Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Failure of Moral Democracy.

“Where there is tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, universal human rights must carry the day. Personal disapproval, even society’s disapproval, is no excuse to arrest, detain, imprison, harass or torture anyone. Ever.”
— Ban Ki-moon.
What’s sad is that despite the sheer obviousness of this sentiment, the Secretary-General has to remind us of its truth. A number of governments recently managed to get homosexuality removed from a UN document which enumerates unacceptable grounds for discrimination and criminal prosecution, such as race and religious beliefs. Homosexuality remains a crime in more than 70 countries. Ban has pledged to continue to fight for this issue, but the UN has very little real power; and even so, its processes are democratic in the worst possible sense. The number of countries whose governments had a vested interest in making this change was smaller than a majority, but the number of countries whose governments simply didn’t give a damn, for whatever reason, was large enough to give them a plurality.

Even in what I just said, there is an equivocation which highlights the problems of this approach: the word “unacceptable”. If we look at it amorally, we find that the modified document is truer than the original; homosexuality is clearly “acceptable” grounds for discrimination and persecution, because scores of countries and millions of people accept it as such. This is, of course, not the way the word is intended; the meaning is not that it is impossible to accept but that it is impermissible to accept. And this demonstrates the dangers of confusing the two, of making moral rules based not on what is right but what is popular.

Now, intuition has its place in moral reasoning. Judith Thomson is particularly noted for demonstrating moral intuitions by variations on a number of thought experiments. These thought experiments work because the vast majority of people have the same intuitive moral belief about the situation the thought experiment presents. If most people share most moral intuitions, then surely a democratic system would be sufficient (indeed, ideal) to establish both moral rules and legal embodiments of them?

Unfortunately not. Firstly because it takes a great deal of work to get from the intuition to the appropriate rule, and secondly because intuition is not the whole story. Moral thought experiments are like scientific experiments; the activity only gives us data, and the interpretation of that data is what gives us actual results in the form of scientific or moral theories. Also in parallel to science, moral rules must be consistent; if two intuitions cannot both be explained by a consistent set of rules, at least one must be discarded. Simplicity is also important. Moral opposition to racism, homophobia, religious persecution and so on can all descend from the acceptance of two quite simple principles: that that which harms (or endangers) nobody wrongs nobody, and that that which wrongs nobody is permissible.

The intuition-based approach can only be trusted if the intuition in question is nearly universal; a simple majority is woefully insufficient. When it comes to contentious issues, personal beliefs are not necessarily helpful at all, and can often conflict with more basic intuitions. It may be intuitive enough that that which harms nobody is permissible, but the logical step from this intuition to acceptance of alternative sexual, religious, or cultural practices is often not made. Even amongst those who advocate for such acceptance, they too often forget the original intuition themselves and argue for the protection of practices that are actually harmful, simply because they are “cultural practices” or “religious traditions”.

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