Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Moral Absolutism

I picked up a couple of packages at our local post office yesterday, but first I had to wait for 15 minutes or so in a longer-than-usual line. Directly in front of me were a couple of Caucasian women, probably between 25 and 35 years old, deep into a conversation about…well, you figure it out. I’ll call them Jan and Sue, though I have no idea what their real names are; this is my best recollection of the part of their conversation that interested me:

Jan: I just read that British schools are going to stop teaching anything about the Holocaust, because they’re afraid of offending Muslim children.

Sue: Aren’t they worried about offending Jewish children?

Jan: I don’t know. I think maybe they’re scared.

Sue: They’re scared? Of what? Riots because Muslim parents find out that their kids are being taught about how Hitler killed Jewish people?

Jan: Yeah.

Sue: Well, that’s just plain stupid. The Holocaust happened; they can’t just write it out of the history books because some people are offended by it!

Jan: Are you Jewish?

Sue: No! And why should that matter?

Jan: Well … how do you know the Muslims are wrong about the Holocaust?

Sue: Are you serious?

Jan: Well … sometimes I wonder about these things I’ve been taught. And there’s so many Muslims — there must be something to what they’re saying.

Sue: Do you have any idea how women are treated in Muslim countries?

Jan: I’ve heard a lot of awful things. But how bad could it be, really? Their women aren’t leaving…

At this point Sue looked a bit upset, and she and Jan stopped talking. Sue and I had an interesting discussion about our respective experiences with people — Americans — who are extraordinarily ignorant about (and disinterested in) current events, not to mention history. Sue finds one particular aspect — on display with Jan — particularly galling: the (to her) unbelievable willingness of American women to accept the legitimacy (her word) of the Islamic view of women. She has found, through many conversations, that this acceptance is borne of ignorance (predominantly) and the triumph of multi-culturalism over moral absolutism.

By moral absolutism, she meant the idea that right and wrong can be determined “absolutely", without reference to some particular moral framework. Sue used this example: if you’re a true-blue multi-culturalist, you would say (though it might pain you to do so) that it’s ok to hang gay men if your moral framework is Islam, but not if it’s whatever passes for a moral framework in the U.S. But if you’re a moral absolutist, you would say that there exists an absolute framework of right and wrong, independent of any particular (especially religious) moral teaching — and in that sense, hanging a gay man is wrong no matter what moral framework it’s done in.

Normally the conversations in the Jamul post office line tend more toward weather, fire danger (we all live in fear of brush fires here), or the efficacy of goats for brush clearing. This was a very interesting and entertaining change of conversational pace, and Sue and I kept up our discussion for most of the ten minutes or so remaining before we got to the front of the line. We reached no conclusions, and had no brilliant ideas. Jan, Sue, and I all walked out of the post office at about the same time. The rear bumper of Jan’s car had several stickers: “Kerry/Edwards” (no surprise there!), “I (heart) Canada", and “Dean '04”. Sue’s car had one bumper sticker — a military pass, but in her window was a decal for a Catholic church — interesting, for someone defending moral absolutism.

I spent the drive home wondering how much — and how fairly — one can infer about a person from the stickers and decal on their car. Not much, was my conclusion…

No comments:

Post a Comment