Too much choice

One thing that strikes me about conservative monotheist morality-talk is how it’s so focused on everyday and family questions. For example, a fatwa site I regularly visit doesn’t just concentrate on doctrinal and ritual details; it’s full of advice on all sorts of personal matters.

I wonder if that’s part of the attraction. I don’t mean this in the sense of the stereotype of fundamentalists looking for canned answers and avoiding thought. That strikes me as implausible—conservative Muslims looking for advice don’t just blindly follow the advice they receive. They seek advice in the context of thinking about what to do, and adhering to religious principles is an important demand for them. I would speculate that the religious moral language and tradition gives them a very useful framework, while giving even the most everyday sorts of decisions some kind of sacred significance.

Contrast that to the sort of secular liberal attitudes I take to questions about, say, family life. I tend to say that unless there is more harm done on balance (sometimes quite difficult to figure out, that), that it’s none of my business. People will figure things out and make their own choices about their lives, and I’m in no position to give advice, regardless of whether I like or dislike some of the options on offer.

It’s easy to see (or misconstrue, perhaps), this liberal reticence to interfere as a kind of evasion or even being free of content. Critics say that secular liberals too often tend to treat moral choices as similar to a choice of toothpaste: they emphasize the availability of choice so much that they’re left with no guidance about what is a good choice. That’s probably not entirely fair. But I can see that a traditional moral framework that refuses to punt everyday questions with a “it’s your choice” can be attractive. It might imbue everyday moral choosing—what most people care about, most of the time—with a kind of seriousness apparently lacking in liberal reticence.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University