Chapter 2b

Cultural Differences Affect Morals

September 28, 2015

20 This heroic and unconquerable firmness is demanded from every savage by his country’s custom and education.

It is not required of those who are brought up to live in civilized societies. They are easily pardoned if they= complain when they are in pain, grieve when they are in distress, and allow themselves to be overcome by love or discomposed by anger. Such weaknesses are not apprehended to affect the essential parts of their character. As long as they do not do anything contrary to justice or humanity, they lose little reputation even if the composure of their behaviour should be disturbed. A humane and polished people have more sensibility to the passions of others.

They can more=

  • readily enter into an animated and passionate behaviour, and
  • easily pardon some little excess.

The person principally concerned is sensible of this. He indulges himself in stronger expressions of passion, being assured of the equity of his judges.

He is less afraid of exposing himself to their contempt by the violence of his emotions. We can venture to express more emotion in the presence of a friend than in the presence of a stranger. Because we expect more indulgence from our friend. In the same way, the rules of decorum among civilized nations admit of a more animated behaviour than is approved of among barbarians. Civilized nations converse together with the openness of friends. Barbarians converse with the reserve of strangers. The French and the Italians are the two most polished nations in Europe.

Their emotion and vivacity in expressing themselves on interesting occasions surprise those strangers traveling among them at first. Those strangers, being educated among a people of duller sensibility, cannot enter into this passionate behaviour. They have never seen any of its example in their own country. A young French nobleman will weep before the whole court after being refused a regiment. The abbot Dû Bos says that an Italian expresses more emotion on being condemned with a 20 shilling fine than an Englishman receiving the death sentence. In the times of the highest Roman politeness, Cicero could weep in the sight of the whole senate and the people, without degrading himself.

He must have done so in the end of almost every oration. The orators of the earlier and ruder ages of Rome could not probably have expressed themselves with so much emotion, consistent with the manners of the times. I suppose that it would have been regarded as a violation of nature and propriety in the Scipios, Leliuses, and the elder Cato, to have exposed so much tenderness to the public view. Those ancient warriors could express themselves with order, gravity, and good judgment. But they are said to have been strangers to the sublime and passionate eloquence first introduced into Rome, a few years before Cicero’s birth, by the two Gracchi=

  • Crassus, and
  • Sulpitius.

This animated eloquence was long practised in France and Italy. It is just beginning to be introduced into England. There is a very wide difference between civilized and barbarous nations in the=

  • degrees of self-command they require, and
  • standards by which they judge of the propriety of behaviour.

21 This difference gives occasion to many others that are not less essential.

A polished people are accustomed to give way to the movements of nature. They become frank, open, and sincere. On the contrary, barbarians are obliged to smother and conceal the appearance of every passion. They necessarily acquire the habits of falsehood and dissimulation. Everyone conversant with savage nations in Asia, Africa, or America, have observed that= they are all equally impenetrable, and when they hide the truth, no examination can draw it from them. They cannot be trepanned by the most artful questions. The torture cannot make them confess anything. Trepanation_illustration_France_1800s Trepanning

A savage’s passions are never expressed by outward emotion.

They lie hidden in the sufferer’s breast, but are all most furious. Even though he seldom shows any anger, his vengeance is always sanguinary and dreadful, when gives way to it. The least affront drives him to despair. His countenance and discourse are still sober and composed. They express only the most perfect tranquility of mind. But his actions are often the most furious and violent. Among the North-Americans, it is not uncommon for young girls to drown themselves after receiving only a slight reprimand from their mothers. Even if only “you shall no longer have a daughter” was said. In civilized nations, the passions of men are not commonly so furious or so desperate. They are often clamorous and noisy, but are seldom very hurtful. They frequently seem to aim only at convincing the observer, that they are in the right in= being so much moved, and getting his sympathy and approbation.

22 However, all these effects of custom and fashion on mankind’s moral sentiments are inconsiderable compared to those which they create in some other cases.

Custom and fashion produce the greatest perversion of judgment on the propriety of particular usages, not on the general style of character and behaviour.

23 The different manners which custom teaches us to approve of in the different professions and states of life, do not concern things of the greatest importance.

We expect truth and justice from= an old man as well as from a young man, and a clergyman as well as from an officer. It is only in matters of small moment that we look for the distinguishing marks of their respective characters. There is often some unobserved circumstance which shows us that there was a propriety in the character which custom allotted to each profession, independent of custom. Therefore, we cannot complain in this case, that the perversion of natural sentiment is very great. The manners of different nations require different degrees of the same quality in the estimable character. Yet the duties of one virtue sometimes extend to encroach a little on the precincts of some other virtue. This is the worst that can be said to happen even here. Rustic hospitality is fashionable among the Poles. But it perhaps encroaches a little on economy and good order. The frugality esteemed in Holland encroaches on generosity and good-fellowship. The hardiness demanded of savages reduces their humanity. The delicate sensibility required in civilized nations sometimes destroys their character’s masculine firmness. In general, the style of manners in any nation is that which is most suitable to its situation.

Hardiness is the character most suitable to the savage. Sensibility is the character most suitable to a person who lives in a very civilized society. Even here, we cannot complain that people’s moral sentiments are very grossly perverted.

24 Therefore, it is not in the general style of conduct or behaviour that custom authorises the widest departure from the natural propriety of action.

With regard to particular usages, its influence is often much more destructive of good morals. It can establish, as lawful and blameless, actions which shock the plainest principles of right and wrong.


25 For example, can there be greater barbarity than to hurt an infant?

Its helplessness, innocence, and amiableness, call forth the compassion, even of an enemy. The most furious act of a cruel conqueror is to not spare babies. Why then would a parent do something that even a furious enemy is afraid to violate? Yet the murder of new-born infants was a practice in almost all the Greek states, even among the civilized Athenians. Whenever the parent could not bring up the child, it could be abandoned to hunger or wild beasts without blame. This practice probably began in times of the most savage barbarity. The people were first made familiar with it in that earliest period of society. That custom’s uniform continuance later hindered them from seeing its barbarity.

This practice prevails among all savage nations today.

It is more pardonable in the lowest state of society. The savage’s extreme indigence frequently exposes him to the greatest hunger. He often dies of pure want. It is frequently impossible for him to support himself and his child. Therefore, we cannot wonder that he should abandon it in this case. It is excusable for a person to throw down his infant while fleeing from an enemy, because it retarded his flight. By attempting to save it, he could only hope for the consolation of dying with it. In this state of society, we should not be so much surprised that a parent would be allowed to judge whether he can bring up his child. However, in the latter ages of Greece, the same thing was allowed from views of remote interest or convenience. This does not excuse it. By this time, uninterrupted custom had so thoroughly authorised the practice. The world’s loose maxims tolerated this barbarous prerogative. Even the doctrine of philosophers, which should have been more just and accurate, was led away by the established custom. Instead of censuring, it supported the horrible abuse by far-fetched considerations of public utility. Aristotle talks of it as something that the magistrate should encourage on many occasions. The humane Plato had the same opinion. All his writings seem to be animated with the love of mankind. But he never marks this practice with disapprobation. When custom can sanction such a dreadful violation of humanity, we may well imagine that it can authorise the most gross practices.

Everyday, we hear people say that such a thing is commonly done. They seem to think this a sufficient apology for what is the most unjust and unreasonable conduct.

26 Custom should never pervert our sentiments on our general behaviour, in the same degree as custom perverts the lawfulness of particular usages.

There should never be any custom of infanticide. This is because no society could exist if people usually killed babies.


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