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Foundations: The Sequel

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This is an article that appeared in Arts and Letters Daily this week-end.  It’s from Slate:


I put it up because it’s a good illustration of those lines from Yeats–and yes, those were the ones I meant, from The Second Coming.

I’d never heard them interpreted as being about the Irish Rebellion before.  The standard interpretation is twofold:  in the short run, Yeats was looking at the rise of the great anti-Christian totalitarianisms, starting with the founding of the Soviet Union. 

In the long run, he was talking about the condition of humanity in a post-Christian world. 

One of the reasons the poem has lasted so long and remains so powerful is that it continues to speak to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  Dostoyevski said that if God is dead, everything is permissable–and “everything is permissable” is a good motto for places like, say, North Korea.

But let me get back to the foundations of moral law.

Jem asks first what use such morality is if people violate it all the time. 

But that’s like asking what use are laws against murder when people still commit murder.  And people do still commit murder.   Many of them commit murder without thinking it through in any way, so that the fact that a law exists does not deter them because they aren’t thinking about it.  Many others commit murder even though they know a law exists, because they think they can get away with it, and otherwise don’t care.

And yet laws against murder are useful, and not just because they mean we can catch some of these people and punish them.  They do, in fact, deter some people–and we can never know how many–who weigh the odds and decide that they can’t get away with it.

But much more important than that, laws against murder help to shape a climate in which we all know, instinctively, that murder is wrong.   And most human beings respond strongly to the knowledge that something is wrong, and especially that something is gravely wrong.  

Moral strictures against murder–which is what knowing that murder is gravely wrong is an example of–deter people from even considering murder.  And probably a lot of people.  Look at places where such strictures have collapsed, and the level of violence is truly astounding.

Moral law–and understanding that some things are objectively, unarguably wrong, period–is a powerful creator of cultural climate, and climate is everything.

It is neither necessary nor possible for all people to actually observe such moral law.  It’s only necessary that the knowledge and conviction be general and accepted without qualification.  That in itself will limit the number of acts of transgression that occur–and, even more importantly, put a limit on the extent to which such transgressions can occur in the population at large.

In other words, in those twenty centuries of stony sleep, the rocking cradle vexed to nightmare not murder, but genocide–it took a century of Nietzsche’s God is  Dead and the superman is pure will to overcome the stricture, but when the stricture was overcome what you got was not Jeffrey Dahmer, but the Holocaust and the Gulag.

Climate matters.

As to the  Bible–no, of course you don’t have to take the Bible literally.  You don’t have to take it at all.  I’m not a believer, and it has no authority for me whatsoever.

But, IF you say “the reason I think we should do no harm is because the Bible says so,” THEN you’re taking “the Bible says so” as the basis for your morality.

IF “the Bible says so” is the basis for your moral code, then you must accept as your moral code everything the Bible says.

If you don’t, then you’re NOT basing your moral ideas on “the  Bible says so.”

Which is okay, too, but you can’t have it both ways.  The Bible is either authoritative or it’s not.   You can’t have it both ways.

As to disagreements among interpretations–there are actually far fewer than you’d think.  For close to two thousand years, there were virtually no disagreements at all among Christians in moral matters.

They’d argue about the Trinity, or whether Genesis was literal or metaphor, or the virginity of Mary.  They’d even have an argument or two about marginal things like whether or not you could drink or dance. 

They didn’t argue about sex and violence.  Sex?  Morally acceptable only within a marriage.  Period.  No exceptions.  Adultery was wrong.  Prostitution was wrong.  Visiting a prostitute was wrong.   Having a mistress was wrong.  Having sex outside marriage in any way was wrong.  Heterosexual, homosexual, it didn’t matter.

None of this depended on taking the Bible literally.  Catholics do not take the  Bible literally, and they do not see the Bible as the foundation of their understanding of morality.  They go, instead, with “the constant teaching authority of the Church.”

And in fact that teaching authority has been pretty constant.  On abortion, for instance, although the REASONS for codemning it have been all over the map, it’s been a mortal sin (the kind of sin that can send you to hell and that incurs an automatic excommunication from the sacraments) for as far back as we can trace the mention of it, going back to about the year 120.

None of this means that change doesn’t happen, but in a moral code with a settled foundation that change occurs almost always as a gradual tightening of the moral strictures rather than a loosening of them.

The Catholic Church was the first institutional body on the face of the planet to condemn slavery outright.   Individuals had done it before, but institutions, religions or governments, had not.

The basis for the condemnation was the constant Christian teaching that we are all equal in the sight of God and all heirs to the kingdom of God. 

And that was the basis for England’s eventual decision to try to wipe the practice off the face of the earth. 

Supporters of slavery were universal.  They existed in all literate societies in all times.

Opponents of slavery were all Christian, and they all based their opposition on a single particular teaching of Christ because they took the teaching of Christ to be authoritative.

But SINCE they took the teaching of Christ to be authoritative, they not only accepted a need to oppose slavery, they ALSO accepted a need to condemn any sexual activity out of wedlock.

If the authority of Christ is authoritative, it’s authoritative in both instances.  If you claim that it’s authoritatve in one case but not the other, then you’re simply saying that it is not authoritative at all, you just agree with one idea and not the other.

If you have no solid foundation for what you believe, you can’d defend it.  That’s what’s happening in the article I posted the link to up there.

Men and women throughout Europe think they believe in freedom of expression, but they don’t really know why they do, and they aren’t sure if that belief should hold for other people who do not accept it–but the Muslims with whom they are in conflict have no such ambivalance. 

It’s not the Muslims who are pulling back.  It’s the Europeans who are losing their rights to freedom of speech and press in any case where it would mean criticizing Islam or Muslim culture.

The existence of disagreement does not prove that there is no truth to be had.

It just means that some of the parties to that disagreement are wrong.

I’m going to go do stuff.

Aristotle’s evidence and the possible foundations of a non-religious but universally valid moral code tomorrow, with any luck.

Written by janeh

March 27th, 2010 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Foundations: The Sequel'

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  1. I’m still working on acceptance or rejection of one can’t state moral opposition to a particular behavior unless there’s a moral code or foundation to back it up. Not there yet.

    But one thing I can address from the post “Foundations: the sequel” is the diffence between words and actions regarding the Catholic Church and slavery
    (somehow I’m unable to make this a hyperlink but if you type this into your address bar you will get to the article)

    Again, what good is professing belief in a particular moral code or source if you can’t follow it?


    27 Mar 10 at 10:14 pm

  2. a) One can aspire to a moral code without being able to absolutely follow it in its entirety. Aspiring to something is how we get better as humans. That’s what good it is. If all we had was what people actually *do* life would be piss-poor. “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp” and all that.

    Humans can be both the most debased and the most noble of creatures. If all we aspire to is mediocrity, we may avoid evil, but we also preclude the best that is in us.

    b) Where is Robert? He hasn’t posted for days.

    c) This business of sourcing a moral code without recourse to revelation or religion, of seeking universal moral truth is tough. How about that I consider a society that believes that murder is wrong to be one that gives the greatest possible scope to human development. That may be the tail chasing the dog. Why do I believe in human development as a good? Because I desire it for myself? Because I think humans can be more than they are, and murder, violence, harm tend to restrict growth?

    Because my empathy has grown as I have aged and I hate seeing others suffer needlessly? Because I see myself in all people, to some extent, and value that as I value myself?

    I don’t know, but I’ve surely been thinking about it. Good questions, Jane.

    I think I want to watch Jane pull a hat out of a rabbit, tomorrow. If the computer lab doesn’t eat her post.


    27 Mar 10 at 10:52 pm

  3. Robert was on vacation. And he’d like to point out one bit.
    The moral code of the Bible is not just a matter of looking through a concordance for something pertinent to the issue at hand–and hoping not to find contradictory statements. Take a look at Matthew 22 34-40. (Mark 12 28-34 is similar.) All the Law–ALL of it–derives from two similar commandments, the way all of Euclidean geometry is derived from a handful of axioms. In a moral sense, the rest of the Bible is just the “unpacked” version.
    Mostly, as Jane points out, there isn’t a lot of disagreement about what ethical conduct follows from that. Sometimes, people being people and “hard cases making bad law” there will be. (Much more often, we know what is required of us, and won’t do it. That’s very different.)
    Lord Nelson wrote that “no ship’s captain will have done so very wrong if he brings his ship alongside the enemy.” Our position, I think, is similar.
    Christians may legitimately disagree on whether the taking of oaths, whether the Sabbath is properly Saturday or Sunday, whether an oil portrait is a “graven image” and whether one ought or ought not to marry one’s brother’s widow. But I do not think any Christian has imperilled his soul in such matters so long as his guiding prnciple has been to “love the Lord [his] God with all [his] heart and mind and soul and strength and [his] neighbor as [him]self.”

    It’s too easy to get wrapped up in the details.


    28 Mar 10 at 4:36 pm

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