I said I was going to drone some more about ethical commitments. Why? Because the subject interests me, especially now, when there is so much pressure to take religion seriously, to be sympathetic towards religion, to give religion the benefit of the doubt, to be careful not to dismiss religion ‘lightly’ or ‘contemptuously’ or quickly or any other way that doesn’t involve the aforementioned taking it seriously. I don’t say there is no merit to those suggestions and urgings, but I do think they are too much in fashion right now, and the other view is too much out of fashion. So I think it’s useful to take a look at the underpinnings of the idea. I take the thought that religion is one important source of ethical commitments, to be one of those underpinnings. Hence the utility of poking away at the thought.
Ethical commitments are not just general, they are also particular. Let’s look at them in particular – as the ethical commitments of people in particular situations. Because what situation one is in makes a considerable difference to how one forms one’s ethical commitments. The phrase has very different meanings depending on whether the person who holds them is: autonomous; responsible for others; in control, authority, power over others; subordinate, owned by, obliged to others.
The phrase also has different meanings depending on past history. Has the person who holds them ever been in a position to think about and choose them, to consider alternatives, to look around them on all sides, to decide? Has the person been issued the ethical commitments from birth? Were they issued as orders and commandments, as imperatives and mandates? Were they issued as mandates by a person or people who (as part of this ethical commitment) was/were in a position of unquestionable power, authority, ownership over the person? Are the ethical commitments the commitments of everyone the person has ever met, heard, seen, read? Are they actually commitments rather than an inherited conglomerate? Does it matter?
The meaning also depends on context, environment, geography, social and national history as well as personal history. Also on what kinds of indoctrination, socialization, education the person has had access to. Is the person able to go to a library? Can she go by herself and read freely, anything she wants to? The meaning depends on the nature of the schools, religious institutions, libraries, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, books that are available. Bookshops, coffee houses, gathering places. The police, security service, military. Vigilante groups, gangs, militias. Security cameras, and who is watching them.
So, to put it more concretely and specifically. The ethical commitments of a single man or woman in London or New York who had secular liberal parents and went to state schools and a secular university, have been arrived at in different ways from the ethical commitments of a married woman in a village in Bangladesh who never went to school and was married off at age twelve.
And not only formed differently but ontologically different. Different all the time. It seems reasonable to wonder if some people – people in certain situations, situations not of their own making or choosing, situations that are controlled and given and coercive – are in a position to have anything that can be called ethical commitments at all. Or if they can be called that, can the people who hold them be said to hold their own? Or do they hold other people’s? In which case ‘ethical commitments’ would be an oxymoron, wouldn’t it? So they don’t have them. They have rules; they obey. A ‘commitment’ can’t be something imposed on them from the outside, can it? Or can it. It seems like a contradiction in terms. Commitment is voluntary or else it’s not commitment, it’s something else. Isn’t it?
It’s obvious what I’m getting at (the female pronoun is one clue). Some people have much more freedom, power, authority, responsibility, to have ethical commitments than other people do. And, furthermore, some people are in a position to impose their own ethical commitments on other people, while other people are in a position such that they are required to accept them. Others again are somewhere between these two extremes.
Some people have more of this freedom because they are of a gender, class, status, caste, and in an environment, such that they are allowed autonomy, they are allowed to think for themselves. Other people are not. In many contexts and situations, a male parent has the ethical commitments for everyone in the household. He has the freedom to have them (except that within many religions he actually doesn’t), and he also has the power, authority, and responsibility to impose them on all the people below him in the hierarchy. He would be considered to be failing in his responsibilities if he didn’t impose them. The responsibility to impose his ethical commitments is in fact an ethical commitment itself. (As, it could be argued, is all teaching and persuasion. Yes. But it does surely make a difference how mandatory the teaching is. What backs it up. [Whipping? Incarceration? Disapproval? Regret?] Who does it, what the relations between the two parties are.)
The man has the freedom and duty. What about the others? Does the woman in such a situation (subject to a male head of household) have ethical commitments? And is there any way to know whether she does or not? Is there any way to judge whether she is simply doing what she is told, or actually agrees with every commandment she is given?
And the same questions for the children, doubly so for the girls. The boy children expect to grow up to impose ethical commitments on other people, the girls expect to grow up to have them imposed on them. That must make a large difference in the meaning of ethical commitments for each.
Which is not to claim that ethical commitments can be formed in a vacuum. Obviously they come from somewhere in all cases, they’re not created ex nihilo, there’s always influence, from parents, teachers, friends, books, tv, music, all sorts. But all the same. Some choices are freer than others. Some people are in a position to choose among alternatives while others are not; with variations in between.
So, in a sense, one can see what is meant by concern for ethical commitments, but even so, it seems relevant that not all ‘ethical commitments’ are ethical commitments. It may be worth asking if it is simply naive to take them all as on a par with one another – all as formed in the same way, by people with fully equal freedom and opportunity to form them, consider them, question them. What can an ‘ethical commitment’ be if you never actually had the chance to form it yourself but merely had it inserted into your head like a coin in a parking meter?