More on Pride in Randomness: A Take on Race and Miss America

I would like to begin by sharing a TED Talk (above) by Cameron Russell, a model who admits that her success has been due to winning the genetic lottery. It is a very open talk that highlights the role of luck, of things beyond our control.

Now this article is another followup to “Pride in Things Out of Your Control.” It is especially about the general response to Nina Davuluri’s winning of Miss America, as well as the response to that response. Namely, there were many angry racist replies that an Indian American had won, and there were many replies to those, rightfully calling out the racism of many people. Beyond this, it did not seem there was anything otherwise unusual about this incident.

However, there is another response that occurred. Many people became proud of her not only for winning it, but for her being Indian American. Now I think it is absurd to be proud of one’s race, or of other races, and the reason basically stems from your race being a random attribute that you have no choice over. Moreover, isn’t the act of being proud of Davuluri for being Indian American in itself racist? Does that imply you wouldn’t be proud of her if all else about her was the the same except her skin color?

These thoughts didn’t occur at the time, but I was provoked by one of my friend’s Facebook posts:

fb-post-1

My friend criticizes being prideful of something random. Some responses:

fb-post-2

I feel like this is also a remnant of Asian cultures tending to glorify people of their own race far more so than other groups of people. Some responses to this:

fb-post-3

Indeed, saying “I am proud of her because of what she has accomplished” is much different than saying “I am proud of her because she is Indian American.”

Let me copy down the important part of the text here:

However, that’s separate from her race, although closely liked. I just don’t see a justification for celebrating her race in itself as I’ve seen tons of people do. I would like to be in a world where race is just a characteristic that happens to be. Oh, she happens to have brown eyes and happens to be black. Okay. Is any Indian-American who ever does something going to be seen through the race lens first? Isn’t it the point to move past that and into a more egalitarian society? Celebrating her race isn’t helping us achieve that.

Just over the past few years we’ve been seeing famous Indians who aren’t seen for their “Indianness” – Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling come to mind. We should evaluate people according to their achievements, given their circumstances – incidental qualities should be ignored.

Replace Indian with black, and you get the following part of a talk by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, where he says that in one of his interviews, he realized it was the first time a black person was interviewed for something in which race was never brought up. He was interviewed as an astrophysicist, not as a black astrophysicist. This kind of thing needs to happen to truly move on from racism: (36:30 to 38:00)

People aren’t proud of Tyson for being black—they’re proud of his expertise of astrophysics and his public figure status. Only when people are proud of someone NOT for their race does society get past the race barrier.

Just to see how ludicrous it is, pretend the attribute was not race, but some other equally random property. Imagine if in every interview of Sylvester Stallone, the primary focus of the interview was on his face, asking him about his struggles because of it. Imaging groups of people with face deformations saying how proud they are of Stallone because of his face. Yeah, it’s pretty absurd.

My favorite article regarding the Miss America incident is this one from The Nation: “Miss America Nina Davuluri Is Not a Symbol of Progress,” by Samhita Mukhopadhyay. While I disagree with the assertion made in the title that Davuluri is not a symbol of progress—I believe that there was progress made, just not as much or in the same direction as what most people think—I agree with its overall message. An excerpt:

We can’t let this nasty display of racism back us into a corner. As tempting as it might be, to suggest that Davuluri’s win signifies progress for South Asians in America is to defend the Miss America pageant itself. And there isn’t really much about Miss America that could be considered progress for anyone (except maybe the steady decline in ratings over the last forty years, that might be a sign of progress). Miss America’s role in the public imagination has always been the product of objectification. It’s a beauty pageant after all, and the winner embodies the ideal American woman—prized as an object of beauty.

According to this article, the pageant may have helped ease racism a bit, but it has only helped to entrench the gender status quo.

To be sure, optics matter. The minor net good is that little South Asian girls may feel better about themselves when they see a beauty queen that they can relate to. But Miss America still sends a message to girls and women that what you look like determines what you are worth. While it’s tempting to frame Nina Davuluri’s win as a victory for equality, let’s not get confused— the Miss America pageant is fundamentally about objectifying women and limiting their possibility to what they look like in a bikini.

This is where Cameron Russell’s TED Talk comes in. Russell realized that her work is a genetic lottery and that it is hard for her to be proud of it, nor can she recommend young girls to want to be models. Compared to the Miss America pageant and either response to it, both undeserved hate based on race and undeserved praise based on race, Russell’s TED Talk, also on the same subject, is far more supportive of social progress.

So what is the correct response to the recent Miss America pageant? I don’t know, but talking about race either way should not be one.

Thinking of a Topic to Write About

clock

From 4 to 9 pm today, I’ve been intermittently trying to come up with a blog post topic. Yes, writing is painful, but thinking of a topic can be even more painful, since you are haunted by the fact that you still haven’t put words on the page yet.

In the end, the topic I chose was the process of thinking of a topic. Yeah, time for a meta blog post.

Most advice in thinking of a topic to write about is obvious. Write about what you are passionate about, write in an atmosphere that suits you, write from your unique experiences, etc. You can find all this typical advice in a google search (there, I even googled it for you, you’re welcome).

Instead, I’ll write about learning from personal writing habits. Of course, my writing habits are largely based on my personality type: an indecisive, perfectionist INTP. This leads to the following habits:

  • My writing times are extremely spontaneous. I have written articles months in advance before posting them, but more often than not I have no idea what I am going to write about until I actually write something at the last minute. And then, there are days which I publish multiple posts, like last week.
  • Productivity usually occurs in bursts. There are moments when I can write a lot, but usually I am rethinking something over and over. This happens in coming up with a topic as well: I can spend 30 minutes not knowing what to write about, and then come up with three fresh topics in the next 2 minutes.
  • I am more productive when I have many things to do. In fact, when I have significantly more time, I end up not being that much more productive. It’s when I have no work to do that I can’t think of a topic to write about.

Heck, I actually ran into this issue before:

If I had a number one enemy, this would be it. You might have encountered this too. A lot of times I would hit the NEW POST button on WordPress and just sit there for the next five or ten minutes not knowing what to write about. Eventually I get sidetracked, maybe check email and Facebook, sometimes StumbleUpon, then abandon the blog post altogether. Even worse, sometimes I’ll think of the perfect idea for an article, then when I get back to my room to start writing, I don’t have the faintest idea what it was.

Perhaps in coming up with ideas, I should follow my own advice from two years ago:

To avoid forgetting ideas, you should best write them down. To come up with ideas is more difficult. You could try idea-generating sites to start out. WordPress this year started its PostADay project; bloggers try to make a post every day for the year. Each day, the site chooses a topic that bloggers can optionally select for their posts. Today’s topic, for example, is “What’s the most trouble you’ve ever been in?”

There are plenty of other ways to find writing topics. Reading the news is definitely a good way, as there is often bound to be an article that you can write about. Talking with people is great as well. Other people always have great ideas—make sure you cite them though.

I’ll certainly keep this in mind.

In addition, I find I am significantly more productive when closer to a deadline for schoolwork and writing. Hence it might seem worth it to artificially hasten the deadline to be productive at an earlier time.

So far, a successful tactic has been forcing myself to have a topic prepared by Saturday, so on Sunday I can write about it and not have to worry about coming up with the topic. This week, I did not do so, and as a consequence I did not begin writing until 9 pm.

Anyways, write down your ideas and stay posted for next week.

(Of course, in the middle of constructing this article, several topics occurred to me. There should be some corollary to Murphy’s law regarding this: When something good can happen, it will only happen at the worst possible time.)

Cultural Values

Plato

After looking over some posts from this blog, I realize I almost never post anything having to do with being Asian American. Out of 384 posts so far, only one directly relates to this topic, and even that was only in response to another article.

This post will explore my experience as an Asian American and also why I never talk about being one.

Pride in American Culture

Perhaps there is a second article on my views of being an Asian American, though again, it was only used as an example in a larger context. The post, “Pride in Things Out of Your Control,” criticized being proud of something that is based on luck. One of the most relevant examples I came up with was my cultural/national identity:

The key difference is that nationality is something I could theoretically change. Had I the inclination, I could feasibly move to some other country than the US. Yet no matter how much I might want to be of some other race, I can’t revoke being Chinese. Thus I cannot be proud of being Chinese in race, but I can be proud of being American in nationality.

This is something I still stand by, and it is the reason I almost never talk about being Asian. From the same article:

I happen to be Chinese, but I have never felt proud of being Chinese, simply because I had no choice whatsoever in being born Chinese. In fact, I would far more strongly identify as “American” rather than “Chinese,” since there are some things I actually can make decisions between, e.g. Eastern vs. Western philosophy, cultural values, and freedom of speech; and in each case I agree more with the American side.

What exactly are these differences in philosophy and cultural values?

Liberalism and Freedom

As much as we like to joke about the shortcomings of the American political system, the US government is a blessing compared to the Chinese government.

The freedoms we take for granted in America are nonexistent in many areas of the world, China included. Here we can slander the government, mock politicians, and even negatively portray the president. Try doing that in China. Actually, don’t.

We have not just the freedom of speech, but also the freedoms of thought and information. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are inaccessible in China, largely because the government doesn’t want its citizens to learn any information from people of other cultures, as they would be too difficult to censor. For instance, they surely wouldn’t want people knowing about the Tiananmen square massacre (even though most people have probably heard of it but aren’t sure whether it is true).

Tiananmen Square Tank

In addition, we have a corporate media, which is at least far better than a government media. While they can go over the top sometimes, at least our news agencies deliver shocking news when it exists. On the other hand, the government media is very unreliable and is fond of covering things up. I recall a train derailing that provoked a lot of controversy when the government did not say anything about it for a long time. There’s also the Beijing smog incident, where the central media understated the extent of the problem and Beijing citizens had to resort to the US embassy’s particulate readings to get a sense of how bad the pollution was.

Now, enough of the government. Even within the US, there are many cultural differences between Asian Americans and Americans in general.

Creativity and Individualism

The most relevant difference for me is that American culture puts so much emphasis on the individual, and this I strongly agree with. In the post, “A Chinese Kid’s Response to ‘Chinese Parenting,’” I talked about how there were a lot of forced ritual activities, but I failed to emphasize in that post how the activities were all staple Asian activities that did not even remotely try to set one apart. Play the piano? Yes, I’m sure that will set you apart from all other Asian kids. Go to Chinese school? Study for the SAT? The whole system was really formulaic and focused as much as possible on conforming. (I ended up quitting the first two and not even starting the third. Instead, I learned chess, played the trumpet, figured out how to code, read novels, and started a blog.)

Sure, a conforming society might be good if the sole aim is to keep order, as in a police state. But for society to advance, for technology to be revolutionized, for literature to be written, for art and music to be made—these all requires creative feats by the individual. This is yet another reason I cannot stand Chinese culture: there is almost no promotion of creativity.

Voyager

The Rebel

Very similarly to individualism, the rebel archetype, which is about the worst thing possible in Chinese culture, is cherished in American culture (and Western culture in general).

The Master said, ‘In serving your father and mother you ought to dissuade them from doing wrong in the gentlest way. If you see your advice being ignored, you should not become disobedient but should remain reverent. You should not complain even if in so doing you wear yourself out.’

—Analects of Confucius

Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

—Oscar Wilde

Oscar_Wilde

Education vs Learning

There is a well-known stereotype of Asians placing so much emphasis on education. However, the point of this emphasis at least early on is almost solely for grades and test scores, not to actually learn stuff. I wrote earlier in the year about how even in college, there is an insane amount of GPA-centrism.

Here is an excerpt from the Chinese parenting post which summarizes my view on grades (written regarding high school):

Not that I cared less about education; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I became learning-focused instead of grade-focused. In class, I would be the one asking bizarre questions about material that seemed only remotely connected to the curriculum, but I never asked such a cringe-inducing question as “What percent of the grade is this assignment?” or “Is this for a grade?” or “Is this going to be on the test?” or, my favorite one yet, “Is there extra credit?”—and by the way, I’ve heard these countless times in high school from my Asian peers.

A Mark Twain quote on this topic:

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

—Mark Twain

mark_twain

Conclusion

In summary, the reason I rarely ever talk about being Asian American is that I identify culturally as American, and I don’t find Asian cultural values worth preserving. Yeah, that sounds pretty harsh, but that’s what I have to say.

No Deal

cross-cnn

There is an opinion article that appeared on CNN yesterday titled “Hey atheists, let’s make a deal.” It sounded like an innocent enough title, and I clicked it, hoping to gain some fresh, calm insight into the modern-day religious situation. Overall I had high hopes as CNN has had some interesting religion stories in the past (such as this one from last week), but also some disappointing ones (such as this one, which I criticized).

In “Hey atheists, let’s make a deal,” the author Rachel Evans uses the classic “just as bad” argument (which I wrote a post on here) in trying to make a silence deal: atheists stop criticizing Christianity based on its fundamentalist leaders and Christians stop criticizing atheism based on its own “fundamentalist” leaders.

religion-and-atheism

(Image source unknown.)

Now of course, Evans spends three paragraphs bashing Dawkins and atheism before even getting to the deal:

Famed atheist Richard Dawkins has been rightfully criticized this week for saying the “mild pedophilia” he and other English children experienced in the 1950s “didn’t cause any lasting harm.”

This comes after an August tweet in which Dawkins declared that “all the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Dawkins is known for pushing his provocative rhetorical style too far, providing ample ammunition for his critics, and already I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism.

At least Evans does not jump on the bandwagon of saying that Dawkins actually defended mild pedophilia (props to her). In fact, Dawkins acknowledges the misinterpretation. But it is still interesting that Evans quotes the phrase “saying that… didn’t cause any lasting harm” as if Dawkins was attempting to make an authoritative statement. With a couple of surrounding sentences:

As soon as I could wriggle off his lap, I ran to tell my friends, many of whom had had the same experience with him. I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage, but some years later he killed himself.

This clearly shows that Dawkins is giving an opinion, and presumably knows the others he speaks of are in a relatively well-off condition.

However, the main point that seems to be missed was the question of whether one should judge someone’s actions according to modern day standards. Dawkins considered it to be not as bad (but still bad, obviously) in the 1950s as it is today, when now we know so much more about the harmful effects that it causes. For another example, we would probably consider Thomas Jefferson to be more moral than the leaders of the Westboro Baptist Church, but Jefferson owned slaves, while none of the WBC own slaves. If anyone wants to discuss this I’d be happy to indulge, but this is getting really far from the topic. Anyways…

In the second paragraph, Evans mentions a post by Dawkins which is factually true. Yet she uses the word “declares” as if Dawkins just made it up to anger Muslims.

The third paragraph is just further painting Dawkins as a target, and then says, “I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism.” I appreciate Evans’ rhetoric, cleverly overloading words/phrases with positive connotations on one side (“fellow,” “Christians,” “seize the opportunity”, “rail against” [in the context of attacking unjustice]), and then putting “evils of atheism” on the other side. This makes good writing, but it is hardly an impartial view. The bias induced by these paragraphs then set the stage for the terrible deal to come.

In the next three paragraphs, she gets to the deal:

As tempting as it is to classify Dawkins’ views as representative of all atheists, I can’t bring myself to do it.

I can’t bring myself to do it because I know just how frustrating and unfair it is when atheists point to the most extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity and proclaim that they are representative of the whole.

So, atheists, I say we make a deal: How about we Christians agree not to throw this latest Richard Dawkins thing in your face and you atheists agree not to throw the next Pat Robertson thing in ours?

Again, she is attempting to play the fair mediator position by appearing to treat the two sides equally. Perhaps she genuinely believes this is a fair comparison, and if so, I admire her willingness to bridge the gap.

However, atheist “fundamentalism” is incomparable to religious fundamentalism. We should attack religious fundamentalism because it holds outdated, unchanging, unyielding views on social and moral issues (LGBT rights being the most prominent current issue in America), and because their views actually affect public policy, and they attempt to deny rights and liberties to millions of Americans. And this is Christian fundamentalism we’re talking about: fortunately, very few people are being killed. Religious fundamentalism in the Islamic variety would be much worse.

Atheist “fundamentalism” is quite different in that, even if you take Dawkins, Harris, etc. to be the “fundamentalists,” the main message is to question everything, even their own views. This is hardly fundamentalism, any more than not putting up with intolerance is in itself intolerance.

Next:

Now I’m not saying we just let these destructive words and actions go—not at all. It’s important for both believers and atheists to decry irresponsible views and hateful rhetoric, especially from within our own communities.

(Believe me. There are plenty of Christians who raise hell every time Robertson says something homophobic or a celebrity pastor somewhere says something misogynistic.)

Again, the situation is asymmetric. The Bible is filled with hateful rhetoric, and it is somewhat up to moderate religious folks and atheists to called out when fundamentalists quote these passages. Some passages literally say to kill gays or atheists. At best, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” implies all atheists are fools. On the other hand, Dawkins uses logical arguments to counter some statements held sacredly by theists, and this is considered to be offensive. No matter what measure of morality you use, it is clear that debating someone and challenging their beliefs is not equally as bad as labeling an entire group of people as fools or holding sacred a book that says to kill many different groups of people.

This brings me to the following point: It sure took a lot of effort to find that quote by Dawkins, and even if fully misinterpreted, it would not even be that bad (e.g. in terms of body count). On the other hand, one can easily find hundreds of far worse examples in the Bible or in the writings/speeches of fundamentalists that require no verbal gymnastics to parse. This yet again demonstrates the imbalance of the deal.

Skipping ahead a bit:

Only then can we avoid these shallow ad hominem attacks and instead engage in substantive debates that bring our true differences and our true commonalities to light.

It’s harder to go this route, and it takes more work and patience, but I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.

Yet again, this runs into an asymmetry that makes the deal sound poetic but doesn’t change the fact that it is nonsense. The second sentence really disturbs me:

…I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.

When you have a Bible that you know is the truth, isn’t your search for “truth” just to validate the Bible? On the other hand, when you use the scientific method and question everything along the way, there is no ultimate truth you know ahead of time that you are trying to validate. There is a difference between actually searching for truth and cherry-picking evidence to support something you think ought to be true.

Skipping forward a bit more:

And I’m willing to bet that the same collective groan emitted by millions of Christians each time Pat Robertson says something embarrassing on TV sounds a lot like the collective groan emitted by millions of atheists when Richard Dawkins rants on Twitter.

Again, this is a comparison of apples and oranges. When Pat Robertson says something about homosexuality, for instance, I have no doubt that a vast number of Christians actually disagree with the content of what he says. However, when Dawkins tweets something questionable on Twitter, it is invariably because some people don’t understand the post, don’t get sarcasm, or don’t know of the previous tweet that the current one is referring to. (And yes, I think Twitter is a terrible medium for debating religion, as demonstrated by this.)

Still, in the end, it’s not about who has the most charismatic or generous personalities in their roster, nor about who has the most “crazies.” It’s about the truth.

So let’s talk about the truth, and with the people who most consistently and graciously point us toward it.

Here’s something I can agree with. (I still think the phrase “who has the most ‘crazies'” is comparing incomparable things, but I’ll let this slide.) However, I think there is still a huge gap in what we consider to be proper ways to search for truth, and the reason for this gap is a deep difference in our worldviews that cannot be so easily solved by saying let’s talk about the truth.

Evans wrote a good article, but had a very biased vocabulary in a deal-making situation where she should have been more impartial. Also, even if the deal itself doesn’t seem very appealing, it is thought-provoking, and the overall idea is a good attempt at the problem.

No Deal

I think the proper response is to reject the deal, for several reasons:

  • It is hardly a fair deal, as without criticizing Christianity in itself, we cannot actually solve any of the root problems that fundamentalists continue to spread to the public and to political/social policy. On the other hand, the problem with the public image of atheist “fundamentalists” can be more simply solved by telling them to stop using Twitter, and instead stick to platforms where it is not as easy to misinterpret something, or some solution along those lines.
  • The deal assumes that fundamentalist atheism is just as bad as fundamentalist Christianity.
  • The deal doesn’t really solve the root problem; in fact, it only makes it worse by silencing voices in the debate.

A better deal would be for both sides to listen to what the other has to say, and debate the content itself, and not dismissing things just because they come from “fundamentalists” of either side.

(Edit: Hemant Mehta, aka. The Friendly Atheist, wrote a post on this CNN article today as well, also criticizing the false equivalence between atheist and religious fundamentalism. His article, which is quite interesting to read, is here.)

Ethical Dilemmas and Human Morality, part 2

For the full explanation, see Ethical Dilemmas and Human Morality, part 1, written almost exactly a year ago.

decision3

Moral Consistency

We had a particular debate recently on consistency in moral dilemmas. In particular, we went over two variants of the Trolley Problem: the fat man and the transplant. One side argued that you must pick the same answer in both variants, while the other side argued that it was rational to have opposite answers in the two cases. I argued for the latter.

Here is Wikipedia’s preferred formulations of the two variants:

Fat man:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Transplant:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

In the original trolley problem, most people would sacrifice one person to save five. However, in the fat man variation, not as many people are willing to take the action. And in transplant, very few people agree that harvesting the healthy traveler’s organs is the correct move.

This is quite inconsistent. Why would you be willing to sacrifice one person to save five in some cases, but not in others? Shouldn’t the results be the same?

I argued that it is morally feasible to have different answers to this question, especially in regards to saying yes to the original or fat man case, and saying no in the transplant case.

From a utilitarian perspective, these scenarios are not the same, namely because people contribute different values to society. In the standard trolley example, there is no reason to suspect that the one person laid on one of the tracks is different from any of the five people laid on the other track. Since we are given no other information as to who these people are (of course, the situation changes if we have more information), the best bet is to save the five. Similar is the fat man scenario.

In the transplant case, however, we are given additional information: given that someone is about to die due to the failure of some vital organ, they are probably contributing less to society than the healthy traveler undergoing a routine checkup. Now, this effect may not be strong enough to warrant the sacrifice of 5 people, but it clearly makes the transplant scenario different from the trolley or the fat man.

Now, if the transplant case were replaced with sacrificing one life to save a million, then the problem is entirely changed as well. Similarly, in the trolley problem, if we said the five people were all serial killers and the one person on the other track was a normal hard-working person, that changes the situation.

Since we can change around the answers so easily, there doesn’t seem to be a fundamental one life versus five lives struggle at hand, but rather, a combination of other factors. We can answer the question based on what information we have about the people involved, and since these situations imply different types of people, we are not morally obliged to answer the same for all variants of the problem.

The Moral Landscape

“She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being—and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human wellbeing.
She: But that’s only your opinion.
Me: Okay … Let’s make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?
She: It would depend on why they were doing it.
Me [slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head]: Let’s say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, ‘Every third must walk in darkness.’
She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

The Moral Landscape

This is a passage from Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape (2011). The book is controversial and very thought-provoking, both philosophically and practically, especially to the liberal notions of the West. It has certainly changed my views of morality.

Namely, Harris argues that moral relativism has gone too far in our current world, and that it has caused morally inferior practices (such as the burqa) to persist without serious criticism. In addition, he notes of these practices, several are especially difficult to criticize, because to criticize them would be considered offensive to religion. Moreover, because morals are associated by many to religion, it is difficult to seriously argue what is right or wrong, again out of fear of being labeled as offensive or intolerant. And out of this, many moral issues are left unresolved because to debate them is considered wrong.

Can One Culture Be Inferior?

Consider two societies that had the same moral code in all ways except, as in the example earlier, one society required removing the eyes of every third-born, while the other did not. Can we say that the former has an inferior culture? Maybe, maybe not. But this question has an answer, according to Harris, although most of the world would think that it does not. In our world, the tendency is to say that all cultures are equal, that they deserve the same respect, or something along those lines. We would be viewed as supremely intolerant if we were to say otherwise.

And yet, there are issues with this: Can we really view a culture that plucks out the eyes of third-borns out of tradition as an equal culture? What about a culture that condones slavery, or one that requires the burqa, or one that isn’t taken aback by suicide bombing? In the back of my mind, at least, I think such cultures can be viewed as wrong in those areas, but of course, it is an entirely different thing to say it publicly. (See what I did there?)

In the section “Moral Blindness in the Name of ‘Tolerance'”:

There are very practical concerns that follow from the glib idea that anyone is free to value anything—the most consequential being that it is precisely what allows highly educated, secular, and otherwise well-intentioned people to pause thoughtfully, and often interminably, before condemning practices like compulsory veiling, genital excision, bride burning, forced marriage, and the other cheerful products of alternative “morality” found elsewhere in the world. Fanciers of Hume’s is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see how abject failures of compassion are enabled by this intellectual “tolerance” of moral difference. While much of the debate on these issues must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the “crime” of getting raped. The amazing thing is that some Western intellectuals won’t even blink when asked to defend these practices on philosophical grounds. I once spoke at an academic conference on themes similar to those discussed here. Near the end of my lecture, I made what I thought would be a quite incontestable assertion: We already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing.

As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy. At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker, who seemed, at first glance, to be very well positioned to reason effectively about the implications of science for our understanding of morality. In fact, this person has since been appointed to the President’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues…. Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
…”