Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a Youtuber give their take on the abortion issue. Something I had no expectations of hearing anything different from I’ve been hearing since I was born: a woman’s body, a woman’s choice or that the life of the unborn child was sacred. However, their approach took me off guard for the first time in a long time.
They said that the approach that both sides took was wrong, and that it should be considered from the perspective of determining where the line was drawn when a human had rights, or that their lives were considered expendable. They point out the double standards of both factions that the “viability” of a life somewhere between conception and out of the womb and where that came into play legally such as prosecution of child negligence. Or with the death penalty or war, deciding consistently who has to die and who doesn’t. Or should there be a law regarding double manslaughter for the killing of a pregnant woman, legal prosecution of a pregnant woman drinking and smoking for endangering a child or mother drowning their children or killed while pregnant. If women have an option to have or not have a abortion, shouldn’t men also have the right to pay or not pay alimony?
Regarding the other side, where were the protests regarding the lives of those killed in genocide or terrorist bombings? What about the many people on death row-many who are there under questionable circumstances? Don’t their lives matter just as much as an unborn child’s? Shouldn’t those very people be protesting ANY violent action taken against another human being as well as an unborn child?
Point being that our outrage is incredibly specific and contextual, even though on the surface the factions fight over rights preached as de facto universal. The value of life, liberty, and happiness is not black or white, but slides along a spectrum.
And this got me thinking about why our values exist on this spectrum and why do we have such a problem acknowledging it?
What I found profound about this perspective was that it didn’t just apply to abortion, but moral, Western standards as well, and why they continue to cause conflict and hypocrisy. The biggest obstacles are our sense of entitlement to being automatically on the right side, and our unwillingness to acknowledge the ambiguity of human values and practice.
Entitlement has been phrased differently throughout the ages. “Divine right”, “God wills it”, “Alu Ackbar”, “the right right side of history” and so on. All of these calling upon some higher authority or power to vindicate their beliefs and actions as the sole, correct one. How does this connect to the spectrum of morality?
Absolutism in our opinions and beliefs forms the basis for how we treat others. ‘Civilized behavior’ is spoken of as a given until it encounters someone or some situation that directly contradicts our established values or what we want to do. Generally someone not in our ‘tribe’ , I.E. political allegiances, personal preferences, race, etc. Going back to the abortion example, a woman can be perfectly loving to children as a long as it lines up with her preferences are on that spectrum. The same can be said for pro-lifers: they’ll stand up for life as long as that life falls into their standards of what is worthy of living. When the pregnancy no longer lines up on the spectrum, or when a life violates some other personal or national preference, then the de facto behavior now becomes subject to change. Sometimes consciously and sometimes unknowingly.
Another example would be the modern progressive take on racism. I’ve spoken with many who genuinely believe that racism-or any ‘ism’ for that matter, is a White-only problem, whether the opinion is spoken or implied. What these people fail to realize however is that it wasn’t like the groups they targeted with their prejudice were not themselves also prejudiced. Ancient China had acceptable prejudices of foreigners and required them to ‘kowtow’ or bow before the emperor as a sign of submission and their own inferiority. There are laws in certain schools of Islamic judiciary where how non-Muslims are treated by law is drastically undercut when compared to Muslims for the same crime. The internment of Japanese-Americans was a totally racist policy during World War Two, but Japanese soldiers also tended to refer to Americans, British, and Australian soldiers as ‘round-eyes’. A racial slur regarding Caucasian and Japanese physical differences.
All these attitudes and policies regarding outsiders was because the absolutism of our beliefs allowed us to treat others lower than those who were not in our group. Considerations that we would normally give human beings like equality, autonomy, or even simple recognition as a human being, suddenly no longer apply or become ‘adjustable’ when dealing with ‘gaijin’ (Japanese term for ‘outsider’). Which leads into the second obstacle of ignoring human ambiguity.
"The ethics of science regards the search for truth as one of the highest duties of man."
— Edward Grant Conklin
This scale contradicts everything westerners have told themselves that they were since the fall of Rome. That they were civilized, righteous, or had the moral high ground. These ideas largely come from the influence of early Christianity, the rise of the church, and its evolving entanglement into politics.
Yet these same ambiguities existed not only during those times but before those times as well. In fact, it was normal human behavior to treat others differently depending on the circumstances. The term barbarian is derived from the Greek language for their description of non-Greeks. The Assyrian, Persian, and Roman empires didn’t just one day decide to start raping and pillaging enemy states. Corsairs along the Barbary Coast didn’t decide on a whim to make a profit off raiding and trafficking in the slave trade all over the Mediterranean. And American Southerners didn’t suddenly decree at one point that they were going to abuse anyone who was not White, Protestant, or northern European.
The precedent for such behavior was already in our tribal biology. The main difference between these eras and now is that we want to ignore our bias or bury it by somehow rationalizing that the said target/group deserved it. Even if it flew right in the face of the very values they were fighting for. Just look at how radical Progressives attack celebrity Twitter accounts whenever they tweet an opinion or are associated with one that goes against their liberal values: all in the name of freedom. Or how conservatives rant about the evils of socialism because it doesn’t work and hurts the people, all while their own capitalist policies and ideas do equal if not more damage.
No matter the principle, humans by default will treat each other differently if the other does not meet our expectations or is viewed as a threat to us. But because we want to believe that we are better than that, we willingly turn a blind eye, even though the actions continue anyway.
This leaves the question of what should we do about our shifting ignorance to our moralities? In my opinion, there are three options.
The first is to continue as we have been doing, repeating the same mistakes and asking the same questions like, “why do people still feel and act in this way?” This is what happened right after the 2016 elections-maybe this year’s too depending on which way it goes.
Option number two is to acknowledge the role our bias plays in making our morals inconsistent and just accept it as is. That we are naturally hypocrites and there’s no point in trying to change it. Afterall, this has been the norm since the beginning. And it’s only in the last few centuries that there has been any recognition of how harmful this has been and making efforts to end or minimize the effects. Which leads into the final option.
We could try to shift our thinking to becoming more aware of these inconsistencies and the effects it has in society and law, and then try to adjust accordingly. This is arguably the hardest of the three however. You’re talking about not only reorganizing our education and trying to instruct Westerners in how to correct these failings, but altering laws, amending constitutions, and changing foreign policies. This is not to mention the number of people who will actively resist changing anything. This has already been seen the world over with COVID-deniers refusing to acknowledge the existence of the virus, its severity, or refusing to wear masks.
Changing society takes time, especially when dealing with multiple ones on a global level. We’re talking centuries, not years or decades.
Regardless of the choice, and chances it will be the first one, our values will continue to be inconsistent. And our social, political, and global ills will continue to be the manifestation of those contradictions and the reason for this being that in today's world-no matter the faction or country, people feel the emotional need to be on the right side. And that need often trumps any acknowledgment when we are failing that side.
© 2020 Jamal Smith