Polemical topics for polytheists (part 14): Moral & cultural relativism

First view: Moral and cultural relativism are consistent with polytheism’s diversity and should apply at the level of the individual.

Second view: Moral and cultural relativism are wrong because they divide polytheists and hurt their reputation.

Balanced view: Moral and cultural relativism, much like pluralism, apply far more to the distinct community and tradition than the separate individual, but this occurs mostly with details rather than broad principles.

The variety of traditions in polytheism and the historical distance between them, attended by several differences in customs and morals, lead us to reflect on the topic of moral and cultural relativism. When universalism was discussed previously in part 11, it was shown how promoting one standard for all usually results from imperialism. Here we are brought to the very fundamental question of what is right and what is wrong, a topic that has occupied the minds of many philosophers throughout history. As usual, polytheism can provide us with a rather simple and powerful answer that we can examine further: each tradition has both similar and differing cultural and moral principles, that is to say, its own yardstick to measure right and wrong by. It is not surprising that most philosophers of Western Civilization, drawing from the tradition of Plato (emphasis on the word tradition), always tried to apply moral and cultural universalism, in order to arrive at what is the “best” for all people. This narrow-minded fault and futile attempt (however well-meaning) was attended by another one espoused by a minority of radical philosophers, beginning with Protagoras: that the individual only is the judge of what is right or wrong*. It was only after many centuries following the decline of polytheism and the loss of tradition that a reasonable academic reconciliation was arrived at: the terms “moral relativism” and “cultural relativism” were first used by archaeologists in the early 20th century who sought to explain without bias the differing traditions and beliefs they encountered during their study of various indigenous peoples who had not yet become modern**. The terms have since become well established in archaeology, but are still misunderstood in both philosophy and its other dependents like international law. In the current universal interpretation (which follows Epicureanism and materialism) of what is right and wrong, right is often confused with pleasure and wrong is confused with pain. This is why, for example, some people frown on blood sacrifice and cannot understand (I don’t say approve of) the reason many of our ancestors practiced (though rarely) human sacrifice as part of their rituals. Once again, this attempt at objectivity (another word for universalism) fails in view of the distinct traditions in polytheism, because it is not for outsiders to judge nor can they judge fairly. Indeed, in all cases where outsiders take it upon themselves to correct a perceived “fault” in another tradition, it is a sure sign of imperialism and colonialism. While it is too well-known that this was done and has been done always by monotheists towards polytheists (recently by Indonesian monotheists against indigenous peoples), we must be aware that polytheists did it too. The Romans exaggerated the human sacrifices of the people of Gaul and used it as a pretext to colonize the region, and again afterwards to exterminate the druidic tradition that was promoting resistance to the Romans. Who were the Romans to judge the Gauls? Weren’t there enough Gauls to judge other Gauls? Certainly. But the Romans desired to conquer and used their hypocritical self-righteousness to justify it. The monotheists likewise never ceased to repeat that trick. The conclusion is easy to make from here: Humankind shares a set of broad principles and behaviors we call cultural universals (another archaeological term), but the details are left and must be left to distinct traditions and relativism. This does not divide us, but distinguishes*** us.

 

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*Protagoras is known to have said “Man is the measure of all things”, a statement that carries several meanings, but falls largely within the interpretation above, as Plato understood it. It was certainly a radical thing to preach (because it challenged customs, traditions, and even the Gods themselves) and therefore it afterwards caused, among other untraditional beliefs he held, his banishment from Athens.

**An obvious synonym for “modern” is “western”.

***Pun intended.

4 thoughts on “Polemical topics for polytheists (part 14): Moral & cultural relativism

  1. K

    Moral relativism? If it does not effect me or mine, I don’t care what outsiders are doing. Trying to hold everyone to the same moral system is pointless and futile. You’d have to control everyone. Different tribes, cultures, races, and other groups are different on many levels. Even individuals cannot be made to agree on everything. Before talking about right or wrong, you have to think about what your aim is. What is it that you value? Morals have that context. People have very different moral systems because they have fundamentally different values.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Well said. I’ll add though that trying to hold everyone to the same moral system is not only futile, but also *evil*. I find more and more reason everyday to believe that imperialism is the head of all evil, and if we polytheists were ever to agree on a single devil against which we would all unite, it should be just that, imperialism. Conquering, colonizing, enslaving, and the ethnocide, genocide or cultural damage associated with these injustices are of the greatest danger and the lowest moral quality. Isn’t it strange and suspicious that we’ve been taught that murder and other individual crimes like theft and apostasy are the worst, but we praise the collective evil of imperialism and its greedy founders without second thought? It has been falsely inculcated into us through centuries of propaganda and it must end, otherwise it will ruin us again and the world too, as we plainly can see already. Would you agree that imperialism is the highest evil? I think blasphemy against the Gods is a branch of it. If not, what do you propose is the worst?

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  2. K

    If I had to name the chief evil, it would be oath breaking. Breaking oaths brings a curse on the one who does it. It not only harms the individual, but the community as well. Oath breaking is also a form of blasphemy.

    Next, treachery toward ones own people or family. This does not need any explanation.

    What I see from Western imperialism is a bunch of Europeans already corrupted by multiple ills spreading the problem around the world. We had it forced on us in the past, but like a virus it needed to spread. Protestants(often quasi-atheist rationalist Protestants or unitarians) for example, tried to pick apart the various traditions of India and Asia. Catholics tried to subvert and destroy them. I oppose the spread of Abrahamism regardless of the place or people. As if they were not satisfied with going after our traditions in Europe, they had to go after them elsewhere too. Not only that, Europeans spread liberalism, capitalism, Marxism, atheism, impiety, and general anti-tradition.

    I don’t even know if the good things we spread are really any good in the long term. Medicine, modern agriculture, and the like. It has contributed to overpopulation in much of the world, even as European populations collapse. There is a limit. Eventually we will see a collapse from lack of capacity to sustain so many people, all because Europeans in the past thought they were smarter than the natural balance that existed. We have done ourselves and those other groups ill by interfering. What have Europeans gotten out of it? Anomie, societal fatigue, nihilism, decline, dissatisfaction, self hatred.

    I don’t know if I made this clear in my previous statements about imperialism. I don’t focus on it because it is already used to beat my people over the head, but not used on anyone else. I don’t think any other group of people cares much about imperialism. It is only taken up now because it is seen that Europeans respond to it, and it works as a weapon. I don’t want my people looking weak to others.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      I would certainly agree that oath breaking and betrayal are among the greatest evils. However, those two are most often actions that proceed from individual choice and sometimes instances of betrayal and oathbreaking are taken as such subjectively. Thus, I proposed imperialism as a sort of universal, collective evil (like the monotheistic devil) that must be universally and collectively battled by polytheists. Perhaps it is incomplete and needs certain additions. I hope to see such a notion laid out one day, through institutional effort, not in imitation of the Catholic Church, but as one of the few common goals that a universal confederation of polytheists would share.

      As for your thoughts about imperialism, they seem to be somewhat double-edged. You acknowledge the evils of Western and European imperialism, but suspect the term and its current users. My solution to this is to reclaim and reform the term actively (rather than avoiding it passively), by applying it fairly and universally, even against my own people where necessary. You’ve seen how I have attacked Alexander and other famous Greeks before, but I did so for a greater purpose. In spite of drawing ire from fellow Greeks, I do question their nationalism and its purpose. In many ways, I don’t like the connotations that the terms “Greek” and “Hellenic religion” carry, because they don’t exactly represent what I hope to be. I consider “my people” to be my immediate kin or tribe (whether existing or to be reconstructed) my immediate regional tradition (likewise) and my future descendants. But for the time being, by conveying the genetic and meta-ethnic theories of this website, I consider “my people” mainly to be polytheists in general as well as my audience and readers. May the Gods help us all rise beyond this fragmentation and scarcity.

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