Ryan J. Suto's Blog

04 November 2013

Moral Relativism & US Public Diplomacy (revised)

This update of an older post was written for the Public Diplomat and can be found here.

As the science of morality progresses, US public diplomacy should educate others despite any cultural differences.
Since the Age of Exploration, the dominant views of Europeans toward people who populated the other continents were paternalistic and ethnocentric — to not be Europeans and Christian instantly diminished the worth of a person or a belief. Relatively recently, the prevailing view in Europe and the West has shifted to become more tolerant — perhaps in reaction to the brutality of past injustices. In the extreme this has led to moral relativism, a judgment-free approach toward the values of other cultures. At present this view 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.
But this argument assumes that morality is a subjective notion, or that there is no objective measure by which one can judge others actions or values. The only reason these assumptions have not been effectively challenged, argues Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, is because we have an underdeveloped science of morality. 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. 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 objectively counter to human well-being.
Can one say that rights of self-governance are 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 it’s for mere economic gain, why not sell the beaches of Hawai’i instead of
democracy and human rights? Surely vacation destinations are far easier to sell in places like China. If public diplomacy only functions to serve our subjective national trade or diplomacy interests, should it be valued as a legitimate field, or simply method of propaganda?
I view public diplomacy more expansively. The message of public diplomacy, like any other communication, must come from our ‘mission statement’ — the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration tells a candid world with what rights all people[1] were born — not just Americans. It discusses why all governments are instituted—not just the U.S. government. These are statements claiming objective truth! As such, I argue that any U.S. public diplomacy which flows from our organizational mission statement cannot be morally relative. And while the science of morality is underdeveloped, that does not mean that nothing is known. Harris compares morality to health: just as we know that eating only marshmallows is less likely to lead to a healthy body than eating a diet which includes leafy green vegetables and protein, we also know that enslaving or subjugating women or whole ethnic groups are less likely to result in human flourishing than equal rights and opportunities for all. For these reasons, U.S. public diplomacy should not shy away from strongly holding any cultural or political practice as superior to those which we know are wrong — especially as science progresses to advance our knowledge and understanding on these points[2].
In a sense, U.S. public diplomacy should not narrowly seek to advance our economic interests, but instead promote values which are objectively aligned with the promotion of human well-being. And as our understanding of human happiness and well-being advances, the more we will know about the science of morality, and the better we can conduct our public diplomacy toward educating others. “What right does the West have to tell a conservative Islamic country that women should not wear the veil?” one might ask. Someday, perhaps as much right as one has to assert that the Earth is an oblate spheroid and revolves around the Sun, and anyone arguing the contrary is simply wrong.

[1] I generally take “all men” to mean “all humans,” but even if Jefferson explicitly meant the male gender, the point still stands that it was meant universally to all men, not just American men.
[2] I don’t assume that the U.S. has any monopoly on objective morality. No study has shown that corporal punishment bestows any long-term benefit on any person, yet the U.S. stands as a country which frequently practices it. Science also requires flexibility and recalibration in the face of evidence.