Morals, Malala, and Mapping by Kile B. Jones

Kile Jones

Once again, recent events have me thinking of the ethical paradigms people utilize to comprehend and explain violent acts against women. These violent acts galvanize our moral compasses and beg for answers to our most fundamental moral questions. Do cultural relativism, pragmatism, divine command theory, utilitarianism, quasi-realism, virtue ethics, or moral realism better map on to the sentiments that arise in us when faced with misogynistic violence? Can we honestly say that an act is morally wrong when it is tangled up in the cultural and political characteristics of a certain country or group? Or can we justify, in the manner of moral realism, that certain acts are inherently wrong no matter what the context or culture? As you can tell, my ethical plate is full.

The first event that had me thinking of issues is the shooting of Malala Yousafzai. Malala, who I think should have won “Time Person of the Year” instead of President Obama, was gunned down on her school bus by members of the Taliban for being, amongst other threats, the “symbol of the infidels.” Malala survived a shot to her head and neck, and has since received innumerable awards and honors for her efforts to promote women’s education. Recently, 5 female school teachers were shot and killed by Islamic militants in the same province where Malala was shot. These teachers are thought to have been killed for their work fighting polio, since some Muslim extremists in that area think polio vaccines are a Western way of sterilizing Muslim children.

The second event was on December 16, when a group of Indian men gang-raped a woman on a bus in Delhi. The 23 year-old victim was a medical student who, after being violated by an iron bar, was stripped naked and thrown off the bus along with her male friend. Since this tragic offense protests have broken out throughout India and six men are facing murder charges and the likelihood of capital punishment.  An incident closely related to this showed the world the endemic problems with sexual violence and police corruption on the subcontinent.  A 17 year-old in Punjab reported a gang-rape only to be told by two police officers that she should either accept money to keep quiet, or marry one of the offenders. When turned away, she later took her own life by consuming poison.

While our reactions to these events may be clear—that is, our moral intuitions are revolted and shocked by these tragic crimes—the ways in which we explain and justify our moral positions are not so clear. Are these occurrences morally reprehensible because of the intentions, the acts, or the consequences? Can we separate cultural practice and folk ways from the acts themselves? At this point I am sure many of you (myself included) are going, “What is the problem here? These acts are wrong, end of story.” In my common sense opinions I agree, however, life is simply more complicated than this. These crimes were not committed in a vacuum, and they are often intertwined with cultural and religious identities.

I can say that these crimes are wrong because of the intentions of the perpetrators, the acts of inflicting coerced pain, and the consequences that followed from them. Does this mean I am a moral realist? I am not quite sure. One of the main criticisms of moral realism is that it justifies imperialistic and colonial expansion efforts. We sit here in the West, with the ghost of classical liberalism in our hallways, condemning not only gang rape on buses, but the characteristics and cultural conditions that allowed these acts to occur. Put simply, the shooting of Malala naturally became an issue about Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the gang rapes naturally became an issue about India.

The response to these post-colonial criticisms is that moral realism must also be applied to our own Western culture. If gang rape is wrong in India, it is wrong in the United States, Antarctica, etc. Even though we often do, we should not exempt ourselves from our own moral rule. If gang rape is always wrong, a claim that should be outrageously uncontroversial, than how do pragmatists and relativists account for this seemingly “universal” proposition? My point here is that we are often moral realists on the ground level and relativists in our armchairs. Either way, these different schools of thought are difficult to harmonize, even when more than one of them is necessary to include.

So maybe our clear-cut moral “schools of thought” do not adequately map onto the complexities of everyday life. Could it be the case that our moral sentiments are often at odds with our moral philosophy? If we can say that our actions are often at odds with our beliefs (thus producing hypocrisy) than surely we can say that our feelings and convictions can be at odds. In light of our moral disdain for the violence brought upon Malala and two unnamed victims, how can we best understand and explain these sentiments and the moral claims made after them? How can we be vigilant to make sure our moral philosophy maps onto the genuine difficulties of practical life?

If you want to support Malala, please visit here and sign the petition for women’s education in Pakistan.  If you want to support the two unnamed victims, please visit here and petition the Indian PM to act.

Kile Jones holds a Bachelors of Theology (B.Th.) from Faith Seminary, a Masters of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) and a Masters of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) from Boston University, and is a current Ph.D. in Religion student at Claremont Lincoln University.  He also holds a Certificate in Science and Religion from the Boston Theological Institute.  Mr. Jones has been published in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, Philosophy Now, Free Inquiry, World Futures, Human Affairs, and the Secular Web.  He has presented at Conferences around the United States and the United Kingdom.  He is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Claremont Journal of Religion ( His interests include religion and science, atheism, secularism, and philosophy of religion.  He also reviews books for Reviews in Religion and Theology (RRT) and is a Contributing Scholar for State of Formation (, an academic blog for emerging religious and ethical leaders. 

Categories: Ethics, Violence Against Women

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10 replies

  1. I think ethics are always to some degree contextual. The abuse of girls, women, and others have been condoned by religions and ethical systems. Feminism is a criticism of all systems of power and value that endorse or condone the subordination of women or any other group to white rational males or any other group. It is one of the “contexts” to which I turn when making moral judgments.


  2. From my “context” which includes feminism, it is always wrong to intend the subordination of women (or any other group) by any means, whether indirect “not violent” cultural or religious control or direct violence. In fact, violence is always part of the threat in cultural and religious control. The threat of rape or witch burning or bride buring or eternal punishment in hell are threats of violence.


  3. Thank you, Carol, for your calmly grounding pragmatism there.

    With all due respect, I found Jones’ posting interesting, but there came a point where he lost me. I agree we should apply moral realism to our own culture as well as to that of others. However, in what way do “our clear-cut moral ‘schools of thought'” not “adequately map onto the complexities of everyday life”? Surely he was not saying that gang rape should be acceptable to us as long as it is “intertwined with cultural and religious identities” which are not our own? Precisely what action — if any — is being espoused?

    Please forgive me if I inaccurately assume Jones are christian, but doesn’t Matthew 7:1-5 give the answer to this question? If we do not wish to be colonializing moralists, but we do wish to act against the atrocities of gang rape and other forms of violence against women, doesn’t it make sense to first agitate against it in our native cultures — especially if your gender is the one which is overwhelmingly the perpetrators of such horror? I do not find this difficult or excessively complex. Indeed, googling for “gang rape” in 2012 gives a plethora of cases on which we might take action: I offer links for the first five I discovered:

    9 charged in alleged gang rape of 14-year-old girl at party in St. Paul, Minn. on March 24th,
    Trial: Priest told of attempted seminary gang rape on April 23rd,
    Texas Gang Rape Trial: Eric McGowen, Defendant Accused In Rapes Of Young Girl, Vanishes Following Emotional Testimony on August 29th,
    US Soldiers Arrested for Gang-Raping Japanese Woman Near Okinawa Base on October 17th, and
    Steubenville High School Students Joke About Rape In Video Leaked By Anonymous on January 3rd of this year.

    I realize I am probably misunderstanding Jones’ posting to some degree, and for that I apologize. However, while I enjoy theorizing as much as the next doctoral student, please: let us not forget we will change the world only when we take action.


    • Excuse me, I was not clear enough; I should have typed:

      googling for “gang rape” in the US in 2012


    • “…especially if your gender is the one which is overwhelmingly the perpetrators of such horror?”

      I beg your pardon? Am I responsible for the acts of others whom I have no control over? By a condition of birth which I was given no choice in, am I now guilty by association? It is also in the nature of prejudice to characterize an entire class of people by the actions of a small cross-section of that class. What “moral school of thought” condemns prejudicial sexist behavior with prejudicial sexist rhetoric?

      Ms. Christ’s comments are more than simply “calmly grounding pragmatism.” Her clear and balanced statement that ” it is always wrong to intend the subordination of women (or any other group) by any means, whether indirect ‘not violent’ cultural or religious control or direct violence” provides stark contrast here.

      My wife filed a discrimination and harassment complaint at her place of employment. An investigation of the complaint by corporate officers found the matter in her favor. A few months later, she has had to file another complaint for discrimination and harassment. The perpetrators in both complaints are the local manager and co-workers and all are women! While “indirect ‘not violent’ cultural or religious control” may not be as extreme as “direct violence,” both are a product of ignorance (cultural and/or religious) – not a “natural” by-product of the gender a person is born as.

      The cause of Feminism is a just cause, but this cause cannot be advanced by becoming like the “perpetrators” who justify the need for the Feminist movement.


      • Mr. Tanner: your interpretation of my words is an interesting, if unintended, twist; I’m happy to do my best to clarify. As far as I know, gang rape is indeed overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, and to the best of my knowledge, such a statement of fact is not “prejudicial sexist rhetoric.” I would be happy to examine any studies you’ve read which indicate otherwise.

        I’m afraid I cannot answer your questions regarding who you are responsible for, as I believe that is a personal decision. The emotion of your reply, however, indicates this is an issue of much concern to you, which I’m happy to see — I think we should all reflect carefully on such issues. I’m not sure why you bring up your wife’s harassment complaint; I’d like to think you’re not trying to equate it with gang rape, which is what I wrote about.

        I hope this clarifies my comment to Mr. Jones for you. I look forward to hearing from him, as I truly am interested in his thoughts on the points he made in his posting.


        • “I’m afraid I cannot answer your questions regarding who you are responsible for, as I believe that is a personal decision.”

          Seriously? A personal decision? You do not know that we can only be held responsible for ourselves?


  4. Thanks for all of your comments:

    Carol: I agree with you. I am still working through how moral realism and imperialism relate.

    Laughing Collie: Thanks for your comments. I am not a Christian, I am an atheist. The whole “our clear-cut moral ‘schools of thought’” do not “adequately map onto the complexities of everyday life” was my attempt to point out that condemning cultural folkways and societal attitudes is not an easy task. Can we be moral realists and not also be imperialistic and colonial? I think so.

    There were plenty of gang-rapes around the world, but Malala and the two unnamed women in India are unique because they sparked world-wide protest. The Taliban for Malala, and the Indian police system for the two unnamed women. Of course all gang-rape is bad and deserves to be condemned. And I agree with you that we must look at our own society first, which is why I made sure to say, “Even though we often do, we should not exempt ourselves from our own moral rule.”

    Steve: Thanks for your comments.


    • Kile Jones: Thank you so much for your reply; I think I better understand now what you were trying to say. Also, hopefully the query re your religious beliefs was not offensive. In the spirit of fairness I’ll state I’m a relaxed agnostic with strong Women’s Spirituality leanings… or maybe the other way around. ;)

      You make an excellent point re the gang rapes you mentioned being significant due to sparking world-wide protest. I do have one further question, if I may: in order to be non-colonializing moral realists, what would you suggest as the best course of action regarding the issue of gang rapes? Do you think we should work first on fixing our own cultures, or that we continue to thoughtfully protest the relevant moral issues we perceive in other cultures… or perhaps something else entirely?

      I ask for two reasons: a) I rarely find men willing to talk calmly, rationally, and non-self-justificatorially (if that’s even a word :) ) on the subject of rape, and b) I’ve had the curious experience several times now of talking to people (not just men) about these issues, and discovering they’re happy to angrily denounce other cultures for gang rape, while turning a blind eye to performing activism on the same subject in their own culture. I find myself wondering, in fact, if this is the issue you are actually addressing in your posting here.

      Thanks for any feedback you’re willing to offer!


  5. I really like the title of your post.Also I really like how you have stressed that violence against women should be across the board, treated in a fair manner, instead of illogical attention to a thousands miles away rape case in India or Malala’s shooting. Millions of us, Pakistanis have seriously shown our solidarity and support for Malala’s and her cause, because education is a basic human right of a child. The manner of her shooting is hardly condoned by majority Pakistanis, I wonder why such news items never make themselves to America. Reality check at
    Will follow this interesting blog for sure! :)


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