Avoiding Moral Imperialism

A Pagan Discussion on Morality
Everyone has some sort of morality, a sense of ethics, and we often assume that "right and wrong" are concepts set in stone which everyone knows. All religions and philosophical systems have struggled with the idea of morality at one time or another, and Paganism is no exception. We need to decide why we believe something to be right, and another thing to be wrong, and whether what we believe is right applies to everyone, or just to ourselves. Subjective morality - ethics specific to ourselves - may sound like a tempting prospect. It means that we do not need to try to impose our morality on others - as right-wing Christians try to do on issues such as homosexuality - and we don't run the risk of "moral imperialism," of imposing Western morality on other cultures. Subjective morality is not without its problems, though. If all morality is merely subjective, and applies only to each individual, then it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to create a society with laws. Subjective morality works fine for individuals, but a society must be based on some form of objective or absolute morality. Subjective morality causes some problems for the individual in practice, too. If someone robs your house, or kills a loved one, then if we are subjective moralists we can only say that his action was wrong based on our own ethics, but that it was (presumably) perfectly moral and ethical for him to commit such an act. We cannot really say that his action was wrong, if it was only wrong by our estimation, and we certainly cannot create a society based on such a principle - how would we decide what the laws were to be? Subjective morality is also often irrational. By this I mean that it has no external meaning; the only reason we have for this type of morality is that something "feels right," rather than any more rational explanation. For me, those reasons make subjective morality untenable as a philosophical system. If we are not to be subjective moralists, what other types of morality are there? There are two other moral systems that are common in our society. The first is revelatory morality, and is perhaps the one which at first sight is most appropriate for Paganism. Revelatory morality is only applicable within a religious system - outside that system it has no relevance, but within it it is an absolute morality that is binding on all people. Basically revelatory morality derives its authority from a deity, messiah or teacher within a religion having stated that this morality is the only correct one. The example most of us in the West are familiar with is Christianity. Christianity has its own absolute authority based on the Law of the Old Testament, and the sayings of Jesus in the New. The reason their morality is an absolute one is that their God is said to have made those rules for mankind to follow. Thus for a Christian, something like bestiality (or homosexuality, or a whole host of other sexual sins) is always and forever immoral, regardless of what time you live in and where you are from, for the simple reason that their God has declared it to be immoral. Revelatory morality can never change - because if it changed, then it would show flaws in the original reason for accepting that morality, which would then make the new morality unsustainable. It also tends to require a large number of rules and

regulations to set out what is and what is not moral within that system. Can this model be adapted for Paganism? It is rather more difficult for us, not only because Paganism (in particular, eclectic Paganism) is inherently an autonomous system, but also because we have no 'sacred scripture'. We do not have any works from any age which we declare to have been written by the Gods or to be in any way authoritative of what they wish us to do. Nor do we have any leaders - ours is not a hierarchical religion, and we do not have dogmas. In the absence of these things, it seems impossible to formulate a morality based on revelatory morality for Paganism. The second alternate type of morality is consensus morality. This basically says that whatever the majority of people in a country or the world believe to be immoral is immoral, and it derives its authority from being representative of the beliefs of the population. This type of morality comes in two forms; absolute consensus morality and subjective consensus morality. Absolute consensus morality is when the morality of the general population is held to be binding across time and the world, and unchangeable. Subjective consensus morality is when the general morality is held to be binding only as long as it remains the general morality, and only at that point in time and in that country or group of people. That kind of morality may be changed. Absolute consensus morality holds several flaws. At times in the past certain things have been held to be immoral which we now consider to be perfectly moral. For example, at one time it was felt to be immoral to allow women the same education as men, but we now would think it immoral to say women should not have the same education as men. If we were absolute consensus moralists then we would have to say that it is still immoral for women to go to university, and always will be immoral. This type of morality definitely does lead to cultural imperialism, as if we believed only the consensus morality of our own culture to be absolute morality, we would try to impose that same morality on other nations and cultures regardless of their own consensus moralities. Absolute consensus morality, besides producing these problems listed above, also raises some questions: how do we choose what time in our culture to be the one where the consensus becomes absolute? If the consensus morality on a particular topic changes (for example on women's education) then how can our absolute consensus morality lay claim to the title "consensus?" Surely, in those circumstances, our morality defeats itself? This deals with the larger national or international scale, however, and perhaps may work better on a group level. If we take the example of Wicca, whose morality can be summed up in the Wiccan Rede, this could be said to be their absolute consensus morality. All or most Wiccans accept the Rede as the basic summation of their morality, and that it is absolute. However, Wiccans do not seek to impose this morality on others nor say that it is binding on all people at all times. It is also subject to the same criticisms as on the national level let us imagine that the consensus among Wiccans changed and the Rede was no longer applicable to them. This would mean they were still under the power of the Rede even when they no longer held it to be applicable! Absolute consensus morality has as its major flaw the inability to change. All things, whether they be knowledge, opinion or understanding, change through the years.

Absolute consensus morality leaves no room for this change, and any society or group that embraced it would, in my opinion, be doomed to stagnation and finally failure. The final example of a moral system, subjective consensus morality, while it also has problems is, in my judgment, the most suitable system for Pagans. In subjective consensus morality, the general morality of a group or nation is held to be binding over all members of that group or nation. Thus, if, as a nation, the majority of people hold that theft, for example, is immoral, then it is immoral for as long as the nation believes it to be so. Subjective consensus morality can be changed as and when the views of the people change. Subjective consensus morality draws its authority from being representative of the values of the group. This might be expressed in the old line - vox populi vox deus - the voice of the people is the voice of God. This type of morality ensures that, if we believe something is right, but the majority considers it to be immoral, then we can attempt to change their view. This is the type of morality that, in practice, most Western, democratic societies embrace when they legislate on moral issues. Of course, it would be foolish to deny that criticisms cannot be made of subjective consensus morality, and indeed it shares some problems with subjective morality. The human mind finds it difficult, emotionally, to accept that morality can change, that it is not absolute. While we know on one level that, according to his own moral beliefs and those of the Nazi elite, Hitler did a moral thing by murdering Jews and others, we tend to believe that an acceptance of that is the same as condoning the action itself. I believe it is not so, that we can recognize that according to a group or nation's subjective consensus morality a particular action is moral, while condemning it as immoral according to our own, our group's and our nation's morality. The big question, of course, is whether we have any right to condemn an outsider's action based on our morality, when they do not share it and our morality is subjective to the people it encompasses. A way to resolve this problem may be to look at our example of a country again. According to the laws and consensus morality of my country it is wrong to utilize the death penalty as punishment for crimes. Other countries that have a different morality believe this is quite a moral action. Now, we can say that their action is wrong on our terms, and we can try to convince them of our reasons for thinking so, and try to change their morality in the same way that we try to convince neo-Nazis of the immorality of their beliefs, but we cannot say 'this action is wrong because we say it is wrong'. That is the argument used by those with revelatory authority, and that is their flaw, but because we have a subjective consensus morality, if we are to change our or anyone else's morality we must be able to show valid reasons for doing so. For these reasons, because subjective consensus morality is able to change, depends on the many rather than the few, and must have some form of reason as its basis, I believe it is most appropriate for neo-Paganism. The specific type of morality (rather than the general system of morality) which most Pagans adhere to is a variation on the Wiccan Rede - "an it harm none, do as ye will." This moral statement has an underlying reason behind it - enlightened self- interest. We obey this type of morality because it is related to ourselves - we don't do harm because we wish no harm to come to us. This is subjective consensus morality in that it is the morality of Paganism because the majority of Pagans

believe it is moral. As we have no sacred scripture then there is always the possibility that this statement of ethics could change at some time in the future should the majority of Pagans decide on another type of ethics. Thus subjective consensus morality is not only the practical system by which democracy determines its morality, but also the most applicable system for Paganism. I will conclude with some quotes from a philosopher whose ethics correspond with the Rede, and which are relevant to this paper, John Stuart Mill: "The likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion."(1) "The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self- protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."(2)

(1) John Stuart Mill On Liberty in "Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche" Ed. David Wootton. (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1996) p609. (2) ibid., pp610-611.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.