Absolutely Relative, Or, Relatively Absolute

by Theodore Dalrymple (Oct. 2007)

The question of whether morals and values are absolute or relative – a question to which I am inclined to give different answers at different times and on different occasions, according to my mood and my interlocutor – is perhaps the most crucial one of our time. No doubt my wavering is a sign of lack of intellectual power: at my time of life I should have worked out a wholly consistent position, and the fact that I have not done so probably means that I now never shall. The problem is simply too difficult for me, and I lack the patience or persistence to worry at it until I have found the indubitably correct answer – if there is one, that is.

Closely connected to the question of moral relativism is that of cultural relativism. If moral values are not absolute, one culture cannot be superior, in any absolute sense, to another. Even if we can prove that German music is objectively superior to, say, Albanian music, we are not justified in saying that German culture is superior to Albanian culture unless we also able to demonstrate that the production of music is at the very least one of the most important purposes or characteristics of a culture, one by which a culture is rightly judged.

Nor is the superiority of a political tradition enough to establish the superiority of the culture or civilisation that bears it to another culture or civilisation that does not, unless the values embodied in the superior political tradition are themselves universal and of preponderant importance. We all remember the famous line in The Third Man, in which five hundred years of Swiss democracy are derisively dismissed as having brought forth nothing but the cuckoo clock, a line of which Nietzsche would have heartily approved. Not much of our culture, or indeed of anyone’s culture, would survive if we were able to approve and benefit from only those artefacts produced under what we now think of as acceptable political conditions. And it is perfectly possible also that, having reached a stage of fundamental political wisdom, as we like to flatter ourselves that we have even though history may yet have some very nasty surprises in store for us, the worth of our cultural productions is very much less than those of societies that we heartily condemn for their political unwisdom. Moreover, it is a fact of experience that when horrible political or social systems collapse, to be replaced by ones that, at least in the abstract, are better, people are not always happier as a result. That is the truth that lies behind the Romanian peasant saying (that sounds to me like the fruit of long experience of such matters) that a change of rulers is the joy of fools. And in my travels I have observed that, within quite wide though not infinite limits, the correlation between good governments and social systems on the one hand, and good and happy people on the other, is not as strong as it might be. Perhaps this is because the fundamental conditions and concerns of human existence do not vary very greatly.

I was forced to reflect on these knotty problems while reading Federico Garcia Lorca’s play, Yerma, recently. I am not altogether an admirer of Lorca’s work, which sometimes seems to me obscure beyond discernible meaning, though at other times it is deeply moving; and in the play there are some incongruities that strike me almost as comic, as when Yerma offers her peasant husband, Juan, a glass of milk to strengthen him before he goes out to the field to work. 

Yerma, the name of the play’s protagonist, which means barren, has had an arranged marriage to Juan. She longs above all for a child, but never conceives. Her inability to do so becomes an obsession with her and ruins her life, along with Juan’s emotional distance from and indifference to the problem.

Although Juan is cold and distant, he is jealous. Indeed, jealousy and a prickly attention to his own reputation seem to be his main emotions. He accuses Yerma of going out of the house too much, and of giving rise to humiliating gossip among their neighbours.  He says to her, ‘You know how I think things ought to be. Sheep in the pen and women at home. You go out too much. I’ve told you before.’ And the reason he wants it this way is because ‘To live in peace a man must be quiet in his mind.’ Eventually he brings his sisters to the house to survey Yerma.

Although Yerma is attracted, even before her marriage, to another man called Victor, she accepts that it is a matter of family honour that she should not succumb to temptation. Victor accepts it too, and we know that as a result Yerma’s only hope of happiness is lost. However, both of them consider that there are goals in life higher than happiness, that their personal fate is not the be-all and end-all of their lives.

In the final scene, Juan tells Yerma that he has never wanted a child, but that nevertheless he and she can live happily together. His indifference to her deepest longing, however, finally overcomes her; and when he tries to embrace her, she strangles him. Her last words in the play are, ‘I’ve killed my own child! I’ve killed my own child!’ By this she means (I think) that, much as she does not love Juan, he is the only means by which she could have a child. 

I could not help but think, as I read Yerma (which, of course, is much more than a social-realist tract), of the young Moslem women whom I used to treat in the hospital in which I worked.


In Garcia Lorca’s play, it seems to me, Yerma is caught on the cusp of an important cultural shift. The whole meaning of her existence is to have a child; in the first act she even sings songs to the unborn child that she so wants:
   Where do you come from, my love, my child?
   What do you need, my love, my child?

She accepts also, without examination, that Juan must be the father of that child. Her acceptance of the rules of her society is almost complete: as sociologists say, she had internalised them. And yet she cannot accept her situation, as Juan tells her she should, and perhaps as she might have done had she been religious in the traditional Spanish way; she is modern enough, one might almost say western enough, to consider her own wishes as important. The tragedy is that she is torn between acceptance and non-acceptance of the customs and ideas of the time and place in which she finds herself.

Many of my young Moslem patients were in a similar position. They were sufficiently of their parents’ culture to want to be good and obedient, even submissive, daughters; but they were also sufficiently of western culture to find repellent what obedience to their parents would require them to do or to be. Thus, their parents thought they were arranging marriages for their daughters; their daughters, on the other hand, thought that they were being forced into marriage.

Often I was surprised that the mothers of the young women would not side with them against their fathers, who insisted on a marriage that they (the fathers) had contracted without consultation with their daughters. On the contrary, the mothers were almost as much in favour of the forced marriages (forced, that is, from the point of view of the daughters) as the fathers.

Indeed, when the mothers learnt that their daughters were being refractory, they would often try to make the daughters feel guilty by saying that the worry they caused was killing them. They (the mothers) had diabetes or high blood pressure, they would soon have a heart attack and die, and it would all be the daughters’ fault. Indeed, they would often throw themselves on the floor, clutching their chests and claiming to be dying, until their daughters, feeling guilty, would agree to everything.

Whenever I met a young woman who wanted to escape a forced marriage I would ask her whether he mother had yet claimed to be dying as a result of her refusal to comply, and they would all laugh, and ask me how I knew all about what had gone on in their household. It was simply a matter of pattern recognition, I said, for I had heard the story innumerable times before.

How, though, does one account for the complicity of the mothers (sometimes, though rarely, to the extent of being complicit in the murder of a daughter) in a system that seems to outsiders so oppressive of women? Surely all women are sisters in the great struggle against men?

The answer, I think, is that the mothers grew up in a very different cultural environment, such that they did not even consider it a possibility to refuse to do what their parents demanded. Since no one can lament what he cannot even conceive of, the mothers accepted their lot with comparative equanimity, and even thought that system that they knew ought to be continued for ever. (Besides, it is a human failing that adults, knowing that their lives are largely spent and cannot now take another fundamental direction, are not altogether pleased to see many opportunities they never had opening up before the next generation.)

The young Moslem women were thus, like Yerma, caught on the cusp of a profound change or cultural shift. They were partly of a non-individualistic culture, in which social shame and duty are more important than personal guilt and happiness; but also partly of an individualistic culture, in which personal guilt and happiness are more important than social shame and duty. The conflict within them was not reconcilable, and I do not think I have encountered states of misery to equal theirs, short of civil war.

In the case of Spain, of course, the conflict has been decided more or less in favour of our individualistic culture. (In the first years of Franco’s rule, women could not travel without their husbands’ permission.) It may be, of course, that a comparatively sudden and late overthrow of a genuinely patriarchal society accounts for the exceptionally low birth rate in Spain, low even by European standards, the bearing of children being so closely associated psychologically with the kind of society that Yerma knew and was in partial revolt against.

But the conflict continues in the Moslem population of Britain, in large part (I think) because the old system is constantly reinforced by marriages contracted in Pakistan. Thus the conflict is not resolved in one way or the other, but rather renewed. There is no doubt as well that it has many gratifications for young men, however westernised in other respects they are.

The question of whether the old social system was a bad one, morally much worse than the new one in any absolute sense, doesn’t seem to me to be quite the right one. The real question is this: can it be maintained in a situation in which people do not accept it unthinkingly as inevitable, as the only possible way to live? 

The answer is that it can probably be maintained for a time, but only by force or the threat of force, and at the cost of a great deal of avoidable misery. It is not that freedom conduces always to happiness; clearly it does not. It is rather that, once people can conceive of alternatives to the course in life offered to them as the only one, they are changed forever, and to deny them opportunities that they once might never even have known were there (and therefore were not there), is to inflict intolerable misery on them.

And if avoidance of the infliction of terrible misery on people is not a universal value, I don’t know what is.   

To comment on this article, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish original and thought provoking articles like this one, please click here.

If you have enjoyed this article and want to read more by Theodore Dalrymple, please click here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

Order here or wherever books are sold.

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend