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A general rule for doing no harm

  • Published at 08:31 pm April 4th, 2020
Fish market
File photo of a fish market in Dhaka Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Since there is no universal morality, can we say wet markets should be banned?

December 31, 2019 marked the last day of the last year, and as such, marked the coming of the New Year 2020. But 2020 wasn’t just another year. 

Aside from being the New Year, it also had the added benefit of being the start of a new decade. As such, the normal dreams and expectations associated with the arrival of the New Year were amplified. Optimists proclaimed that we were finally going to see a change. Pessimists scoffed that it would just be the same thing with a different year stapled on it. While both of these groups have been proven wrong, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that none of the groups are too happy with it.

The year 2020 hit a home-run right off the bat when the world was anxiously watching the escalating tensions between the US and Iran, anticipating a military conflict spiraling into the global stage. While we have been able to avoid it, we were no match for 2020’s next strike, and it is proving to be something that will affect our whole lives.

While the outbreak was initially identified in the December of 2019, through state sponsored information suppression (sounds familiar?), the event was downplayed, and an international public health emergency wasn’t announced until as late as January. People didn’t start taking it seriously even then, but when news started to come in about the horrific conditions in Italy and the rest of Europe, Covid-19 was no longer something that only the Chinese had to deal with. 

It pretty soon became a headache for anyone who had a semblance of intelligence. Fast forward to April, the whole world is living under a strict geographical lockdown, something similar to the things that eventually start the apocalypse in fictional settings.

Amidst all this, China has made a staunch recovery and has managed to cure most of the Covid-19 patients who have been suffering from the deadly virus. But following that, they have again reopened the wet markets that are allegedly the sole reason of this pandemic.

Wet markets have been the staple of a lot of Asian countries for a long time now. And while they have been connected to similar outbreaks in the past (the avian flu and SARS, mainly), there has never been any attempt to ban them. There have even been research papers published as early as 2006 investigating the link between the unhygienic condition fostered by wet markets and viral outbreaks as early as 2006. 

This begs the question, why is such a dangerous practice still allowed to continue?

A common answer would be that this is a cultural practice of a foreign country, and judging or even criticizing these practices based on our own notions of right and wrong should not be encouraged. The moral part of it is true. Morality itself is a cultural construct and whether you follow the Judeo-Christian ethics practiced by most followers of the Abrahamic religion or you follow the new urban, secular sense of morality found in today’s youth, there is no denying the fact that the morality we try to employ is something that we have constructed ourselves. 

But facts and science are not social constructs, and as mentioned, there has been scientific evidence that links these wet markets with the viral outbreaks of the past and possibly the Covid-19 outbreak of the present. But this argument can be applied to other things such as drinking wine and smoking, and these things are being allowed to be continue in the name of freedom and personal liberty, and any attempt to put a hold on them has been met with the claims that such attempts are religious oppression. 

In a world of no universal moral code and no universal way of doing things, what do we do with cultural facets that are acceptable for one party but unacceptable for others?

The first work would be to establish a groundwork of morality that would be accepted by all. But if years of bickering between thinkers and philosophers have taught us one thing, this is utterly impossible. 

The morality we inherit is largely based on the society we live in and the laws that regulate that society. And the laws that govern that society are based on the particular history of the society in question and how it has evolved throughout the years. We have all followed different gods and figureheads throughout the years, and as such, our ways of looking at things are vastly different. While recently we can see cultures melting into each other and giving birth to the emergence of a global culture, and hence, a global system of morality, the formation of such a system is still, decades, if not more, away.

This is the reason why we still judge the intelligence of a person based on when they came out of their mother’s womb and not their actual intelligence. And given the abstract nature of morality and culture itself, establishing a common code of conduct becomes all the more difficult. 

For example: Secularism would suggest that we focus on worldly achievements while religion would say that we focus on the spiritual plane. Due to the very abstract nature of this dilemma, it would be near impossible to find one-size-fits-all solution here.

And that’s the problem of universal morality as a whole -- since it is a manmade concept built by men of different mindsets and experiences, it is nearly impossible to create. But should that mean that we should let harmful cultural practices go on as they are? No.

One thing all systems of morality have in common is that no one should be harmed because of the actions of others, and while “harm” itself is a cultural concept and varies from society to society, since one can harm people in two ways: Physically and mentally, it becomes easier to objectively determine when a person has been harmed. 

For example, Bengali parents think that physically and mentally abusing their kids is not harmful. But due to scientific research, it has been discovered that this is very harmful for the development of a child.

Point is, harm can now be objectively calculated, even if the asinine parents want to keep abusing their own kids, and as such, it should be stopped. And this is the metric that should be applied to the wet markets and cultural activities as a whole -- if it harms someone, it should be banned. People would cry that this infringes on their rights and such, but if someone’s personal liberty and heritage harms someone else, then to hell with that liberty and culture. We live in a connected ecosystem, and one’s enjoyment should not come at the expense of one’s suffering. 

And if following such a rule would mean that some entire cultural frameworks are lost, no one should lose sleep over it.

Nafis Shahriar is a freelance contributor.