|Thursday, 31 May 2012 00:00|
Common sense is a tricky concept because what appears to be so obvious at first glance, and hence, suitable to be termed common sense, turns out to be based almost entirely on custom and culture. It is obvious to me that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west but accepting the accumulated knowledge of centuries, I accept that in fact the earth rotates around the sun. I do not in my heart believe that huge metal planes can fly and yet I frequently board them in one place and disembark in another without a qualm. In personal matters, the relativity of common sense becomes even clearer. It is only recently in Western societies that the poor were considered to be worthy of any thought at all. An infamous Victorian hymn sums up the prevailing concept that the poor should accept their God-ordained station in life. The first verse is relatively bland with “all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all.” However, subsequent verses make clear that, “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.”. It is this same acceptance of the status quo that not only allowed the slave trade to flourish but even justified it with selective Biblical quotations.
In many societies, even up to the present day, marriage was seen as a formal arrangement between families to strengthen alliances and consolidate wealth with no thought to personal choice or preferences. The expectation that powerful and successful men would have multiple sexual partners is not new and is even endorsed in the writings of the oldest monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam where concubines and multiple wives are the norm. It is possible to base laws on “common sense” but we should never pretend that this represents anything more than reinforcing cultural norms.
This arrangement can work in homogenous societies where the vast majority of citizens subscribe to the same cultural and religious norms but in modern heterogeneous societies, it is a recipe for conflict and injustice. In a world where one person’s sacred writings are another’s creation of myths, it is hard to justify a system of laws based on any particular set of sacred writings. It is within this context that the idea of basing laws on universal human rights emerged. At the core of this concept is the idea that every life has the same value regardless of the person’s gender, wealth or position in society. This does not replace religion as a moral compass since every person will decide to base his or her own choices on the basis of a religious or secular moral code. However, the law will not discriminate positively or negatively for any particular religious or moral code.
Sex and sexuality and gender issues in general are major areas of controversy especially since many mainstream religions officially espouse traditional views on these issues that are out of step with modern practice. The Catholic Church and some others hold that the sex must be for the purpose of procreation and hence forbid (with very limited success) extramarital sex, contraception, anal and oral sex, same sex relations and much more. The Church has a right to propagate this belief and to try to persuade members of its congregation to conform to its dogma but, it does not have a right to enforce this dogma as law. There are many who would argue that although sex is a biological imperative that can lead to pregnancy, procreation is not its only function. Indeed, few sexual acts are performed for the purpose of procreation and many are performed in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of procreation. From a human rights perspective, the only legal obligation is to ensure that sex is between consenting adults and does not deliberately cause harm to those engaging in it. Otherwise, sex would have to be forbidden for all persons who cannot conceive – including men and women who are sterile or barren, women past menopause, and pregnant women among others. Given the overpopulation of the earth today, it is unlikely that we need to worry about the human race dying out for lack of progeny.
Laws present the outer limits to behaviour. Our individual moral and religious compasses guide our individual choices. For our laws to be just and fair to all, they cannot be based on the moral or religious compass of any one group. Respect for universal human rights is therefore the only option for modern heterogeneous societies. It is difficult for a dominant religious caucus to recognize the limits of its authority but common sense tells us that it is inevitable.