Is Anyone Morally Responsible Anymore?

Depiction of the sin of Adam and Eve by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens
Depiction of the sin of Adam and Eve by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens

One of the foundations of modern ethics is crumbling. Having rights is about being respected as a human individual who shapes his life through choices. Whether with respect to original sin, honor based violence, the burqa, ‘incitement’ to violence, or white guilt  – the transference of moral responsibility from individual moral agents to others, or from others to the individual, makes a mockery of justice.

Either we are responsible for our own behavior or we are not. Imagine how wonderful it would be if we could all take credit for other peoples’ good deeds.  Conversely, it would be awful if we could be blamed for other peoples’ crimes.

Ironically, no one seems to have any trouble understanding what is wrong with the transference of blame from individuals to other people innocent of his crime when it comes to Islamist jihadist terrorists and “Muslims.”

Transference of guilt from the individual terrorist to other Muslims innocent of his crime is the most egregious, inexcusable error in this instance. Guilt-by-association is a mistake that is seized upon and bewailed following every jihadist terror attack. But when religions themselves promote the logic of guilt transference, as they do in many ways, there is a resounding silence.

 

Original Sin

Transference of guilt has its religious precedent in St. Paul’s Christian doctrine of original sin, according to which the entire human species is tarnished by the sins of their disobedient progenitors, Adam and Eve. Transferring guilt across generations from ancient ancestors to their heirs was highly convenient for religious authorities. It created a very sizable market for their product. Since we’re all born with a moral sickness, we need the medicine they’re peddling – salvation. To get this remedy for our hereditary disease we need only assent to our guilt and then give eternal gratitude to God for providing his son Jesus – the sacrificial lamb who remedied the situation by enduring the punishment that we so richly deserved.

 

Honor-Based Violence and Collective Morality

Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus view honor and morality as a collective family matter.  In the normative paradigms of these cultures, rights are primarily collective, not individual. Family, clan and tribal rights supplant individual human rights [1].

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women are killed each year for dishonoring their families. The underlying belief of those who commit honor violence is that their victim’s illicit action somehow stigmatizes other family members. It is as though the individual is responsible not just for her own moral reputation, but for that of her entire family, who are also responsible for how she conducts herself.

Honor- based violence is defined by the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers as “a crime or incident which has or may have been committed to protect or defend the honor of the family and/or community.”

While not all honor killings in the West are perpetrated by Muslims, the overwhelming majority are.  In two studies of press-reported successful or attempted honor killings in North America between 1989 and 2008 and in Europe between 1998 and 2008, 90 percent of the honor killers were Muslim. In every case studied, perpetrators viewed their victims as violating rules of religious conduct and acted without remorse. Honor killings reported in the press in the United States, Canada and Europe show the killings to be primarily a Muslim-on-Muslim crime.[2]

 

Religious Modesty Dress

Religious-based gender uniforms such as the burqa follow a similar logic. The immodestly dressed female is deemed to be responsible for the indecent behavior of males, whose predatory sexual behavior cannot be controlled absent a strict “modesty” dress code.

The rationale is that a man’s biological sexual urges “naturally” overpower his will to the extent that he cannot really be expected to control them. Again, this idea is not far removed from Pauline Christianity, as we can see in his letter to the Romans:

14 For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.[c]15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am!

In a similar vein to this antiquated belief, a Muslim male cannot be expected to exercise sexual self-discipline. It would seem to follow from this that Muslim males are not really free and responsible moral agents capable of self-control and personal responsibility. This is an insult to Muslim males with which not all of them would agree.  But many others do.

The expectation that Muslim men should not be required to control their natural urges explains why women must be “modest.”  If women were to uncover their irresistible bodies (especially their hair) or to give them any “opportunity,” then men would be right to molest them.  It would be tantamount to leaving fresh meat out and then expecting that the cat will not eat the meat, according to Australia’s most senior Islamic cleric.[3]

Transference of guilt from male sexual predators to their female victims is the rape culture mentality for which UK Labour MP Sarah Champion was sacked. She suggested correlations to Pakistani perpetrators’ ethnic heritage.[4] As Trevor Phillips astutely pointed out following the debacle, “What the perpetrators have in common is their proclaimed faith.”

Justifying the call for Champion’s resignation, a source close to Labour Party Chair Jeremy Corbyn said, “There can be no question of stigmatizing entire communities on the basis of race, religion or country of origin.”  [my emphasis]

Indeed. But challenging their deeply held beliefs and ideas is not the same as stigmatizing an entire group of people, unless one believes that all Muslims agree on Islamic veiling, which they patently do not.  Moreover, by challenging religious ideas about “modesty,” we could hope to prevent people from stigmatizing entire groups of people (namely women) on the basis of their biological sex.

In Saudi Arabia, where the ultra-conservative version of Islam (Salafi-Wahhabism) prevalent among UK-based Islamist extremists originates, the guilt-transference logic is accorded a central place.[5]

In 2006, the Qatif General Court sentenced a 19 year-old woman who had been gang raped to six months in jail and 200 lashes after “getting herself raped,” which was treated as a the natural outcome to be expected for her related crime of being alone with a male non-relative.[6]

Irrespective of hair-splitting exegetical debates about whether the veil is genuinely Islamic, it has been interpreted as such by ultra-conservative clerics who exert powerful influence in Muslim communities. The fact that there is no official Islamic mandate to wear it becomes immaterial where there is cultural or familial coercion to do so.

 

Colonialism and White Guilt

Which brings me to the most colossally popular genre of guilt-transference current today: instilling “white guilt” in victims or critics of Islamist terrorism. The story goes like this: Islam is ideology-free and Islamism has nothing to do with waging jihad in conquest for the advance of Islam and a universal caliphate.

Its rare violence is grievance-based; a mere response to maltreatment and injustices suffered at the hands of Western colonialism. It might be revenge, but it is a just reparation, not aggressive religious imperialism seeking to conquer the world until all nations are brought under sharia law and Dar Al-Islam[7].

The victims of Islamist terrorism are the distant descendants of past perpetrators of colonial crimes. As with original sin, the guilt transfers across generations.

The individuals attacked by today’s jihadis did not commit the colonial crimes for which they are being punished; but they are guilty by association and so attacking them is just.

Now let us imagine for a moment that everyone punished heirs for the sins of their forefathers. (In the case of jihadist terrorism, the victims may have no blood relationship to past perpetrators at all. But never mind that, white people are all the same.)

The world would be a constant theatre of bloodshed if all of us felt that we had the right to dish out punishment to the progeny of every nation or tribe that ever committed atrocities.

In Rwanda, the grown up children of Tutsis would avenge their parents’ deaths by taking machetes to the skulls of Hutus’ offspring. Would we really applaud this and say that the Hutu descendants deserve this?  If not, then our enthusiasm for making white people bear the guilt for crimes they did not commit seems a bit, well … racist.

But of course evil Belgian colonialists propelled Hutus to slaughter Tutsis, so they had no free will!  Which brings me to . . .

 

Incitement to Violence

Obviously, speech and expression are influential, otherwise liberals like myself would not spill so much ink defending them. But the fact that we are influenced does not allow us to abdicate personal responsibility for our actions. Human beings have competing desires and choose between them all the time. When someone influences me, it is because I value what he says or writes. I select these opinions or perceived truths from among other opinions or viewpoints and invest them with importance.

If I did not then the potential causes of my actions would be endless – films, books, parents, teachers, preachers, television personalities … any combination of these “influences” could be held accountable and I could be let off the hook.

But how would we ever know which of them to blame for my action? Was it a Netflix documentary I watched or a Guardian columnist’s opinions, or both?

It is true that ideas can be as pernicious as they can be enlightening. But even more dangerous than bad ideas is the atmosphere of fear in which they may not be challenged by better ones.

In every instance in which dangerous ideas have precipitated actual harms, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, there has been a chilling silence from fearful listeners who (had their freedom to protest been protected) should have put a halt to the rhetoric by speaking back.

It is in a climate of censorship and coerced conformity that the beast of bad ideas takes root and grows into a monster.

The “incitement” argument against free speech, in its current (distorted) usage, presupposes a direct causal link between someone’s expression of extreme views and other peoples’ violent behaviors. This causal theory undermines the presupposition of individual moral agency at the core of the justice system.

If someone commits a criminal act of terrorism, defense attorneys may attempt to diminish the defendant’s responsibility in various ways. However, if the forensic evidence points to his guilt, and if he is an adult of sound mind, we do not accept outside influences as somehow causing him to act. If we did, we would reduce the sentence accordingly or even exonerate him completely – but we do not.

The fact that adult citizens are responsible moral agents entitles them to basic rights and protections on the one hand, and obligates them to accept moral accountability for their actions on the other. Civil liberties come with concomitant responsibilities. Only children, because of their relative naïveté or inexperience, are incapable of responsible moral agency.

To say that Hutu individuals were not responsible for the acts they committed in the Rwandan genocide only infantilizes them and treats them with the kind of patronizing contempt for which colonialists are so often roundly condemned.

 

Lessons From History

When World War II finally ended and the scale of Nazi atrocities came to light, some of those involved faced criminal charges. The defendants argued that only states and not individuals could be held responsible for the types of war crimes of which they stood accused. The court’s rejection of this argument set a landmark precedent, establishing that state authority could not be used to shield individuals from criminal accountability.

Existentialists argued that excuses (“I was just following orders”) were attempts to deny individual responsibility and to pretend that we have no choice. This is bad faith. Each of us knows, with agonizing certainty, that we have inescapable choices to make. No amount of duress, regardless how severe, can really force us to choose against our will. But taking on responsibility for other people’s choices is just as weak as pretending that we have none for our own.

 

[1] See Chesler, Phyllis, ‘Are Honour Killings Simply Domestic Violence?’ in Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2009, pp. 61 – 69. Accessed on 23 Aug. 2017 at http://www.meforum.org/2067/are-honor-killings-simply-domestic-violence#_ftn1 See also Chesler, Phyllis, ‘Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings’ in Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2010, pp. 3 – 11, accessed on 23 Aug. 2017 at http://www.meforum.org/2646/worldwide-trends-in-honor-killings#_ftn5

[2] Ibid.

[3] Muslim Cleric: Women Without Scarf are ‘uncovered meat’, Religion News Blog, Oct. 26, 2006, accessed on 23 August, 2017 at http://www.religionnewsblog.com/16378/muslim-cleric-women-without-scarf-are-uncovered-meat

[4] https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/home-affairs/policing/news/88302/sarah-champion-was-sacked-jeremy-corbyn-over-sun-article

[5] A 2007 report by a team of researchers over a two-year project, written by Dr Denis MacEoin, an Islamic studies expert at Newcastle who previously taught at the University of Fez, uncovered a hoard of malignant literature inside as many as a quarter of Britain’s mosques. All of it had been published and distributed by agencies linked to the Saudi government of King Abdullah. Among the more choice recommendations in leaflets, DVDs and journals were statements that homosexuals should be burnt, stoned or thrown from mountains or tall buildings (and then stoned where they fell just to be on the safe side). Those who changed their religion or committed adultery should experience a similar fate. The 7/7 suicide bombers Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer were salafis. See, ‘Wahhabism: A Deadly Scripture’ at The Independent online edition,  Nov. 2007. Accessed on 23 Aug., 2017 at   http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/wahhabism-a-deadly-scripture-398516.html

[6] Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, ‘Ruling Jolts Even Saudis, New York Times, Nov. 16, 2007, accessed on 23 August 2017 at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/16/world/middleeast/16saudi.html

[7] Dār al-Islam, in Islamic political ideology, the region in which Islam has ascendance; traditionally it has been matched/contrasted with the Dār al-Ḥarb (abode of war), the region into which Islam could and should expand. This mental division of the world into two regions persisted even after Muslim political expansion had ended. See jihad. [Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica, online edition, accessed on 22 Aug. 2017]

 

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TM
Terri Murray
Dr. Terri Murray is an American educator and essayist. She has taught philosophy, critical reasoning and film studies for over 14 years in secondary and adult education. A former documentary filmmaker, she is a regular contributor to Philosophy Now magazine and The New Humanist. She is the author of Feminist Film Studies: a Teacher's Guide. (Auteur/Columbia University Press, 2007) and Thinking Straight About Being Gay: Why It Matters If We're Born That Way (Auteur, 2015). She presently works at Hampstead College of Fine Arts & Humanities, where she is director of studies.