I had a chance to read over the third installment of the Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson debate over the question "Is Christianity good for the world." The intellectual car wreck atmosphere continues -- with Hitchens giving the impression that he's only half reading Wilson's much longer pieces and then dashing off a reply in 30 minutes based on whatever happens to come into his head first.
One thing that struck me, and which I've seen before in "atheism is just as ethical as theism" type arguments, is the absolute faith that basic modern Western/Judeo-Christian ethical and political standards can be effortlessly derived from "common experience" such that there is no need to seek divine law in order to reach objective moral standards.
I seem to recall in some online debate a while back putting forward the statement "all men were created equal" as an ethical and political standard which can be derived from Christianity ("there is no male or female, no Jew or Gentile in Christ") but cannot be "empirically" established -- since if one goes about things by means of empirical evidence it very quickly becomes obvious that all people are not created equal. It is no mere accident of the times, I think, that despite the fact that Plato and Aristotle had arrived at the idea that all humanity were the same in substance, it never occurred to them that they should be treated as political equals.
"Oh, that's easy," I was told. "You don't need to empirically prove that all humans are equal, because history quickly proves that society functions best if all human are treated as if they were equal. A society can't be sufficiently optimized if the best minds aren't given freedom, and the societal costs of successfully identifying the best minds is higher than simply giving everyone equal opportunity."
Which is all very cute and pat, unless one stops to consider whether history does indeed prove this. Example: When I was at the argumentative but unformed age of thirteen, I once got myself into a debate over politics and asserted: "An absolute autocracy such as Tsarist Russia, the Persian Empire or Ancient Egypt forces intelligent people outside the ruling class into rebellion, thus creating instability, while a democracy such as ancient Athens harnessed the energies of all the best mines and allowed an unprecedented flowering of culture."
Well, it did allow a great flowering of culture, but as my intellectual opponent immediately pointed out to me, Athens heyday (from Solon to the end of the Peloponnesian War) lasted only around 200 years, while Egypt lasted (in comparative stability) for over 2500 years from the unification of the upper and lower kingdoms until the conquest by Alexander.
If one really does want to get "empirical" and talk about what history "proves", it proves that a stable society is best achieved by a society with low but reliable technology and an absolute belief in a god-king.
Fortnightly Book, March 26
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