Morality, the Clash of Civilizations and the Democratic Dilemma

“Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.” Émile Zola

“Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” Pope John Paul II

In the mid-1900s, hundreds of millions hoped (and feared) that the “spectre of Communism” would overshadow the world. Less than 100 years later, this hope appears to have all but vanished. The Soviet Union has collapsed. Communism is either dying or dead. Liberal democracy is considered the norm, and societies which deviate from it are considered either barbaric or backward (sometimes both).

But what is all this in aid of? Well, proponents argue, liberal democracy ensures that each person will have an infallible guarantee of their most intrinsic human rights, and that, if they are violated, the guilty party will be swiftly brought to justice. The problem, of course, arises when we consider the question of what constitutes “human rights”. The phrase is rather nebulous and subject to a wide range of possible interpretations.

For example, consider the so-called “Right to Life”. To whom does this extend? Well, the human being, obviously. But can the unborn foetus be considered a “human being”? Who gets to define this term “human being”? At what stage does an entity start to be “human”? And what about criminals? Do they also enjoy the right to life, or have they – by their transgressions and woeful iniquities (again, a very debatable issue at times) – forfeited that right?

Here is the problem. There are 1.3 billion Catholics in the world who (if they are good Catholics) affirm that human life begins at conception. They also have (so their apologists claim) a number of medical experts and embryologists to back them up on that. On the other hand, there are countless self-professed “feminists” who believe that to protect without exception the foetus from being aborted would be to endanger the life of the mother. One is, the argument goes, trying to prioritize the life of an unborn, half-developed “creature” over that of a fully developed, free citizen.

There is clearly a clash of civilizations, a war of opposing ideologies. If the pro-choice crowd is in the right, then the right to abortion is an intrinsic right of the woman. If the pro-life factions are correct, then abortion is the biggest cause of genocide since the Holocaust. Both sides agree that human rights are being violated to this day. This brings us to a very pressing question: Is Liberal Democracy even realistic? Or does it try to bite off more than it can chew? It tries to keep the “religious busybodies” out of government, but at the same time imposes a morality on the rest of the population.

From a philosophical perspective, can non-religious people even have objective moral values? According to a sizeable number of atheists and naturalists, morality is simply a human construct, created by societies in order to facilitate greater synergy and efficiency of operation. Each tribe of people, the story goes, tries over time to organize its own affairs and, in order to do so, “invents” a moral code to better facilitate that purpose. But if it is purely a human construct, then it has no intrinsic value – only imparted value.

On the other hand, Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe (and together, they constitute more than 3 billion people), that morality is ordained by God. Some go even further and say that morality is nothing other than God’s own eternal, immutable nature. With the rise of postmodernism, moral relativism has been skyrocketing, and the old-school atheists are desperately scrambling to produce a scientific basis for objective moral values. The religious camp is claiming that such an operation is in vain since science (they say) cannot possibly adjudicate on matters on ethics. Only time will tell which side wins out in the end. But both factions are united in an affirmation that relativism is dangerous and toxic. Here is why.

If morality is purely a human construct, then there is no universal moral code everyone has to abide by. Each person gets to invent his/her own moral rules and one would have no objective basis to refute that. In a relativistic worldview, if one disagrees with someone else, one cannot say that the other side is “wrong” – merely that they disagree. Now imagine if the Nazis suddenly had a worldwide resurgence. The Christian, Muslim and Jew would be able to unite and condemn them on the basis that they are violating God’s eternal unchangeable law and are ipso facto condemned. But what can the relativist say? Only that he/she disagrees with their moral code, but since – according to his/her own definition – morality is merely a human construct, he/she cannot make an objective claim that they are “wrong” in an absolute sense of the world.

Democracy must be better delineated. The fact is that there exist in the world irreconcilable worldviews. People of different ethnicities, races, communities and genders might coexist, but can a pro-lifer eat at the same table as an abortionist, when the fact is – according to the pro-lifer – the latter is nothing other than a murderer?

One cannot live in two worlds. Liberal Democracy cannot not take a stand, but if it does take a stand, it ceases to be liberal. And when it ceases to be liberal, can it be called democracy? In a world of exclusive ideologies, absolute inclusivism is an impossibility. And in a world of conflicting moral systems, the state and the law cannot act as impartial umpires. Either abortion is legal, or it isn’t. The question then remains, that if the state is ready to impose its own moral values on the rest of the populace, then it must ask itself a question: does it have any objective basis for those values or not? If it does not, it undermines its own authority. And if it is non-religious, it is hard to see how it’s ethical code can have any objective basis at all.

Soham Gupta

I believe that the relentless pursuit of truth is the most exalted goal a person could possibly strive for. And the truth, as far as I have experienced it, has only made me zealous for the greater glory of God.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.