To continue my ‘X and Public Diplomacy’ blog series, I wish to discuss the importance of moral relativism—or moral absolutism—in the realm of public diplomacy and foreign policy in general.
For centuries, the European view of indigenous people was paternalistic and ethnocentric—to not be Europeans and Christian instantly diminished the worth of a person or a value. Recently (relatively speaking), many in the West have shifted, as if to make up for past injustices, toward a more judgment-free approach toward the moral values of other cultures. This view, moral relativism, is ubiquitous in anthropological and sociological literature. As a modern, accepting people, so the argument goes, we shall not narrow-mindedly impose our morals on others.
The question, of course, is this: is there an objective measure by which one can judge the morals of a people? Sam Harris, in his new book The Moral Landscape, seems to think so. Harris holds that the highest moral good is that which promotes the well-being of all sentient creatures. Thus, any act that is counter to promoting general well-being is morally bad. Despite being well versed in philosophy, he glosses over centuries of philosophical discourse on the subject and falls into a form of utilitarianism.
However, Harris makes a key point: unknown is not the same as unknowable. Just because we have yet to coalesce on a singular measure of objective moral judgment does not mean that we will not be able to do so in the future. On this point I agree. In light of the history of scientific and rational progress, we cannot say that the fields of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and anthropology will never advance and be able to determine that certain actions, beliefs, and principles are clearly counter to human well-being.
In light of recent events, are the rights that the Tunisians, Egyptians, and others fought for objectively morally good? Can one say that deploring despotic rule is merely a subjective preference, based on little more than culturally arbitrary preferences? One’s answer to these questions is vital to one’s view of public diplomacy. If the answer is that there is no objective truth on such moral questions, then why should the American people try to influence other cultures with portraying our values of democracy and human rights? If public diplomacy is only to serve our subjectivity to the ends of our national trade or diplomacy interests, should it be valued as a legitimate field, or simply method of propaganda?
I view public diplomacy more expansively. I ask not (and promote not) what values best serves my country or my people in the economic and diplomatic sphere, I ask (and promote) what values I feel are objectively aligned with the promotion of human well-being. Anything less would relegate the validation of public diplomacy to a role morality.
When science catches up to society and we begin to get more answers to our most basic questions (and once it does, one cannot assume that any of our Western morals would prove to be best), I will be waiting—ready to view the evidence and improve my own public diplomacy. What right do I have to tell a conservative Muslim that women should not wear the veil? Someday, perhaps as much right as I have to tell a conservative Christian that the Earth is four and a half billion years old.