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Sometimes I feel like I’m speaking German in a room full of people who only understand  Cantonese.

First, I NEVER SAID that it was possible to bse morality on the Great  Tradition.

Second, I NEVER SAID  that studying the Great Tradition could tell us how to be moral, or help us to be moral, or anything like that.

In fact, I’ve repeatedly said the opposite of both those things. 

There is one reason and one reason only to study the reat Tradition–because it’s there.

It’s a record of the history of certain kinds of activity on the part of human beings, and that makes it worthy of study and worth the time it takes to understand it.

Humanists study the Great Tradition for the same reason botanists study plants–to know and understand it.  Period. 

A botanist can tell you that if you eat broccoli you’ll increase your supply of  B vitamins which can make you healthier in certain specific ways, and if you eat arsenic it can make you dead. 

He can’t tell you which of these alternative outcomes you “should” want, and you don’t expect him to.

A Humanist can tell you that certain progressions of thought result in certain predictable evolutionary arcs, and that if those ideas are tried in practice they lead to certain predictable practical outcomes.

He cannot–and should not be expected to–tell you which of those outcomes you should prefer.

When  I  say it is possible to found a moral code on the human experience, without recourse to God, I mean that we can outline the RESULTS of putting certain kinds of ideas into practice.  

The line between stimulus and response is not as simple as the one for broccoli, arsenic and bodily health, but it is possible to draw it with some accuracy, even allowing for individual idiosyncracies.

Why shouldn’t I eat my roommate if he and I want that?

Because in doing so, you’re treating your roommate as a means to your ends, rather than as an end in himself.

Societies that treat human beings as means instead of ends have certain predictable outcomes, most of them unpleasant.  Societies that treat just some people as means and others as ends have outcomes that are somewhat less unpleasant, but still not optimal.  Societies that treat all human beings as ends in themselves and forbid their use as means for others have other predictable outcomes, most of the far less unpleasant.

I don’t think that reason can tell you why you “shouldn’t” eat your roommate, but I do think it can tell you that if your society allows it, or even morally tolerates it, the result will be a specific set of predictable outcomes.

You are then free, of course, to decide whether or not those outcomes are what you’re looking for.

But here’s the thing.  Although humans come in infinite variety, human nature is not fungible.  It can’t be anything at all.  And because of that,  I’m willing to bet pretty much anything that the majority of human beings will sign on to that set of ideas/assumptions/morals/policies that are most likely to result in their living in a society where they’ll be most likely to be healthy, prosperous, and happy, and at libierty to pursue their own version of happiness.  

Will there by discontents in such a society?  Yes, of course.  The cannibal will find his pursuit of happiness thwarted.

But it isn’t necessary to sign on everybody on the planet.  It’s only necessary to come to a consensus about a very few specific things.

Those of us who would prefer to live in primitive misery in order to keep God’s law or live in a world where nobody has a dime more than we do are few and far between.  When they manage to take over a country, they can hang on to power only by restricting the ability of their people to vote with their feet. 

In order to come to a moral code with this sort of basis, we’d have to study history, tradition, neuropsychology, you name it–not just the Great Tradition, which would be just one source of information among others that would need to be considered.

The  Great  Tradition can show us how people do philosophy.  It can show us the way human beings have lived.  It can let us look into the long converation about the most basic of human questions–what does it mean to be human?  why do we die, and what does it mean that we die?  what is love?  what is greed?  what does it mean to say that something is morally good?

But you can’t found a moral code on it, for the same reason you can’t found a moral code on botany.

It’s just one part of a much bigger picture.

Written by janeh

April 29th, 2009 at 6:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'ARRRRGGGGGHHHH. Or Possibly, ARRRGGGHHH 2.'

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  1. If you’re saying that the humanist can use the great tradition to determine whether or not it should be permissible to eat a willing human, surely you are using the great tradition to make a moral decision? And if you are adding that each individual can, on being told that eating people is treating them as objects, and other societies that do that tend to treat people badly, make their own decisions – those people must then make their own moral choices based on what? the information provided by the humanist? (I’m reminded of a certain character in Old Harry’s Game who would undoubtedly choose treating other people as object so long as he wasn’t one of them!).

    And you now say you only need a consensus to make this work, but you previously said you couldn’t get a consensus for a religious moral code. I can’t see that you’d get any more of one this way.

    (Personally, I’ve always liked the idea of the speaker and listener being on different wavelengths in these situations!)


    29 Apr 09 at 7:44 am

  2. Excuse me? I thought this started with an observation that the study of the Western tradition was not enough. Perhaps I’m having difficulty with my Cantonese tones.

    As for any widespread agreement among humankind on such matters, find your copy of THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY, and look up “Moral.” Sneer at philosophers at your pleasure, but ignore Ambrose Bierce at your peril.


    29 Apr 09 at 4:33 pm

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