03 October 2016

Social Conformity as a Basis for Moral Insight

In a recent article, Roger Trigg, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick wrote:

"Yet social conformity has never been a good basis for moral insight."

I consider this to be something of an understatement. Any desire to conform to social norms and expectations is based, at least in part, on threat of censure. Criminal law codifies this censure. Criminal law is broadly created by the majority, sometimes in the teeth of opposition from a minority. Sometimes law permits conscientious objection: pacifists (like me) who refuse to have anything to do with war and militarism; doctors and nurses who will not carry out pregnancy terminations; Sikhs who wish to wear a turban when riding a motorcycle, and to carry a kirpan (ceremonial dagger). In other circumstances the law does not permit people to follow their conscience, such as the right to choose whether or not to wear religious symbols at work, and in France for a woman to keep her head covered. Although in part derived from social norms, and undoubtedly in dialogue with them, my morality is my own, and is neither imposed nor acquired en bloc as part of a religious package: in these pluralistic days I can choose to follow the religion that suits my spirituality, whether Quaker, Sikh or Hare Krishna.

It seems to me that laws that permit behaviours considered by some to be objectionable should also give that person the legal right not to engage with it. A Canadian doctor who does not wish to have anything to do with assisted dying ought to have the right to say "Don't come to me about this" and not be expected to make a referral. On the other hand, depending on the nature of the employment contract, a doctor should not have the right to refuse to treat a patient (say, for an ingrowing toenail) just because they also want to be helped to die. A cake baker who believes that gay relationships are an abomination should have the right to say "Don't expect me to bake you a cake explicitly celebrating your relationship", but should be found guilty of discrimination if they refuse to bake a cake for someone simply because they are gay.

Majority expression by means of legal instruments is fickle. In the 1950s Alan Turing was hounded to his death by the police for being gay. Now the law permits gay marriage. In the 1960s the law insisted that severely disabled people were locked away out of sight in hospitals and asylums. Now large numbers of people celebrate Paralympian sporting achievements. In the 1980s, the 'loadsamoney' culture that was nurtured by the government of the day legitimised the elevation of greed over other longer-term ethical priorities. The recent UK referendum has de facto legitimised the widespread expression of low level xenophobic (and racist) attitudes.

It would be unwise for me to choose my moral positions simply based on what is currently popular, and it would be nice if those who frame laws gave adequate recognition to those people who, in all conscience, cannot conform in a given instance.

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