Friday, January 13, 2006

Intractable Problems in Progressive Morality

Here's another dilemma for you. One of my wife's co-workers is a practicing Muslim of some fairly conservative flavor who refuses to shake hands with women. It's oh so entertaining to watch my wife and her co-workers, most of who try to be good, liberal, progressive people, wrestle with their approach to this behavior. On one hand they recognize that they should be tolerant of other peoples' religious beliefs but, at the same time, they don't want to endorse behavior that they see as sexist. This is a culture clash in the literal sense. We have two cultures, both of which we want to treat with respect and tolerance, which happen to be incompatible on this small (but visible and highly symbolic) behavior. The first argument which one might make is that the refusal to shake hands isn't sexist, since its done out of religious motives which have nothing to do with the denigration of women. But I would argue that isn't germane, since there seems to be a standing agreement that perception is more important than intent in cases such as this. So again, how to deal with apparently irreconcilable differences in a progressive fashion? The pragmatic solution, looking at my wife and her co-workers, is to just get used to the behavior and let it go. They seem to have, at least publicly, just accepted the fact that this person will continue to exhibit questionable behavior towards women, will continuing to complain about the practice in private. Which, IMHO, is a crappy and indefensible solution which really smacks of hypocrisy. Compelling the fellow that he has to shake hands is right out of the question. I can't make a case that his refusal represents a violation of other peoples' natural/civil rights, so there's no grounds for him to be so compelled. The enlightened solution seems to be, at least in this case, for everyone to be educated about the motivations for the non-handshaking behavior. But this is sub-optimal as well, since the only people who are really available for this type of education are this fellow's co-workers; there are plenty of other women who come into contact casually with this gentleman and end up feeling slighted. Looking at this in conjunction with my previous post makes me realize that progressive moral reasoning is seriously untenable. There's some sort of a Goedelization going on; modern reasoning is so concerned with implication and meta-implication that it becomes difficult to avoid having the system speak against itself. How would you go about fixing this? The obvious idea, borrowed from Lord Whitehead, is to limit the interpretation of actions, symbols, etc. in some fashion. One would hope that by applying such a limitation you have a moral basis of reasoning which was, if not deterministic, then at least less fraught with contradiction. The only problem is that I have no idea how such a limitation would work, or if its even tenable. The first thought is that we need to stop looking for subtexts all the time and accept actions at their face value. However, subtext is undeniably important in many instances, so that's right out as well. How about it, boys and girls, how do you fix modern moral discourse so that it doesn't break so easily on the rocks of self-reference?

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