Multiculturalism in Robinson Crusoe

Another book review.

I took a break from the overtly political and philosophical books.

Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, is cited in many a political treatise. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought it the most valuable of all books for education. He went so far as to say:

There exists one book, which, to my taste, furnishes the happiest treatise of natural education. What then is this marvelous book? Is it Aristotle? Is it Pliny, is it Buffon? No-it is Robinson Crusoe.

Political writers from Karl Marx to Lyle Rossiter have used the story as an foundation for their analogies. The story itself is intriguing and romantic. A single man, fighting to survive alone on an island.

The author has many themes woven into the story. One is a version of multiculturalism.

When Robinson Crusoe discovers that savages bring their victims to the island to cannibalize, he is filled with righteous ire and his first thought is to kill them. As the rage subsides, his reasoning changes. He considers their cannibalism to be part of their culture, and compares it to his killing of an ox.

It is certain these people either do not commit this as a crime; it is not against their own consciences’ reproving, or their light reproaching them…. When I had considered this a little; it followed necessarily that I was certainly in the wrong in it; that these people were not murderers in the sense that I had before condemned them in my thoughts…

He eventually concludes them to be innocent of any wrongdoing and goes so far as to conclude that killing them would be a most grave wrong.

It’s obviously a budding multiculturalism, based on a moral subjectivism. The problem with multiculturalism, as I see it, is that it assumes an authority of a culture to pass judgment on the individual. The individual being cannibalized is assumed to have lost his right to live by mere virtue of being born into the midst of cannibals.

If we go further, we see that the real problem is the judging of acts by a moral standard. Morality is subjective. In one culture, or even one individual’s way of thinking, murder may be wrong. And in another individual’s way of thought, murder may be right. So are we to acquiesce to murder when the murderer’s morality condones it?

This is a perfect case of a person asking the wrong question. From that very authoritarian Plato to that very modern liberal John Rawls, all law is supposed to rest upon a foundation of morality. They ask the question, “what morality is law best founded upon?” When indeed that is the wrong question to ask.

Law should no be founded upon morality. Morality is subjective. We’d might as well base our law on alliteration, or the ramblings on an insane person.

Legitimate law is supposed to draw its legitimacy from the consent of the governed to the social contract – that social contract that says I will do you no harm in fair consideration of your pledge to do me no harm, and in the case of intended harm by a third party, I will defend you in fair consideration of your pledge to do the same.

No morality there, just an agreement. A social contract. Like the contract I have with my landlord to pay my rent, it’s based not on morality but on mutual benefit and consent of the parties to the contract.

Morality is good and fine for individuals to order their own lives, but it should not be legislated. And indeed, when morality may be effectively used to justify cannibalism, my point is made quite effectively by the very proponents of it.

Leave a comment