APU Business Careers & Learning Everyday Scholar Podcast

Podcast: How do Language and Cultural Norms Affect Moral and Social Values?

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Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and Stefania Malacrida, Faculty Member, Philosophy

In many European countries, it’s acceptable to stare, touch other people, and stand close. But in the U.S., staring is considered rude, touching is generally frowned upon, and people highly value their personal space. In this episode, APU professor Stefania Malacrida discusses these cultural norms after living in Italy, Germany and the U.S. Learn how these cultural norms lead to differences in moral and social values including the death penalty, gun rights, and more.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today at The Everyday Scholar, we’re talking to Stefania Malacrida, philosophy faculty in the School of Arts and Humanities. And today we’re talking about relativism and the differences between the US and  Europe. Welcome, Stefania.

Stefania Malacrida: Hi. Hello, great to be here and thanks for having me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Of course. Really interesting topic. Just to start, most philosophy, I’m talking from a Euro-centric point of view that we study, of course comes from Europe. There’s, of course, a bunch of different philosophies throughout the world, but the most common found in the US are from Europe in their cultural heritage.

And so today, I’ll jump into the first question is you’ve lived in Europe and in the US. What are some observations about the differences between the US and the countries you’ve lived in?

Stefania Malacrida: Yes. So it’s a very fascinating topic and a very difficult one as well because as you can imagine, it’s very easy to slip into stereotypes or bias or faulty generalizations. Having said that, it is really a fascinating thing to travel to see different countries and cultures and to live there possibly, to immerse oneself in other customs, in other lifestyles and habits. It’s really enriching.

I was born and raised in Italy. So I’m Italian, and this is where I spent most of my life. Very early on that this does not directly pertain to your question, but just to give you a little bit of background, I’ve spent there most of my life and I attended high school and the first part of university in Italy.

In Italy and in Europe, philosophy is a very important subject. So we start studying it in high school very early on when we are 15. And we spent the last three years of high school studying this wonderful subject, in my view. And this is when I fell in love with it by looking at my professors writing on the board words such as truth, God, ethics, good, bad, happiness.

So I wanted to do philosophy. I was interested in German philosophy. So after a couple of years attending university in Italy, I moved to Germany and I spent there another five years to end my university and to do my graduate studies.

And then in 2008, at the end of 2008, I moved to the US out of love. So that’s love. Love that moves all the stars and sun like Dante says in his Divina Commedia. I followed my husband here. And so I have been living here since 2009, more or less 12 years now. I definitely know three countries better than others: Italy, Germany, and the United States.

They are three Western countries. So they are very similar to some extent. We are talking about the same shared values, Western values coming from ancient Greece mostly, but there are differences.

And it was really interesting to live, to experience these differences from early on because there is indeed a cultural shock. So I’m going to tell you a couple of examples and I have a long list. So stop me when I’m exaggerating, when it’s too much.

So the first thing that comes to my mind is the notion of personal space. In America, people cherish, really value their own personal space. Not sure how much it is, but definitely two, three, maybe four feet of space, of radius around them. And it’s a violation to infringe, to get into the personal space of another person for whatever reason. So that was a discovery because we don’t have this. Definitely not in Italy.

Maybe it’s a demographic thing. So the demographic density is really high in Europe. And in Italy, we have medieval cities. We have curb sideways, people walk and bump into each other. There is also the possibility of random encounters, which is not so easy in a car-based society like the United States where you really have a lot of space.

[Podcast: How Social Media Sows Discontent and Divisiveness]

So personal space is more doable in the United States and it is a must also in the classroom. So at the beginning, I used to touch my students, for example. Nothing dangerous, nothing compromising, but just the simple hand on one shoulder. And I noticed really quickly that they would feel weird. And then I learned about this concept of personal space.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. It’s an interesting conversation, especially in teaching, you don’t touch students. Yeah. It’s a cultural assumption being from here is. Even in college, of course, you don’t. I mean, of course, primary and secondary, you don’t at all. But even college, yeah, it’s a cultural norm, I guess, that is just here.

Stefania Malacrida: Exactly, a cultural norm and this is what we will talk about this. This is precisely the core of relativism. But yeah, now that we are confirming me so firmly, my goodness. So I go back and I say, “Oh my goodness, what did I do?”

Another thing that is very related to this is staring. So in Italy, especially in Italy, but also in Germany, also in Northern Europe, people stare without any problem. And they roll their eyes from head to toe. They examine another person’s look without any problem.

So for maybe more than two, three seconds, and there is no problem with that. And maybe there’s also an element of showing off, of being proud of one’s look. There is also the negative part, the bad side of it. These inquiring judgment or staring, which is not welcome, but it is accepted. It is a cultural norm, as you said.

And, again, I’ve known that that’s not welcomed here. It’s perceived as rude. And actually, one of my students when we did a study abroad program in Italy made me notice this very clearly because I had dozen really pretty American students walking around Florence. And one of them once told me, “People don’t have a problem staring here. Right?” And I realized then, “Oh-oh, yeah, we don’t have a problem.” Maybe it’s a bad habit. It’s a disrespectful habit, but it’s a habit. It’s a commonly accepted behavior.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s interesting because since we’re talking about cultural norms, there are things that exist because they exist. It’s just whatever my parents taught me. Then you teach your kids as we were talking are different in Italy or Germany, which obviously, it’s Euro-centric or Western-centric. So they’re all similar.

We were talking about shared values, but slight differences between the cultures where when you then encounter a different culture or as an American in Italy are the foreigner, then you then experience those firsthand and there’s no right or wrong with these practices. They’re just different.

Stefania Malacrida: Yes, exactly. And as you said, those are subtle differences because we all belong to the same Western lifestyle. So they are subtle, they are minimal, but they are very meaningful. They make a difference between being rude or being kind.

And for a teacher, but in general, for a person, this can be disorienting or shocking to some extent. It is meaningful. It can break relationships, it can lead to misunderstandings, so one has to learn them.

Now, going to Germany and there’s another thing that I noticed there that made me lose some friendships. Coming on time, punctuality, that’s a must for Germans and maybe two, three, even five minutes late are acceptable. But beyond that, no. Beyond that, one is careless, rude, unkind.

I had to explain that in Italy, people are allowed. Do I have this permission to come a little bit late? Then of course, 10 minutes. And then beyond after 10 minutes, it starts to be heavy. It starts to be unkind because you have somebody waiting for a quarter of an hour. That starts to be rude. But in general, there is a permission to come five minutes late or even 10. There is some flexibility there.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s great because I’ve always heard that. And I would say typically, if there’s a formal appointment, obviously in the US, you have to be on time. So I’ve found that in the West, being on time is a little looser. You don’t have to be maybe as on time as Germans.

Stefania Malacrida: Yes. I noticed that too. Five minutes are acceptable. Professional meetings are another thing as you said. I have to admit that. Well, in Italy and in other Southern European countries, I guess, but that’s what I know. Italy, it’s acceptable. Five minutes are acceptable, even in an office, even if somebody is not there earlier. So five minutes, no later than five though.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It seems like if you’re on the East Coast of the US, being on time is more important. If you’re on the West Coast of the US, being on time is not as important from a personal perspective say for social encounters.

When I first moved to Arizona, being on time in Arizona was like 15 minutes late or 30 minutes to park. I mean, it’s pretty loose out here in Arizona. But again, you might talk to the next person from the West Coast and they would have a different perception.

Stefania Malacrida: I didn’t see here in the United States that rigid custom that you have in say Germany. And talking about Germany, another thing is facial expressions, facial expressivity. It’s very subtle in Northern Europe. So it’s a simple maybe eyebrow, raising an eyebrow. So again, compared to we Italians, we are very emphatic. You for sure know that we use a lot of gestures. We use our hands, now, I’ve noticed that Americans do have their choreographic elements too. So they have a lot of expressivity in general, but in Germany, you have to learn their own way to express their feelings, which it exists, of course. Not that they are emotionless or cold. No, but they express these in different ways.

Going to another thing that’s funny, a feature that I’ve learned here in the United States, a quality or a common behavior that people have that it took me a while to understand is that Americans, and again, this is a generalization and we will talk about it, but in general, Americans are not so direct when they have to say no.

And we are very direct in Europe, and more direct in Northern Europe. Even in Holland, in Scandinavian countries, they are very direct. They are direct in Germany and they are also quite direct in Italy. No is no.

And again, I had to learn this the hard way while teaching because when a student would say something that was off topic or not right, I would simply say, “No, that’s not right,” in a very direct way, which would inhibit students from bringing up their ideas and talking and starting up a conversation, seeing other things. Really have inhibition factor on a class which should be mostly based on debating and talking, which is philosophy.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. Philosophy should be about vigorous debate and sometimes saying no, but again, a cultural norm of the US where being too direct, especially in education when correcting students can be a negative even though as a faculty and as a teacher, it’s your job to correct them. You know?

So it’s this weird balance of correcting, correcting with a smile, which is kind of a funny concept because it’s just easier just to correct or say no. And then encourage them to then discover what the answer is or what an alternative is. But I don’t know where that comes from, honestly.

Stefania Malacrida: Yeah. And it’s not just in the classroom, I have to say, because how many times have I heard as an answer, “We’ll see.” Not a direct “no.” “Maybe.” So from friends, people, coworkers, acquaintances, they use, they, again, Americans, in general use more paraphrases or euphemisms in order not to be direct. “We’ll see.” And I would say, “Okay, we’ll see. We’ll see.” But that’s not a no. But after two weeks, there was no coming back from that person. Then, “Okay, that was a no.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: You also see that in business also where it’s one of those things where it’s almost taught never say “no” because you want to get the job done. Or don’t say “no” because you want to prove yourself as an up and comer, or you want to eventually get the next promotion. And you could get the next promotion by just doing as much as you can.

And when you read different magazines and online magazines like Forbes or Business Insider there’s articles about how to say “no” which is interesting because it would almost be easier to teach that at the beginning, how to say “no,” versus getting yourself in trouble because you always say “yes.”

Stefania Malacrida: It’s a matter of balance as you said. As it is a matter of a balance not coming too late to an appointment. So we have to find that balance between the commonly accepted cultural norm and the intentional unkind behavior.

So it’s a matter of balance, but people who are immersed in a country, in customs and their culture, they know where to draw the line in general. There are not so many ambiguities because those things, those qualities, those behaviors, those habits that we have, they belong more to the area of language and paralanguage rather than to choice and freewill and intention.

They are more part of the paralanguage, of communicational structure of a community. And yes, but it’s fascinating to learn them. It’s very fascinating. It is fascinating to learn languages all over the world.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It must be interesting since you know Italian, German, English. Do you find that you are able to have better insight into original texts such as reading Nietzsche or Schopenhauer in German versus reading those in Italian or in English as a translation because some meaning or context is always lost when anything is translated?

Stefania Malacrida: Absolutely, yes. First of all, it is more pleasurable because you read an author and his or her thoughts crafted the way they wanted to craft them. So it is definitely more pleasurable unless the translation is really a masterpiece. But this is rare and it takes another writer to make a very, very good translation.

But yes, you have a better insight and talking about Nietzsche or Heidegger or Kant, you understand that you weren’t able to understand because the text was really difficult. It was not the translation, but it was the text that was really, really difficult, the way it was written in the original language.

So at least you have no excuse. At least, “Oh, okay, that’s what they wanted to say.” Some paragraphs by Kant or Nietzsche, well, Nietzsche is a little clearer. Nietzsche is more a poet rather than a philosopher to some extent. But Heidegger, my goodness, he developed own language, completely new language. So when I read them, I said, “All right, it was not me and it was not the translation. That text is really difficult.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. I was going to say whenever I’ve read Nietzsche, it’s always been enjoyable in English because I can’t speak or read German. And I haven’t read Heidegger, but I’m not a trained philosopher just so everybody knows. I’ve recently been reading more Freud. And so I read his “Civilization and Its Discontents” from 1930 and it is so hard to read in English. And I don’t know if it’s because the translation is bad or if his original German is just hard to read, but it is just a slog, slog meaning it’s a difficult read.

Stefania Malacrida: Yes. Actually, it is a difficult read in the original language too. It gives you some more insight, of course. You understand better, but there are some authors that are just really difficult like Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger, my God, and Kant. Well, Kant’s German is also a German of the late 1700s. So there’s also this layer of difficulty.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad you brought that up because when you read Shakespeare, in English, you read Shakespeare and Shakespeare being late 16th century, I think that’s when he did most of it. I don’t think he did early 17th because I’m trying to remember. I think he died in 1611. You can tell it’s a different English.

Now, it’s a theatrical English and it is prose, but still, there’s certain things as you’re going through that it’s hard to understand. And then you go back to Chaucer’s Tale and that it’s almost a completely different language.

Stefania Malacrida: Yes, but it does give you a more knowledge of what the author wants to say. Right? And you were mentioning Freud, for example. If you think about it, in German, we have three genders: feminine, masculine, and neutral, and to indicate the subconscious, Freud uses the neutral Es—the “ES.”

 And this is lost in the translation, of course. It’s this kind of it, but it can work for everything in English whereas in German, we really have an agenda for every noun. And this gender is either feminine, masculine, or neutral. So calling the subconscious as an “it” in the sense of gender neutral, it’s very meaningful.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I didn’t know that. And it reminds me of Spanish where everything has a gender. And then in English, some things have gender, but not from the word, doesn’t inherently have a gender. Where we apply a gender to “ship.” I don’t know why. It’s just a cultural norm, but when you look at the word “ship,” there’s no gender to the word “ship.” And so I could see how coming up in German or Italian or Spanish, having gender as part of language would change the context of so many things.

Stefania Malacrida: Absolutely. And that’s a problem actually in terms of women’s voice because given that the gender, the general gender of groups is always masculine, professions are masculine, it’s difficult to try to create that equality in language. And does the language influence the way we think? You’re right. Of course.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It makes me think of some of the best aspects of philosophy, which you start questioning what’s in front of you, or you start questioning what you’ve been taught. If you were born in a culture and a language in which, like you said, gender is assigned to certain things, it doesn’t have to be that way.

And so philosophy really makes you think, “Okay, why is it this way? Why was it set up this way? How can we change it?” But then you’re like, “How do we change the language?” Which it would be very difficult.

Stefania Malacrida: Exactly. It is. There are some attempts though, and we’ll see because language is something alive also. It’s not something dead and fixed once and for all. So there are some attempts, but, of course, it is difficult because to some extent, you have to alter the language and the whole community. It takes time. The whole community has to agree, agree more or less intentionally, more or less subconsciously. So it is a difficult operation, but there are some linguists who are trying to do it.

One thing that I really want to point out, it is very interesting and pleasurable and nice to learn different countries and languages. And every time there is one ritual lost or a language disappearing, there is a sense of loss because this is how humanity expressed itself in written and dynamic relationship with the environment.

There are so many languages, Native American languages, dialects. So why do linguists or people who love languages like me are saddened by the disappearance of a language, which is not necessary? Well, because you have one variation of possible human expression less. It’s like the Galapagos for Darwin. And then all the variations of birds with their colors whose mutation really made a lot of sense if just opposed to the environment.

With humans, it’s the same thing. This is why it’s really something rich and a treasure to have so many variations and differences in customs, cultures and languages. You have the same sense of wonder. This is the wonder that anthropologists have when they go and study a community and write down all the describable objective features and qualities of that community from the laws of the community, or of a nation, to architecture, to climate, to dressing codes, hygienic rules, gastronomic customs, traditions, rituals, et cetera, et cetera. Language and idiomatic expressions, et cetera, et cetera.

So this is really something. The level of education, you can describe this whole set of knowledge into numbers, measurable elements, and this is what anthropology and psychology do. Sociology and economist, they do that too. And there is a scientific value in this.

When do problems start with this? When do stereotypes and bias arise? And when do the relativistic problems arise? First of all, when we try to use all this data in descriptions to construct, to create, to define a supposed character of a country, of a community. Well, there is a little problem that a group of people, a group of persons is not a person, an individual. So it’s a tricky jump. It’s a tricky leap to attribute the qualities of individuals to the whole. The qualities of the parts to the whole.

There is even a fallacy in philosophy that we call fallacy of composition. That to define, to indicate is erroneous way of thinking. And those are really fun fallacies. Fallacies are fun in general.

But the fallacy of composition is like, one of the simplest example is a bridge is made of atoms. The atoms are invisible and hence the bridge is invisible. So that’s, of course, a fallacy because you’re attributing an element a quality and attributing characteristics of the parts to the whole. But the whole is not the parts. Bridge is not an atom.

Same thing with communities and nations. So it’s difficult to construct, to give shape, to bring about, to define the character of a people, the character of Americans. Like we were saying, “Americans are… Italians are… Germans are…” There is a problematic element. In fact, those are generalizations and we have to be careful with them.

Even more difficult is to go from that whole, from that supposed character, to the specific individuals predicting the behavior and the qualities and the characteristics of each one of those individuals. And that’s another fallacy. So they belong to the same family of fallacies.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I could see how with that fallacy, when you talked about the fallacy of the composition, was it?

Stefania Malacrida: Yes, from the parts to the whole.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, the parts to the whole where it’s very easy, especially politically, to make that fallacy. If you are more conservative, you belong in that huge conservative. If you’re more liberal, you belong in that huge liberal camp.

When in reality, each individual is very multidimensional, has many different ideas. And I would say in America, cultural norm, we have two main camps, which to me is very unfair. There’s no reason why you have to be in a red camp for Republicans or a blue camp for Democrats when the spectrum of what each of those peoples and parties believe is very wide.

Stefania Malacrida: Absolutely, yes, yes. The fact that we cannot go beyond these cultural customs and rituals and prepackaged knowledge and reason with some kind of critical spirit and freedom, that’s a problem. And actually, this is what we’re doing in college. We try to foster. We try to teach critical thinking precisely to create a distance between ourselves and our surroundings and be able to either accept them and embrace those customs, those norms with enthusiasm, or reject them.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And my simple interpretation of relativism is what certain people do over there. So in Germany, or Italy, or other countries like Japan, it’s fine. Whatever they do for the most part is completely fine because whatever we do over here is fine. It’s just how we perceive certain norms in which we start arguing about things that honestly don’t matter.

Yet humans, and this is part of something I’ve talked about before, which is the narcissism of small differences. We argue incessantly about the smallest of differences that don’t matter. Where in relativism, unless and of course, I’m hesitant to say that there’s any universal rights or wrongs.

But I would say one universal right, correct action is most likely don’t murder anybody. Don’t do certain things that hurt others. And where relativism, I think, doesn’t really quite apply there. But universal human thing is to not hurt each other.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: But, in other countries, there are much stricter or harsher judicial penalties where relativism will come into play. Like in the US, we have the death penalty. In other countries, they don’t. The US will say, “Well, we need it.” Other countries will say, “How could you do this?”

Stefania Malacrida: Right. So those are big issues, the death penalty. Another one is healthcare. Another one is weapons, the availability of weapons which we don’t have in Europe. When I first came here, I was appalled by the easiness with which one can acquire a weapon or multiple weapons and what kind of weapons.

Or the death penalty. This this is an example that I was worried to mention. But that’s one of the first thing that came in mind. We don’t have the death penalty since the end of World War II because of the misuses of the death penalty by the fascism regime and Nazism, of course, and even the Vatican. One decade later, I think even the Vatican, the only absolute monarchy we have in the world abolished the death penalty at some point.

You still have it in the United States. And again, at the beginning, I wouldn’t understand. Now, talking with people and I’ve lived in Texas for the first part of my American journey, I came to understand not to share, not to agree, but to understand the reasoning behind it.

Of course, I am against. Now I have to expose myself because we have had a big debate in Europe not so much about the righteousness of the death penalty, rather then about its use, as I said, the practicability and the injustice that come with it. Not just condemning innocent people but also giving a too harsh of a penalty to those who wouldn’t deserve it with some disproportional combinations of certain communities rather than others. So there are a lot of problems in the practicability of the death penalty.

But, I have to admit that by living and by being immersed in Texas, for example, in a community pretty much in agreement with the death penalty, I started to consider, and also even to appreciate. Even again, I don’t agree, to appreciate the arguments behind it. Which, by the way, the arguments that Kant made famously in one of his most important political work.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Those are great examples. I mean, you could have books, entire series, philosophizing about the death penalty, guns, Second Amendment. And I think the one thing that philosophy hopefully teaches you is to question.

So here in America, established norm is we have the death penalty. Okay, why? Why do we have it? Has it always been around? Did we reinstate it? Oftentimes, when you watch political commentators, they give their perspective in a very simplistic way from the right or left. That’s one of the biggest services that the American media does is that the American media isn’t about fairness, it’s about satisfying their market. So there’s the market for the right, there’s a market for the left, and they don’t care about having a middle ground. Most of them, I should say.

At the beginning of the podcast, when you said that you started learning philosophy when you’re young in high school and continued. It would be different learning philosophy in Italy and Germany when the philosophers maybe have wrote their text an hour away in the city next to you where there’s that national pride of having these philosophers. And I’m not saying that there aren’t American philosophers because there are.

But oftentimes, so many of the philosophers we read are European philosophers. You go back to ancient Greece and all of Europe has a cohesion, a philosophical cohesion because we go back and we read the Greek and the Roman philosophers.

And even when you’re talking about the death penalty, Europe has gone through so much pain and suffering. And so through that, you have to philosophize. You have to figure out, what are humans doing to each other?

And I’m not saying that Americans haven’t gone through stuff. America has its own problems not to mention, well, of course, slavery, and its treatment of its indigenous people. But we’ve never had a war like World War I, World War II, and then having had to come to grips with that reality.

I mean, honestly, the treatment of indigenous people in the country, America has not come to grips with that. Even the Civil War. There was a horrible Civil War in the country, but did America really come to grips with slavery? If it had, we still wouldn’t be having problems today. There still wouldn’t be such inequity found and such problems with the judicial system where there’s so many more black people in prison than white or arrested because of your color, because of all the different things that for some people, they don’t question the current state of things when they should.

Stefania Malacrida: Yes. And we don’t have to forget. Let’s not forget that it is after World War II that some international organizations were born such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization. They came together and they made this effort to try to define what are human rights, the human rights that cannot be violated? And arguing about human rights, what are they? A more modern version rather than the one written in the American Constitution, for example.

And they came up with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is one of the most modern and most beautiful documents ever. “It’s just written words,” somebody could say. “It’s just a document.” And, for example, the United States didn’t sign the document in spite of the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR were the ones who lead these efforts actually after the war.

So those are just words, but the mere fact that multiple nations sat at one table trying to find that common ground, giving in something about their personal or cultural identities to the benefit of a common good, of a more important common good. Writing down what should be done, what are those rights?

Trying to really find those things that everybody could agree with, that’s very significant. And it means that it is doable. And one could disregard this document, but what is the alternative? The alternative is not nice. Alternative is war, et cetera.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And to get to really the last question is, how can relativism be positively applied to cultural difference between peoples? Because in the past, there were conflicts. There were conflicts between cultures. Your culture was different than mine, we fought each other even when cultures looked exactly the same and the people looked exactly the same. They still fought.

And I’m not going to say that the development of nuclear weapons has a positive side to it besides nuclear power. But conflict had to be figured out or else literally, millions of people would die with one bomb.

And so at least with the development of democracies, democracies generally don’t fight each other. And so war has been “less,” I’m putting that in big quotes when in reality, of course, there are, of course, wars all around the world at any one time. But because we’re having to figure out how to deal with each other, that’s good. So how could relativism be positively applied to cultural differences?

Stefania Malacrida: Well, relativism is the wrong word, I think, and this is part of the problem. That people mention relativism as a way of expressing tolerance towards different identities and cultures. That’s freedom of religion and freedom of thought actually. It’s not really relativism.

Relativism is the view, an erroneous view, that our moral values, moral relativism in this case, are determined, come from our culture, from our background. We have already said that there are problems with that because we cannot infer individual behaviors in a deterministic way from the surrounding, the backgrounds, the structure of a society.

Of course, we are influenced by it. But there is always a space of freedom of free choice, of free will, and there is also, even when there is no choice, we can have the possibility to criticize those structures, those customs, those habits.

And it is difficult to give an absolute answer to what is right or wrong. The most important thing though, is to know that we cannot. We don’t receive what is right or wrong, those notions, those diktats in a deterministic way from our surrounding.

This is evidently untrue because we do have critical thinking and we do criticize our laws, you bet, our customs, good or bad habits. We judge them. We consider them from an ethical point of view. And now, we have some open questions. So what is absolutely right?

Are there universal moral values? Where do they come from? What’s their nature? So those are difficult questions. But the fact that we don’t have an easy answer doesn’t mean that we have to slip back, get back to this relativistic view by which we just pick what is right or wrong different from our culture. So it’s enough to defeat relativism, to acknowledge that there is a distance. That there is a critical gap between what we think and what is generally thought and accepted by a society.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And these have been absolutely wonderful conversations. And Stefania, any final words for everybody who’s listening?

Stefania Malacrida: Well, the final words are that we have to get an education. An education that allows us to nurture our critical thinking, our soul as Socrates would say. And simply because we want to live in a peaceful world and this is a desire that we all commonly share or most of us share because what is the alternative?

The alternative, accepting relativism means being okay with slavery, as we said, with genocide, with subjugation of women, oppression of homosexuals, segregation, Nazism, brutality. So are we okay with these things? We want to say no.

So what is the right thing to do? It’s difficult. It’s difficult, but somehow we have to come together and to find this common ground because the alternative is not nice. The alternative is cultural clashes, civil unrest that we are experiencing today. Even civil wars or actual wars and social disintegration in the end.

And we have to ask ourselves a question, do we want this? What is it that we want as individuals and as a society? And this is where the philosophical journey starts.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely wonderful. And I’d like to thank everybody for being here today.

Stefania Malacrida: Thank you.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And today, we were speaking with Stefania Malacrida about the relativism and differences between the US and Europe here at The Everyday Scholar.

About the Guest:

Stefania Malacrida has been a faculty member at American Public University since 2018. completed her graduate degree in Europe, specializing in continental philosophy. She studied and researched at the Ruprecht-Karls Universität in Heidelberg, Germany, focusing in particular on Kant and contemporary existentialist thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and the first Hannah Arendt. Her favorite quote is by Wislawa Szymborska: “I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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