Friday, October 06, 2006

Jack Straw and moral relativism

Liberal Review gets it right.

Straw did no more than express a preference, and there is nothing wrong with that. It would also be my preference even if I didn't articulate it.

Of course people are free to choose how to dress. But, I wonder, how many of the people criticising Straw do not believe people should be free to choose how to dress - rather that some people have an obligation to follow certain Saudi fashions.

When you consider that something is a matter of moral obligation not personal freedom, then it is understandable to be angry at a third party asking you not to do it.

If you were asked to remove all your clothing before you could see your MP, you would probably consider the request to be wrong. If you are religious you may justify this in terms of a religious injunction against nudity. But even those of us who aren't religious are likely to agree with the conclusion. We would be quite likely to describe the request as offensive rather than free speech.

At this point moral relativists will all be glowing - you see this proves it, they will say. Values differ from one culture to the next, nobody is truly Right or Wrong, we just all have to learn to get along.

Well this isn't good enough. This sort of relativist, if consistent, is incapable of criticising not only other societies but also their own society. If values are only statements of the preferences of a society, then an assertion that your own society is doing something wrong is a self-contradiction. This relativism is politically impotent.

As an aside, I don't agree with the criticism that this kind of relativism is amoral, that a relativist has no moral standards. To a moral absolutist the statement that there is no such thing as a true Right or Wrong seems like amorality, but that is only if the words are interpreted the way the abolutist interprets them.


So where does this leave us? Whether or not we have a well thought-out (non-relativist) personal moral philosophy, or a moral system derived from a religion, I don't think we should be afraid to say that we think some things are OK - like showing your face - and other things are wrong - like asking constituents to undress. And if other people disagree with us, then that is fine.

While people disagree on these moral questions, it is inevitable that some people will do what others think is wrong or fail to do what others think is obligatory. We should try not to get too upset about this. In particular, we should not try to criminalise everything that the majority thinks is wrong. I would argue for criminalising only when the consequences of criminalising are better for life, liberty, health and happiness, and that sort of thing, than the consequences of not criminalising. But I suppose that reflects my consequentialist moral perspective, and I recognise that it is an extremely difficult judgement to make in borderline cases. I would also try to err on the side of criminalising too little.

The alternative position, that politics is simply applied morality, and that we should seek to ban everything that is wrong, will rightly cause fear in people with minority moral perspectives, particularly when they hear statements like Straw's indicating a dislike of one of their moral rules.

Personally, I would like it if we all felt able to debate why we think something is right or wrong. But for many this would mean debating the tenets of their faith, and there seems to be an unfortunate general reluctance to do this. And it may well be hopeless naivete to think any such debate would make much progress.


Drawing to a conclusion, I do think it is wrong to tell anybody they ought to cover their faces, therefore I disagree with at least some interpretations of Islam. As I am not a muslim, nobody should be surprised by this. We have to be able to discuss issues of morality and freedom with people we disagree with. And if we are liberal enough not to show much inclination to ban everything we think wrong or make compulsory everything we think right, it may make it possible to have this debate without it seeming part of a process of oppression.

4 comments:

Vigilante said...

Is there a difference between hijabs on one hand and chadors, niqab or burqas on the otherhand? Or is it just a difference without significance?

Joe Otten said...

Well yes there is a difference in that this issue arose over the question of showing the face.

Some muslims believe there is a moral duty for women not to show their faces. I think they are wrong, and that they are wrong to spread belief in this fictitious moral duty. Of course because they think they are right, they will think it is right to spread the belief.

I think the best outcomes are to be found if everybody feels free to express their opinions, and dress how they like, and the state keeps out of it - except where a face is legally necessary for identification: driving licenses etc.

The hijab is perhaps the same issue writ small and without the questions of identification and communication.

Sammy Kipper said...

Totally agree with you Joe, well done!

John O Hart said...

Here Here!