The examined life: Surveying moral beliefs in Bangladesh
Bangladeshis 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 friendâ€™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?
In 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 â€“ as long as you do not go over the top â€“ 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 colleaguesâ€™ request? What if you were offered cannabis (ganja) instead?
In the third scenario, an Australian university offers you a scholarship to pursue a Masterâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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?
We 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:
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.
Rainer Ebert is a philosophy student at Rice University in Houston, Texas.