Sunday, September 23, 2007

Multiculturalism Takes Another Hit

Tibor R. Machan

It is a central theme of multiculturalism that human conduct is never right or wrong, merely either in conformity or not with the demands of one’s culture. So that when women are subjected to beatings or female “circumcision” in certain places around the globe, whether this is OK to do is dependent on what those in the culture approve of. So, by the tenets of multiculturalism, there are no universal principles to guide how people act, how they may be judged. It’s all relative.

Some years back International Greenpeace faced a dilemma. Since the group championed both animal rights and multiculturalism, the members were hard put to figure what to do about a tribe of Canadian Indians that bludgeoned baby seals as one of its cultural practices. In time Greenpeace reportedly decided that multiculturalism is more important and dropped its objections to the slaughter of baby seals.

Oddly, when in a recent issue of The New Republic one George Pelecanus discussed Michael Vic’s involvement with dog fighting ["Barking Mad," September 10, 2007, pp. 12-13], he made no mention of the fact that in multicultural terms, what Vic did might be deemed quite acceptable. There is, to wit, a problem with condemning Vic conduct for~anyone championing~cultural diversity. Just what are the limits of multiculturalism, if anything, and why?

In very nearby Mexico, for example, cockfighting is a popular spectator "sport." Across the border in its banned. In Spain bull fighting is deemed to be perfectly acceptable, while elsewhere it is taken to be a barbaric indulgence. So what gives? How does the often astute New Republic stand on this issue? Is there something universally wrong with cruelty toward animals or is it a cultural matter? Why one or the other?

Even for those who consider it unethical to mistreat animals—well, some of them, because they rarely fret about the mistreatment of insects or flies—there are some distinctions that need to be addressed. For example, is something that’s unethical also to be legally prohibited? But then would all those who believe so fervently in freedom of the press or free speech be completely wrong? After all, under the legal protection of the right to freedom of speech—or as many now put it, freedom of expression so as to include all sorts of artistic creation—people may say endless unethical things.

A good case in point is that not very long ago many people in the West criticized the violent reaction of some Muslims to the caricature in some Danish newspapers of the prophet Mohammed. These Westerners readily granted that many of the cartoons were insulting, even blasphemous—thus unethical, in fact—but insisted that this did not by any means justify banning them or punishing those who created and published them. Their stance is based on the view that while it is quite possible that certain conduct is morally objectionable, it doesn’t follow that this justifies prohibiting it. If it did, a most basic precept of Western liberalism would come under fire. So, instead, we have the distinction between crimes—namely, conduct that may be banned—and wrongdoings, which may be condemned but not banned.

Now does the mistreatment of dogs by Michael Vic or anyone else amount to unethical conduct that may be banned? Or is it conduct that in a free society must be discouraged some other way, without the benefit of the force of law? Certainly many in America take it as given that mistreating the dogs should be legally actionable—see, for example, Are they right? If so, does it follow that misconduct in general may be prohibited? And does that not imply that the very idea of a free society ought to be abandoned and the conduct of the citizenry of any society micromanaged, regimented so that it conform to ethical standards? Or is there some criterion by which wrongful conduct can be separated into those subject and those not subject to legal sanctions? Is all of this supposed to be merely a matter of how people happen to feel in some country or region of the globe but not in others?

In which case why not look upon the conduct of Michael Vic and others who mistreat animals as simply something some would ban but others would not, and rightfully so? The criticism and legal condemnation of Mr. Vic seem to me to have been based mostly on sentiment, not on a rational assessment of the relevant issues. And doing so violated a very basic principle of a civilized society, namely, the rule of law. It seems to me that the matter needs to be thought through and not be approached merely by consulting one’s feelings.

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