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 (www.claremontjournal.com). 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 (www.stateofformation.org), an academic blog for emerging religious and ethical leaders.