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Dangerous ideas, honour killings and moral seriousness

Last night, after a public outcry, the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas pulled a presentation from its upcoming program. The talk in August by Sydney writer and Hizb ut-Tahrir representative…

Most of us would react to a title like Honour Killings are Morally Justified that with immediate revulsion. Rehan Khan/EPA

Last night, after a public outcry, the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas pulled a presentation from its upcoming program. The talk in August by Sydney writer and Hizb ut-Tahrir representative Uthman Badar, was to have been called Honour Killings are Morally Justified.

Most of us would react to a title like that with immediate revulsion. It promises a defence of something utterly indefensible. Indeed, on his Facebook page, Badar insisted he didn’t choose the title (but did consent to it) and that it misrepresented what he’d planned to speak about:

the suggestion that I would advocate for honour killings, as understand [sic] in the west, is ludicrous.

I’m rather unsettled by that “as understood in the West” qualifier, for reasons that will probably become apparent below, but Badar’s statement does suggest that the title was more a marketing hook than a real description of his argument.

And of course no-one is taking away his right to speak on the topic; having a right to free speech doesn’t mean you’re owed a turn at the megaphone.

But the Festival of Dangerous Ideas exists to consider, well, dangerous ideas. Can an idea ever be so dangerous it can’t even be discussed?

In her seminal paper Modern Moral Philosophy, G.E.M. Anscombe famously claimed that, yes, some ideas are simply off the table:

But if someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration – I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.

Anscombe was, in one important sense, wrong. In a universe that throws morally tragic situations at us with gut-wrenching regularity, thinking the unthinkable – or at least thinking about thinking about it – sometimes becomes unavoidable.

There are good reasons to accept (as I do) that torture, for instance, is always and everywhere wrong, a grotesque violation that no society should ever tolerate. But that doesn’t mean all those who entertain the idea that sometimes torture might be the least-worst option are simply amoral.

Uthman Badar in 2012. Paul Miller/AAP Image

Some are, no doubt. But others are responding to the pull of a genuine moral concern, namely, saving innocent lives. The concern may be legitimate even if the conclusion drawn is wrong.

The question here is whether the argument is made with what we might call moral seriousness. What’s right about Anscombe’s declaration that certain things are simply unthinkable is that it expresses just that moral seriousness: if you think it’s OK to kill an innocent person, you’re not attending properly to what people are and why they matter. You’re talking the language of ethics, but you’re not taking it seriously.

But could you declare, with anything approaching moral seriousness, that honour killings are sometimes morally permissible? I don’t see how.

How could you possibly construct a justification for killing someone on the basis of cultural or social norms of “honour” without completely losing sight of the wrongness of destroying a human life?

Undeniably, our cultural and religious traditions provide much of the raw content of our moral concepts. But part of moral seriousness is a commitment to the idea that morality is not simply a function of those traditions, but the standard by which we in turn judge culture or religion.

That’s asking quite a lot of us. To some degree we’re all inescapably bound up in the social, political, and spiritual traditions in which we’re raised, in ways we can barely even begin to notice, let alone transcend.

But our ethical judgments must be understood as pointing to a reality that goes beyond these things. That reality is what moral philosophy, in the broadest terms, strives to discern and articulate.

And in doing so, we acquire the tools to evaluate and critique social and cultural norms. If a culture sanctions domestic violence, or racism, or if a religion says someone should be punished for loving the “wrong” person, then that culture or religion is, just to that extent, mistaken about moral reality.

Take away the view that moral reality transcends culture, and you take away the very idea of moral progress: you end up having to say that slavery, for instance wasn’t wrong, just different.

Or you end up appealing to arguments that depend on religious revelation, and are thus useless as arguments: anyone who doesn’t share your faith in the revelation already won’t be persuaded. (And as you try to work out whether a thing is good because a deity says so, you’ll probably stumble into a Euphythro Problem for your trouble too.)

But maybe there’s a lost opportunity in all this. On Facebook, Badar said he didn’t choose the topic of his proposed talk:

I, in fact, suggested a more direct topic about Islam and secular liberalism (something like “The West needs saving by Islam” – how’s that for dangerous?), but the organisers insisted on this topic, which I think is still a worthy topic of discussion, for many reasons, as my presentation will, God-willing, show, hence I accepted.

Badar belongs to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international group that seeks to establish the Caliphate. In a week where Islamophobe activists tried to stop construction of a mosque in Bendigo, here’s someone offering to try to defend the very idea of Islamic theocracy that’s such a key trope of anti-Muslim discourse.

Again, I can’t see how such an argument could possibly succeed without appealing to divinely revealed premises, which on the level of public ethics rules it out right from the start.

But ideas are most dangerous when they’re not exposed to argument.