Understanding and Critiquing Certain Common Sense Moralisms in Modern Society
In any given society, there are certain common sense moralisms ingrained within that culture. Certain aspects of ethical life and sentiments may be universal in nature and span multiple countries and continents, as part of a generalized weltanschauung. Yet, the particular way in which that ethic is practiced is always subject to cultural conditions and specifics. The key part to this common-sense morality is that you do not think much about these things: they are simply the immediate ethical context one engages with and considers as obvious. As a result, one of the main arenas where we see a stark shift from pre-modern to modern societies, and from religious to liberal societies, is in ethical sentiments and “common sense.”
In this series, “7 Modern Deadly Sins and Misunderstandings,” I reflect on some aspects of modern common-sense ethics and their spiritual and ethical assumptions. The seven principles discussed in this article series include:
1. Equality and Inequality
5. Intellectualization and Operationalization
7. Narcissism and Celebrity
In modern societies, each one of these values is misunderstood or abused in such a way as to create either the opposite of the intended effect, or something Muslims would normatively consider unethical or incorrect. “Modern” here refers to those societies we collectively term “the West,” but are not always geographically located in the Western world. The characteristics of these kinds of society are that they are broadly liberal, secular, individualist, rational, materialistic, and democratic in ethics and politics.
This first article in the series will discuss inequality.
Due to a particular conception of liberalism and its suspicion of hierarchy and authority, modern society fails to grapple with the issue of equality and its related philosophical and political connotations. Liberalism’s idea of justifying governance based on consent assumes a kind of sovereign people (and foundationally the sovereign individual) who have the sole right to rule themselves, and can only be justly ruled by themselves.
Therefore, any form of authority must be justified by the person who is ruled, otherwise it is somehow illegitimate. Paradoxically, this means that legitimate hierarchy in favor of the weaker/minority is abolished if the individual cannot recognize the value of that hierarchy. For example, the king cannot simply tell the subject that his royal authority is justified, but must have the subject himself consciously recognize, consent, and reciprocate that understanding. The anthropological assumption that agents are themselves as individuals best positioned to determine their interests is a common theme across all forms of liberal thought.
Violation of the Duty in Hierarchy
In modern society, the tradition of hierarchy is dismantled in such a fashion as to harm those to whom hierarchy is legitimately owed: the parent and child, student and teacher, master and disciple, the poor and the rich, etc. In these cases, it is the very existence of inequality that allows the inferior party to benefit; were any kind of equalization to take place, we would lose an important moral transition and transformation that hierarchy makes possible. Scholars, for example, hold an eminent position in Islamic society that the process of democratization would not equalize but destroy. And more controversially, political authority requires the same idea of concession and obedience to benefit the populace. Even in liberal theory political stratification becomes necessary for decision-making, and is theoretically justified by the consent of the governed.
This benefit of hierarchy extends as far as relationships between adults, which I examine here. Crucially, part of this analysis relies on the idea that individuation takes place through complex social processes, which is the Hegelian response to Rousseau’s idea of the man who creates himself and is subsequently limited through the restrictions of statehood and community. But as Hegel points out, the very individual the state represses is only possible through state construction itself. Thereby, the removal of the authority structures by which that moral is instantiated removes the possibility of repression, but at the cost of removing that very thing which was being repressed (the morally righteous and learned individual). For example, to become educated, disciplined, and culturally conscious, requires a large amount of suppression of your natural inclinations towards a variety of concerns — for example, in the Muslim world we see thousands of Huffadh produced annually at incredibly young ages; the only way an 8-year-old Hafidh comes into being, is through the mass restriction of his freedom to engage in other activities, and the same is true of anyone largely of any age.
Any inequality that exists in the Sacred Law serves some purpose to both the inferior and the superior. Take for example, the reciprocal superiority and inferiority between men and women: the man is superior in some cases and the woman in others. In all circumstances, authority is exercised on behalf of the inferior party as much as it is exercised affirmatively by the superior party. Hierarchy and inequality become a mechanism towards various social goods that would not be possible without it, due to the normative and foundational vision of human community that God wants us to pursue.
Inequality Creates Social Obligations
One could accurately respond that there are two levels of discourse regarding inequality: those which can theoretically be remedied and those which cannot (this is different than a normative conception of which inequalities should be tolerated). The argument is as follows: the inequality between parent and child, or student and teacher, cannot be remedied by the nature of the task or relationship therefore it is justified for external moral purposes; but this does not then justify other inequalities such as those of wealth or power.
However, it seems increasingly that anthropologically and spiritually, socially contingent hierarchies (wealth, status, power) allow the construction of human sociality. Much of human sociality is based on the concept of lack (e.g. the man needs the woman because she possesses traits and comfort he lacks and vice versa). Thereby, they become integrated into a complex system of obligations and responsibility. This blanket conception of equality aims to remove the basis of difference by which responsibility is created.
Presumably, in a society of equals no one owes anyone anything beyond minimal respect. To go the extra mile, to do the unthinkably kind thing, to help someone else, often comes solely from the place of hierarchical authority. Because richer and poorer people, or people with any level of distinction in attributes such that they are “unequal,” inhabit different social and spiritual environments they gain different benefits from them and develop different obligations and relationships, as may be for their spiritual states — financial difficulty and financial excess both have spiritual benefits and harms. One may move throughout both of them in their lifetime as a series of divine openings. If the question is why can everyone not simply be, or have been created as equal in all respects, then the response must be phrased along the lines of the spiritual diseases that exist by default in the human condition can only be removed through the benefits of hierarchy and inequality.
Even the need to engage in social life itself is partly driven by coercion, based on a certain lack; I go out in the community because eventually I must work, marry, and die in this community, and so I bring about social bonds of trust and support. At a very abstract level, much of my engagement in the social world is brought about specifically through the recognition of my inferiority in certain contexts and superiority in others — to rule and be ruled in turn, as imagined by Aristotle. Inequality creates a general kind of social entrapment which may be despised but simultaneously fulfills social obligations we may otherwise never engage in. Islamic law dictates a certain level of social engagement as mandatory, if not highly encouraged. For example, the Friday and Eid prayers, the distribution of obligatory charity in communities, visiting the sick, etc. This not only reinforces the moral duty to engage socially (if one were to deny any innate human need for it), but also imagines that such needs will always exist. Therefore inequality, at the level of wealth, health, opportunity, intellect etc., creates a variety of complex social obligations.
If we were to completely re-engineer humans away from lack, difference, and inequality, as the logic of some transhumanist egalitarian writings argue, this would break the very bonds of sociality. Theoretically, we could create a society of material and emotional abundance in which no one needs financial help, friends, or spiritual guidance. Yet, as stated many human relationships are constructed and enforced, specifically by a form of social compulsion based on inequality or lack. Imagine a society in which everyone is wealthy: there is no one to give the obligatory charity to, no one to help out through voluntary charity. Or if children were born fully sufficient, and moved out of the house right after birth, through some technological advancement, we see even the breakdown of the coercion towards family life (much of which is based on mutual or unilateral dependence). More and more, the self-reliant person recuses himself from the community and social life — a rather bleak existence. Without various needs and social dynamics being present and partially constructed by unequal relationships and social entrapments due to them, it is entirely possible for us to retract into isolated worlds of consumption and virtuality.
Demonstrably, Islam does not promote an empty notion of equality, rather a kind of ethics of justice, to place things in their proper place. This Islamic ethics of justice requires insight into the nature of things, their purposes, their inward realities etc. A knee jerk desire to equalize everything without thought is much easier than conceptually delineating the goods that any seemingly unequal practice may be pursuing. For example, a justice oriented vision may see the family as a form of organization for moral good which requires certain injustices, instead of some contractual arrangement of labor (ten for you, ten for me, whatever happens to the kids as a result of this is irrelevant).
Unfortunately, in many conversations surrounding equality in the Muslim community, we see this robotic conception of simply equalizing everything taken as the gold standard. Equality is seen as an independent and inherent good, inextricably leading to a bureaucratic mechanization of all human relationships away from spontaneity, sincerity, and authenticity, into a strange contractual obligation to equalize every possible thing. Marriage goes from a union for the common and spiritual good, to some corporate conflict in need of external arbitration.
Through the robotic mechanization of equality, we need the same amount of women on every panel as men, we need activists to have the same authority as scholars, we need every marriage to be as equally measured as possible, everything through computerized mechanization which will dole out equal hours of work. The consideration of the reasons for which these goods exist to begin with is glaringly absent. Equality is not some inherent good in and of itself — the inherent good equality is meant to reach is something more like piety, God-consciousness, and social stability. If society is entirely unequal in relation to class, sex, race, etc. then piety and God-consciousness becomes infinitely more difficult.
In other cases, equality can go as far as to prevent God-consciousness, such as the equalization of scholars and non-scholars. Islamically, the reasoning behind equality should be focused on the substantive goods equality is meant to recognize in different legal, ethical, social, and political contexts. For example, the oppression of a minority is a great injustice, and in that case equalization of the parties is necessary in relation to “justice,” whether this be political, economic, or social. Conversely, the extension of equality into other fields should always be vigilantly watched and noted to see if justice will actually be compromised. This will further be discussed in relation to the idea of “accessibility.”
Accessibility and Compromise
Related to this ideal of equality, and perhaps the best reflection of some of its problems, is the term “accessibility.” Another member of the liberal pantheon of phrases that are used to justify a vast and contradictory set of interests, accessibility refers to the idea of making available, easy, and possible for people with disabilities or obstacles of some kind, a variety of social goods. For example, the best and most obvious example of accessibility is adding a wheelchair accessibility ramp to a building. This is noble, just, and should be adopted everywhere. But accessibility is not actually the reason that this good comes to be — the true motive behind this good can be said to be a kind of justice. Accessibility is not itself synonymous with the moral good we are pursuing when we add that wheelchair ramp.
Inherent to accessibility, as a concept and philosophical ground, is the absence of any limitation on what one actually has a right to access or have made easy for them. Accessibility has a kind of infinite extension that liberalism cannot seem to keep in check, partially because it assumes all people have an equal right to every kind of place, thing, and ritual. The Qur’an on the other hand has a completely antithetical approach: you cannot recite it in any language other than Arabic in prayer, and if you do not know Arabic, you are obligated to learn it to the extent sufficient to fulfill Islamic rituals. As Muslims this is obvious to us, but to non-Muslims, they may feel this quite absurd or strange. Theologically and legally, this is an advantage for those who grow up learning Arabic that cannot be made “accessible,” one we cannot democratize, equalize, decolonize, or whatever other term of the liberal pantheon we want to insert.
Oftentimes as well, the attempt to make something accessible is no different than a mass reduction in standards, quality, and purpose. For example, there is the common discussion in the West over whether the Jumu’ah khutbah should actually be in English. For those who now focus more on the vernacular language rather than Arabic, and sometimes forego Arabic altogether, they have removed an Ummatic cultural legacy, heritage, and solidarity that a common language provides. As a Muslim, no matter where I am in the world, I should expect to hear the fairly similar and routine khutbahs, and I am at ease in the familiarity of worship and ritual.
The reduction to the vernacular particularities of any given context is not always bad, only that certain aspects of Islamic faith and worship are legally and spiritually meant to remain universal. Clothing can vary, while the legal requirements cannot; the food can vary but the obligation of fasting cannot, etc. The knee jerk reaction of Muslims to call something like a mixed-gender prayer and fully vernacular Adhaan disrespectful to Islamic beliefs is well-placed, but misses the mark — this is the inevitable end-goal of an ethic of accessibility (ironically, one they can only criticize from another part of the liberal pantheon, cultural appropriation). Accessibility needs to necessarily be regulated by a complex ethics and law: certain aspects of Islam make themselves accessible to you, while you must strive to make yourself accessible to others. This compromise between ease and difficulty reflects once again the universal Islamic good of balance and moderation.
Finally, accessibility reflects a kind of death of common standards. Princeton University has now removed the learning of Latin and Greek as requisites to graduate with a Major in Classics. In this case, we find that accessibility actually destroys the very thing it is meant to equalize. Equality and accessibility supposedly demand this change (I do not disregard that those values actually could have been pursued by other methods, but this is what Princeton chose to do) and yet anyone who does not know Latin or Greek fundamentally cannot be considered educated in the classics. Imagine if an Islamic university decided to remedy the natural unfairness of difference in language learning ability by simply removing Arabic from its curriculum as a mandatory: suddenly we would have people formally declared as educated in the Islamic sciences, who from a traditional perspective have not even learnt the most basic skill required to critically engage with the Quran, foundational texts, and writings of the ancients.
Accessibility needs demand that biological men be let into biological women’s washrooms, that biological men be allowed to play in biological women’s sports leagues, and that to ensure biological women’s accessibility to the military and police forces we drop common standards of physical fitness and aptitude. All of the aforementioned issues are much more complex than what I have laid out, however on a cursory level, it is sufficient to illustrate the un-Islamic ends and ethics that “accessibility” so easily seems to lapse into, because it is based on the underlying assumption that individuals have the universal right of accessibility into essentially any place, group, category, or ritual. Accessibility is desirable if tempered with a preliminary analysis of what rights you are owed, what goods equality is meant to achieve in this situation, and what goods, such as justice, can override such an analysis. The same critique can be extended, as mentioned earlier, to any number of these new ethical obligations of modern liberal politics, such as equality, equity, accessibility, and democratization.
In conclusion, Islam is not antithetical to equality, as if I am arguing we must pursue the recreation of traditional reactionary beliefs and hierarchies under the guise of Islamic traditionalism. But rather that the complex legal, ethical, spiritual, and social goods that Islam pursues and normatively enforces, can often be distorted, lost, or replaced by their opposites when we pursue them solely through the modern day understanding of “equality,” “freedom,” “accessibility,” “equity” and the like. These terms are all useful to the extent that they are beneficial ways of thinking about issues of justice, but must then necessarily be subsidiary considerations to justice itself, in all forms and that too justice as an Islamic metaphysical worldview would understand it. In Islamic terms we can refer to “Adl” as in “Justice” or “Huquq al-Ibad” (the rights of the slaves (of God)), and there exists many works of far superior literature addressing this complex ethical understanding. As we begin to think of these issues in relation to these terms, we steer the conversation away from arguing whether certain actors are “equal” to others, and towards the normative considerations of justice and piety that equality would mechanistically be used to reach in any given circumstance, instead of mechanistic equality as the end in itself.
Note from the Author: Due to stringent word limits and other related concerns, a much longer article has been condensed here that cannot fully flesh out all the ideas, tangents, and arguments. If you have any comments, questions, or critiques, please leave them in the comments and I will try to address them!
About the Author: Faizan Malik is a student studying political science in Toronto. His interests include Islam, critical theory, and liberalism.
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