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23 October 2016

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been struck by the use of the word “acceptable” in connection with moral issues, and it bothers me, because I always want to ask “acceptable to whom?” It begs, or evades, the question of who has the power to force acceptance.

accept1When someone posted this graphic on Facebook, I questioned it.

To whom is it “perfectly acceptable”?

Not to the South African Defence Force back in the 1960s when a white Christian military conscript walks out of the room on the first day of basic training after the Sergeant tells them “Now we are going to teach you how to shoot kaffirs.” To the detention barracks with him.

And then someone else posts, “I’d love your input and feedback! Is violence ever acceptable in working for justice? If yes, then what forms and when? If no, then what are the alternatives?”

And again, I want to ask “acceptable to whom?”

And then “Whose concept of justice?”

The simple answer, of course, is that violence is acceptable to militarists and unacceptable to pacifists.

“Acceptable” always raises the question of power relations and who has the power to decide what they will accept and what they will not accept.

Bombing civilians in Yugoslavia is acceptable collateral damage to the US government when the US government does it. Bombing civilians in Syria is an unacceptable war crime to the US government when Russia does it.

Is bombing civilians acceptable?

It all depends on who is doing the bombing and who is doing the accepting.

Was it Dame Edna Everidge or Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout who said, “That man in the raincoat showed me something quite unacceptable.”


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Phillip permalink
    23 October 2016 1:44 pm

    It is the same kind of thing as when a relative walks into your house, looks at your light fittings and remarks, “O but they are so ugly aren’t they?”. There may be some absolutes in life, but even then the question can be asked “For whom are they absolutes?”

    • 24 October 2016 4:40 am

      Yes, I think there are objective moral absolutes, but they are subjectively discerned, and even more subjectively applied. The graphic, for example, is ostensibly about freedom of religion and its limits. But when you think about it a bit more, it goes way beyond that. When applied, as in this instance, to the use of violence in a supposed just cause, we are back in the old “just war” argument. And what the graphic says, in effect, is that you may abstain from fighting if that is what your religion tells you to, but son’t try to persuade other people or the government to abstain, because that is seeking to impose your religion and its values on other people. So what “acceptable” means in this instance is “my moral values are absolute, but yours are relative.”

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