Ah but who decides what ‘murder’ is?

We’ve been visited lately by someone who has (by his own admission) only just realized that different cultures have different moralities, and who has drawn sweeping conclusions from that fact, which he offers to us as if we had never heard that different cultures have different moralities. This is unenlightening and uninteresting – but the larger subject is interesting.

An irony in this is that part of his claim (entangled though it is in overgeneralization, oversimplification, rhetoric, and confusion) is one that I’ve talked about here more than once. It is true that there is a popular claim that ‘we all agree’ or ‘we can all agree’ on certain basics about morality. I think that claim is dead wrong, and often dangerous (because it can lead to such total confusion about what is going on). It may be true that ‘we can all agree’ on certain forms of words – but that doesn’t mean we agree on the moral substance, because the words can always mean different things, and they often do. For example: it might well be possible to get everyone around an imagined global conference table to agree that murder is wrong, but that just moves the issue back (or forward) a step, because people can always define murder in such a way that it doesn’t include the particular killing they want to do. This move works on all sorts of things. Rape doesn’t include husbands forcing sex on their wives, or soldiers forcing sex on ‘rebels’ or ‘the enemy’ or ‘traitors’ or whatever word is needed to make the object deserving of the subject’s action. That is all it takes to make an otherwise prohibited action perfectly acceptable or indeed meritorious.

Irshad Manji talks about this* with respect to a much-cited Koranic verse that repudiates killing – with a much less-cited proviso ‘except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land.’ ‘Other villainy’ covers a lot of territory; it covers pretty much anything an aspirant killer might want it to cover.

Another version we often see is the remarkably fatuous assumption that people who commit ‘honour’ murders of daughters or wives or sisters ‘loved’ them despite murdering them. This is just a way of redescribing reality so that it’s a little bit consoling. Yes, he strangled his own teenage daughter because she didn’t want to wear hijab, but he loved her all the same. No, because if he had loved her, her life would have been a great deal more important to him than whether or not she wore hijab. Beware of the consoling lie, because it trains us to accept horrors.

People disagree about morality, and pious platitudes about all agreeing on the basics are just wrong. But it doesn’t follow from that, and it isn’t true, that nothing is better or worse than anything else, or that there is no way to choose among competing moralities, or that there is nothing to say about morality, or that it is possible to stand outside morality. Morality is a forced choice for anyone who acts in the world, which means all of us who are not comatose. We have to act in order to live, and acting means making moral choices all the time. We have to make them whether we want to or not. That being the case, it is as well to think carefully about them.

*As I’ve mentioned before, more than once; excuse the repetition, but things keep coming up, you know.

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