It is clear that we in the West do not agree with ISIS. We find it wrong what they think, and more importantly: we find it wrong what they do. They decapitate Western journalists, promote violence against people who don’t agree with their religious beliefs, and now even destroy Iraq’s cultural heritage – statues that were over 5000 years old. How can they do this? Why do they do this? Is it due to their set of beliefs? And if they act on their beliefs, can we then judge them for doing what they think is the right thing to do? Let’s take a look at these questions.
First a rather obvious observation: people from different cultures or societies have different ideas about what is right or wrong. This view is called descriptive moral relativism, and it’s a moderate, empirical claim, that is corroborated by reality. Look only at the people of ISIS, who think that what they are doing is spreading the true message of Allah, and who think that anyone who disobeys these messages is wrong. They believe that they should stick to a very strict interpretation of the Islam, and that people who don’t agree with them, should be done away with. If not by words, then through deeds. We in the West clearly find these ideas about what is right and wrong absurd. Hence ISIS and us, clearly, disagree about what we find right and wrong.
We could go one step further than this claim, and say that ISIS and us don’t merely have different ideas about what is right and wrong, but that neither of us is more right or wrong than the other in having these ideas. There are many cultures and equally many ideas about what is right and wrong, but there simply is no objective, culture independent interpretation of right and wrong.
And there is something to say for this so called ‘meta moral relativism’. After all, acts can hardly be judged wrong in any absolute sense, without regarding the relevant context. Killing one person might seem wrong, but if you can save one hundred other people by doing so, it might actually be a sin if you wouldn’t do it. So the context appears to matter for deciding whether an action is right or wrong. So it could in principle be possible that a culture’s or society’s set of beliefs, taken as the relevant context, genuinely determines whether an action is good or bad. Applied to ISIS’s case, it is not only that they have the idea that destroying Iraq’s cultural heritage is right: given their set of beliefs, it truly is the right thing to do. An equivalent way to say this is that what is right or wrong is determined by nothing but the idea of what is right and wrong. Hence, given that ISIS thinks that what they are doing is right, which I assume they do, their deeds are truly right – for them at least.
Let’s for the sake of argument assume that this meta moral relativism is a correct description of reality: that there truly is a plurality of interpretations of right and wrong floating around, none better or worse than the others. Then, applied to the ISIS case, we have to face a difficult question. Because if ISIS truly thinks to do what is right, how then can we judge them? Okay: we might have a different interpretation of what is right than they do, but we have just established that having a different interpretation doesn’t make their views wrong. Our conception of morality is just different from ISIS’s: different, but not superior.
And, playing the devil’s advocate, don’t we (the West) do exactly the same? It might not be the message of Allah that we are trying to spread throughout the world, but the message of liberalism and freedom. And we too are willing to go to great lengths to spread this message. History shows that countless of people, within the West, have been killed because their actions didn’t cohere with our ‘right’ notions of freedom and liberalism – the Nazi’s being just one example.
So it appears that we cannot declare ISIS’s actions to be wrong, or more wrong than our own – not while strictly assuming meta moral relativism. That’s a pity.
But there might be a way out. A way in which we can judge ISIS’s beliefs and actions to be wrong, without falling into the pitfalls of meta moral relativism. Because even though we might not be able to say that ISIS’s ideas and actions are objectively wrong, we can say that ISIS is ignorant. We can say that they have not tried to actively refute their basic set of principles – the principles, derived from the Islam, that make their actions right. For if they would have done so, which I am quite sure they have not because Allah’s words seem the most basic principles guiding their thinking, it seems hard to imagine that they would have still accepted such principles.
So ISIS is ignorant, which in itself could be found immoral. But let’s not go there…
What do you think?