Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why I Deny (Strong Versions of) Descriptive Cultural Moral Relativism

Cultural moral relativism is the view that what is morally right and wrong varies between cultures. According to normative cultural moral relativism, what varies between cultures is what really is morally right and wrong (e.g., in some cultures, slavery is genuinely permissible, in other cultures it isn't). According to descriptive cultural moral relativism, what varies is what people in different cultures think is right and wrong (e.g., in some cultures people think slavery is fine, in others they don't; but the position is neutral on whether slavery really is fine in the cultures that think it is). A strong version of descriptive cultural moral relativism holds that cultures vary radically in what they regard as morally right and wrong.

A case can be made for strong descriptive cultural moral relativism. Some cultures appear to regard aggressive warfare and genocide as among the highest moral accomplishments (consider the book of Joshua in the Old Testament); others (ours) think aggressive warfare and genocide are possibly the greatest moral wrongs of all. Some cultures celebrate slavery and revenge killing; others reject those things. Some cultures think blasphemy punishable by death; others take a more liberal attitude. Cultures vary enormously on womens' rights and obligations.

However, I reject this view. My experience with ancient Chinese philosophy is the central reason.

Here are the first passages of the Analects of Confucius (Slingerland trans., 2003):

1.1. The Master said, "To learn and then have occasion to practice what you have learned -- is this not satisfying? To have friends arrive from afar -- is this not a joy? To be patient even when others do not understand -- is this not the mark of the gentleman?"
1.2. Master You said, "A young person who is filial and respectful of his elders rarely becomes the kind of person who is inclined to defy his superiors, and there has never been a case of one who is disinclined to defy his superiors stirring up rebellion. The gentleman applies himself to the roots. 'Once the roots are firmly established, the Way will grow.' Might we not say that filial piety and respect for elders constitute the root of Goodness?"
1.3. The Master said, "A clever tongue and fine appearance are rarely signs of Goodness."
1.4. Master Zeng said, "Every day I examine myself on three counts: in my dealings with others, have I in any way failed to be dutiful? In my interactions with friends and associates, have I in any way failed to be trustworthy? Finally, have I in any way failed to repeatedly put into practice what I teach?"
No substantial written philosophical tradition is culturally farther from the 21st century United States than is ancient China. And yet, while we might not personally endorse these particular doctrines, they are not alien. It is not difficult to enter into the moral perspective of the Analects, finding it familiar, comprehensible, different in detail and emphasis, but at the same time homey. Some people react to the text as kind of "fortune cookie": full of boring and trite -- that is, familiar! -- moral advice. (I think this underestimates the text, but the commonness of the reaction is what interests me.) Confucius does not advocate the slaughter of babies for fun, nor being honest only when the wind is from the east, nor severing limbs based on the roll of dice. 21st century U.S. undergraduates might not understand the text's depths but they are not baffled by it as they would be by a moral system that was just a random assortment of recommendations and prohibitions.

You might think, "of course there would be some similarities!" The ancient Confucians were human beings, after all, with certain natural reactions and who needed to live in a not-totally-chaotic social system. Right! But then, of course, this is already to step away from the most radical form of descriptive cultural moral relativism.

Still, you might say, the Analects is pretty morally different -- the Confucian emphasis on being "filial", for example -- that's not really a big piece of U.S. culture. It's an important way in which the moral stance of the ancient Chinese differs from ours.

This response, I think, underestimates two things.

First, it underestimates the extent to which people in the U.S. do regard it as a moral ideal to care for and respect their parents. The word "filial" is not a prominent part of our vocabulary, but this doesn't imply that attachment to and concern for our parents is minor.

Second, and more importantly, it underestimates the diversity of opinion in ancient China. The Analects is generally regarded as the first full-length philosophical text. The second full-length text is the Mozi. Mozi argues vehemently against the Confucian ideal of treating one's parents with special concern. Mozi argues that we should have equal concern for all people, and no more concern for one's parents than for anyone else's parents. Loyalty to one's state and prince he also rejects, as objectionably "partial". One's moral emphasis should be on ensuring that everyone has their basic necessities met -- food, shelter, clothing, and the like. Whereas Confucius is a traditionalist who sees the social hierarchy as central to moral life, Mozi is a radical, cosmopolitan, populist consequentialist!

And of course, Daoism is another famous moral outlook that traces back to ancient China -- one that downplays social obligation to others and celebrates harmonious responsiveness to nature -- quite different again from Confucianism and Mohism.

Comparing ancient China and the 21st century U.S., I see greater differences in moral outlook within each culture than I see between the cultures. With some differences in emphasis and in culturally specific manifestations, a similar range of outlooks flourishes in both places. (This would probably be even more evident if we had more than seven full-length philosophical texts from ancient China.)

So what about slavery, aggressive warfare, women's rights, and the rest? Here's my wager: If you look closely at cultures that seem to differ from ours in those respects, you will see a variety of opinions on those issues, not a monolithic foreignness. Some slaves (and non-slaves) presumably abhor slavery; some women (and non-women) presumably reject traditional gender roles; every culture will have pacifists who despise military conquest; etc. And within the U.S., probably with the exception of slavery traditionally defined, there still is a pretty wide range of opinion about such matters, especially outside mainstream academic circles.

[image source]


Michael Schmitz said...

Hi Eric, nice post. I've often wondered about a related question. People tend to assume that the diversity of moral attitudes and systems is greater, probably even much greater, than the diversity of theoretical beliefs and belief systems. I've never seen solid empirical evidence for this claim and think it is more based on a priori reasons - people assume this must be the case because they think that ethical attitudes are not constrained by reality in the way that beliefs are. In any case I'd be curious to know what you think about this.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Michael! I'm inclined to think that some theoretical beliefs can vary even more easily than moral beliefs -- if "theoretical beliefs" include beliefs about metaphysics, cosmology, theology, and the like, which can be connected to empirical evidence in a pretty loose way!

However, some other theoretical beliefs are very tightly connected to evidence: If I toss stones into the air, they will tend to come back down again (barring weird circumstances). These won't vary much, presumably. Maybe there aren't many (or any?) moral beliefs that are *quite* as fixed as that.

So maybe I'd say that the variance in degree of cultural diversity is higher for theoretical beliefs than for moral beliefs. Not sure where I'd put the mean. That might require counting up beliefs in some way, which is of course problematic.

Anonymous said...

"Culture" does not reduce to the prescriptive discourse of highly literate male elites.

Michael Schmitz said...

Interesting that you even go into the opposite direction! I always tend to think that the practical and the theoretical are parallel - because I have already convinced myself of that in many domains, notably with regard to the structure of reasoning, and because I think that they are normally so closely intertwined that it would be odd if there would be more diversity in one domain rather than the other. For example, deities would tend to have both more theoretical functions - as creators of the world or masters of certain domains - as well as practical, moral significance.

Of course in our scientifically informed world-view they are more separated, and to respond to your first examples, one would have to ask, what is parallel in the practical domain to e.g. metaphysics? Let's say the answer is philosophical ethics, do you think there is less diversity there than in metaphysics, or is it a bad answer?

As to your other example, a first stab at a practical example that roughly shares the properties of your theoretical one could be something like: "To relieve hunger, eat something!" (barring weird circumstances). Of course that's ethics only in a very broad sense, but it seems to me the level of complexity and fixedness is comparable.

Of course it'd be difficult to define a strict measure of diversity that would yield quantifiable results, but I find it always fascinating to ask for the theoretical and practical analogue of a given phenomenon and so far, if I try hard enough, tend to come up with answers that tends to support the idea that the domains are parallel. But this may just be me.

Xavier Marquez said...

Hi Eric,

I wonder what you're taking as a measure of radical moral difference? What sort of evidence might convince you that descriptive moral relativism is true?

For example, I find the moral worldview of the Aztecs - as explained even by a sympathetic interpreter like Inga Clendinnen ( ) extremely alien, though fascinating for that very reason, and in particular cases comprehensible. And I'm sure many vanished cultures had moral views just as alien; much moral human diversity is unrecorded, vanished in the depths of history through conquest or other forms of extinction. Is any particular example of cultural "alienness" sufficient to support a strong version of DCMR?

Or to take a more hypothetical example: what if we are only observing a biased sample of the possibilities, and other intelligent species could have profoundly alien moral systems? Would the discovery of such species show Strong DCMR to be true?

Callan S. said...

You might think, "of course there would be some similarities!" The ancient Confucians were human beings, after all, with certain natural reactions and who needed to live in a not-totally-chaotic social system. Right! But then, of course, this is already to step away from the most radical form of descriptive cultural moral relativism.

I think I was already standing there (oh, goody for me! ;) )!

I feel this is one of the positives in the world, amongst many negative issues.

But it doesn't get raised and celebrated enough - I suspect because of just world fallacies, people think things are better than they are and don't even think of a blessing like this, let alone count it.

So beers for us! Oh wait, beers are the work of the devil, you say as you suddenly show a culture I never expected? And even mentioning beer warrants punishment! Iiiieeeeeee! Why can these paralels of understanding never last long!? ;)

Anonymous said...

A great and interesting post. Michele Moody-Adams, as I recall, makes a similar argument against descriptive cultural relativism in her book Fieldwork in Familiar Places.

I might challenge you on a couple of points, however. You say "It is not difficult to enter into the moral perspective of the Analects, finding it familiar, comprehensible, different in detail and emphasis, but at the same time homey." Well, maybe yes and maybe no. I find that the American students I work with can relate very easily to many of the particular teachings of Confucius, maybe even more so than when they read Plato or Aristotle. But grasping the broader perspective that informs these teachings is much more difficult, for them and for me. What is "tian" (often translated "Heaven") and is it personal or impersonal? What is "de" and is it like Western "virtue" (Slingerland translates it that way, but others disagree)? And most of all what is "ren" (which Slingerland renders as "Goodness")? These are central terms in the Analects and the more I learn about them the more difficult I find it to understand the overarching vision behind them. And if the first few passages of the Analects seem easy to relate to, we can try reading the opening of the (related early Confucian text) "Doctrine of the Mean." Talk about unfamiliar and incomprehensible. And if we don't understand the overarching vision, have we really understood any of the particular teachings?

Also, for many Chinese at least Confucianism and Daoism haven't been understood as indicating a range of outlooks or diversity of opinions but rather as overlapping aspects of the same dao that comprise their traditional culture. I don't think it's wrong to see Confucians and Daoists (and Mohists, and so on) as offering a wide range of views about a number of philosphical issues, but we should recognize that this a way of viewing them that is characteristically ours. My sense at least is that contemporary Chinese are much more likely than contemporary Americans to see their culture as a unity, and a very unique one at that.

chinaphil said...

I was all primed to agree with you, because my expat experience has been one of progressively perceiving commonalities between my UK background and my Chinese home.

But actually, I don't, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I think you've set yourself a too easy target: "If you look closely at cultures that seem to differ from ours in those respects, you will see a variety of opinions...within the U.S...there still is a pretty wide range of opinion about such matters..."

Even if two cultures both contained identical ranges of opinions, the way these opinion spectra are weighted could vary radically. Sure, the US has people who think a woman's place is in the home; and Saudi Arabia has people who believe women are equal to men. But the US institutionalises one belief, and the Saudis the other. That's a pretty major difference.

(This touches on what it means for a culture to have particular moral beliefs - and I suspect that the concept will prove too flabby to be much use.)

The other reason is the one alluded to by Xavier above: the US and China are certainly not the most unalike civilisations on earth. They're both literate, settled, property-owning, old cultures. I think you'd see much more diversity if you looked beyond that grouping. Examples which jump to my mind are the Mongols (war as virtue; lack of interest in having a settled state); the Piraha (said to have a language with no tenses because they never think about anything but the present); Australian aboriginals (no property, some interesting ideas about what to do with the elderly); the Ik as observed by Turnbull; etc. That post on the Aztec has loads of crazy detail, so I'm sure there are many more possible examples.

But on the US and China, I think you're right. Most of the "exotic" ideas from China - filiality, face, guanxi connections, harmony - are very much present in EurAmerican society, and only need to be translated properly to become very transparent and easy to understand.

Callan S. said...

Anon Feb 19, 2:29

"Culture" does not reduce to the prescriptive discourse of highly literate male elites.

Seems a fairly sexist comment to make? Shouldn't it be 'individuals of certain attitudes and certain politics', as just as much a woman could hold the same attitudes and politics?

But then again I guess it's this thread having an example of a cross of cultures for which the ven diagram has a circle that overlaps far less than the others.

Regina Rini said...

Eric, I'm wondering about your last paragraph. You respond to this challenge "So what about slavery, aggressive warfare, women's rights, and the rest?" by saying "If you look closely at cultures that seem to differ from ours in those respects, you will see a variety of opinions on those issues, not a monolithic foreignness..." You point out that there is a similar diversity of viewpoints within the contemporary US.

I don't quite see how this response is meant to work. The challenge of cultural moral relativism (as I understand it) initially has to do with differences in substantive first-order moral beliefs. Your claim here appears to show that cultures have in common a *formal* property - that is, they each contain a range of viewpoints. But cultural relativism is compatible with cultures sharing formal properties like this.

Maybe I've got your point wrong? Is it that for any set of first-order substantive moral beliefs held by people in culture X there exists some set of people in culture Y who also hold those beliefs? Allowing, of course, that the relative proportions of people holding that set of beliefs will not be the same between cultures.

I don't know if that gets us far beyond relativism though. I wouldn't want to understand a culture's moral system as simply a fractional distribution of various first-order moral beliefs among its population. That's a mistake, I think, because any given pattern of first-order moral beliefs generates what we might call 'emergent' moral beliefs that build upon not just the first-order beliefs themselves, but upon facts *how they are distributed*.

Here's an example. Whether or not you will be accepted as a credible moral agent - and not a failure of moral development or psychotically insane - depends on whether or not you are seen to endorse a large fraction of the first-order moral beliefs that are endorsed by a large fraction of the people in your culture. And if you are a moral outlier, this changes your standing within the community, such that a different set of ways of relating to you (confinement, ostracism, death) are morally permitted than are for interactions with normal community members. In effect, certain social positions are *generated by* the highly specific distribution of first-order moral beliefs within the culture. And the culture itself consists (in part) of these social positions and emergent properties; it might be right to say that a culture 'has' a moral system only in the way that a brain 'has' neurons.

If all that is right, looking to the fractional distribution of first-order moral beliefs will not be a good metric of cultural moral difference. We also need an account of the emergent properties - how moral outliers (and perhaps also exemplars) are identified and treated by others, what social positions are formed precisely by people's awareness of and reaction to the distribution of moral beliefs.

So, now given that cultural moral difference must be, in significant part, a function of difference in emergent properties, we have reason to expect that cultures are likely to be quite a bit more different from one another than a simple survey of first-order moral beliefs might suggest. But perhaps by this point I've wandered far from your central claim.

Luke said...

I am reminded of Donald Davidson's 1973 "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme"; was it somewhere banging around in your mind when you wrote this?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks!

Anon Feb 19: I agree with that, and in fact appeal to that fact in my post. Were you intending that as an objection or an affirmation?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michael: I might agree with that, especially if the "ethical" is construed as broadly as you say (which might be the best way to go), so that "eat if hungry" and "endorse such-and-such a version of noncognitivism" both count as ethical.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Xavier: I confess to some distrust of anthropologists' reports of radically different moral attitudes in different cultures, given facts about the sociology of academia and the tendency to want to present one or a few views as "the" view of a culture. Perhaps this is too mistrustful; but I prefer to base my opinion on the case I personally know best, which is ancient China. There's also a concern about mistaking official doctrine for heartfelt opinion.

On aliens, my claim is meant to be limited to human cultures. *Maybe* alien species would be very different! I explore some reasons to put at least broad limits on the cognitive alienness of other species in my post last year on the Possible Psychology of a Matrioshka Brain.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: I'll take that beer. You're treating? ;-)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

More responses when I have a chance. Very interesting comments that deserve more time that I can give them right now. (It's Saturday and my family is rousing.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon, Feb 19: I agree that it can be hard to get U.S. students to understand tian, de, etc. I'm not sure I fully understand them either! But I don't know if that's evidence for a large cultural divergence. It's also hard to get U.S. students to understand "emergent properties", "treating someone as an end in herself", etc. I think these kinds of theoretical/theological/jargonish constructions do vary a lot between cultures, but I also think they're kind of superficial in a way -- kind of a superstructure we place atop our basic patterns of moral reaction, not totally devoid of impact but also not especially powerful. (This thought connects with my work on the nature of attitudes, my work on ethics professors, and observations about the weak relation between religiosity and moral behavior in the U.S.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Oh, on your point about seeing the traditions as all part of a single culture. I agree that they are part of a single culture, but that culture is not radically morally different from our own. I do think that the common tendency to see Kongzi, Laozi, etc. as offering similar views (much less Mozi!) that can be reconciled is erroneous history of philosophy, a regrettable result (probably) of the syncretistic tradition post-unification.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Chinaphil: I definitely agree that it's an important difference which aspects of the tradition are institutionalized. I didn't mean to give the opposite impression.

Turnbull on the Ik is a case in point of my reasons to be wary of anthropologists' presentations of other cultures. My understanding is that his methodology and characterization, which led him to such a radical presentation of their worldview, has been pretty roundly criticized. Some traditional cultures without a written tradition might have radically different ethical views -- especially if they are small and don't face the particular range of challenges common to large, literate, agricultural societies like ancient China and the U.S. But I think the evidence is pretty shaky; at least the evidence I've seen. And to me the US / ancient China comparison is pretty striking and compelling; and it depends on a range of texts that are publicly available for us to evaluate.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Regina, you write:
"If all that is right, looking to the fractional distribution of first-order moral beliefs will not be a good metric of cultural moral difference. We also need an account of the emergent properties - how moral outliers (and perhaps also exemplars) are identified and treated by others, what social positions are formed precisely by people's awareness of and reaction to the distribution of moral beliefs."

That makes sense to me. I was arguing against the idea that there's a very large first-order moral difference in the range of views. But as you put so nicely, and as some others have emphasized, the difference in proportion among their view and which ones are institutionalized, has a huge impact on how people live, e.g., how women live in cultures that don't allow them many of the roles that men can play. So I wouldn't want to deny that.

My focus was intended to be more on the striking non-alienness of the moral positions in this culture that is about as far from the 21st century U.S. as one can get and still have a large literate philosophical tradition, and how that fact, if it is a fact, might not sit very well with the strongest versions of (what I'll now call) "first-order" moral relativism.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Luke: Ha, I hadn't been thinking about that -- but I guess I do agree with Davidson that there are limitations to the alienness of an interpretable culture.

Luke said...

I'm also reminded of Peter Winch's 1958 "The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy", which I found via Richard J. Bernstein's Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. This question of "multiple rationalities" and how to bridge them has me very curious. Add to this Alasdair MacIntyre's 1977 Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy Of Science, and you can't necessarily separate "rationality" from "culture".

Luke said...

There's also Foucault's Madness and Civilization:

>> ...modern man no longer communicates with the madman [...] There is no common language: or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence.

If there really are different "conceptual schemes", those whom society declares "mad" or "mentally ill" would be the ones who have truly different schemes from ours. One might look at autism in particular. I have seen a few things done there which medical doctors claim are impossible (that is, achieving unprecedented amounts of communication, and even physical touch).

This is just a guess; I've read very little Foucault. So much to read, so little time.

clasqm said...

What you are refuting seems to be the ethical equivalent of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and your refutation amounts to the same used against that: "it may look different from ours, but we can learn it and they can learn ours". So far, so good.

But your other argument (there is a divergence of views within cultures) just devolves the problem to the subculture level. Just as there is in the USA today a subculture that believes it is ethical to regulate gun ownership and another that believes it is ethical to allow five-year olds to own machine guns. The blocs we are working with are smaller, but the problem has not really gone away. These groups, both claiming to represent "western culture" hold radically different ethical ideas. where a "culture" ends and a "subculture" begins is a question with historical and political baggage. Ultimately, "western culture" is a vague concept with extremely fuzzy borders.

What I'm getting at is that you paint with broad strokes. Western culture. Chinese culture. But these could be cut up in all sorts of interesting ways. Conventionally, this is done geographically. Northern Chinese culture vs southern chines culture, for example. I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who pointed out that rice-eating Chinese vs noodle-eating Chinese is a more interesting view. Not necessarily correct, but more interesting!

I agree with some of the other commenters that your choice of China as your comparative yardstick is unadventurous: there are far more alien (to us) ways of seeing the world. Here is something to get your teeth into.

We see the world as consisting of a single nature within which there are many cultures. Native Amazonians, however, see reality as consisting of a single culture within which there are many natures, and there are a lot of ethical issues that flow from that difference. How this works is explained in this podcast: You can fast-forward to 16 minutes to hear the relevant part.

chinaphil said...

I take the argument that it's certainly an interesting phenomenon that cultures as far apart as ours and ancient China's seem to be talking about many of the same ethical impulses.

I'll offer three other related arguments:
1) History (and ethics) is written by the winners. Historically, most human societies have failed. The US and China are two of our most striking successes. Perhaps that's another point they have in common, and if you looked at the fallen civilizations you'd see much more range. For example: in Rome, they had gladiator fights. That's pretty distinctive, I think - something you see in neither the US nor ancient Chinese mainstream culture: human death as entertainment. Also worth noting that contemporary writers saw it as part of/a reflection of Rome's moral decline, and possibly a reason for her downfall.

2) Another possible argument, closely related to what Regina was saying, is that your proposal assumes that there is such a thing as "first order moral views" and that they can be separated from institutions and practices. But perhaps theory and praxis cannot be separated in that way... this thought is a bit unfinished, not quite sure where I'm going with it.

3) There's also the worry about not taking other cultures seriously: when Confucians (and indeed most Chinese) said your primary responsibility was to your father, they really meant it, and to claim that they really have the same "first order views" as us is to invert their actual moral thinking. Or Islam - oh, it's one of the three desert monotheisms, hipsters dismissively conclude. But submitting to god is really quite a different thing to being god's chosen people, and even if many of the procedures look similar, it's wrong to assume that they must have the same theoretical underpinnings.

clasqm said...

@chinaphil: Hollywood offers more human death as entertainment every single year than the Roman empire did in its entire existence. We've just worked out a way to simulate it so convincingly that we can dispense with the physical act of actually killing people. It works out much cheaper that way.

chinaphil said...

@Michel - I was wondering about that as I wrote my comment, but ultimately decided that it was irrelevant. (a) There's no obvious difference in US culture that corresponds to the gap between 1915 - death as entertainment only in highly stylised form on the stage - and 2015 - death as entertainment in hyperreal HD fakevision. (b) movies are movies, life is life. (c) Even our worst movies have some semblance of plot. Pure violence doesn't rake in the big bucks. Though I'm sure the Romans cooked up WWF-style gladiator narratives (as in the Ridley Scott film), most spectators at the games went only to watch the death - just as most TV quiz show viewers today watch only for the money.

So, despite the enormous illusion of death, I still think there was something quite distinctively different about Roman gladiatorial combat. And interesting to note that the Chinese of the same period didn't do it.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all those references, Luke. My hunch is that the Foucault, or at least the conclusion you draw from it, is too strong a commitment to difference.

Michel: I worry about going to those other sorts of cases for two reasons: One is that I can't really evaluate what the anthropologists say about those cultures. I think there are pressures to emphasize the strange and to present a single unified view (sometimes official positions that might not be well connected to everyday practical judgments). For China we can look directly at the original texts. The other is that even if anthropologists' portrayals of cultures as radically different are spot-on, Ancient China is a far enough case that it's interesting that there are nonetheless great similarities.

Chinaphil: On your third point, I think the more abstract/metaphysical/theological the material, the more it can roam wild and vary between cultures I think; but such differences, though not merely decorative, are not the bone and sinew of moral judgment, I think. On gladatorial combat: I don't know much about gladiatorial combat, or why people watched it, or what they got from it. As Michel points out, it is in some ways similar to Hollywood movies; there are also similarities to boxing and to crowds relishing injuries in American football. I admit it appears to have been more extreme than any of those things!