Who’s got the Power – Women in Mongolian History

Who is the most powerful man who ever lived? There are a number of candidates who probably spring to mind, for both good and bad reasons: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Hitler, Gandhi and maybe even Barrack Obama or even Mark Zuckerberg, to name but a few. 

However, who is the most powerful woman who has lived throughout history? That is a question I asked myself and was struggling to name even 3…. Queen Elizabeth, maybe? Cleopatra, though I’m not really sure why, Daenerys Targaryen?

While listening to a history podcast,  a unique woman was suggested, so obscure you’d probably have had to be relatively nerdy about 13th Century Mongolian history to even have heard of, let alone know what she achieved. In fact, she may well have been the most powerful woman who ever lived and I’d suggest that she is a candidate for one of the most powerful people who ever lived, let alone the most powerful woman.

I’m going to tell you about two women one who held political power, the other who demonstrated her own and inner strength in a male dominated army.


The Background

The Mongolian Empire [1]was created during a period of rapid, aggressive and violent expansion from the beginning of the 13th Century (approx. 1204) by a group of people who had previously been “horse nomads”, or tribal people. These people were united under the leadership of a man commonly known by his title –Chingis (or Ghenghis) Khan[2]. Under Chingis, the Empire expanded from the Russian Steppe into North China, Russia, the Middle East and even towards Eastern Europe. You can see estimate of the scale of the land held under Chingis here.  

After Chingis died in 1227, one of his sons took over, Ogedei Khan. His plans were to continue the expansion of his late father’s Empire – this time into South China, further into the Middle East and across the Russian steppes and into Europe. The Empire controlled and administered by Ogedei was enormous. Although Ogedei died in 1241, after his death it still kept expanding. It is difficult to get precise data as the Empire carried on expanding even after his death and by 1279 the empire was estimated to have covered 22% of the worlds landmass and hold sway over a population of over 100m people[3]. This empire covered Russia, China, Korea, Parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It was enormous and is noted as the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever seen, and second in size only to the British Empire in history in terms of estimated land mass[4].

After Ogedei’s death in 1241, there was a power vacuum in the Empire’s leadership for a number of reasons, but essentially, there was a failure to elect new Khan. What happens after the death of the Khan is described as follows, Dan Carlin:

“In the interim though, an interesting thing happens; the Mongols are ruled by a Woman. An Empress Regent is the way a lot of historians describe that role. It is basically Ogedei’s wife and until they pick a successor, she’s the boss. I thought about this a little bit and I am at pains to think of a woman in all world history other than another Mongol Empress Regent who has ever held more power than this person, ever. And if this really is the most powerful woman in all human history, isn’t it interesting that you have to be a Mongol fanatic to have even heard of her. She is known as.. the Empress Doregene or Doregenee”  [5]

I am going to use the more common spelling – Töregene. This woman, Empress Regent Töregene essentially inherited the authority to administer, legislate and manage the largest empire in the world at that time. This Empire also had the most feared military of its age (and arguably the finest to any military right up until the 1800’s) as well as being extremely socially and technically sophisticated compared to Europe of the same time.



Töregene was incredibly shrewd politically and had, according to historians, begun to assert her influence in the court even while her husband was still alive. As per Mongolian custom, it was up to Töregene to actually summon the Mongolian nobility to court in order to appoint a successor, but she elected to delay this, instead, the following happened:

“Toregene postponed calling the assembly and handing over command to a successor. Instead, she dismissed Ogedei’s ministers and appointed her own and the most powerful role in her court was given to another woman, Fatima, who became her chief advisor.

During her five years as regent, she showed herself to be a capable ruler, negotiating with and eventually invading the powerful Song Dynasty and fighting them to a ceasefire. Toregene may have also had a hand in shaping the political development of the region. Toregene supported Emir Arghun Aqa, who went on to be one of Persia’s most long-serving and effective governors.

When Toregene did hand over the throne, it went not to Ogedei’s favored son and chosen successor, Kochu, but to her eldest son Guyuk, who she supported[6]

In short, she continued the expansion of the empire, negotiated peace with an enemy who was a major threat to Mongolian authority, reshaped the political system and court of the largest Empire at that time and guided the empire in electing her chosen successor:

“She Was In Exercise Of Power In A Society That Was Traditionally Led Only By Men. She Managed To Balance The Various Competing Powers Within The Empire, And Even Within The Extended Family Of The Descendants Of Genghis Khan, Over A 5 Year Period In Which She Not Only Ruled The Empire, But Set The Stage For The Ascension Of Her Son Güyük As Great Khan[7]

What is perhaps even more astonishing is that, at the same time, other women were in power in other seats in the Mongolian Court. Sorkhokhtani, a widow of one of Ogedei’s brothers was the ruler of Northern China and Eastern Mongolia and the widow of another brother also ruled Central Asia, with both essentially reporting into Töregene[8]. Sorkhokhtani actually went on to have an incredible life herself: she was the mother to 4 sons who she trained, 3 of which would go onto to become future Great Khans themselves and the other who would found a Persian Dynasty[9].



That Töregene was able to rise to such a position within an admittedly male dominated environment is testament both to her own ability but also the social structure in place at the time. The Mongolian Empire was somewhat unusual in that it was very much a meritocracy rather than aristocracy. For example, one of Chinghis Khans finest generals known as Jebe (“The Arrow) was initially an enemy who demonstrated great prowess on the battlefield and, instead of being executed actually had his life spared and became one of the most trusted advisors and great commanders[10]. In reality, a meritocracy was an essential component to the Mongol way of life – it was a harsh and dangerous environment in which to live and the empire needed the best people in place for it to succeed and when that meant the women had to work, manage the economy, give advice and even fight, then so be it.

While Töregene held political power, there are other examples of Mongolian women playing interesting and important roles in the countries history. Khutulun (1260 – 1306) was a princess in the Empire who was known for her skills as a soldier and fought alongside men in military campaigns. She was also known to have refused to marry any man who could not beat her at wrestling – a sport that she excelled at.

“With her success in battle and in sports, Khutulun refused to marry unless a man could first defeat her in wrestling. Many men came forward to try, but none succeeded. According to Marco Polo, a particularly desirable bachelor prince presented himself around 1280. Most opponents wagered ten horses, or at the most a hundred, to compete against her. This unnamed bachelor wagered a thousand horses, and Khutulun’s parents pleaded with her to take a fall and let him win. She not only defeated but humiliated him, and he disappeared, leaving behind the additional thousand horses for her herd but having shattered her parents’ hopes of marrying her to a worthy suitor[11]

Khutulun never married and Khutulun is known to have outperformed her many brothers both at wrestling and on the battlefield and was ear-marked to eventually take over command of the army before her untimely and unexplained death.

Khutulun is a great example of a women who was physically every bit as capable as her brothers, fierce in fighting for her homelands protection and maintained her own sense of pride and power by refusing to “take a fall” in order to appease her parents and secure a suitable marriage. While not necessarily “politically powerful”, she certainly had an inner sense of power and drive to succeed in an incredibly tough environment.

Interesting, Khutulun was probably only one of many women who played roles in the Mongolian military. In part this would be born out of necessity, but also because the circumstances. Where traditional armies relied on infantry, males typically had a physical advantage over females, the Mongol army relied on Calvary (i.e. mounted on horses). Women riders could be every bit as skilled and when armed with a bow and arrow, a trained female horse archer could hold her own or excel against men when in battle or when hunting[12]


Final thoughts

Töregene and Khutulun are two women who occupy legendary status in Mongolian history.

Töregene was massively influential politically and socially and for a period of time led the largest military and empire the world had ever seen. She was in that position not just due to circumstance, but also on merit and sought to continue the development and expansion of the empire as well as managing the political elements of the Mongol court. She did so with skill at least equal to her male successors and peers.

Khutulun was a powerful woman – both physically and mentally – and forged a role in an incredibly tough and male dominated society. She was fearless and recognised and appreciated by her peers and family for her superiority as a wrestler and fearlessness on the battlefield.

 Töregene and Khutulun – and the many other women who played a role in shaping and leading the Mongolian empire – I salute you!





Please note, I am not by any means a historian. I am a student of history and while I studied History of Philosophy at University, do not profess to be an expert by any means. This article is written to raise awareness of one of the most impressive women in history and may contain interpretive differences with professional historians or even inaccuracies. I have made every effort to make it as factually accurate as possible and have listed my sources below.


·         Books

o    The Mongol ConquestsJ.J. Saunders

o    Genghis Khan’s Greatest General: Subotai the Valiant Richard A. Gabriel

o    Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Mongol Empire Jack Weatherford

·         Digital Media

o    The Wrath of the Khans : I, II, III, IV, V : Dan Carlin

§  http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-43-wrath-of-the-khans-i/

§  https://youtu.be/qAqIdiUgIq4?t=21m28s

o    Unusual Histories : Women who ruled

§  http://unusualhistoricals.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/women-who-ruled-toregene-khatun-of.html

o    Noahs Ark : Töregene Khatun

§  http://www.nouahsark.com/en/infocenter/culture/history/monarchs/toregene_khatun.php

o    The Globalist : The Women who ruled the Mongol Empire

§  http://www.theglobalist.com/the-women-who-ruled-the-mongol-empire/

o    New World Encyclopaedia : Mongol Empire

§  http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Mongol_Empire

o    All Empires : The Mongol Empire

§  http://www.allempires.com/article/?q=The_Mongol_Empire

o    The Wrestler Princess Jack Weatherford

§  http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/wrestler-princess

o    Womens role and participation in warefare in the Mongol Empire

§  http://www.academia.edu/238591/Women_s_role_and_participation_in_warfare_in_the_Mongol_Empire

o    History world: Mongolian Empire

§  http://history-world.org/mongol_empire.htm





[1] http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Mongol_Empire

[2] http://www.allempires.com/article/?q=The_Mongol_Empire

[3] http://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/link-suggestion/wpcd_2008-09_augmented/wp/m/Mongol_Empire.htm

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_empires

[5] https://youtu.be/qAqIdiUgIq4?t=21m28s

[6] http://unusualhistoricals.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/women-who-ruled-toregene-khatun-of.html

[7] http://www.nouahsark.com/en/infocenter/culture/history/monarchs/toregene_khatun.php

[8] http://www.theglobalist.com/the-women-who-ruled-the-mongol-empire/

[9] http://www.theglobalist.com/the-women-who-ruled-the-mongol-empire/

[10] https://mongolhistorypodcast.wordpress.com/jebe/

[11] http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/wrestler-princess

[12] http://history-world.org/mongol_empire.htm

Philosophy in business – why is it relevant…….?

Originall published at the University of Edinburgh Career Blog for PPLS students


‘So you did a degree in Philosophy and you work in Financial Services… how is that relevant?’

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked this question. Since I began working in Finance, just under 7 years ago, I’ve been asked it at networking events, informal meetings, after work drinks and even at interviews and formal discussions on my credentials with clients. Whether this is from interest or ignorance of just how valuable Philosophy really is, I’m really not sure.

When I began life at Barclays as a Retail Banking Graduate, I found it a massively hard question to answer because I had very little professional experience. Typically, I would give a generic response like “Well, all education is important” or laugh it off with a flippant “Well, that’s what I want to find out!”. Now, after 5 years working for a Bank and 2 in Management Consulting I find it’s one of the easiest and most enjoyable questions to be asked as it gives me an opportunity to talk about just how important Philosophy was in giving me the skills and confidence I needed to be successful.

So I thought I’d share with you how study of Philosophy has helped me in a business environment, then when you’re faced with the same question you’ll be very clear about the relevance of Philosophy to the workplace.

Firstly, doing a degree in Philosophy automatically makes you a bit different – most people I’ve come across in business are Economics, Business or Politics graduates – and different means you’re interesting. The business and economic graduates have probably studied many of the same models, concepts and text books and are well taught, but as a Philosophy graduate, I’ve been able to talk about having read a range of books spanning over 2000 years that can teach us much about our social and cultural history. Also, my degree was incredibly varied – in philosophy at Edinburgh, you don’t just do one branch, you study many, perhaps you focus on Ethics, Epistemology and Political Philosophy, or are you more interested in Metaphysics, Theories of Mind and Religion? Having a broad and deep education is valuable in itself and you’ll stand out from your peers because of it.

The skills and discipline that Philosophy teaches and instills in you are enormously valuable in your day to day life in business. Being able to read and understand very complex ideas and conceptsidentify the most important and valuable points being made and begin to articulate your own views on them is crucial – I have to do this every day when reading industry reports on market trends or reviewing complex data sets.  Further, being able to simplify the complexity into terms that other people can understand and provide a view point on these is often required. When I describe this to my mum, I often say I am “translating” a conceptual problem into a business problem. Businesses are terrible at solving conceptual problems – they wouldn’t know where to begin, but give them a business problem and suddenly, you’re talking in a language they can understand. Philosophy is full of conceptual problems and your degree teaches you how to understand and discuss them.

Does this sound interesting to you? I find it fascinating. I don’t “love” Financial Services (more on this in a minute), but I do love helping people understand and solve problems. This actually gives you a surprising amount of power – I remember sitting in a meeting where I was the youngest and least senior person, explaining why the business should make a £10m investment in a branch. It dawned on me that I knew way more than anyone else at the table about why we should do this and my job was to help them:

  • understand there was a problem that needed solving,
  • understand what that problem was
  • get them to agree on a solution.

It can be incredibly empowering, but to be good at that, you also need more than just problem-solving skills – you need to be able to discussunderstand other peoples points of view and sometimes challenge them on this. Sound familiar?

Philosophy gives you a tremendous underpinning of all the skills you need to help decisions get made in business, because this involves debate, argument construction and influencing people – core philosophy skills. I prepare for meetings the same way I used to prepare for philosophy tutorials ie:

  • read around the subject,
  • understand both points of view
  • be prepared to present my views in a logical and coherent way that appreciates the big picture and respects other peoples viewpoints.

Being able to do this in business will really make you stand out – far too many people assume they know best or rely on their gut feeling to make decisions. As Philosophers, you’re supremely well placed to know a poor argument when you see one and well trained at deconstructing it before presenting a stronger point of view.All of this is central to getting the right decision made, and made in the right way.

I mention the “right way” specifically as people don’t like to feel that they are shown to be wrong, and while it can be fun to show up a grumpy economist, it’s not usually the best way to treat your peers (plus, you’ll probably need that economist to help you on a future project…). So, you have to be able to collaborate with them, ie

  • appreciate their viewpoint,
  • clarify any ambiguities
  • not take disagreements personally
  • work with them to help them understand alternatives.

This can be incredibly challenging, but also is very rewarding. Again, your discussion in tutorials and debates in the Pear Tree over a beer will contribute to developing your interpersonal skills and give you the confidence to succeed when you work with difficult people.

I should also mention that being a competent writer helps tremendously as well – all those bits of feedback you get from your tutors, personal tutors and lectures about your essays? Well, they stick with you and a very well written piece of business literature stands out immediately, partly because it is all too infrequent that you come across one.

I don’t love Financial Services per se, but I love what I do as it gives me a tremendous opportunity to learn and put into practice so much of what I picked up while at University. The other point that I really wanted to get across is, in my view, the most important, and relates to my first point about there being a bit of ignorance around the value of Philosophy.

Economists, Politics and Business degrees teach you facts and what to think. Philosophy teaches you how to think. This means that you, as a Philosophy graduate are automatically different from 99% of people in business, and diversity is key to private and public sector success. Business and Government don’t need more people who think the same way about the same things – they need people who think differently because they think differently, challenge the status quo and are not afraid to ask ‘Why?’.  I cannot stress this enough – too many businessstagnate as they have the same types of people making the same types of decisions – Philosophers are taught not to do that and your value to a business cannot be overestimated.

So, to answer the question – how is that relevant? Well, it’s relevant because we don’t need more people who think the same, we need more people who think differently, and as a Philosopher, you know the value of thinking differently, as well as how to think differently.


Boris Nightingale

Boris Nightingale

I was watching the news last night and was vaguely amused that Boris Johnson has announced that he has decided to return to mainstream politics in 2015 in time for the general election. Now, I quite like Boris as a personality but as a politician he has said both very amusing and very questionable things. I'll give you some examples -


  • "I am a I am supporting David Cameron purely out of cynical self-interest" At least he is an honest politician
  •  "If we judged everybody by the stupid, unguarded things they blurt out to their nearest and dearest, then we wouldn't ever get anywhere." Very true, though probably said in defence of himself saying something stupid and unguarded
  •  "London is a fantastic creator of jobs - but many of these jobs are going to people who don't originate in this country." Nothing like a bit of Tory Xenophobia to round it all off.


Boris is one of the few politicians with a genuinely engaging personality - in fact, his personality is such that he can often transcend political barriers and be liked despite his political leanings, rather than because of them. It's very unusual in the modern world and I also cant help but find amusement at his self effacing, slightly bumbling style, but I always try and remind myself that at his heart he and I would probably disagree on some extremely fundamental and important issues. 


This lead me to ask, would it be better to have someone like Boris as PM, than, say a Cameron, Miliband or Clegg? It's hard to know, I dont think that "liking" your PM is a necessary or sufficient reason for them to be in power, in fact, I'd be quite happy to have someone who had a dislikeable personality but made many of the right decisions as the countries leader. Then again, this brought me back to the question of what democracy really is - and I thought, we shouldn't be asking ourselves to select the best of the bad bunch, we should be asking ourselves "does this system get the right decisions made" or “does the system get the right people into a position where they can be trusted to make the right decisions?"


I for one am not sure that politics is set up in such a way that it really enables this. For a start, there is gross gender and ethnic mis-representation at the top tables. There is also an inherent fear of change: look at how popular UKIP are for promotion of the "maintain Britain for the British" agenda.


Where am I going with this? Well, it's simple really, I think that I'd forgive someone like Boris for disagreeing with me on lots of little issues if he got some of the pretty big ones right, and I think as he has been mayor of London, he's got more of a chance than most of the tories. London is, I think, the only city in the UK where white British are in the minority (Birmingham is possibly the other) and is a real melting pot of people. London also leads often the country in terms of progressive thinking on debates around racial and gender equality, religious tolerance and freedom of speech and I would hope that Boris would be the sort of person that makes the most the experiences he's had as mayor of London and retains an understanding that the role of the elected PM is not to make sure that he gets re-elected, it is to do what is right for the country, and the country includes people of all wealth's, backgrounds, skin colors, religions beliefs and genders. His experience as Mayor of London may actually give him as good a shot as any at doing this, even if he is ultimately a white, middle class, conservative male.

 So yes, I think it'd be great to someone other than a WMC-CM in charge, but like most democracies, it's often the case of choosing the "best from a bad bunch", and Boris may actually be just that. 

 Then again, he is a conservative and a politician, so probably not, and this does not change my opinion that I'd rather have a far more representative and diverse government.

Scientific Spiritualism

Scientific Spiritualism [January 01 2015]

Lee Madden

Over Christmas, I had an enjoyable evening in with my father, brother and my dad’s brother (my uncle). The evening featured a healthy level of debate from four opinionated, and very strong willed guys covering a range of subjects as only meandering family debates can. What was interesting about this evening was how as the debate progressed, it also regressed to a discussion on the same subjects and topics that interested Hume, Kant, Leibniz, Plato and Aristotle (and many more), which , despite all our modernity still fascinate and enthral.

As in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, or Plato’s work, in the debate, each of us played a specific role, approaching the subject of spiritualism from our own viewpoint. My dad, (let us call him Matthew), has always been highly sceptical of any form of spiritualism beyond the physical word and is, ironically, almost dogmatic in his refusal to accept the possibility of there being a God, Gods or something “beyond”. His brother (Mark, comes in at the opposite end of the spectrum, believing in Chakra’s, Leprechauns (I am not even joking on this point), live after death, the literal existence of a soul and that his “feelings” are sufficient evidence to justify belief in something. My brother (Luke), is leaning towards Marks spiritual view of the world, but hasn’t quite made his mind up, you could say that he is a spiritual agnostic, open to the idea of believing in things bigger or beyond our current comprehension. I however, occupy a perspective that probably straddles all three aspects and it is one that I often enjoy describing to people because, for me, it is what Philosophy is really all about, encouraging as it does enlightened debate, not because you expect to the get a solid answer, but because there is value in the debate itself.

I would call this view Scientific Spiritualism. Where my father see’s the Stonehenge as being great big piles of stone arranged in a clever manner and Mark sees them as druidic totems to help us communicate with the spirit world, I view them as being wonderful examples of the desire of the human species to belong to something bigger. I see both the scientific and spiritual value in both – the science and engineering required for humans to be able to create Stonehenge is incredible, and we’ve still not worked out quite how our ancestors did this. The spiritual aspect, of going and sitting in Stonehenge, thinking about what our ancestors would have thought and felt as they gazed at the nights sky and all the stars in it, wondering about their own (in)significance and the connection to the rest of the universe is one that I can totally ascribe to. That feeling of being both part of nature an detached from achieving a true understanding of it all is one that many people feel at some point in their lives, and it is valuable in and of itself.

The same goes for thinking about our soul. My dad would take the point of view that to believe in a soul is misguided on the basis of there being any physical evidence what so ever. Mark, on the other hand, views the lack of physical evidence almost as evidence in itself of a soul – for him, to expect to see or touch a soul is a redundant question, for the soul is itself an ethereal thing and to look for physical evidence of it is a bit like looking at a mirror and expecting to see another person, you are asking the wrong type of question.

But, what is a soul? To Mark, it could be the collection of ideas, feelings, emotions that sit behind and define his physical being, the soul is the real bit that makes him “him”. I get this – there is more to me than just my body, my ideas are central and important to me. Sure, they can be defined as electrical impulses in my brain, but there is also something bigger than just those impulses. When you combine all my experiences, electrical impulses making up all my ideas, my feelings (however you chose to define and explain them), what makes me “me” is not just neurones firing in a particular sequence, it is bigger than that. It is all the connections I have with people, real and imagined, my emotions and all the consequences of my actions in the world. Even if all this can be explained in physical terms, to do so only describes part of it and misses the connection that I, as a human have with the universe beyond my mere physical presence within it.

I don’t believe in ghosts, god, ethereal souls or spirits, but and I believe in science, reason, empirical evidence and physical explanations of events. But, beyond that, I believe that there is more to the universe than just the physical explanations, the feelings of wonder that can inspire someone to learn about the universe, the connection to nature that I feel when travelling across mountains and the sense of wonder that I have about my place in the Universe. Feeling spiritual is not incompatible with science, and nor does it need to be based on flighty ideas that have no basis in reality. As my brother and I have always thought, being opened minded is generally the best approach, but not so much that your brain falls out.

There is not really a conclusion to this piece beyond saying that the evening ended, unlike the Philosophical greats, there was no resolution to the discussion, no clear conclusions drawn and no promises of greater things to happen. However, I think, perhaps without evidence, that it encouraged Matthew, my dad to be a little more open minded and, Mark, perhaps a little less so. Luke, my brother, carried on still trying to figure out our own place in the universe, perhaps wondering if some of the big questions would ever be answered.

Myself, I thought that even if we, as a species, don’t get all the answers, then there is value in the debate itself, if nothing else, to understand other viewpoints and feel inspired to work out your own worldview.

Scientific Spiritualism is one that I like, even if it raises more questions than it answers.


Disclaimer : some of the names have been changed, but the discussion itself took place and, I promise, Mark really does believe in leprechauns, that was not used as an illustration. He is great guy with some very interesting points of view. 

Sometimes, it's not all relative

Sometimes, things can just be wrong, and tolerating them is the crime

Moral Relativism is very popular and many people claim to be exponents of it without really taking time to understand what it really means for morality. The basic idea is that we should tolerate other cultures and beliefs as every culture and individual has a right to believe, think and by extension, behave as they wish, so long as it is in line with their particular cultural norms. This has never sat well with me and I think that it is very easy to both illustrate and argue why moral relativism is not just a flawed way of looking at the world, it is also dangerous one.

While out for a run last week, I was listening to a Ted Talk by Sam Harris, a philosopher who is generally interested in improving the world, rather than just thinking about it. He does not refer to moral relativism directly, but he makes a very clear argument against it by saying that it's time that people stand up and say that we are not afraid of developing human world-wide norms about how we want to live as a species. After all, we are all part of the same planet, eco-system and species. National and cultural boundaries are relatively recent inventions and mostly illusory. There are a couple of examples that illustrate the problem :

  • Work-place cultural relativism: I have first hand experience of a colleague and friend who was not able to apply for a role in a country she wished to work because she is an unmarried female. In that country, unmarried females are not entitled to be employed. The multi-national business accepts this as a cultural norm for that country yet champions equality and womens rights elsewhere
  • Forced wearing of the Veil & Burqa : Women in certain countries are not allowed in public without wearing some sort of facial covering. In extreme cases, this extends to the full body and face being covered without the women having any choice or say in the matter
  • Women not being entitled to the same pay or education as men : This is not just a Muslim issue, it is  a world wide one. Research has shown that women colleagues are often paid less than their men peers for performing the same role. In parts of Afghanistan, women receive formal academic education and are forbidden from driving

Under moral relativism all of these inequalities must be tolerated and even embraced.

This is potentially a very sensitive topic and I would like to make one important distinction. There is a big difference between someone having both the freedom to choose and doing so and someone who is being forced, either explicitly or implicitly, to behave, think or even dress in a particular way. I am not attacking those women who live in a society that embraces freedom of worship and they chose to wear a veil, I am focusing on those situations where we allow moral relativism to manifest itself as a form of persecution of members of society.

Back to Sam Harris - he offered two responses to the issue.

The first is that one of our norms absolutely should be that women (and men) should be allowed to wear whatever they like. Period. But when it comes to forcing women to wear the Burqa, the argument that it is part of a cultural norm and that makes it acceptable is not sufficient to make it right. It is an item of clothing that is being forced upon young and old women by men as a means of maintaining control over them. Women in strict Muslim societies often (if at all) have no say in this. The right thing for the rest of us to do is, as a world society, stand up and say that any society that withholds the personal freedoms of someone because of their gender is one that we do not accept. Quite simply, it is often a cultural norm that promotes persecution and hatred, inhibits human flourishing and discriminates on gender. This is simply wrong.

Many societies do not want to oppose the wearing of the veil or burqa. The standard relativist view is for someone to say "what sort of people would we be were we to tell other cultures how to live their lives?". The response that Sam Harris suggests to this question is to say "what sort of people are we to stand by and let persecution, hatred and social intolerance take place routinely?"

The French were the first European nation to ban religious displays in schools (as far as I am aware), which was criticised by many people, including some liberals, for forcing their secular morality on religious people This missed the point. - the statement the French were making was that freedom of religion and expression is fine, but not where it contributes to the erosion of core freedoms and values; when this happens, religious "freedom" goes too far.

The second point Sam Harris made was a direct response to the argument that many defenders of the burqa make : "what about where the women chose to dress like this. Many young Muslim women surely see it as both a choice to maintain tradition and a way of protecting their female virtue". The response to this was two fold.

Firstly, how much choice can a women be said to have when the alternative to not wearing the burqa is at best persecution and at worst, rape, stoning and potentially murder. This is not a society that is encouraging choice, it is inhibiting it by fear. The second point is that the idea of "protecting female virtue" and ensuring men aren’t “given chances to be tempted” does not address the root cause of the issue. This is like saying the solution to the problem is to persecute the victim, rather than educate the people who are causing the fear and suffering.

There are numerous other ways of refuting moral relativism. One is that you are essentially saying that belief in an idea is sufficient to make it right, without evaluating the idea itself. Another is to say that under moral relativism, you can literally allow anything as being right, so long as enough people agree that it is okay and part of their "culture" or value system. Neither of these world views hold up to scrutiny.


Why am I writing about this? Firstly, I've had my eyes opened about the level of harassment girls and women experience; both young and old. This includes people close to me being wolf-whistled and ogled at while out for an evening, but it is an experience by no means unique to them. It is saddening to think that many people would defend sexual harassment either on the grounds that "that's the culture" or by blaming the women as the "cause of temptation". Yet, if you accept moral relativism, this kind of behavior is permissible so long as enough people believe it to be so. I cannot agree with any kind of system that allows that.

I fully agree with the idea that we should look macro-level when it comes to understanding what our human values should be and what we, as a species accept as right and wrong. There is no place for deviations that allow persecution because someone believes god told them it was okay. Sure, human morality can (and probably will) be full of grey areas, but there can absolutely be some values and principles that we are clear on, and we should not be afraid to say so. Fear is the prison of progress.

Finally tolerance is generally a good thing with one exception - when we are tolerating intolerance, then it becomes a negative.


Post Script

The classic quote springs to mind:

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will."

I couldn't agree more. I think that the quote applies to all people, though, unfortunately has more of a relevance to many women. Moral Relativism is, as far as I can tell, something that stands in the way of the very essence of that quote, and therefore it is not something that I can tolerate.









It is all very meta...

This is my first post, and it is based on an email that I sent my girlfriend regarding my musings on finding value in metaphysics. It's not too Philosophy heavy and should hopefully give you a feel for where I am coming from on the Philosophy side. Feedback is always appreciated.


It’s all very Meta...

Metaphysics always bothered me at university. It was the branch of philosophy that felt the least "real", which for me always meant the least applicable to real life. With disciplines like ethics, epistemology (theory of knowledge), philosophy of religion and history of philosophy, there were genuine real world ways that you could apply what you learned and the debates were often about things that mattered to me. Metaphysics to me always felt a bit like it was dabbling where it shouldn't have - the subject that sat somewhere between subjects like science, reason, logic and religion, theology and faith.


Metaphysics is probably best explained as attempting to describe the nature of the world and what is in it, but I could never escape the feeling that physics and science just did this better. A good analogy would be similar to homeopathy and medicine. Medicine describes, explains and proves why certain drugs work and others do not. Homeopathy fills in the blanks with an explanation that makes little or no sense and is based on faith. As Tim Minchin said, once something has been proven to work, it ceases to be pseudo-medicine and becomes just medicine. The same could be said for meta-physics and physics - as soon as something is actually explained, it ceases to be meta-physics and becomes physics.


The problem was, I really liked metaphysics on occasions, which as someone who is reasonable and logical, this never sat well with me. To carry on the analogy, it would be a bit like a qualified doctor saying "sure, I know that homeopathy is pseudo-science, but, you know, I just happen to like it!". That clearly would never fly. I've been mulling this over and while I don't tend to read much by the way of metaphysics, I still really enjoy it. There are some really cool subjects that are discussed in it. I'll give you a few examples.


Possible Worlds - Some people believe that for everything you can possibly conceive of, a possible world where that option plays out actually exists. This is beyond the "multiple universes" theory, rather it is a case of every idea and independent thought that can possibly happen, can and does in some possible world. This is an important tool in establishing free will as it allows you to say that we know that "things could have been otherwise than they are". I always enjoyed this debate


A brain in a box - How can I prove I exist? Descartes famous statement of "I think therefore I am" or "cogito ergo sum"  is considered one of the foundations of modern philosophy and an important step in establishing a proof that we really do exist. Of course, some critics responded with the only part of that statement that anyone can actually prove is "cogito" - I think, because there is no logic that allows you to prove the I am" bit, that is itself a spiritual leap, and one that Descartes made without telling you he was doing so.


Time travel - the theory of time travel was fascinating stuff, partly because it mixed physics and philosophy, but also because I enjoyed the my lecturers offering a compelling explanation as to why you could only ever travel backwards from the direction time was running. However, time can run either way, i.e. backwards or forwards depending on which "way" the universe was expanding or contracting. This blended classical philosophy with quantum mechanics and really, ummmm, cooked your noodle, for want of a better description when you thought about someone travelling backwards in time from a period where time was running backwards and what effect this had on causation.


So you can kind-of see, the topics themselves are interesting. They are also often highly theoretical and this led me to ask how useful they are to debate, discuss and think about. While somewhat questionable, I always enjoyed them. This morning, while out for a run, I was doing what all good philosophers do, and was asking myself "why"? I think I came up with an answer after, genuinely, years of wondering this.


I think that looking at metaphysics as the pseudo-science to disciplines like physics, reason and logic is wrong, that is to take metaphysics at face value and to miss the point of it. Metaphysics is to philosophy as art is to science. The value in metaphysics comes not from literal absolute meaning of it - works of art are much more than the canvas they are painted on and chemicals the paint is made of. The value of art is in aspects like the cultural importance of painting at the time, the discipline and skill in creating the painting itself, the meaning and the message of painting, the beauty in how it is constructed and many other reasons. To look at a painting and see the just the canvas is, often to miss the point - there are many other reasons that make the painting beautiful, of value and intellectually stimulating. 


The same can be said for metaphysics - the value is that discussing and thinking about these subjects is in itself an exercise in mental reasoning, allows you to shape your thinking about issues that haven't yet been thought of and ask questions that have not yet been asked, let alone answered by science and other subjects. As a discipline, it can also deal with things like the nature of artistic beauty, aesthetic quality and mathematical beauty, asking questions that straddle both art and science. For example, why do we find beauty in paintings that are have Fibonacci numbers, or why are humans fascinated with irrational numbers and what is it that makes the ideas of subjects like solipsism (i.e. I am the only one in the universe) and time travel frightening and exciting?


I've kind of settled on the idea that the value in metaphysics comes from the value of thinking about the ideas themselves and how they can stretch, challenge shape peoples thinking. Metaphysics brings out our creative side of Philosophy and straddles the disciplines of science and art, often asking questions that other subjects and branches of philosophy refuse to ask. Metaphysics, like art, is valuable not just for what it is literally, but for what it can inspire in people and the questions it can make people ask.

And that counts for something, particularly in a world where too many people are afraid to ask the simplest of questions.