Last week’s post under this heading referred to the six emotional facial expressions that are universally recognised across all cultures. There has long been a debate about the universality of morals – the extent to which all societies share a sense of what is good and bad, or right and wrong. The nature of society is that the behaviour of its members is governed by beliefs and values which are encoded within its moral/religious teachings and legal framework, and these of course differ widely across the globe. The history of human conflict can be seen as the clash between these systems as one seeks to dominate another. Nowhere has this been brought into focus more than in the struggles occurring within Islam and between Islam and other faiths.
The stimulus for today’s little foray into philosophy came from what may have been a misheard report about the refugee crisis currently dominating the news. It has been a truly tragic week, with a number of powerful images broadcast across the world that have cut through the political rhetoric and ignited a sense of disgust and outrage. I thought I heard that the Hungarian government were taking such a brutal stance against refugees because to “do otherwise” would undermine their national values. This of course begs the question of what values? But all is not lost, because our own David Cameron stepped into the moral vacuum to declare that as a moral nation we will do “what we have to”. Yet more begged questions. From my days of studying Moral and Social Philosophy, I remember the concept of moral autonomy. This refers to the highest principle of morality, in that one does what is right or good because it is right or good, not because to do otherwise would result in some kind of punishment or censure. In simple terms, one drives within the speed limit because it contributes to the safety of others, not because to not do it will result in a fine. No, I’m not there yet – my behaviour is susceptible to change when there are speed cameras around.
Morality is not chemistry. There is not a simple litmus test to separate the acidic from the alkaline, although many such tests have been proposed (e.g., Bentham’s felicific calculus). A simple test might be to ask if we would like our loved ones to be treated in this way. I am reminded of the story of rescuing people from the river rather than repairing the bridge from which they fell. As in the case of the refugee crisis, we have to do both.
And while I’m on the topic, morality is not a t-shirt. Wearing the slogan metaphorically does not in itself make you morally sound any more than my wearing a number “7” football shirt makes me an ace goal-scorer.