Judging and being judged: rehabilitating moral evaluation in comparative religious ethics.
Robinson, Seth P.
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Scholars of comparative ethics—who inquire into a crosscultural span of moral systems, both religious and secular—typically take a “neutral” approach to their subject matter that tries, through careful exercise of empathy, to get at accurate representations of others’ moral beliefs and practices. Such a methodology seems to command “Judge not, lest you be judged!”: take no moral stand, lest you be branded an intellectual imperialist. But what if empathy only smuggles the scholar’s own covert assumptions into interpretation under the guise of neutrality? What if we can’t help using the categories we’ve inherited from our respective traditions in order to make sense of others? In this study, I recommend that students of comparative religion junk their pretentions to empathy and seek instead a form of sympathetic understanding that makes explicit the norms and purposes each of us brings to cross-cultural comparison. I treat the process of casting off maladaptive methods and dissolving conceptual confusions as a kind of pragmatist therapy that aims to rehabilitate the practice of moral evaluation in comparative work without either marginalizing our lived experiences (ours and our subjects’) or relapsing into untenable epistemologies.
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