shocked by the severe inequality of French citizens, commenting on how some men “were gorged to the full with things of every sort” while others “were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty.”…

Montaigne makes the… provocative claim that, as barbaric as these Brazilian cannibals may be, they are not nearly as barbaric as 16th-century Europeans themselves. To make his case, Montaigne cites various evidence [including] the fact that some European forms of punishment — which involved feeding people to dogs and pigs while they were still alive — were decidedly more horrendous than the native Brazilian practice of eating one’s enemies after they are dead…

Montaigne most certainly wasn’t the first to make note of our tendency to automatically assume the superiority of local beliefs and practices; Herodotus, the Greek historian of the fifth century B.C., made very similar observations in his Histories, noting how all peoples are “accustomed to regard their own customs as by far the best.”…

Philosophers have responded to the pervasive influence of culture on our moral beliefs in various ways. Many have embraced some form of skepticism… John L. Mackie (1917-81) famously cited ethnocentrism as evidence that there are no objective moral facts, or at least none that we can access…

Many have argued, for instance, that the influence of culture on our moral beliefs is evidence… of moral relativism: the idea that the moral truth, for any given people, is determined by their culture… We know from various sources, including Plato’s dialogues, that some Ancient Greeks defended such a view…

[H]owever obvious it may be that culture plays an important role in our moral education, it is nevertheless very hard to prove that our moral beliefs are entirely determined by our culture… For it’s not at all clear why the influence of culture on our moral beliefs should be taken as evidence that cultures influence the moral truth itself…

J. S. Mill
Most important of all is the fact that there are other, more straightforward, and less overtly skeptical, ways of responding to ethnocentrism. Chief among these, in my view, is the simple but humbling acknowledgment that ethnocentrism is a danger that confronts us all, but not one that should disillusion us from the pursuit of truth altogether. This is the sort of response to ethnocentrism one finds, for instance, in the work of the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill… The fact that our deepest-held beliefs would be different had we been born elsewhere on the planet (or even, sometimes, to different parents farther down the street), should disconcert us, make us more open to the likelihood of our own error, and spur us to rigorously evaluate our beliefs and practices against alternatives, but it need not disillusion…

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