Conflicting Moral Codes, and What to Do About Them

One of the most difficult questions of philosophy is deciding on a moral code to adhere to. One of the most difficult questions after that is how to relate to the moral codes of others, particularly when they go against the code you’ve taken as your own. These are questions concerning which one libraries’ worth of speculation and contemplation have been written, with no final consensus, so it would be the height of hubris to assume that I might propose a final solution to the problem in a weekend blog, but I’ll take a stab at clarifying my own position on the matter a bit anyway. My starting assumption is this: the key issue is reaching some functional assumption as to the level of free will we have.

I’m taking on this topic as a response to a debate between some deeply respected friends of mine over the issue of formulating a response to Qur’an burning. A moron in Florida decides to make a public spectacle out of saying that the book which Muslims consider to be the holy Word of God is “guilty” of atrocities and publicly destroying a copy of said book as a way of getting a rise out of Muslims. As a result a number of Muslims go ballistic.

Obviously this man’s moral character is such that the appropriate word to describe him would be one of the many colloquial terms for male genitalia. Equally obviously, killing people in reaction to his stupidity is unjustifiable. The question upon which reasonable people may disagree is what constitutes a proper response to such an insult directed at what others hold as sacred. Underlying this question is one of what, if anything, we can hold as sacred, and how can we determine that others must respect our own standards of sacredness. In contemplating this matter I would propose the consideration of two standards for moral standards: Jonathan Haidt’s and my own.

Haidt’s approach is to say that there are, broadly speaking, five different bases for moral action:
–    protecting the innocent,
–    fairness/reciprocity,
–    looking after your own kind,
–    honoring traditional authority structures, and
–    maintaining standards of bodily purity.
The more “liberal” you are, the more you stick to respect for just the first two; the more “conservative” you are, the more you stress the latter ones as equally important. Haidt points out that all of these have been useful in enabling us humans to accomplish everything that we have, but the more open-minded a person is, the more problematic the latter three become. If I put the rights of those within my own tribe, family, race, religion, nation or some other random grouping ahead of everyone else’s; how can I honestly justify that? If a particular system has been used to keep people “in order” for centuries, and I happen to have been born into such a system, does that in itself give me a moral obligation to defend that system? Then aside from scientifically demonstrable harmful effects on the human body of certain substances (such as lead, asbestos and tobacco) or practices (such as inbreeding, female genital mutilation or prolonged sleep deprivation)  what basis is there for designating certain substances and practices as “unclean” or “disgusting”?

But regardless of the rational challenges involved in maintaining such standards as universal, or even as universalizeable, they are actually quite useful for promoting powerful societies. Does that in itself justify them? Perhaps from some perspectives; not from mine.

My own theory regarding the ways in which people rationalize their moral justifications, which would particularly apply to these sorts of questions, has to do with our alternatives in terms of foundational meta-ethical assumptions. In short I believe that there are four types of fundamental meta-ethical starting points which can be used, and at least a couple strategies for combining these or evading the issue. These starting points could be labeled as:
–    the materialistic,
–    the existential,
–    the societal and
–    the transcendental.
In brief terms, respectively, people could consider the point of any effort they might bother to make to be the accomplishment of some material state of affairs (usually having to do with some variation on the self-preservation impulse), or to prove something to themselves about their own importance and significance, or to play a constructive role in the preservation and promotion of some sort of social order, or to be “properly related” to something (assumed to be) more important and foundational than any of the above.

It is also possible to assume that these categories are inherently interrelated, that together they make up a cosmic whole that we are caught in the current of, and that there is nothing we can do to significantly change any of it. This I would call pantheistic determinism. Or then one might assume that the essential structure of things is chaotic, random and ultimately meaningless; and whether or not we mean to, we can have profound influences on the world around us (“the butterfly effect”) but in the end it will all be forgotten anyway. This I would call postmodern angst.

Which of these perspectives is most realistic? That’s ultimately a rationally unanswerable metaphysical question; a matter of faith in one sense or another. Which is best for people to believe in? That inevitably leads to a circular argument of one sort or another, in that your idea of “best” will be tied to your conscious or subconscious meta-ethical presuppositions about what is ultimately important. Is the important thing to feel happy overall, or to have a sense of purpose, or to fit in with one’s society, or to act in a materially sustainable sort of way, or to avoid taking any of it too seriously, or…?

We all need something to push for though –– something to give our lives purpose and direction. As I have stated before, I strongly agree with Daniel Dennett that the secret to human happiness is to find a cause greater than oneself and to dedicate one’s life to it. This in turn enables us to locate ourselves in terms of the latter three moral motivations that Haidt talks about. Our religious identities, for instance, can determine who we consider ourselves to owe primary allegiance to, what authorities we submit ourselves to and what standards of purity we maintain. Non-religious people in turn can make such determinations on the basis of material goals or materialist ideologies; or on the basis of some concept of personal freedom and excellence; or on the basis of some combination of racial, ethnic or national identity factors. None of these are inherently any more or less moral and functional than the others, per se. All of them can motivate people to be very moral individuals; all of them can drive people to commit horrendous atrocities. Yet living without any such purpose is perhaps the most tragic state of all.

Do we actually choose these meta-ethical positions for ourselves, or are we more or less programmed into them by forces beyond our control? Obviously in each individual case there are elements of both. Since this essay was prompted by a discussion of reactions to and within Islam, let’s take Muslims as a case in point. For either a Muslim or non-Muslim to claim that Muslims in general have a choice in the matter of whether or not to belong to their religion is more than a little bit naïve. Thus to claim that they are inherently morally praiseworthy or blameworthy on account of their religious affiliation is just plain wrong, as in totally incorrect –– out of touch with the facts of the matter. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims were born into the faith. The first words they heard after exiting their mothers’ wombs were a quote from the Qur’an. The words of their holy book have been as all pervasive in their lives as rhythm is for indigenous Africans. Imagining life without it is completely disorienting for them. Certainly there are also converts to Islam, and there are those who allow their faith and religious identity to slip and then perhaps return, but both are far more the exception than the rule.

It is true that many Muslim countries and communities blatantly ignore the human right to choose one’s religion, and to be allowed to change out of the religion one is born into. A would-be convert away from Islam in such places can be risking his or her life, quite literally. But that is not what keeps them in the faith. Like the 90+ % of Amish kids who voluntarily join their church after their “rumspringer” time, Muslims remain Muslims because it is inextricably part of who they were raised to be. Very few others groups socialize their young into their traditions nearly so powerfully. Nor do they feel victimized by this indoctrination process. Muslim men and women are happy and satisfied to be exactly what they are.

Among Muslims then there is a wide variety of different sorts of individuals, each using their faith as a way of conceptualizing their basic human nature, and most often living according to their basic human predispositions to be as kind or nasty, empathetic or selfish as anyone else in the world. As with Christianity, secular socialism, Hinduism or feminist idealism; Islam can provide a motivation and framework for the kindest and noblest acts humans are capable of, or it can provide an excuse for some of the worst atrocities humans are capable of. If there would be any distinguishing features among Muslims in general it would be a strong level of social conditioning not to “take any crap” from those who disagree with them; and a tendency to take various forms of symbolism, from a western perspective, excessively seriously.

One classic example of this was my experience of attending a seminar on Islam in schools in Manchester, England during the time of the World Cup in 1998. One of the Muslim speakers at the seminar (a convert to their faith) took offense at the coffee creamers in the university cafeteria with the World Cup theme, because Saudi Arabia happened to be in the tournament.
Well, the Saudi flag was on some of the creamer lids.
As it happens, the Saudi flag happens to have what Muslims consider to be very sacred text on it.
Paper with such sacred words must never be thrown into the general garbage. That would be sacrilege and blasphemy!

In some ways this rule makes no practical sense, but like many matters of symbolic ritual, it really doesn’t have to. If non-Muslims can avoid causing unnecessary offence with such trivial matters, so much the better. If Muslims can avoid getting their knickers in a twist about such silly things –– if they can recognize that it’s not worth starting some absurd holy war over the matter –– that too could help make the world a better and safer place.

Whether or not we chose our overall religious or ideological identities –– and/or the broader moral codes to which we are subjected –– I believe that all of us can choose how we relate to those whose upbringing, and consequent ideological identification, differs from our own. This applies as much to religious people as secular folks; as much to Arabs, Pakistanis and Indonesians as it does to Scandinavians, Slavs and South Americans. Everyone can choose how respectful they will be to others, and everyone can choose whether or not to be reactionary when the others don’t seem to respect us in return.

Beyond that, to my Muslim friends I would say, as a respectful outsider, even if I am wrong, and there is something inherently holy about the very paper with Qur’anic text on it, isn’t it worth assuming that Allah is big enough and his word secure enough not to be threatened by disrespectful gestures of the ignorant? When Fundamentalist Christians started burning Beatles albums in the late 60s/early 70s, Lennon and McCartney didn’t loose any sleep over the matter. They knew that their music would live on regardless. Wouldn’t the creator of the universe be at least that secure about his own standing? If you assume otherwise it seems clear that you do more harm in terms of discrediting yourselves as his people than you do good in terms of defending the message of the Almighty, as though it would need such a defense. Take it as a sacred trust be an example to the world of emotional maturity in such matters!

And to my non-Muslim and/or non-religious friends I would say, is there really any point in promoting bigotry towards a quarter of the world’s population? Intentionally insulting what they hold as sacred, and what you frankly know nothing about, says far more about the lack understanding and basic social intelligence in anyone making such insults than it says in any sense about those being insulted, or their scriptures.

Intentionally baiting the less educated hot heads in any community in any such situation is morally reprehensible, and such actions are precisely what article 30 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted to prevent: “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” In other words if you’re trying to claim your freedom of speech as a justification for your efforts to promote prejudice against those of another religion, you don’t have a legal or moral leg to stand on.

In these things we really do have a choice. Let’s use that choice responsibly.



Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Philosophy, Religion, Tolerance

3 responses to “Conflicting Moral Codes, and What to Do About Them

  1. peddiebill

    I enjoyed reading this post and found some parts helpful in clarifying my own thinking. I am wondering if Jonathan Lanman’s observations in New Scientist 26 March 2011 about the way tensions in the community alter attitudes to faith needs to be added to your mix. For example when strains are introduced eg violence in Afghanistan the need for social insurance such as that afforded by knowing your security is in those who think in an identical way to you produces much more definitive views of what is acceptable and what is not. This is clearly different from Scandinavia where a strong welfare system reduces the gap between rich and poor and the absence of clear enemies of the State makes for a much more benign faith set. (eg more non deists and far fewer beligerent Christians). Maybe as in nature, environment is a key determinant in evolution of belief systems.

  2. Pingback: Conflicting Moral Codes, and What to Do About Them (via Huisjen’s Philosophy Blog) « Sift Through the Static

  3. Thanks Bill. Hadn’t seen the article you mentioned. I’ll put it on my “to do” list for the coming week.

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