Eighteenth Century / Robinson Crusoe

Crusoe and Cultural Relativism

In finishing Robinson Crusoe, the piece of the novel I found most interesting was Crusoe’s moral decision around the issue of the cannibals. He first plans on killing them for committing an act against God, but eventually retracts his plan after careful consideration:
I debated this very often with myself thus: ‘‘How do I know what God Himself judges in this particular case? It is certain these people do not commit this as a crime; it is not against their own consciences’ reproving, or their light reproaching them. They do not know it to be an offence, and then commit it in defiance of Divine justice, as we do in almost all the sins we commit. They think it no more a crime to kill a captive taken in war than we do to kill an ox; nor to eat human flesh, than we do to eat mutton (Defoe, 255).
Here, we see Crusoe wrestling with the theme of moral relativism. That is, the concept that moral values are different from culture to culture, rather than clear cut for all people. As we see Crusoe used as a symbol for the English empire, his first imperialist tendencies struck me as well fitting, especially when considering the Bible as his motivating force. However, his character development is shown as he reconsiders. I find moral relativism to be an interesting thought experiment, but a notion that falls apart upon closer inspection. For example, if murder is a cultural ritual, I feel it is disingenuous to separate that from the act of murder itself. However, I do believe that morals are somewhat relative to the situation. When his life was threatened by the cannibals, he rightfully responded with violence in an act of self-protection.
On the topic of culture, I turn my attention to Wheeler’s essay “My Savage, My Man” which explores the power structure between Crusoe, Friday and Xury through the lens of race. Her thesis is that while slavery may be the basis of this relationship, the power structure we see present is a growth out of 18th century conceptions. Ultimately we are to see the relationship as one of servitude, rather than slavery (Wheeler, 855). While reading, I found Xury and Friday’s acceptance of their relationship to the white Crusoe a little perplexing, however putting this in the context of the 18th century helped me understand it a bit better.

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