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A fundamental brutality

Alan Braunholtz

A quiet radio story on Iraq gnawed at me long after the drive to work. Criminals kidnapped and ransomed a young Iraqi woman, threatening to rape and kill her. The family secured her release, then killed her themselves. The unchaperoned time away meant she could have been “damaged goods.” Murdering their own daughter-sister-niece allowed the family to protect their honor.As always, the horror lies in the seemingly unimportant details. The uncle, an off-duty policeman, matter of factly stating how he shot her with his service sidearm because her father and brothers couldn’t. How her sisters protested, but not too much, because they knew they’d never be married if he didn’t. How he knew that Islam condemned honor killings, but that tribal customs came first.To cap it all off, the story finished with the stark contrast with the celebrations and feasts when a young man returns home after a kidnapping.The gut reaction of “what is wrong with those people” is impossible to ignore no matter how much I try to understand. Who would want anything to do with a culture of that mindset?The explanation that different cultures have different morals is no help at all. So what! Some moral positions are better than others, and no argument has yet to convince me otherwise. The hard part is choosing a better moral path. Historical traditional belief systems are more of a hindrance than a help here.To the tribal Iraqi culture, killing your daughter is obviously OK. The explanation seemed to be no more than “that’s the way things always have been here.” Countering that with well it’s wrong because our historical belief system says so isn’t going to achieve much beyond a “we’re right you’re wrong! No, we’re right, you’re wrong” exchange. Until recently, academics followed the Kantian school of thought and believed morals came mainly from reasoning. Children’s ability to act in more subtle moral ways as their understanding increases provided the basis for this.Experiments with primates show that they, too, have codes of conduct regarding fairness and interactive behavior – often similar to ours. It appears that some of our morality evolved along with us.Then the experiments of J. Haidt at the University of Virginia illustrate strong emotional content to moral decisions. We can decide what to do based on pre-programmed emotions, not rational thought. If you like something, you hold on to it. If it disgusts you, you drop it without thinking why. Some of our moral decisions are based on similar intuitions.When you “just know” something is wrong but can’t explain why – a situation Haidt calls moral dumbfounding – you could be in the midst of an emotional moral decision. Rationalizing – if it occurs at all – happens after the fact and is less a search for truth than a justification, like a lawyer trying to defend his client.What creates these moral intuitions? It’s probably a mix of evolved innate ones and the historical norm of the society you grew up in. Emotions are a powerful force and if tied to an argument, will overwhelm rational thought. Interracial marriage used to trigger disgust and fear, which made it easy to portray as absolutely wrong, though few could argue why. Similar emotions are encouraged with regard to gay marriage, as they swamp any debate.Reasoning and rational decisions are important as catalysts for change. Most would say civilization has improved since the dark ages. Philosophical arguments over morals provided a huge impetus. The practices of child labor, slavery, etc., all lost out to changes in societies’ values.A period in Western history known appropriately as the Enlightenment emphasized the values of freedom of thought, reason, tolerance and democracy. This period allowed Western civilization to achieve all that it has. Some cultures missed out on the Enlightenment. Why perhaps we’re horrified at some of their accepted values, and they’ve dropped from being the cradle of civilization to a Third World country.Historical values are reassuring in a changing world. The rise of fundamentalism in all religions is a reaction to the uncertainties of Enlightenment thinking, which embraces change, looks for reality-based evidence and challenges accepted authorities and “wisdom.”It’s surprising to see how similarly intolerant all these fundamentalist movements are. They don’t like untraditional sexual behavior or gender roles (homosexuality and working women), other faiths and cultures, the challenge of rational thought to revealed divine authority, and aren’t really comfortable with democracy. Democracy gives the people power to decide what’s right rather than the traditional God. That’s why fundamentalists here are constantly trying to overturn the separation of church and state, moving us toward a church-run state.I’m a little wary of any movement back toward unquestioned traditional values. It’s an extreme example, but the killing of the woman in Iraq depended on someone’s traditional values. A few hundred years of skeptical open thought might have saved her life.Many very tolerant countries are struggling with the intolerant traditions of some of their immigrants, as well as their own home-grown extremists. There are regular attacks on gays in Holland, “honor killings” in Sweden and assaults on women in the UK. It’ll be interesting to see if the enlightened values of these countries can overcome the toxic mix of religion and tribalism.Hopefully, secular thought will continue to be enlightened, open minded and tolerant. Ironically, turning the other cheek despite the attacks of fundamentalists who can never be. Scientific humanism may be able to bring people together in ways that competing religious beliefs never can.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily. Vail, Colorado


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