Tag Archives: moral

Art and Obscenity

July 2017 Pulse

Two planned performances in the recently-concluded M1 Singapore Fringe Festival ran into difficulties with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) due to “excessive nudity”. In ‘Naked Ladies’, burlesque dancer Thea Fitz-James strips and performs an indecent act, and in ‘Undressing Room’, dancer Ming Poon challenges a participant to undress him even as he undresses her.

Both performances were cut from the festival.

In London, Japanese photographer and artist Nobuyoshi Araki achieved both fame and notoriety for his work called kinbaku (or erotic bondage), which features photos of naked or partially-naked Japanese women bound in different poses.

That these works are described as “art” forces one to question if any work can be so “christened”, so long as it has the blessings of the high priests of the art world.

Take for example, Fountain, a 1917 work by Marcel Duchamp that is widely seen as the icon of the 20th century. Art specialists have described the dislodged urinal as the quintessential example of what Duchamp called “ready-made”, a manufactured object into which the artist imbues some mysterious meaning simply by calling it art.

This state of affairs suggests that modern art has lost its way. Art is simply surrendered to the currents of moral and cultural relativism, even as the objective standards by which it was once judged become irrelevant or are simply abandoned.

When this happens, trash can become art, when the official channels of patronage support it. And pornography (like kinbaku) is considered as art if it hangs in the museum or gallery, as if sanctified by its hallowed halls.

As Jonathan Jones has put it so pointedly: “Sell a nude photograph in a gallery shop and you are disseminating art. Move the place of exchange to a grubby north-eastern drinking den… on a dead Sunday afternoon… it all becomes much muckier – ‘pornography’, even.”

This has led Roger Scruton, one of the most astute philosophers of our day, who still cares about those immutable qualities that would distinguish a piece of work as art, to write: “The world of art… is full of fakes. Fake originality, fake emotion and the fake expertise of the critics – these are all around us and in such abundance that we hardly know where to look for the real thing.”

That art is now obsessed with sex and the sexual act – given our post-Kinsey culture – is clearly seen when works of banal obscenity are reverenced as art.

An example of such philistinism in art is the series of prints and statuettes by American artist Jeff Koons that depict couples copulating. Their creator hopes to turn pornography into art and give it spiritual significance and depth.

One of the many reasons why art has degenerated in this way is that our culture, having tried so strenuously to abolish shame, can no longer recognise it or understand its importance.

The revulsion that society once had for the obscene has all but disappeared. The fig leaves – in language, behaviour and thought – have been removed by a culture that is now shame-less.

Another reason is that we have now come to look at sex very differently from the past, having acquired, according to Scruton, “a habit of describing sex in demeaning and depersonalising terms”.

Most importantly, our culture seems increasingly incapable of appreciating beauty – no thanks to the modern iconoclasts for whom beauty is denigrated as a bourgeois concept, too superficial and old-fashioned to be taken seriously by artists.

But in despising Beauty, we will also fail to recognise Truth and Goodness. We will fail to see that good art – true art – can be an epiphany of these transcendentals, without which human life would be meaningless.

True beauty is transformative in that it draws us away from ourselves. As Scruton has once again put it so well: “Beauty tells you to stop thinking about yourself, and to wake up to the world of others.”

We see such beauty in a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt. We see it also in Bach’s Mass and in Mozart’s Requiem.

When art puts us in touch with the true, the good and the beautiful, it becomes in some important ways redemptive. It shows us that despite the ubiquity of sorrow and suffering in our world, life is still meaningful.

Such art can be the conduit of God’s grace.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Organs and Chimeras

January 2017 Pulse

The shortage of transplantable organs is a public health crisis globally. In the United States, for example, 120,000 people are on the waiting list. It is estimated that 35 percent of all deaths in the U.S. can be prevented by organ transplantation.

In Singapore, the average waiting time for a kidney transplant is still 9 to 10 years, despite changes in the law to enlarge the donor pool.

In an effort to solve this global shortage of transplantable organs U.S. research centres are conducting studies on chimeras, trying to grow human tissues in animal hosts, with the aim of creating kidneys, livers and hearts for transplant.

Scientists are proceeding with such studies despite the fact that the National Institute of Health has clearly stated that it will not support chimera research until greater clarity is achieved concerning its ethical, legal and social implications.

Chimeras are currently used in many different studies. For example, the potential of human pluripotent cells in vivo is analysed by microinjecting these cells in a mouse embryo. The aetiologies of metabolic diseases in the ageing population are studied by creating ‘humanised’ mice to which cells from the liver and pancreas of human donors have been introduced.

In Singapore, human and bovine genes are combined to create cytoplasmic hybrid embryos that are purportedly 99% human. These hybrid embryos are used in embryonic stem cell research.

The National Council of Churches in Singapore has made a robust response to this initiative (See http://nccs.org.sg/2010/12/04/human-animal-combinations-for-biomedical-research/).

There are serious ethical issues associated with research involving human-animal chimeras. They include the violation of human dignity, the question of the moral status of the chimeric creature, the risk of creating humanised animals, the violation of the order of nature, and the many uncertainties accompanying such research.

These concerns notwithstanding, the advances in cutting-edge technologies such as stem-cell biology and gene-edition have made the incredible advances in chimera research possible.

For example, scientists can change the DNA of a mammal through genetic engineering, making it incapable to forming a specific tissue. Human stem cells are then added to the animal in the hope that a particular tissue, for example a human kidney, can form in the host animal.

However, for a number of technical reasons scientists are still unable to create a viable human organ in an animal host at this point.

One of the most challenging obstacles to their success is what has been described as the xenogenic barrier. The host animal – for example, a pig – and the human organ that it is supposed to incubate are two different species, making the viability of the chimeric creature itself problematic.

Scientists working on human-animal chimeras have long theorised that the closer the species are to each other, the higher the chance the chimera has of surviving. So, if the human-bovine chimera is not viable, perhaps a primate can be used to host the human organ.

We must ask how far we are willing to go to create transplantable human organs to save lives. If primates prove to be equally unsuitable hosts, what’s next?

Taking the discussion to the extreme, will we consider using people in permanent vegetative state but who are otherwise in relatively stable condition as possible hosts? What about people who are suffering from senile dementia? Can they also be used to incubate organs for transplantation?

Many bioethicists see the importance of imagining a fictional dystopia to address the possible future scenarios presented by the trajectories of current medical and technological capabilities that would enable them to anticipate ethical and social issues that might arise.

This brings us to a fundamental question in bioethics, one that is sometimes unfortunately muted if not silenced by the thick rhetoric in support of the technological imperative and biomedical triumphalism.

The question is: Without in any way trivialising the suffering of people with organ failure, is it society’s duty to save their lives at all cost? Or are there larger moral considerations that should govern our actions?

Bioethicists – both Christian and secular alike – have argued that although saving the lives of people with organ failure is important, it should not be achieved at all cost. They believe that there are other more important moral and social considerations. That is why killing a healthy individual to procure his or her organs and the trading of human organs are both unethical and illegal and should never be countenanced.

With the unprecedented advancements in stem-cell research and gene-editing technology, we must carefully reflect on where the line should be drawn as we work towards enlarging the organ pool.

In the midst of the bio-tech hype we must remind ourselves that in our noblest attempts to ameliorate suffering and cure diseases, we must never allow ourselves to pursue strategies that would in the long run distort our moral sensibilities and dehumanise our society.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Interrogating Tolerance

September 2016 Pulse

In his study on the history of toleration, Alan Levine observes that ‘Toleration is one of the most attractive and widespread ideas of our day. It is a cornerstone of liberalism, a key protection for both individual citizens and minority groups, and in general is the predominant ethos of all moral civilizations in the modern world’.

There is little reason to question the veracity of Levine’s observation. But the ubiquity of the concept of tolerance in our time and the proliferation of its use in a variety of contexts has, ironically, obfuscated its meaning and resulted in serious confusions that may be detrimental to human sociality.

Academics and politicians who employ the language and rhetoric of tolerance to address different issues have sometimes presented tolerance as a moral virtue. This tendency is also found in the writings of some theologians and ethicists.

However, it is important to recognise the fact that toleration or tolerance has to do with politics, not so much with morality or religion. Both the genesis of this idea and its immediate and subsequent applications bear this out quite clearly.

The idea of toleration that arose in seventeenth century Europe – and famously expounded by John Locke in Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) – was purposed to solve to the problem of religious diversity and conflict that had become acute at the time. Toleration made possible the peaceful co-existence of the different religious groups within society.

Seen in this light, toleration has much to do with politics and very little to do with ethics and even less to do with religion. As Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, toleration is the answer to the question: How shall people with different faith convictions live together? Toleration’s concern is not truth but political order and civic peace.

Toleration, then, is about managing difference and the threat that it poses. Or, as Wendy Brown puts it toleration is a strategy for ‘regulating aversion’. It is the ‘mode of incorporating and regulating the presence of the threatening Other within’. But if Brown is right, if toleration is in essence just a way of negotiating the mean between rejection and assimilation, toleration is a political necessity rather than a virtue.

The seldom-explored relationship between tolerance and power is vital to our understanding of the true nature of tolerance. To tolerate is in some sense always to stand in the position of power and judgement over the tolerated. Tolerance points to the normative standing of the tolerant and the liminal standing of the tolerated.

As Wendy Brown explains: ‘It reconfirms, without reference to the orders of power that enable it, the higher civilizational standing of those who tolerate what they do not condone or share – their cosmopolitanism, forbearance, expansiveness, catholicity, remoteness from fundamentalism’.

The withholding of tolerance is similarly an expression of power. It suggests that that which cannot be tolerated is barbaric, but without in any way implicating the cultural and societal norms of the party that makes this judgement.

Tolerance has, at best, a tenuous relationship with morality. To be sure, weaved into the idea of tolerance is a basic moral impulse – a sense of right and wrong. Thus, tolerance must be distinguished from preference or taste because it requires that a moral judgement be made on the thing tolerated.

Put differently, I tolerate an action or a practice not because I think that it is morally neutral. Rather, I am certain that it is morally wrong, but I am willing to allow it. Tolerance therefore presupposes disagreement on something that is of moral significance.

But this leads to an interesting question: if an action or practice is morally reprehensible to me (e.g., abortion or euthanasia), why should I tolerate it?

It is here that the relationship between tolerance and morality becomes murky and dubious. Tolerance, which makes sense only when moral convictions are taken seriously, seems to insist that these very convictions must either be given up or relativised.

As Bernard Williams has perceptively pointed out, such is the paradox of tolerance: the very thing that makes tolerance necessary has also made it impossible.

But tolerance’s relationship with morality is also tenuous in another sense, especially in our postmodern climate where the truth upon which morality depends has become illusive. It is in such a cultural ethos that the rhetoric of tolerance can be truly at home.

As S. D. Gaede has wryly put it in his book, When Tolerance is No Virtue: ‘Tolerance is a value that conforms nicely to the world we live in. Having pretty much decided that truth is not attainable, we have made tolerance of a plurality of truths a virtue. Having no truths worth defending, we have made nondefensiveness a mark of distinction’.

This attempt to interrogate tolerance, to question its innocence, so to speak, does not suggest that we should reject tolerance or ignore its usefulness. Tolerance must of course be preferred to incivility and violence.

Such analyses however change the status of tolerance – from a transcendental virtue to a strategy of governance, a way of negotiating differences in order to achieve social peace and cohesion.

This is not an idle exercise. For only when the nature of tolerance and the role that it plays in our pluralistic society is properly understood can its abuses be prevented.


Roland Chia (suit)_LargeDr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

The Myth of Secular Neutrality

December 2015 Pulse

Secularists have long ridiculed religion by portraying it as dangerous and divisive. Secularism, they insist, is not only objective since it is based on the natural sciences and empirical rationalism; it is also more tolerant and neutral, and therefore the best guarantor of social peace.

Secular neutrality has been brandished about as if secularism is the ultimate solution to maintaining equity and peace in a plural and diverse society where different religions, moralities and ideologies are competing for attention and assent. In the realm of politics, the secular state alone is said to be the best arbiter of conflicting commitments and visions.

According to them, the public square must be secular if the debates are to be fair and rational. Religious voices must be either excluded altogether or effectively muted if society is to achieve a ‘reasonable’ consensus on the most complex issues and challenges it faces.

But the secular neutrality championed by the most fervent evangelists of secularism is nothing but a myth. Secular neutrality does not exist because secularism is a philosophy of life, an ideology, and, as some would even argue, a religion of sorts.

That secularism is a philosophy of life, a worldview, is evident in the fact that one has to embrace a number of metaphysical ideas to be a secularist.

An orthodox secularist must believe that the material world is all that there is, and that all talk about God and the afterlife is, in the final analysis, irrational. He must believe that human beings are the source of all meaning and value. And if like most secularists he is also one who believes in physicalism, he must believe that we are hardwired (neurologically and genetically) by evolution to make sense of our world in this way.

Secularism also promotes a certain moral vision. Many secularists favour the way of understanding moral responsibility that philosophers call utilitarianism. That is why the philosopher Robert C. Solomon could describe secularist morality as a form of “naturalised spirituality”.

If worldview is defined as a set of life-regulating beliefs, secularism certainly satisfies this definition. But secularism is also a religion of sorts because its key beliefs are embraced by faith, despite its claims that they are grounded in science and reason.

Furthermore, secularism also has its rituals and its priests like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who promote its worldview. Secularism therefore has a missionary thrust; it is a proselytising ‘religion’.

If what I’ve argued thus far is sound, if secularism is a worldview or a philosophy of life, then it cannot be neutral. Thus, by privileging secularism we are in fact saying that this worldview, this way of looking at reality, is superior to other accounts.

The myth of secular neutrality therefore allows a certain metanarrative to hold sway. And this has given rise to a new hegemony, a kind of ideological and cultural imperialism.

The myth subtly but powerfully presents secularism as the default position of rational people of goodwill by portraying secularism to be what it is not. And once secularism achieves its hegemonic aspirations, it accords itself with the power to define the role of religion in politics and in the public square.

The myth of secular neutrality is therefore democracy’s worse enemy. By pretending to be a friend of democracy, the myth in fact renders modern secular societies undemocratic by shutting down alternative voices.

As Hunter Baker has perceptively argued, “Secularism acts politically against its competitors and defines them as what it is not”. The myth of secular neutrality is therefore chiefly responsible for the tyranny of secularism.

By portraying secularism to be what it is not, the myth presents religion as the problem and secularism as the impeccable solution. The refrain that many secularists often sing is “religion is dangerous and divisive, but secularism is tolerant, fair and neutral”.

This assertion is either naïve, delusional or deceptive because any belief system can be said to be dangerous if its advocates are prepared to coerce others by law or by force to practice that belief. Insofar as secularism is a philosophy of life (and I have established that it is), it also can be dangerous.

Are secularists guilty of such coercion? Secularism, asserts Robert Kraynak, “is highly intrusive in the imposition of secular liberal values”.

It is not difficult to find evidence for this, especially in the West. We see it in how schools systematically indoctrinate young people in secular humanism, free expression of religion is prohibited, and sexuality and the family are redefined.

Secular neutrality is a dangerous myth. It promotes intolerance and disrespect.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Civil Society for the Common Good

October 2015 Pulse

In their essay ‘Developing Civil Society in Singapore’, Gillian Koh and Debbie Soon offer a brief but helpful account of the genesis and metamorphosis of civil society from pre-independent period to the present. The authors also discuss some of the forces that are expected to drive and shape civil society in the nation in the future.

In their essay, Koh and Soon have elected the broadest possible approach to achieve a working definition of civil society. For them, civil society ‘includes all forms of voluntary organisations, whether formally constituted or not, that lies between and is independent of the state and family’. Each of these groups, they add, ‘is held together by shared values, interests and purposes, and seeks to mobilise resources and people to achieve those’.

This broad and inclusive descriptor notwithstanding, it is important to note that most civil society scholars have underscored just how notoriously difficult it is to arrive at a definition of civil society that would satisfy everyone. As a result, there appears to be no consensus among scholars on what civil society actually is and what it does. There is also no agreement among scholars on whether, in certain parts of the world, civil society exists.

(Incidentally, because consensus on the nature of civil society and what it looks like is so elusive, some scholars have concluded that there’s hardly any civil society in Singapore, while others maintain that it has always existed – even before independence.)

Yet, despite the fact that the idea remains ambiguous and opaque in many ways, civil society appears to be hailed by many as a panacea for the ills and fractures of modern society.

The Advocacy Institute in the USA lauds it as ‘the single most viable alternative to the authoritarian state and the tyrannical market’. Politicians in the UK aver that civil society will hold society together against the onslaught of globalising markets, while the United Nations and the World Bank maintain that it is one of the keys to ‘good governance’. The American writer and activist Jeremy Rifkin even calls it ‘our last, best hope’.

While the Christian would be instinctively wary of such extravagant optimism invested in any form of social advocacy, the advantages of civil society as an expression of associational life must be duly recognised.

Many would no doubt agree that a good society – again, what this entails is contentious – is in some significant way dependent on the health of the associational life of different groups in society. Civil society, as part of the public sphere, is therefore in some strong sense vital to a healthy associational ecosystem of society.

Philosophers and social theorists have noted how certain instantiations and embodiments of social, economic and political systems have destroyed the bonds between different individuals, different groups and between humans and their environment. In different and sometimes significant ways, civil society can not only alert us to the problem but also reconstitute these important relationships.

By institutionalising ‘civility’, civil society may arrest alienating and destructive social habits, and open up a new and different way of living in the world.

Koh and Soon are right to stress that the goal of civil society is the common good. ‘An effective response’, they write towards the end of their essay, ‘would allow civic activism to result in a more socially inclusive and compassionate Singapore where citizens renew their commitment to the good of the collective, but not the tyranny of the majority’.

Civil society must have as its ultimate goal the common good of society, which must transcend the specific concerns and agendas of particular groups. Put differently, the special projects that drive individual civil society groups must always be inspired and energised by a larger and more expansive vision of the flourishing of society as a whole.

As Koh and Soon have alluded, this means that civil society should never be governed by a superficial and dismissive majoritarianism. This is because the majority can be blind to the very real needs of the minority – the invisible poor or the unborn – whose welfare and wellbeing must never be excluded when we think about the common good.

But in order for civil society to be committed to the ‘good of the collective’, it also must not cower to the tyranny of the minority. It must not allow minority groups to question or overturn important social institutions in the name of group rights and inclusiveness.

This means that the presence of civil society alone is not enough to guarantee that the compassion and justice that are indispensable for human flourishing will prevail, and that the common good will be served.

In our fallen world, civil society is a morally ambiguous reality. As such it can promote virtue or vice, and it can be morally progressive or regressive. As Richard Miller points out: ‘Civil society is an arena for moral formation and deformation’.

For civil society to really serve the common good, we must ask whether the attitudes and practices it embodies are truly civil and civilising. For civil society to fulfil its true vocation, its aspirations and goals must never violate or detract from God’s purpose for the human race.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.