This article is written in The Netherlands, Europe.
The Dutch do not always take themselves and their heritage that seriously. At least, relative to other nations I know of and this especially goes for progressive and leftist Dutchies. They often joke that “they do not have a distinct culture” and seem to be confused about what their cultural identity is and how it makes them stand out from others.
However, for me – a person born to traditional Turkish parents in the Netherlands – there seem to be certain things that do stand out. Most remarkably, there is a strong tendency to value personal autonomy and liberties to an extent that is comparable to holy dogmas present in religious traditions. Also, there is this almost naïve belief that adult individuals (at an arbitrary age of 18+) are always best capable to make the right decisions concerning their own lives. I actually believe that these tenets are generally shared in what we would call ‘the Western world.’ In other words, the belief is that knowledge sets you free and freedom is the holy grail of what one can achieve.
If these are the values and the primary goals that orients The Western men in life, this means that our lives should adhere to certain values and methods to achieve them. In other words, we should be consistent. As is clear in my previous writing on this blog, I believe that cultural consistency is important for the harmony of the individual soul and that of societies. I will not delve into that point too much for now. The question that is most pressing for the purpose of this article is: “are there major barriers to our achievement of this ancient and modern ideal of libertas?”
My proposition is that there is and that we are seriously unaware of it. I believe that we too easily ride ideological waves and believe in propositions that seem to ostensibly have self-evident axioma, but they do not. We are socially coerced to believe in those because otherwise we would feel ostracized, unhuman, and immoral. This is not surprising as we are deeply social and cultural animals and feel a certain level of interdependence and necessity for the socio-political life, a disposition perhaps best phrased by Aristotle:
“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”
― Aristotle, Politics
So when can we call ourselves (relatively) free? When we are autonomous and unconstrained as humanely possible by external factors. When can we check these boxes? A good start is the necessity of being informed: when we are aware of the characteristics or short and long-term effects of certain actions or beliefs versus alternatives. Also, when we are rational. That is, we are able and willing to make the decisions that would make us best capable of attaining our goals. Even though full attainment of information and rationality might not be humanely possible and some uncertainty should be accepted out of sheer pragmatism, we could at least say that we should not be unnecessarily deluded or have missing information which is actually accesible to us.
In other words, our uninformed and irrational self (an A) should try to become a hypothetical self (an A+) who is able to make rational and informed decisions. Only when we are able to reach this stage, when we get closer to the exit of the Platonic cave, can we call ourselves truly autonomous. Otherwise, we would be chained with our hands and feet and watch the shadows of a delusional world.
So then, are we chained? I am not sure to which extent, but I believe we are in some cases and to some extent. And these occasions are so essential that they might trickle down to the rest of our souls and make our minds meek to ideological constructs that are pervasive throughout our lives. I will illustrate our blind spots with an example of a topic that is highly sensitive to many: the permissibility of abortion.
I think most people would agree that there is a line between “abortion is always bad” and “abortion is always permissible” that is ethically justifiable to them. Reasons to choose a certain point in this continuum can include concerns about the health of the mother, the conceptions about life and when this is relevant, the intrinsic value of life, the distinct right of the mother and the father, believes about human agency and so forth.
But whatever our considerations might be, this issue is a true dividing block between conservatives and liberals. According to the 2018 Gallup report, 19% of conservatives think that abortion is morally permissible while this number is 66% for the liberals. A quick glance through allegedly liberal-leaning media outlets CNN and MSNBC (readily available in the Netherlands) shows that abortion is portrayed as a religious issue where anti-abortion is “extremist” and steps towards planned parenthood are “victories.”
The political and judicial aspects are highlighted biasedly but nowhere are the arguments of the anti-abortionists displayed, they seem to convey the message that there is “nothing to see here, just political deplorables disliking women’s rights.” Reading this, liberals might fall into the trap of the ideological wave and distance themselves automatically of those he or she considers despicable or bigoted. I cannot deny that I feel this sensitivity as well.
But does the media in this case really provide us with contextual information? Does it allow us to be free, informed and autonomous individuals who make their own decisions? I do not believe they do. And maybe you are an exception, but most likely you should confront yourself with your inadequacy to have a respectable opinion on this issue. For instance, start by asking yourself the following questions:
- At what stage can a foetus be considered a living entity with an intrinsic value that precedes the right of the mother to decide (except in extreme situations such as coercion)? When she starts to move? When the heart is somewhat developed? When the brain is starting to form? When she can respond to sounds?
- What are the developmental stages and periods and their characteristics?
- Do you believe that men and women are responsible for getting it right by using contraception (with the exception of coercion and all sorts of disabilities)? And if this is not the case, should they have the moral obligation to keep the fetus/baby after a certain period?
- What is your state or nation’s current laws on abortion, when and under which circumstances is it legally permissible?
All these questions are interrelated. For instance, as follows from question 2 and 4, in the Netherlands abortion is permissible up to the end of month 5, despite the fact there there are clear developmental signs at that stage. Cleveland Clinic says that even at month 4 a “baby’s heartbeat may now be audible through an instrument called a doppler. The fingers and toes are well-defined. Eyelids, eyebrows, eyelashes, nails, and hair are formed. Teeth and bones become denser. [A] baby can even suck his or her thumb, yawn, stretch, and make faces.” Do you think the larger public knows this?
My personal expectation is that most people who had some opinion on this matter asked some of these essential questions for the first time while reading these and were not even aware of the basic empirical facts displayed here. These questions and observations can potentially snap you out of your comfortable bubble. But this is only an example and it is quite possible that there are more topics where you have a comfortable stance without really considering the essentials (e.g. gun control?).
Finally, I have to add that I do not really feel comfortable to judge the moral permissibility of abortion in a so-called objective manner, even though I have some very strong sentiments and intuitions. However, one should at least inform oneself and be reflective about one’s choices. At least if one wants to be a free, informed, and autonomous citizen. This requirement is especially stringent if you are the one to call others bigots for their points of view while being ignorant on these issues. I do not think there is any sense of progress in such a divisive disposition rather than the accumulation of expressive and uninformed ethical statements. Hopefully inquiries such as these can help to burst your bubble. There is a way out.
Do you want to challenge your current views any further?
- If you would describe yourself as progressive or left, open and forward looking then perhaps Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind can show you some perspectives on how everything new and modern is not necessarily better or at least has significant problems attached to it. You can buy this book here and support us.
- If you would describe yourself as Western centered pr inward looking it might be helpful to look beyond your own culture and narrative for a little bit. You could for instance start with Cleveland and Bunton’s A History of the Middle East which includes the history of the Middle East from the rise of the Islam, the Arab rulership, the Ottoman Empire, modernity and the perennial occurence of geopolitical conflicts and tensions. You can buy this book here and support us.
 Mentioned in terms of “an informed desire account” by James Griffin in
Utilitarian Accounts: State of Mind or State of the World?