In the 1840s, Hindu priests complained to Charles James Napier (then Commander-in-Chief of British forces in India) about the prohibition of suttee by British authorities. Suttee was the custom of burning widows alive on the funeral pyre of their husbands. According to Napier’s brother William, this is how he replied:
“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”
This incident, perhaps the finest single moment in the history of Britain’s relatively benign imperialism, teaches two lessons still profoundly relevant today.
The first lesson is for the various sorts who call themselves “multiculturalists” and “moral relativists”. Napier showed us that these ostensibly liberating doctrines actually translate into “might makes right” – that, in the absence of a common normative ethical framework, disputes about “custom” will be won by the tribe with the most ability and will to use force.
The second lesson is for people who, having noticed than relativism and multiculturism are a road to ruination and blood, then argue that we must fall back on religion as the only possible source of truly universal ethical norms (If God is dead, is anything permissible?). Notice that the would-be widow-burners are priests? The “custom” they are arguing for is exactly their bid in the game of if-you-accept-my-religious-premises.
Napier, in promising those priests a hanging, says nothing of any religious counter-conviction of his own. And it would make no difference to the lesson if he had – except, perhaps, to underline the point that religion is just another form of tribal particularism and thus fundamentally unable to lift us away from the bloody muck of might-makes-right.
Those Hindu priests, being polytheists, are at least better equipped to understand this inability than a Christian or Muslim would be – they don’t pretend to a universal normative ethic, just one that is binding on those who live within their tribal custom. Monotheists, on the other hand, miss the point – they think everyone else’s religion is mere tribal particularism, while their own is uniquely and miraculously true. In this monotheists are essentially similar to any occupant of a hospital ward for delusional psychotics, and it is thus unsurprising that their capacity for consequential ethical reasoning is badly damaged.
Napier’s lesson doesn’t tell us where to find a universal normative ethic that isn’t dependent on religion. But it does tell us that until we do, the only “solution” to conflicts of custom will be this: rules get made by those with the most power to threaten and murder and the will to use that power.
And here is where the irony of Napier’s last sentence really stings. “Let us all act according to national customs.” Illusions about the logic of these conflicts can only lead to more bloodshed, not less.