Sunday, April 30, 2006

Different rules Different Game

During a conference on female circumcision a French theorist stood up and questioned the very validity of the conference. I can not remember exactly what he said, but he was a moral relativist and what he said went something like this: Who are we to tell them that female circumcision is wrong? There are no absolute criteria by which they can be judged.

Now, typically moral relativists buttress their arguments by employing concepts like "language games" and "incommensurability". However, I have not come across someone who has employed concepts such as those against moral relativism. This, though, is what I will attempt to do.

"Who are we tell them that a rook can not move diagonally?" What makes this sentence seem perfectly odd and "Who are we to tell them that female circumcision is wrong?" common place? Are we right to treat the two differently?

With regard to the first of these questions, there is, of course, nothing wrong of a conceiving of a game in which the “rook” can move differently. It is just that that this game would not be chess. The pieces might be the same and the board might be the same and the other pieces might move in identical manner. However, the game of chess is, by and large, no more then the sum of the rules that make up the game and moving a “rook” thus would violate those rules. (It should be pointed out that a chess piece, such as a rook, is a chess peace by virtue of the rules of the game not by virtue of what it is called or how it is shaped. For this and other reasons, a move is only a move in a game.) Different rules different game. (To be sure, it is possible to conceive of chess as being played in alternative manner. Imagine for example that in the Western world the pawn can be moved two spaces forward on its first move, like it is now, but that the Chinese forbid it. My playing partner and I could then ponder whether we wanted to play by Western rules or by Chinese. However, there would be no non question begging why of determining what was the right way to play chess, the Chinese way or the Western way. Minor differences do not always add up to a difference in kind.)

Now, there are societies in which female circumcision is consistent with “moral” teachings of those societies. That is not in dispute, nor is the notion that female circumcision violates “western” ideas of what is right. What I think should be disputed is the notion that we can not condemn the practice because other people “conceive” of “morality” differently. The problem for the moral relativist is not that, dammit, female circumcision is just wrong. His problem is it is not enough to say that Westerners engage in particular language games and that the rest of the world plays in some cases altogether different games. What he needs to do is akin to explaining how a game of chess is more than just the sum of the rules of the game. He needs to show that the game westerners play is the same game that other people play, only it is played according to entirely different rules. Only then will he be able to say in the case of female circumcision that for one group the move is legitimate and for the other group illegitimate.

The problem is, though, that failing to condemn female circumcision would send logical tremors that could threaten to break apart the series of interlocking language games we call morality. We can no more recognize an alternative account arising from a different set of moral precepts than we can recognize a game in which a “rook” moves differently as chess.

All told, if we conceive of morality as simply a bunch of interlocking language games, what we end up with is remarkably similar to the static universal morality that the moral relativists dismiss. The moral relativist is right about the very human origin of morality and chess. However, what makes, say, a game of chess a game of chess is simply that the game is played in accordance with the rules that make up the game. As such, there are limits to the extent we can change the rules of the game and have it still have it remain the same game.

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