Rainer Ebert

The examined life: Surveying moral beliefs in Bangladesh

June 12, 2012

rainer 1Bangladeshis are an opinionated people. They are generally clear on where they stand on politics, religion and social issues. Being a bideshi dulabhai, I learned this through many arguments with my bhaiyas and apus, chachas and chachis, khalas and khalus – most of which I lost. I also learned how the Bangladeshi mentality differs from what people commonly believe in Germany (where I was born and raised) and the United States (where I live now). I was told that one does not smoke in front of elders in Bangladesh and that many young couples still wait until they are married before they have sex. But how many people in Bangladesh actually think that premarital sex is immoral? Everybody, of course, has an opinion about what the percentage might be, yet I found that credible data is hard to come by. In Germany and the United States, newspapers and TV channels regularly poll the public on moral issues. I hereby invite you to participate in what is likely the first such poll in Bangladesh! I hope that many of you will accept my invitation and share their moral beliefs – anonymously, of course. The more people participate, the more significant and interesting the results will be. The questions of my survey fall within the scope of a more general question that not only intrigued Socrates some 2400 years ago, but also confronts every one of us every day: How shall we live our lives? We must all constantly make choices, and what we choose to do affect ourselves and others – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. For example, consider the following three scenarios.

Your friend is in great distress and asks you for advice. She tells you that she has had a boyfriend for about two years. They would like to marry. But she never told her parents about him because she knows that they strongly disapprove of dating in general and would be particularly troubled by the fact that, while she holds a doctorate, her boyfriend never studied at university. Your friend’s parents expect your friend to enter an arranged marriage. As a matter of fact, they already have a number of candidates lined up. She has to make a choice. Do you think it would be moral for your friend to go against the will of her parents and marry the love of her life? Or would you advise her to let go of her boyfriend and agree to an arranged marriage?

rainer 6In the second scenario, your boss invites you to a party at his home. Champagne is served. You have never had alcohol before in your life. Your colleagues are trying to convince you to give it a try and have a glass. It would not harm anybody, they argue, and – as long as you do not go over the top – there is nothing wrong with it. Do you agree, or do you believe that it would be morally wrong for you to give in to your colleagues’ request? What if you were offered cannabis (ganja) instead?

In the third scenario, an Australian university offers you a scholarship to pursue a Master’s degree in one of their programs. Before you can start your studies there, you must submit a birth certificate that you do not have yet. If you do not submit it within four weeks, you will miss the start of the winter term and lose a whole year. You go to the relevant government office and apply for a birth certificate. You are told that it will take them between three and six weeks to issue the document, but you sense that things would go faster if you were to quietly hand the government officers two thousand taka. What should you do?

How we answer questions like these shapes our lives. Our moral beliefs inform our individual actions as well as the law and public policies. Morality is a significant part of the human condition. Virtually every human society has developed its own notion of virtue and vice, alongside customary standards of right and wrong conduct. People seek moral guidance in these social norms, as they seek guidance in cultural and religious traditions. Ultimately, however, each one of us is responsible for his or her choices and actions.

Morality does not always coincide with legality or socio-cultural acceptability. Once sanctioned by both the law and society in many parts of the world, slavery is now almost universally condemned – and rightly so. Even those relativists who ever so fashionably doubt the universal character of morality will find it hard to deny that slavery is, and always has been, morally reprehensible – everywhere. We understand today that all humans are equal in dignity and rights, despite their differences in race, colour, sex, language, religion, caste or place of birth. Yet, there are many issues where there is still disagreement, both between different societies and between members within a given society. The aforementioned Greek philosopher supposedly once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This is surely exaggerated, but I do believe that it is well worth thinking about our lives and the values and convictions that shape them. Shall we aim for happiness or virtue? What makes our actions morally right or wrong? Which things and behaviours are good, which ones are bad? Do we have special obligations towards our family, or shall we treat all humans equally? Do non-human animals deserve our moral consideration?

rainer 2We all live together in a pluralistic and increasingly globalised world, in which different cultures, traditions, beliefs, and values meet. And each one of us carries his or her own moral compass. In order to overcome prejudice and achieve understanding between us, we need to get to know each other better. Which are the moral issues that are most controversial in Bangladesh? What do Bangladeshis agree on? How truly deep is the moral rift between Bangladesh and Western nations, such as the United States? In order to get one step closer to answering these questions, I designed a survey intended to determine the moral acceptability of behaviours and social policies in Bangladesh. The questions of this nationwide survey span a wide range of topics. The survey is anonymous. Invites you to rate the morality of a number of issues, including premarital sex, arranged marriage, dowry, divorce, pornography, smoking and the death penalty. For many of these issues, this is the first time that questions about them are asked in a mainstream Bangladeshi newspaper. Engaging taboos can be challenging, but it should be in our collective interest that we learn to talk about them more openly, rather than keeping them under the rug, only to be slapped in the face when they present themselves in our own personal lives. Please follow this link to take the Bangladesh Moral Beliefs Survey:

http://bdnews24.com/Bangladesh-Morality-Survey

Please complete this survey only if you are a Bangladeshi national. I also ask that you only participate once. As soon as we reach a significant number of responses, I will publish the results in another opinion piece and compare them to the results of a similar survey recently conducted in the United States. Your participation in this survey is very much appreciated. Thank you.

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Rainer Ebert is a philosophy student at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

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12 Responses to “ The examined life: Surveying moral beliefs in Bangladesh ”

  1. Md Sady on March 14, 2013 at 11:27 pm

    Dear
    I am a Bangladeshi, PhD student in China, Major in Morality education. I am very glad to know that you conduct such a survey. Is it complete? Can I get your survey paper and its result? May be it can also help me for my research.

  2. Sarah on June 16, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    Well done!!…New assignment?!?

  3. ella on June 14, 2012 at 5:58 am

    hey Rainer,
    I like your ideas and the survey you started…I am waiting for the results.
    I have a question about the target group you wanna poll: Do you only want ask people who are born and stay in Bangladesh or does your survey also include Bangladeshis who stay outside of Bangladesh since more than one year? Or both?
    I ask this question because I was thinking of the fact that a lot of Bangladeshis who go outside of their country and who are still Bangladeshi nationals might assimilate with the morality of the countries they stay in.
    So I think it’s better to concrete the requirements of your research if u you want exclude or include one of the groups I mentioned above.
    I think your results could be biased if just people who are staying outside of the country go for the poll. it depends on what you want to find out or which people do you want to reach. Good luck in any way!

    • Rainer Ebert on June 15, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      Thanks for your kind words, Ella. I’m glad you like the article. The survey targets both Bangladeshis who live in Bangladesh and expatriates. The survey includes a demographic section in which people are asked to indicate where they live. This will enable me to compare the moral beliefs of those Bangladeshi nationals living in Bangladesh and those living abroad.

  4. questioner on June 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    I was wondering if you could clarify the exact meaning of the terms “morally acceptable” and “morally wrong”. Is an act morally wrong only if I believe no-one in society should do it or only I won’t do it myself & also, is it only morally wrong if it is never ok under any circumstances whatsoever to do it? or in the most common or majority of cases?

    • Rainer Ebert on June 15, 2012 at 5:16 pm

      Thank you for these excellent questions!

      Philosophers have been struggling with the question what it means for an action to be moral/immoral for centuries, and it is unlikely that I’ll be able to give a satisfactory answer in the space available here. But I’ll be happy to share some thoughts. I’d like to begin by distinguishing what is moral/immoral from what is legal/illegal, as well as from what is acceptable/unacceptable from a religious/cultural/societal perspective. These notions not always coincide. Breaking a promise, for example, is often immoral but hardly ever illegal. Interracial marriage, on the other hand, used to be illegal in certain societies but never has been immoral. You might also think that speeding on a lonely highway is not immoral, yet it is illegal. Or, take sexism and slavery – while both were culturally acceptable in large parts of the world in the past, we understand today (with certain exceptions, such as the Saudi government in the case of sexism) that women and non-white persons are equal to men and white persons in rights and dignity. Every society, every culture and every religion has developed customary standards of right and wrong conduct, sets of beliefs and practices about how to live a good life; in short, moral codes. Yet, there is also the idea of a universal morality that would be put forward by all rational persons. This is the morality referred to in the survey. For example, I am not asking whether you believe that dating is wrong according Islam, Hinduism or your social group. I would like to know whether you personally believe that dating, as a matter of fact, is morally wrong. If you think it is not, that does not necessarily mean that you would date. After all, you might have other reasons that would keep you from dating – such as the desire not to upset your parents. If you believe that dating is morally acceptable, that only means that you think it would not be immoral for you (or others) to date if you (or they) chose to date. If you would like to read more about the definition of morality, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/ is a good starting point.

      As for the second half of your questions, I realize that the answers to most survey questions depend on the situations in which the respective issues arise. Even if one feels strongly that some particular behavior is morally wrong, there is almost always an exceptional situation in which it would be morally acceptable. However, note that the question for each behavior or social policy is
      whether you find it morally acceptable or morally wrong *in general*. Hence, if you think that some particular behavior or social policy is morally acceptable (wrong) in almost all situations/in the typical case, then that’s what you indicate in the survey. The main reason why I kept the options limited is that I want to compare the results to the results of a similar survey recently conducted in the United States which also operated with very limited options. This survey is just a first step towards understanding moral beliefs in Bangladesh. I might conduct more detailed studies at some later point in time.

      I hope this helps.

  5. Hasan Ahmed on June 13, 2012 at 2:18 am

    I’ll begin with a quick comment on the survey as I carried it out a few ticks ago. I understand that it was a survey of morals in general and hence I am questioning use of the word “moral” in every question, as that seems to pigeon-hole opinion to a certain extent – it certainly did for me, or so I felt. I feel that a broader base of opinion could have been harvested if you were to open up the questions slightly such as the options available in the scenarios at the beginning of your article, which unconsciously forces us to choose between them. And let us not forget the plain fact that the majority will not have had access to the internet and hence will not have their opinion recorded — I certainly hope you will attempt rectification of this in a future endeavour!

    Ok! On to the meaty proposition of your article, which I think was certainly overdue and given the current situation prevailing at the border with Myanmar, over which I have just had an argument with my cousin, as my query of what would have happened if India had closed its borders with us in 1971, fell mostly on deaf ears and leading to my collection of the label of being a hypocrite and traitor to my country. c’est la vie! I suppose after having lived in England for a decade and to come back about 3 years ago now, the first thing that struck me was the lack of empathy expressed by people around me – friends, relatives, various acquaintances, who I believe should know better, given their status in society and level of education. The concept of being able to put their own person in another (affected) person’s shoes is completely absent. As are the P’s and Q’s. The fact that I said “thank you” to rickshaw-pullers after the ride was taken to be a laughing matter, as was my refusal to have three people ride in one rickshaw and overload it (perhaps that could be a question in your next survey!). In my unofficial quest, I have discovered that morality in Bangladesh equates to established religious beliefs (rites rather!…that’s another story!), for instance, drinking of alcohol and smoking of cigarettes, etc. and in essence, Islam and morality in Bangladesh is in the same place that Europe was in 600 years ago, and this conclusion (possibly erroneously drawn!) is based on the fact that it’s the 14th century of the Islamic calendar, and nothing more.

    However, the similarities with Puritanism and morality of that age in Western Europe exists, right? In my opinion, as a nation, and a group of people who have only been handed the reins of this country less than 5 decades ago, we need to clean our own house first and then look at others. We have opinions of others which we love to cultivate and publish while we ignore looking at the mirror and at our own selves. We have this attitude that we as a group can do or say no wrong, and absolve ourselves from any accidents when they happen. We are “Catholic Muslims” who go to the mosque only on Fridays and pray that our sins be forgiven. We essentially do not have a moral compass as it was sold off to the highest bidder some time ago. At a recent discussion with a friend of mine who had proposed that there might be civil war in this country soon if things get worse than they are now, I disagreed on the proposition that people in this country are currently too self-absorbed in their own little world to have concern for their neighbour. Perhaps that is true to some extent, however, I had ignored the floating population who essentially have nothing to lose; so that could be a distinct possibility in the future.

    We do not know, what we do not know, or so said someone. I agree. Moral education, discussion and dissemination of ideas are not part of any school curriculum or of society, not that they have to be. However, just as a house needs to have a foundation, I strongly believe, that the only way out of this “kali juug” (age of darkness) that I believe we’re in, is to have a formal method of moral education for the young, which will perhaps trickle down two generations from now and they will look back and have pity for the poor souls who live in the era that I live in currently! Morpheus to Neo (from the Matrix film trilogy), “free your mind…”! (I blame CF Gauss, et al. for the unconscious over-reliance on the normal distribution and its siblings and current short-termist behaviour of Bengali people, he’s German though…!)

    • Rainer Ebert on June 15, 2012 at 6:07 pm

      I intentionally kept the options limited, mainly because I want to compare the results to the results of a similar survey recently conducted in the United States which also operated with very limited options. This survey is just a first step towards understanding moral beliefs in Bangladesh. I might conduct more detailed studies at some later point in time.

      Your concern about the accessibility of this survey is valid. In Bangladesh, less than 5% of the population uses the internet. When presenting the results, I will make it very clear that they are likely not representative of the entirety of Bangladeshi society.

      I agree with you about the importance of strengthening moral education, not only in Bangladesh but globally. I wrote a bit about this topic in the Dhaka University Journal on Journalism, Media and Communication Studies, cf. http://cpmsbd.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/CPMS-Journal-Number-1.pdf

      I really enjoyed reading about your views on Bangladeshi society. Your perspective is unique, and I would love to read more. May I encourage you to submit an opinion piece on the state of morality, critical thinking and moral education in Bangladesh?

  6. Nakib on June 12, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    Hello Rainer

    Great initiative. But how can you make sure people take the survey once only? My concern is valid and you would agree too if you take a look at the near identical comments from “different” users in other national newspaper comment sections.

    • Rainer Ebert on June 15, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Nakib. Your concern is valid. I cannot guarantee that nobody will take the survey more than once. I can only hope that people are honest, and sort out responses that are obviously fraudulent (i.e., imagine I get exactly the same response multiple times within a couple of minutes). For this and other reasons, the results of this survey will not stand up to scientific scrutiny. However, they will give us a first idea about moral beliefs in Bangladesh, and more detailed studies can take it up from there.

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