How to grapple with complex dilemmas especially when some actions really offend one’s moral sensibilities
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Recently, a friend told me an intriguing story. His friend, a doctor, was once working at a hospital in northern Uganda. A male patient was brought to him in critical condition. His family did not think he could survive. This doctor handled the patient with dedication and skill. The man recovered. Some days after he was discharged, the man returned with a very pretty lady aged about 16 or 17. He told the doctor that no amount of money would be enough to reward him for the miracle of saving his life. “I have brought you this, my daughter, as the reward. You can marry her.”
The doctor was stunned. The young lady looked on in approving silence, perhaps recognising that this was the part she was supposed to play. The relatives of the man gave approval, satisfied that the right reward had been given. Sadly, the doctor declined the offer on grounds that it was not right. The family were shocked; first that he could turn down such an offer but also because of the reason he advanced – that it was not the right thing to do.
In this particular community, as has been custom among many peoples around the world, marriage was a union of two families. The reasons for handing over one’s daughter for marriage could be social, economic or political. Love was too frivolous and fleeting a sentiment to be the basis of such a weighty institution. In 1810, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, 41, married Marie Louise, 17, daughter of Emperor Francis 11 to seal an alliance between France and Austria. Louise had been raised to hate both Napoleon and revolutionary France. But such personal sentiments were not allowed to get into the way of weightier matters of international politics.
I listened to the story from Northern Uganda with some degree of moral detachment. I wondered whether I have become a moral relativist or a moral pluralist. Relativism as a doctrine believes that morality or truths or knowledge are not absolute. They exist in relation to society, culture and historical context. Human beings do not just walk onto the stage and act as they wish. Our actions are shaped by our upbringing. We are born into a family, raised in a community where we attend school, church and other social events. During this process of socialisation, we drink from a rich well of values, norms, traditions, mentalities and attitudes that make us see the world in particular ways, able to judge what is right and wrong. Moral pluralism is the recognition of other moral worlds beyond one’s own. Moral monism is the belief in one moral standard for everyone.
I was born and raised in an African cultural setting but which had been deeply penetrated and affected by Western cultural norms and values. So often, we indulge in cultural practices that offend Western moral sensibilities and/or practice acts that offend traditional African values. I think this mixture makes us moral pluralists; we are able to pick and choose what suits us depending on circumstance. Therefore when I say that people’s moral values and norms are inbuilt into their cultural psychology through upbringing, I am not denying their ability to create (or adopt) new ones and break old ones. I am only asserting that people do not walk onto an empty stage and fashion their moral values and norms at random.
The man who inspired this column did not act randomly. He had a clear idea of how to show gratitude to someone who had saved his life. The community around him approved, and the girl did not see anything wrong with that. I write this article as a conversation with my friends from the Western world – and indeed from other parts of the world who embrace Western norms uncritically. A lot of Western pressure on poor countries assumes that society to be a tabula rasa on which one can easily construct new cultural norms through summons, lectures, hectoring with a spice of diplomatic pressure, economic threats or military invasion. The aim, we are always told, is to “liberate” or “emancipate” supposed victims of political repression or cultural oppression.
The moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, wrote a really great book, The Righteous Mind, where he grapples with this subject. He grew up in a liberal environment in the U.S. where society emphasised individual liberty, autonomy and equality. This had always made him resentful of conservatives for opposing abortion, welfare programs and supporting tax cuts seeing them as oppressive, racist and selfish. But when he went to do research in India, he found himself in a society that emphasised values like community, divinity and honour, a factor that made him begin to imagine other moralities.
“I dined with men whose wives served us and then retreated to the kitchen not speaking to me the entire evening,” Haidt writes, “I was told to be stricter with my servants and to stop thanking them for serving me. I watched people bathe in, and cook with, visibly polluted water that was held to be sacred. In short, I was immersed in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society and I was committed to understanding it in its own terms, not mine. It took only a few weeks for my dissonance to disappear, not because I was a natural anthropologist but because the normal human capacity for empathy kicked in.
“I liked these people who were hosting me, helping me and teaching me,” Haidt goes on, “And when you are grateful to people it is easy to adopt their perspective… Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children and servants as helpless victims, I began to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and members of each extended family (including servants) are intensely interdependent. In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honouring elders, gods and guests, protecting subordinates and fulfilling one’s role-based duties were more important.”
Therefore, Haidt concludes, when you grow up in a liberal society (what he calls WEIRD – White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) you become so educated in the ethic of autonomy that you begin to detect oppression and inequality even where the supposed victims see nothing wrong. It is easy to harshly judge the father who offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to the doctor for saving his life – as being backward and patriarchal. But whose morality would you be using to judge him?
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