One of the challenging things about living in a global society is that we frequently hear about practices in other countries that seem to us strange - or even morally outrageous. An example is the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman recently convicted of adultery in an Iranian court and sentenced to death by stoning.
Moral outrage in a case like this is an appropriate response, but it is important to look closely at what we are responding to when we feel outrage. Is it to the method of execution or to the disproportion between the crime and the punishment, or is it to the disparity between the courts' treatment of men and women? Perhaps it is to all three; perhaps it is to something more substantial.
Some people insist that it is inappropriate to criticize the moral practices of other cultures. There is an old and popular expression that says, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," which is often used to defend the idea that right and wrong are really just cultural conventions.
The earliest articulation of this notion occurs in "The Histories" by the Greek historian Herodotus. He recounts a story about Darius, a Persian king from the 5th century B.C. Darius was interested in learning about various cultural beliefs and practices, so he would question people from the lands bordering his kingdom.
During his reign, Darius summoned the Hellenes at his court and asked them how much money they would accept for eating the bodies of their dead fathers. They answered that they would not do that for any amount of money. Later, Darius summoned some Indians called Kallatiai, who do eat their dead parents. In the presence of the Hellenes, with an interpreter to inform them of what was said, he asked the Indians how much money they would accept to burn the bodies of their dead fathers. They responded with an outcry, ordering him to shut his mouth lest he offend the gods.
On the face of it, the Hellenes and the Kallatiai had very different moral beliefs: The Hellenes believed it was necessary to burn their dead relatives and the Kallatiai believed it was necessary to eat them. And yet everything depends on how we describe the situation, for both the Hellenes and the Kallatiai had distinctive cultural rituals by which they expressed reverence for the dead, and ignoring those rituals, by doing something else with dead bodies, was regarded as an act of irreverence. So we could say that both the Hellenes and the Kallatiai had the same ethical views, namely, that one should always express reverence toward dead relatives. In other words, they had different rules for proper treatment of the dead, but their respective rules were based on the same ethical principle.
It is an indisputable fact that different cultures have different ethical norms or standards, but it is not possible to reduce ethics to those cultural norms. We should look carefully at cultural differences and neither immediately dismiss as ethically wrong those that are unfamiliar nor simplistically accept all practices as morally neutral.
I wonder how an Iranian apologist of the stoning of Ms. Ashtiani would respond to some of our punishments?
Teresa Lewis is on death row in Virginia (one of four states that retains the electric chair as an optional form of execution). She confessed to conspiring to kill her husband and stepson, was convicted, and sentenced to death. The two actual shooters received sentences of life in prison. Lewis has an IQ score of 72, which is considered borderline for intellectual disability. She is scheduled to be executed Sept. 23.
Executions are so common in the United States that coverage of them rarely makes it past local news, but a stoning in Iran makes headlines around the world.
How should we react to the impending stoning of Ashtiani? With moral outrage, of course, but not because our practices are somehow more civilized than Iran's. We should react with the same outrage to any serious assault on human dignity. If we feel the burn of indignation towards those who are responsible for the sentencing of Ashtiani, shouldn't we feel the same way toward those responsible in the case of Lewis?
The fact that we don't feel the same way can be explained culturally, but it cannot be justified.
The Ethical Life is a twice-monthly series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.