Carol Rovane’s Ethical Relativism: Part One

Carol Rovane from Columbia University recently proposed a way of thinking about ethical relativism; a method to potentially avoid concluding, as Max Weber famously did1New Footnote Code: Max Weber can probably be considered an ‘individualist relativist’ – though his ideas are a little more complicated: in theory one can believe whatever they wish (though culture certainly limits these beliefs in strong ways!), yet, his writings suggest that in order for one to have dignity they will need to (ought to?) follow to their beliefs rigidly. Ethics may be relative to personal ideals and inclinations, but dignity (external or internal?) is a manifest character of those who conform to their beliefs., that disagreements between competing ethical values are ’irresoluble’. Here in Part One I will outline Carol’s position; Part Two will analyse it in more detail and explore some interesting problems.

Carol’s Relativism

Ethical relativist positions are founded upon the belief that values are not universal but are relative to some criteria. Carol’s proposal is a type of cultural relativism which renounces universal, absolute values but still claims to allow for objective criticism within and between divergent ethics. Her argument is that ethical values are grounded on principles embedded in culture. Values or actions are objectively right or wrong relative to these cultural principles; therefore, though another person’s moral decisions may differ from her own, Carol maintains that it is not a contradiction to believe that both they and she can be right.

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The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism – A Critical Analysis

An orthodoxy of social science is that studies of ethics should be descriptive and not prescriptive; they should describe what is without evaluating what ought or oughtn’t be. But approaching this ideal – which not all aspire to – is no easy task, especially when important cultural values are involved.

A good illustration is a recently published academic article, ‘The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World’ (you can read it here). In addition to being intended as descriptive it is also critical: it compares the judgements and practices of children of faith and non-faith using the standards of ‘pro-sociality’ and ‘altruism’. As its title suggests, religiousness was found to be inversely correlated with altruistic behaviour; in addition, some religious children were found to display greater punitive tendencies than the non-religious. But these contentious findings rely on a number of assumptions. Exploring them provides a good opportunity to examine problems of the relation of values to science. Continue reading

Ethics and the International Garment Industry: Part Two

Last week I criticised, in particular, one aspect of Hobbes’ own critique of the ‘ethical shopper’ paradigm, his argument that western brands have weakened due to shifts in global economic structures. I won’t rehash this here, the image below captures the gist of my argument: western brands are more powerful than ‘mega suppliers’.

brands.suppliersWestern mega brands have great financial resources. The most popular brands are the biggest players in negotiations with manufacturing interests. The largest of the ‘mega suppliers’ is much smaller than the three brands listed here (Nike, H&M, Walmart – crudely represented here in terms of net profit). Not only are western brands already popular and becoming more so in developing markets; these markets have their own homegrown brands with potential to rival western brands on the global stage.

Here, I want to continue to defend the role that brands and pressure on brands plays in global reform while exploring Hobbes’ argument that formal institutional means (state/international laws) should be used to push global reform and also the problems associated with the ascent of new markets in developing countries (a relative decline of western market power). Continue reading

Ethics and the International Garment Industry: Part One

A couple of months ago ‘human rights consultant’ Michael Hobbes wrote a critique of the ‘ethical shopper’ paradigm of global manufacturing reform, followed several days later by a more pointed addendum. His critique is fixed around the argument that major western fashion brands are not as powerful as they are thought to be and that in the future they will become weaker. As such, he argues that consumer pressure on brands is not effective as a force for change.

His main points are:

(1) An evolution in global apparel (the rise of ‘megasuppliers’ and ‘fast fashion’) means that not even brands have precise knowledge of where their products are made;

(2) Western consumption will decline over the coming decades: the new big markets are in developing countries, and it is goods that are manufactured for these markets that are produced in the worst conditions;

(3) As a result of the changing dynamics of consumerism (the rise of new middle classes in developing countries), the importance of western brands will diminish in favour of an ‘undifferentiated goods’ model of production.

Maybe even more than the other reasons I’ve outlined, this is why consumer advocacy campaigns are never going to improve working conditions in the developing world: Western markets simply don’t matter as much as they used to. India produces twice as much clothing for its own consumers as it does for us. Fifty-six percent of the clothing produced in China is for the Chinese market. Both of those numbers are only going to grow. (Michael Hobbes)

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Sex at the Margins (Book Review)

Agustin

Agustin’s now eight-year old book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry is perhaps better read as three different angles on the same subject rather than as a unified thesis. The first section is an attempt to critique popular conceptions of sex work as different from other forms of work, or migration as wholly distinct from tourism; the second section offers a genealogical argument of the ‘origins’ of the contemporary social (helper) sector through the enlightenment and industrial revolutionary periods. This leads into the final section: a criticism of the employees of contemporary NGOs that focus on prostitution and human trafficking.

In a rough attempt to unify these three themes, Agustin’s analysis is that contemporary conceptions and policies regarding prostitution serve the interests of state power as well as the individual egos of those who identify with the cause to ‘rescue’ sex workers. The former, which is little developed in the book, is about sovereignty and population ‘control’, the latter is about self-esteem and the exercise of agency of those who find their purpose in helping others. The irony, Agustin argues, is that these helpers achieve their goals but oppress those they (think) they are helping. Continue reading

Between Two Laws – Max Weber

The title of this blog refers to a letter-to-the-editor written by Max Weber known as Between Two Laws.

Weber’s ‘Between Two Laws’, published in Feb of 1916, serves principally as a justification of Germany’s involvement in the war and as a criticism of pacifism. In addition it includes several interesting reflections on the relationship between political power and culture, and between religious ethics and politics.

Weber’s central argument in this piece is that Germany had an obligation to enter the war for its own sake as well as for the sake of other nations. This obligation, premised upon Germany’s status as a powerful state, is not couched in terms of concerns for prosperity, freedom, or safety, but in terms of  culture: Germany should fight to ‘determine the character of culture in the future’. The failure of Germany to do so would lead to a Europe shared out between ‘Russian regulation’ and the ‘conventions of English speaking ‘society’’; a result for which Germany alone would be bear responsibility because only it –not Norway, Switzerland etc. – had the power to sway the outcome. Germany’s involvement in WWI is therefore characterised as a ‘historical necessity’ ‘imposed by fate’.

Power ‘injurious to culture’

According to Weber, it is only within communities that have abandoned all ambition for political power that ‘other virtues may flourish’ – virtues such of the arts, as well as a democratic culture; as such, he argues that it would actually be in Germany’s interest to renounce power and organise itself into ‘politically impotent cantons’ modeled after Switzerland. However, Weber cynically states, ‘then we should wait and see’ for how long other nations would allow the cultural idyll to survive; and he follows this by arguing that, in fact, the culturally superior Switzerland depends upon German power to deter threats to its sovereignty. Countries that benefit from German power while criticising it and espousing pacifism are branded pharisaic. The power of Germany, then, is characterised as a costly burden, but alas, a necessary one.

Religious ethics or world politics

The final argument in this letter reflects upon the relation between religious ethics and ‘worldly laws’. Weber’s take is that:

The New Testament should either be left out of such discussions entirely or it must be taken seriously … Anyone who has even a penny of investment income which others have to pay directly or indirectly, anyone who owns any durable goods or consumes any commodity produced not by his own sweat but by that of others, lives off the operation of that loveless and unpitying economic struggle for existence which bourgeois phraseology designates as ‘peaceful cultural work’ (Weber, 1994: 78).

He continues this theme by propounding that Christians should renounce all relationship with the ‘worldly’ “laws” from which material benefits are born, extending this renunciation to include those “laws” of the social world ‘devoted to the beauty, dignity, and honour … of man as a creature of this earth’. Everyone who does not commit to a full rejection of the benefits of modern society is to be ‘bound by the laws of this world’ including the ‘inevitability of war’, and should, to the best of their ability, fulfil the ‘demands of the day’ within the circumstances fated them.

 

To summarise the three main themes in this letter:

  • Power is burdensome but necessary. It harms those who wield it and obliges them to act.
  • Power is opposed to (bourgeois) culture; culture does not thrive beneath it, yet cannot survive without it.
  • Compromise is incompatible with ‘high’ ethical principles; if principles are to be held they should be committed to with absolute consistency.

Analysis

There is some difficulty determining the sincerity of Weber’s statements in this text because they were written during a war. For this reason it is perhaps tempting to explain the text as propaganda. No doubt Weber had political intentions in writing to the public, but nonetheless, many of the letter’s themes and statements are echoed elsewhere in Weber’s corpus; and the assessment (Paul Honigsheim’s) of Weber’s disposition as one of ‘tragedy’, ‘nevertheless’ are imbued throughout: alas, the ‘law’ of the power pragma determines the ‘fate’ of the world; nevertheless, this one must accept and work within its boundaries.

As an aside, this sense of the regrettable but inevitable pervades Weber’s work and seems (to me) to suggest a flaw in Weber’s very well-known project for ‘value free’ science; for while Weber presents his assessment as realistic as opposed to idealistic I am suspicious that this ‘realism’ coincides with Weber’s ideals (consider Weber’s defence of capitalism as ‘inevitable’ in the 1904 Objectivity preamble, and his positive defence elsewhere of the virtues of freedom and autonomy in the economic sphere).

In the case of the present text Weber opens up several avenues, which if chosen, could avoid ‘fate’ (at least temporarily): the first is his suggestion that Germany could renounce its ambition for power. This alternative is, however, given the provisos: only if Germany could accept that it be overrun by England and Russian in the near future; or if the German people can accept the ‘disgrace’ that would come from their about-face.

Weber provides the second alternative to ‘fate’ in his reflections on the relation between power and the religious, where one can choose between a deep religious ethic or – in the best case- a more worldly humanist ethic that is bound to the nation state. This position can be characterised as an either/or modification of Luke 20:25: give therefore to Caesar what is Caesar’s OR give to God what is God’s. The point Weber appears to be arguing is that any compromise of an ethic that attempts to transcend the ‘facts of the day’ sullies it irrevocably: one cannot be both above something and a part of it. There is also an aspect to this argument which extends deeper than politics or economics: the choice between human culture or religious commitment and the rejection of that culture in toto – this is a theme I plan to return to in the following months.

Rather than war, Weber uses the example of the ‘pitiless’ capitalism to further his point, stating that any benefit that is enjoyed as result of exploitation (in Marx’s sense of surplus value) corrupts those who claim to oppose it. The difficulty posed by this example (if its premises are accepted) is that it would be virtually impossible to avoid being implicated in exploitation. It is questionable whether even a traveling religious figure (such as Tolstoy in his final weeks whom Weber refers to respectfully) could survive without thes­­e benefits. In any case, as with his alternatives to a German power state, the choice is framed as one between the near impossible or foolish, and the level-headed acceptance of ‘inevitable’ fate.

Viewed in this way, Between Two Laws perhaps serves as lens into Weber’s more strictly sociological works: because while Weber probably intended this text as ‘soft’ propaganda, attempting to make the best of a war already underway (hence inevitable), it nonetheless contains many of the arguments and tendencies Weber has expressed in his more disinterested works.

Max Weber 1994, ‘Between Two Laws’ in Weber: Political Writings, (eds) Lassman P, Speirs R, Cambridge University Press.