Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tamler Sommers's "Relative Justice"

Tamler Sommers is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. He is the author of A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, a collection of interviews with philosophers and scientists.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Relative Justice: Cultural Diversity, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility, and reported the following:
Just after the terrible shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, week Rev. Dong Sun Lim, founder of the Oriental Mission Church released this statement: “All Koreans in South Korea – as well as here – must bow their heads and apologize to the people of America.” The South Korean Ambassador Lee Taesik called on Korean Americans to repent. He suggested a 32-day fast, one day for each victim of the carnage. Many Americans found this attitude baffling. Why should Koreans living thousands of miles away from Blacksburg, Virginia feel compelled to apologize, never mind starve themselves, for an act they clearly had nothing to do with? Arian Hong of the Mirae foundation offered this explanation: “First-generation Koreans tend to have a cultural sense of shared responsibility. If something good happens to one, it happens to all Koreans, and if something bad happens to one, it happens to all of them.”

The Korean sense of shared blame is just one of many examples in my book of the diversity of cultural perspectives about moral responsibility. The book argues that the differences are sufficiently deep to show that there is no single correct answer to the question of when we can be blameworthy or praiseworthy for our behavior. Philosophical theories that try to establish conditions or criteria for moral responsibility are doomed to failure.

Sadly, very few philosophers agree with me about this. The most common objection is some variation of the following: “Look, just because there’s disagreement about a belief, it doesn’t follow that there is no fact of the matter about whether the belief is true. There are still people who believe the earth is flat—that doesn’t mean that there’s no objective truth about the earth’s shape. The same is true for beliefs about moral responsibility.”

Chapter Four of the book, home of p.99, deals with this objection. I examine the origins and the psychological mechanisms that underlie the differences in moral norms concerning responsibility. This excerpt at the top of p. 99 summarizes my claims about the origins:
Environments across the world pose a wide variety of challenges for groups who want to survive and prosper. Different norms [of responsibility] are better suited for different environments. And since the process of norm transmission generates changes in a culture’s social environment, there is a snowball effect in which new norms develop as responses to these changes.
The bulk of p. 99 introduces a model (developed by Stephen Stich and Chandra Sripada) describing the psychological mechanisms that allow us acquire and implement norms in our cultures. This excerpt focuses on how we acquire moral norms:
The acquisition mechanism begins early in life when children observe and internalize the norms of their group. It is automatic, not something they can choose to turn on and off. The implementation mechanism then stores the norms and motivates norm compliance and punitive behavior towards norm violators. Emotions like moral outrage or resentment play a pivotal role in the implementation mechanism, providing the intrinsic motivation to punish violators. general, and norms about responsibility in particular:
My overarching goal is to show two things. First, the variation in intuitions about responsibility is deeply entrenched in our psychologies, and so it is implausible to think that different cultures would converge in their beliefs about moral responsibility. Second, there is no reason why our judgments about this should converge. The different perspectives and norms have moral advantages and disadvantages, and each is only appropriate in certain environments. When the norms function properly, the competing conceptions of moral responsibility can be equally rational within their respective environments.
Learn more about Relative Justice at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue