Are there any moral absolutes?

Are there any moral absolutes? That is the question. Some philosophers would say, unequivocally, ‘yes’. If only on the grounds that ‘the only rule is that there are no rules’ is a paradox. Others would say ‘no’, that morality is entirely dependent on culture. Naturally, there are some questions that get answered the same way in pretty much every culture, “Is it OK to kill someone just because you feel like it?” being one example, but that does not necessarily mean that ‘killing is wrong’ is a moral absolute.

Ethicists have been debating the absolute/relative morality argument for centuries. Millennia, in fact, and are no nearer to finding an answer (although they have come up with a lot of new questions).

Moral absolutism vs moral relativism has come up in the news recently, but in a slightly less elevated manner. It is one of the perils of multiculturalism: life is simple enough when they have a different moral code as long as they stay over there. It’s when they arrive over here that the problems start, because when you have two different moral codes operating in the same community, you have a choice: accept moral relativism and say “Well, it’s their culture, it’s wrong to interfere”, or take a moral absolutist stance and say “Some things are just wrong, no matter how much of a cultural tradition they are.”

Currently, we’ve got the Roma, whose arrival in an area seems to be the signal for reactions varying between despair, resignation, resentment, outrage and panic. In some places, the usual residents simply wait for them to move on (however inconvenient their presence might be) and then clear up the mess. In other places, they are forcibly moved on. But nobody seems to want them because they have the reputation for being messy, dirty, and criminal. How much is true – and how much of the truth is cultural choice and how much is practical necessity – I don’t know. It’s pretty clear, though, that the Roma get a worse press than they deserve, and that affects the way they get treated. How many other ethnic groups would have their children taken away simply because they don’t seem to look like their parents?

Then, we’ve got comments about ‘endemic corruption‘ in some communities, the Pakistani community being named by Dominic Grieve, who then had to apologise. However, one does think that although he could have phrased his statement better, he might actually have a point. But can it legitimately be called ‘corruption’ when giving priority to family and friends is an accepted cultural tradition? The problem is not so much what is done, but the conflict between them and us. If you come from a culture where extended families are strong units, and it’s part of every member’s duty to look after other family members, then of course you are going to bring that tradition with you when you immigrate to a new country, just as you bring traditions in dress and food. One might well ask, if a job needs doing, and a family member will do it well, how is it corrupt to give the job to the family member? After all, someone has to do it, and if the job is done well, does it matter who does it?

Here, of course, is the conflict in ideologies. On one side, the ideal that it is of the first importance to help your family and friends; if you have the good fortune to be in a position of influence, you should do what you can to use your influence in favour of the people you have a duty to support. If you do not share your good fortune, then you are uncaring and selfish.

On the other side, you have the entirely opposite view that nobody should be given an unfair advantage simply because of their family; each individual should have the opportunity to advance through his or her own efforts, without being unduly disadvantaged by not possessing the right ‘connections’. If you use your connections to help family or friends, then you are corrupt.

I think Dominic Grieve, by immediately jumping to the conclusion of ‘corruption’ spoiled an excellent point: culture means more than what you eat or how you dress. It goes deeper than that, and true integration means that both sides need to understand what the other is thinking. How can you fit in unless you know what you are supposed to fit into? And it’s totally unhelpful all round to label a cultural difference as criminal without some serious thought.

And so we are back to moral absolutes. Are there any? Are there any cultural practices which we can, without a doubt, state are criminal and/or morally repugnant and should be stamped out?

Female Genital Mutilation springs to mind. It’s illegal in the UK, but there have been no prosecutions. There have been accusations that this is due to ‘cultural sensitivities‘ – a reluctance to criticise something that is an important rite of passage in some cultures, regardless of the harm it does to the girls and women who undergo it.

But it is not just with regard to immigration that we need to think about moral absolutes. Here in the UK, we have our own home grown differences of opinion on moral issues. Tomorrow, the 27th November 2013, the Supreme Court will hand down its judgement in the case of Bull and another (Appellants) v Hall and another (Respondents). It concerns a case where Mr and Mrs Bull, who run a bed-and-breakfast business, refused accommodation to Mr Hall and his civil partner. This was, state Mr and Mrs Bull, because their Christian beliefs include the tenet that heterosexual marriage is the only permissible relationship for couples to enjoy full sexual relations. Discrimination in the provision of services on the grounds of sexual orientation is illegal (Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007) – but Mr and Mrs Bull believe that they should be allowed to manifest their religion (Human Rights Act 1998, Article 9) by refusing accommodation to people whose lifestyle they belief is sinful.

So what we have here is no more nor less than two competing ideologies: the belief that homosexual relationships are not sinful, and the belief that they are. Like FGM, there is a specific UK statute involved: Parliament has decided that FGM is not acceptable in the UK and doing it to a girl or woman is therefore a criminal offence; but homosexuality is recognised as a natural variant of human sexuality, and therefore homosexual persons should not be discriminated against. Likewise, on the one hand we have people who are, apparently, still subjecting their daughters to FGM, and on the other, we have people who want to deny services to homosexual people based on their sexuality.

Of course, you could say that this is hardly the same situation: on the one hand, we have girls subjected to an invasive, harmful surgical procedure that can have long-term adverse effects on their health (up to and including death), and on the other we have two men who need to find alternative B&B accommodation.

But it’s not that simple. When we discriminate against someone because of their personal characteristics – when we deny someone access to a service simply because of who they are – we are denying their equality, and denying their right to exist the way they are. You may not be able to see the blood, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, that cuts deep. On what grounds can we justify doing that to someone? If we believe that a person deserves equal treatment, then surely we cannot limit that equality by saying “You only get equal treatment as long as people want to treat you equally.”

The Bull v Hall case, therefore, will decide an important point: does state morality (as expressed in the Equality Act) trump personal morality?

And if it doesn’t – if people’s personal beliefs are allowed to override the equal status mandated for others in statute – what does this mean for other conflicts? Anyone seeking to defend FGM is likely to fail under the definitions of belief set out in Grainger v Nicholason, but what about other conflicts? Al-Madinah school has been criticised for allegedly insisting that non-Muslim female staff members wear headscarves, preventing staff wearing symbols of other faiths, and making girls sit at the back of the class (which the school denies). All of which have possible equality and/or freedom to manifest religion (after Eweida) implications.

We cannot carry on, as a multicultural society, ducking the question of morality. There are simply too many competing moral codes all trying to coexist on one quite small island. I think the time is coming – possibly even tomorrow – when a statement will have to be made to the effect that the moral code as set out in law is non-negotiable. Nobody can get out of it, or around it, by arguing that they have a different culture with a different moral code. Nobody can say “That law is against my religion so I won’t obey it.”

The citizens of the UK, of whatever colour, religion, belief system, sexuality or gender, deserve to know that their rights are protected wherever they go, whoever they are, and whoever they are with. We cannot have a situation where, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”


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