Posted by: Corina Paraschiv | April 1, 2009

The 21st Century Moral Dilemmas

Since beaton first got journlaistic pictures all the way to live films that could show the world images from far away, the average Joe has been confronted to a dilemma he never had before: while each culture has its own rules and rights to self-governance, is there a responsability that comes to citizens of a country upon viewing injustice being done elsewhere in the world? 

North Americans and Europeans alike feel this struggle again as newschannels release the latest law imposed by the Afghan government:

Various reports say the legislation would make it illegal for Shia women to refuse their husbands sex, leave the house without their permission or have custody of children.  […]  Karzai’s office has so far refused to comment on the legislation, which has been criticized by some Afghan parliamentarians and a UN women’s agency but has not yet been published.  Critics say Karzai’s government approved it in a hurry to win support in the upcoming election from ethnic Hazaras — a Shia Muslim minority that constitutes a crucial block of swing voters.  […]  Late Tuesday, Canadian officials said they had learned the law was not yet in effect but that they remained “very concerned.”    The Afghan constitution guarantees equal rights for women, but also allows the Shia to have separate family law based on religious tradition. […]   Some international monitors have avoided discussing the issue, for fear of feeding the impression that exists among Afghans that their government takes its marching orders from the West.

This CBC report, which has been published this week in Canada, makes a pretty good synthesis of the dilemma the international community finds itself in.

The human rights such as we know it — with the rights of women and the conception of democracy – are fairly new, even to this side of the Western world.  A few decades back, men of all ethnies were not equal, and women were too feable to vote, or so we thought.  How, then can it be expected that developping countries take such a leap in their development and follow suit in something that took centuries to develop in North America and Europe?

More than that, however, is the implicit question of whether there is such a thing as international and universal morality, values and “rights and wrongs”. 

Although many religions throughout the world cultivate love, harmony and other such values, it is important to point out that the society as a whole, and its governing rules and norms, are not born, but made.  An individual’s values are the result of a learned behaviour, by living in society.  In this context, the values we hold are fairly arbitrary.  Perhaps sharing might be explained by earlier times in history, where sharing your mammooth todaycould mean your survival when you had a hard time tomorrow.  Such history shapes the cultural values we find in every country; they have a reason, and a history behind them, but they remain arbitrary.  Right or wrong, it is a societal construct.

There comes the question of intervention.  To what extent is it right to impose our culture on another?  Not to act in front of an injustice is to be guilty, accomplice, of a crime, too.  Yet, to act is also to apply a form of cultural imperialsm – it is assuming our values are superior to the ones that are in use or chosen by a particular country.  The question of cultural relativism is hard.

Meanwhile, laws in various countries continue to be changed.  Rumania is considering legalizing incest since, as supporters of the law explain, incest is not formally proscribed by law in developped countries such as France.  Yet, in a country such as Rumania, where abuses in rural areas are still frequent, this law may be more needed than in France.

The debate continues.   Should we watch in silence?

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