January 2017 Feature
“Get off your moral high horse,” we have heard this phrase thrown by people who think that you have been too demanding when making an ethical judgement or they just do not agree with a stand which you have made. Sometimes this is put differently.
They may appear as a convenient retort, saying “do not impose your moral views on us” usually in an attempt to cut short a conversation on a controversial subject, for example, when dismissing a person who thinks there is valid ground for reviewing the policy on current laws governing abortion.
This kind of reaction is taking an escapist way out of legitimate discussion. It short-circuits calm reasonable debate.
More seriously, however, that kind of attitude may suggest that on matters of morals, it is impossible to find consensus. In other words, morality, to use a phrase borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre, is too fragmented in our post-enlightenment world that we cannot talk anymore with people who do not share, say, our religious beliefs or world views.
The assertion is that we cannot have any in-depth conversation with those who hold different perspectives on life especially on issues relating to what constitute moral standards deemed to be acceptable for people of differing faiths and those with no religious affiliation.
In many ways when we look at what is happening in our world today where conflicts seem to have escalated and opposing groups try to “settle” disagreement with violence or the imposition of will on other groups, we may have cause to conclude that finding common grounds is like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Such pessimistic view seem credible enough if we consider the many interlaced factors to explain the surge in violence in our world.
From a historical perspective, we can see that most if not all the conflicts we have witnessed in recent times might have been brought about by a festering combination of combustible conditions, including failure to address dehumanising poverty and political disenfranchisement, worsened by the growing gap of the privileged class and those who are trapped in the quagmire of socio-economic cesspool.
The situation is compounded by the anxiety that it is unlikely that the privileged class will be able to understand fully the plight of, or talk sense with, those who have lived deprived and disadvantaged life.
Invariably, those who are deprived and disadvantaged would harbour suspicion of those who are in direct or indirect control over economic apparatus and tools for creation of wealth both at the national and at the international level. In other words, if there is a pernicious cycle of action and reaction, the violence is not just a response driven by politics of envy, as some might suggest. It has historical root often incubated over a long period of time in misery and a life of despair.
In the wider world scene, when talks have been initiated to resolve issues, such talks appear to be more like courtesy gatherings, a vacuous diplomatic road show, often with no concrete proposal and if there is a semblance of solution, they would be shot down by various legislatures and interest groups or placed at the bottom of a held-in-abeyance tray.
The unfortunate signal from such road show is that the participants seem more absorbed by political posturing and in exercise of political correctness marked by a clear lack of serious dialogue and commitment to find implementable common ground.
When people who are the under-class and marginalised are oppressed or pushed around over a long period of time, frequently crossing different generations, and when talks seem so detached from social reality, the disaffected tend to hit back and they have fought back.
That is why at the international level, this multi-faceted perspective explains in parts the rise of terrorist attacks when no meaningful avenues are open for negotiation and when there is no clear evidence of commitment to listen to each other in search of mutually beneficial and sustainable policies that would generate human flourishing.
In any case, often because of entrenched interest and suspicions, it is extremely difficult to expect trusting conversation to take immediate effect, assuming that we can bring people to the same table.
So while it might be correct to say, as an example, that a particular strand of Islamic teachings might have contributed to the radicalisation of young Muslims who have taken on extreme expression of their faith, might it not also be true that radicalisation is, in part, facilitated by the over-emphasis of an arrogant type of Euro-North American centric liberalism that worships unbridled individual rights aided by a constant persistent push by liberal fundamentalists among them politicians, the academia and those who control the major media who have sought to shut out the views of others or to ridicule them in the name of “progress”?
They underestimated that those who have found solace and strength in time-tested communitarian values would not accept such not-too-subtle cultural imperialism. You cannot legislate and export self-centred values by pushing such values down the throat of others who may not want to receive them.
Clearly fragmentations of the world and violent action and reaction could have been caused by failure to listen to each other and to respect legitimate concerns of different groups of people. Samuel Huntington might be correct after all when he postulated the idea of the clash of civilizations now made more pronounced by the evangelistic zeal of liberal fundamentalists and not just radicalised religious fanatics.
The future may look bleak in a world less than 20 years into the new millennium. The temptation is for observers of social events and human relationships to resign to cynicism.
The cynical response would be an appealing route to take when we think of the relentless march to export Euro-North American individualistic values and rights through the tools of political intervention, legislation, threat of economic sanction, and cultural imperialism on one hand, and the almost inevitable militant reaction from those who refuse to embrace the values unabashedly propagated and pressurise by incessant neo-imperialistic campaign.
So calling for others to “get off the moral high ground” may seem an expedient ploy to divert attention from serious conversation. Portraying the atomistic liberal ideology as progressive and everything else is intolerant if not primitive, only invites backlash because of their neglect of tested traditions which might not have Euro-North American origin and because of the selective preference of how to apply tolerance.
Such attitudes may just end up with none the wiser and we wonder why the seeming spiralling of violence in a world gripped with fear, nihilism, and despair.
There is still an option to help us steer clear of a using a fatalistic lens to look at the world.
It requires humility to recognise that while we may hold dear to a certain well-considered perspective in life, there are still many spheres in life which people of different faiths and those with no recognised religion can still find in what the political philosopher John Rawls describes as over-lapping consensus.
The truth of the matter is that we are all members of over-lapping communities with shared spaces, shared values and shared vision for human well-being, and have to be humble enough to grant that possibility.
From first impression and a casual look, the world is clearly fractious and fragmented.
However, for those who are prepared to invest time for deeper reflection and fair engagement which can be robust and yet civil; and which allows for one to draw on resources from our own faith and philosophy and to recoup common humanity, there is always the possibility of reclaiming common grounds and common morality unless one is an anarchist in the Nietschean sense or one is swayed by a religious apocalyptic vision or a political messianic pretension that is bent on destroying the world as it is, through the use of arms or imposition of will and ideology.
In the realistic approach guided by humility and hope, it does not matter if the result does not meet the complete desire or demand of a particular group, for this is unlikely, so long as the steps taken, views exchanged, or alternative offered provides an acceptable proximation to what one has hoped for and can live with.
In such dialogic conversation, Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of human nature as both free and finite may help us in our search for social well-being. To know our freedom is to appreciate our human potential to find common consensus primarily informed by love and justice. To bear in mind our finitude is to carry with us a warning of our human limitation and proclivity to sin which, if allowed to dominate human social intercourse, can derail our search for a fair and just outcome.
In our Singapore context, we need to be alert to the blatant and subtle infiltration of ideologies, religious and political, which seek to impose their values and self-serving dogmas on our multi-racial, multi-religious society.
It is less likely for any kind of destructive political or religious ideologies to take root and find wide support if the government and people of goodwill work to ensure that no group is disenfranchised because of poverty and neglect, and no group is held up for honourable mention when that group has run away with disproportionate benefits and privileges.
It is also less likely for a society to be irreparably fractured if we do not dismiss without deeper reflection and appreciation our time-tested communitarian vision nourished by our unique mix of ancient rich cultural histories and traditions to be usurped by atomistic individualism. Of course one needs to be careful not to let communitarian benefit become a collectivistic nightmare or communal dictatorship. But this has to be dealt with in a separate essay.
The world is fragmented. But it is not fatal.
There is possibility for people of goodwill which, to avoid being elitist and self-serving, must include people of faith and those with none; the well-educated and the common people; the experts and ordinary workers; to listen to each other, to work for and reclaim common morality and vision for the well-being of our own society.
Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon, an ordained minister of the Methodist Church is a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College and a pastor at Christalite Methodist Chapel. He is interested in social ethical issues and how the Christian faith may contribute to enhancing community well-being. This interest is reflected in his occasional reflective essays and his active involvement in the social outreach ministry of the Methodist Welfare Services where he is currently serving as its Chairperson. He is also been a member of an Ethics Committee of a major restructured hospital, as well as a member of a Central Institutional Review Board.