Calibrating your moral compass

Why was it that most of the Twitterverse united in revulsion last week at the story of Marte Dalelv's 16 month sentence in Dubai for being raped? Why is there similar revulsion over the issue of female genital mutilation? And if westerners, almost universally, see these things as perverse why don't the many of the people in the countries where they occur? We are all human, with the same type of brains, so why don't we come to the same conclusions about such issues? Whose point of view is correct? Are there a set of universal and timeless moral truths that hold fast in every context, or is morality relative, conditioned as much by circumstance as by anything more substantial?

If definitive answers can be found to these questions it begs the question on whose/with what authority do the answers come? Equally, if definitive answers can't be found it would seem to suggest that morality is a matter only of taste and circumstance. People with heartfelt beliefs on either side ought therefore, at the very least, to acknowledge that in another set of circumstances (a different upbringing, or whatever) they may have come down on the other side of the fence. This being the case, it would put a whole new perspective on the sense of righteous anger many of us feel when we hear such stories.

Religious people would take the view that the ultimate arbiter on all matters of morality and ethics is God; that it is God who provides them with moral certainty, as measured against moral absolutes. Unfortunately religious adherents can't agree themselves on what God is saying (in both the moral dilemmas above, for example, there would be disagreement amongst those purporting to set their moral compass by the divine). Added to this, there are real problems in attributing goodness to things that are commanded by god, as Louise Anthony neatly explains.There would, I suspect, be rather less disagreement amongst non-believers, but here too disagreements would occur (it wasn't all that long ago that Germaine Greer was defending FGM on cultural grounds). For the man in the street, trying to 'do the right thing' amidst the clarion calls of those claiming to have privileged access to an absolute moral code it is all rather confusing.

Matt Ridley explains how morality in humans could have developed because it generally pays to co-operate in a closed society. In today's open, global societies the benefits of co-operation still exist, but it is less clear what the pay off might be in evolutionary terms of someone helping a complete stranger who they stumble cross on the street (or what the payback might have been for the paramedics helping Mr Thornton who was recently left to die in a ditch). Richard Dawkins suggests that apparently irrational, alturistic behaviours (which most people sense, at a deep level, to be laudable and right) might be explained by a 'miss-firing' of the atavistic instinct to help others in the same tribe or family group. This is all well and good, but still provides little help when trying to discern the best route through the moral maze. The British Philosopher, Walter T. Stace (1886 -1967) makes clear the dangers of descending into a moral relativism:

"Certainly, if we believe that any one moral standard is as good as any other, we are likely to be more tolerant. We shall tolerate widow-burning, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, infliction of physical torture, or any of the thousand and one abominations which are or have been from time to time, approved by one moral code or another. But this is not the kind of toleration we want or would accept."

So it seems that, like it or not, we could do with a guiding set of principles by which to discern the good from the bad. For the calibration of your moral compass, Adrian Bishop has suggested the following 'fundamental ethical principles':
  1. Do no harm.
  2. Accept responsibility for personal actions and the consequences of those actions.
  3. Accept a duty of care.
  4. Affirm the individual’s right to self-determination.
  5. Put the truth first.
  6. Never use a person as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even if the end benefits others.
  7. Be honest.
  8. Honour agreements.
  9. Conduct relationships with integrity.
  10. Leave a positive legacy to future generations.

Not a bad starting point, though by no means an end to the dilemmas we all face, I suspect...

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