Caroline Anglim (University of Chicago) responds to Divinity School Professor Richard B. Miller‘s third chapter, “Moral Authority and Moral Critique in An Age of Ethnocentric Anxiety,” in Friends and Other Strangers: Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2016).

The May issue of the Forum features Friends and Other Strangers, Miller’s most recent book, which argues for expanding the field of religious ethics to address the normative dimensions of culture, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships. Professor Miller urges religious ethicists to turn to cultural studies to broaden the range of the issues they address and to examine matters of cultural practice and cultural difference in critical and self-reflexive ways.

Friends and Other Strangers critically discusses the ethics of ethnography; ethnocentrism, relativism, and moral criticism; empathy and the ethics of self-other attunement; indignation, empathy, and solidarity; the meaning of moral responsibility in relation to children and friends; civic virtue, war, and alterity; the normative and psychological dimensions of memory; and religion and democratic public life. Miller challenges distinctions between psyche and culture, self and other, and uses the concepts of intimacy and alterity as dialectical touchstones for examining the normative dimensions of self-other relationships. A wholly contemporary, global, and interdisciplinary work, Friends and Other Strangers illuminates aspects of moral life ethicists have otherwise overlooked.

The first post in the May issue includes the introduction to Friends and Other Strangers, “Alterity and Intimacy.” In the coming weeks, scholars will offer responses to different chapters of the book. At the end of the month, Professor Miller will close out the series with a final response. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.


Reflections on Moral Difference

by Caroline Anglim

In the third chapter of Friends and Other Strangers, Richard Miller maps several analytical distinctions in order to isolate and properly scale the claims of moral relativists. He distinguishes between the first-order empirical observation of moral diversity and the second-order philosophical thesis—there is “no single, transcultural standard [that] exists to evaluate human conduct; rather there are many cultural and moral standards and no way to adjudicate among them when they conflict.”1 After setting up the distinction, Miller problematizes the leap from empirical data to philosophical claim.

First, he draws from Moody-Adam’s critique of ethnography—that is, “descriptive cultural pluralism is empirically underdetermined”—to argue that the comparative analysis of empirical data from cultures tends to overshadow our abstract conceptualizations of culture. These data sets, in different words, blind us to our own distorted definition of culture as a nexus of internally homogeneous, unchanging, and deterministic social forces.2 In response, Miller suggests that we zoom out of the empirical data and witness to the fact that “cultures interact and cross-pollinate…[and] are subject to internal criticism.”3

Second, even if we could correct the constrained conceptualization of culture, Miller argues that there is a deeper problem in moral relativism’s leap from empirical data to philosophical thesis. The subtle myopia that characterizes the first problem contrasts with the blunt incoherence that characterizes the second, deeper problem. This incoherence derives from the fact of moral diversity, which Miller argues could lead to two opposite conclusions: that all moral standards are valid or that all (except one’s own moral standard) are invalid.4 At first glance, the former appears to be a worthy reaction against the latter, but Miller’s exploded-view depiction of this technical problem draws focus to a pseudo-ecumenical impulse in the first kind of moral relativism, which, in light of the alternative, looks a lot like question-begging.

Third and finally, Miller argues that even if we abandon the empirical project altogether and pursue moral relativism as a philosophical thesis alone, we’d still run up against a logical fallacy: Moral relativism makes the “claim that one moral code may prohibit what another moral code allows [such that any given moral judgment] may be true relative to one culture and false to another.”5 Because “moral justifications are local matters,” moral relativists absorb a certain degree of ambivalence as a matter of course.6

To be sure, Miller affirms that critics can be incredibly narrow-minded, ethnocentric, and chauvinistic, but these kinds of attitudes, which often coincide with moral relativism, are easy to spot and even easier to reject. His aim is to shrink the threat of ubiquitous moral relativism in order to make room for the legitimate and sensitive moral critic. As he makes a constructive turn in his argument, Miller adumbrates five guiding virtues of this legitimate critic: “(1) give reasons to explain and justify her or his disapproval, (2) have (general) moral and epistemic probity, (3) exercise due diligence, (4) aspire to render a judgment that is informed by judicious perspective-taking, and (5) express her- or himself with a style and a grasp of social location that is context-sensitive.”7

Overall, Miller’s digestion of moral relativism’s botched leap from empirical data to philosophical claims parallels his conclusion about empathy in chapter four. There he argues that we should “reverse the relationship of science and philosophy” because the priority of philosophy over science “would require us first to understand what makes for good empathy and then to study human beings in that light.”8 The broader take-away point in chapter three, on my reading, is a hermeneutical one regarding the relationship of theory and data. The fact of religious diversity and moral pluralism can be incredibly disorienting for comparative projects in religious ethics and thus requires certain methodological excellences in order to balance the claims of alterity with sound moral judgments.

I think an interesting expansion on this hermeneutical point would be to compare and contrast the field of comparative religious ethics with the field of comparative religious historiography. Like religious ethics, the history of religions is a field that has struggled to balance the concrete particularities of localized traditions, practices, and beliefs with wider, systematic analyses on the psychological, social, and political development of religion. Unlike comparative religious ethics, however, many historians of religion have distanced themselves from constructive claims (although, arguably, the success of such distancing has varied greatly). I would like to hear more from Miller about how the excellences of the legitimate moral critic could translate outside of the constructive fields (philosophy, theology, and ethics). When historians of religion aim to work with empirical data, how might they embody the virtues of a legitimate moral critic to select the relevant texts, practices, conversations, etc? Also, how might historians of religion edge away from making constructive claims without backing themselves into a corner with the likes of moral relativists? How does “shrinking the tumor of ethnocentrism” and moral relativism guide our definition of religion, what counts as religion, and who counts as religious?9

My last two brief reflections track Miller’s second major analytical distinction in this chapter—between moral authority and moral criticism.10 Miller argues that legitimate critique requires integrity on the part of the critic, i.e. “a consonance of standards and character.”11 This integrity, along with the guiding virtues of legitimate critique, erodes the insider and outsider distinction as a relevant matter of moral authority.12 Miller inverts the standard assumption when he suggests that the outsider perspective may be preferable to internal critique. His position here might be helpfully compared to Michael Walzer, who writes, “I have, not at all surreptitiously, attached value to the critic’s connection to his own society…Criticism works best, of course, if the critic is able to invoke local values.”13 So the two theorists agree that critique cannot function properly when it is socially disconnected and asymmetrical, but they assign different weights to the importance of social distance in moral authority. Walzer points to the importance of critical distance for the scholars who share core principles with those they criticize: “They are only apparently external; they are really aspects of the same collective life that is perceived to require criticism.”14 Miller, in contrast, thinks that the test of social distance between critic and culture is too blunt an instrument to discredit moral authority: “There is nothing about being an outsider that connects to the idea of moral incongruity or the absence of moral integrity.”15 Walzer does not require that social criticism always come from a social insider, but he epitomizes the prophet, a member who stands at the margins of the society that he loves and respects but aims to change. Miller resists the spatial metaphor, re-thinking the demands of context-sensitivity in terms of intellectual work and empathy rather than social experience and association. I am interested to know more about the interaction between Walzer’s prophetic social critic and Miller’s context-sensitive moral critic. My sense is that there would not be any mud flinging and probably a lot of exceptional listening and dialogue, but I’m curious about the broader implications of this difference between Walzer and Miller. How does a religious ethicist’s dealing with contemporary issues of race in America, for instance, effectively affirm, correct, or even critique leaders of the Black Lives Matter Movement or of the Black Girl Magic campaign? When social distance is built into the claim a scholar is critiquing, how does she navigate or altogether avoid the issue of social distance in justifying her own moral authority? When, if ever, does the society or value system being criticized get to set the ground rules for social distance and moral criticism? How does the scholar virtuously address social distance in her moral critique when the issue of social distance is itself a defining issue for the group she is criticizing?

Miller’s chapter concludes with a brilliant analysis of moral criticism, which he frames in terms of thin and thick moralities.16 Critical pluralism “disavows the idea that any single moral theory or set of beliefs provides a universal account of the human good…[but] also denies the idea that the concept of pluralism produces the conclusion of moral relativism, namely, the idea of equal moral validity.”17 A thin morality “enables [the moral critic of thick moralities] to possess moral sympathies that have a universal scope.”18 The thin morality provides a check on the thick moralities. Moral criticism, on this account, is a show of respect because it engages another culture’s value system and (most importantly) acknowledges that the peoples of that culture are capable of deliberating between values and goods. In short, those being criticized are capable of disagreeing with the critic. Moral relativists, in contrast, assume that any possible constructive argument would diminish or override the moral reasoning of people that they criticize; this, of course, is highly presumptive. Critical engagement, when properly constrained and guided by the virtues of a legitimate moral critic, provides the opportunity for those who are criticized to agree with the critic and change their position or to disagree and reaffirm it. Moral relativism, frozen by the fear of causing offense, shuts down a conversation that, Miller argues, actually affirms moral difference and human freedom.

Caroline Anglim is a Ph.D. student in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her research focuses on patterns of secularization and the theorization of religion in the history of medical ethics, as well as the broader intersection of science, religion, and politics. She has presented on religious responses to medical research ethics and on pragmatic definitions of religious difference, concentrating her analyses on the dialogue between constructive scholarship and religious practice.

 * Photo image: “Touching Strangers” by Richard Renaldi. Since 2007, photographer Richard Renaldi has worked on a series of photographs for which he asks complete strangers to physically interact while posing together for a portrait.

  1. Richard B. Miller, Friends and Other Strangers: Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture (New York: Columbia UP, 2016), 82.
  2. Miller, Friends, 85.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 86.
  5. Ibid., 84.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 91.
  8. Ibid., 134.
  9. Ibid., 79.
  10. Ibid., 80-1.
  11. Ibid., 95.
  12. Ibid., 96.
  13. Michael Walzer, Interpretation and Social Criticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987), 62.
  14. Walter, Interpretation, 48 (emphasis added).
  15. Miller, Friends, 96.
  16. Ibid., 100.
  17. Ibid., 101.
  18. Ibid., 102.
Skip to toolbar