Cristina L.H. Traina (Northwestern University) 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.


Virtue and Vice in Moral Critique 

by Cristina L.H. Traina

Richard Miller’s worry in the philosophically dense third chapter of Friends and Other Strangers is whether the basic assumptions that underlie the moral judgments we make in global, cross-cultural circumstances are true. That is, Miller asks whether all “outsider” moral critiques are fatally chauvinistic and insensitive and, if they are not, what conditions authorize us to be moral critics of people whose moral frameworks we do not share. In brief, Miller answers that we can make such critiques on two conditions. First, we must exhibit virtues of moral criticism (91) and avoid additional disqualifiers of moral authority (93). Second, he identifies a universal that bridges the diversity of moral frameworks. The prerequisite for a genuine moral system is recognition of persons as moral subjects, defined as beings who possess “the capacity to self-critically adopt and evaluate our immediate, first-order desires in order to determine whether they are indeed desirable and worthy of our commitment” (99). Both the system a moral critic evaluates and the moral critic’s approach must honor subjects who have “the freedom to adopt and revise …commitments against a background of cultural and other beliefs and ideals” (100).

It is worth asking whether all robust ethics would fulfill the moral subjectivity criterion (for instance, although I may not understand Miller’s definition perfectly, it seems to me that a strict deontological ethic might not fulfill it), but the philosophical anthropology that it provides is robust and democratic. Yet the material Miller seems to most want us to “think with” are the authorizing virtues and the disqualifying vices. To be authorized to speak, a moral critic must give robust reasons for her judgment in terms that make sense to others, including those judged; she must make “a good-faith effort to seek the truth in particular arguments” and generally; she must thoroughly investigate the cultural context and history of the practice she evaluates, avoiding prejudgments by self-consciously taking a number of perspectives on it; and she must be conscious of the power relations between herself and those she evaluates, especially if those power relations contribute in some way to the practice (91). But given human fallibility, demanding perfection on all these points would make cross-cultural moral evaluation practically unattainable even if theoretically possible. Thus Miller introduces three practices that disqualify only the most imperfectly virtuous: accusing “others of wrongdoing on terms that apply equally, or similarly” to themselves; being “complicit in the wrongdoing” one condemns; and prompting or triggering the wrongdoing (94).

The key to Miller’s argument is that “outsider” status proves to be a red herring. To have the integrity worthy of moral authority, one must be committed to the virtues and avoid the vices (95). The outsider/insider distinction fades nearly away because both outsiders and insiders must operate by the same standards of evaluation and judgment (96).

Miller’s effort to acknowledge and answer the vices of colonial and post-colonial bias makes inroads against the coercive hegemony of western universal ethics. Yet it is worth asking what percentage of potential cross-cultural moral critics can pass the test for vices, let alone honestly be claimed to embrace the virtues. The complexity of global economic and political relations entangles us all in complicity, hypocrisy, and baiting. Similarly, well-intentioned mindfulness of structures of power and coercion does not imply stripping oneself of the privilege that such power differences bestow or the unintentional biases that this privilege entails. Of course, if this worry amounts to a judgment that only the culture the external critic judges is qualified to bestow moral authority on her, Miller may have proved his point: these virtues and vices should be evaluated objectively and probably widely, and not subjectively or narrowly.

Along the way, in an argument weighty enough to have occupied a chapter of its own, Miller debunks moral relativism by demonstrating its logical fault: if there is “no single, transcultural standard,” it may be that moral judgment is impossible, or it may be that only one of the thousands of moral systems in existence is correct (86); we cannot judge. In any case, if the former holds, we have an absolute moral principle that debunks relativism: “expressing moral criticism is wrong for any outsider” (89).

Although Miller is thinking internationally and cross-culturally, the questions he asks are as likely to arise for a kindergarten teacher assessing the parenting practices experienced by his culturally diverse students as it is for the director of an international non-governmental organization who must determine whether she should argue that gender separation in schools she has been asked to fund is an acceptable cultural custom. Even if virtue is impossible to fulfill and vice inevitable, the heading Miller’s guidelines provide will serve both better than either moral relativism or universalism.

Cristina L. H. Traina is a student of Christian theology and ethics, with emphasis on Roman Catholic and feminist thought. She received her Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School and has been a member of the Department of Religious Studies since 1992. Areas of special interest include childhood, especially child labor; the ethics of touch in relations between unequals; sexuality and reproduction; ecology; justice issues in bioethics; economic and immigration justice; and method. Traina favors an interdisciplinary approach to ethics, drawing on research in philosophy, anthropology, psychology, history, and other fields. Many of her graduate advisees combine ethnographic methods with ethics. She is the author of Natural Law and Feminist Ethics: the End of the Anathemas (Georgetown 1999) and Erotic Attunement: Parenthood and the Ethics of Sensuality between Unequals (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Her current work focuses on the Christian ethics of non-nuclear families and the moral agency, economic rights, and labor rights of children. She has served as a board member and President (2016) of the Society of Christian Ethics and has received the Weinberg College Teaching Award.

 * 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.