Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Holding These Truths

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.


Anonymous said...

The equality in question is surely something like moral equality, not general physical, economical, or intellectual equality; otherwise the claim would be patently false. But once we see it as an assertion of moral equality, it is not quickly refuted or confirmed by empirical evidence (although, in the end, I think it is confirmed by empirical evidence, together with a helping of philosophy).

The history of the conception of universal human moral worth is a long and complicated one, and I think pretty much any moral on either "side" that one tries to extract from the history will be wrong. One strand of the movement toward the universalist conception is already in Socrates in the Meno, and there are certainly universalist lines mixed in with the meritocracy of Plato in the Republic. By the time one reaches the Stoics, I think there are reasonably clear statements of some form of universalism. But in its modern form, it doesn't really show up until the seventeenth century or so, which means it's a bit hard to credit either the Greeks or Christianity with full credit for the idea. And it's not like a very strong version of universalism enjoys great popularity even today (witness, for example, the stunning lack of support for the idea that there is a universal human right of relocation that entails the necessity of open borders).

My own preferred route here (admittedly sketchy) would be that a certain core of human moral worth derives from very fundamental aspects of human cognitive abilities (the ability to plan, to feel pleasure and pain, to reflect on one's own situation, to feel bonds of affection with others, and so on) which are indeed equally present (because they are so fundamental) throughout all people.

Darwin said...

I agree with you that the equality we're talking about here is moral equality.

However, the concern I'd have about grounding human moral worth in the fundamental cognitive abilities that you mention would be that all of those admit to degrees, and in certain situations (mental illness, youth, age, etc.) some or many of those characteristics may not be present. Perhaps I'm too Thomistic here, but it doesn't sit well with me to hold that an individual could change in kind from "individual with human moral worth" to "individual without human moral worth" during a lifetime.

So my tendency would be to say that human moral worth derives from our identity as human creatures, and that the value of being a human derives from the presence of the qualities you mention in the set of essential human qualities. Thus, and individual who for whatever reason permanently or temporarily lacks one or more of those qualities is not by that reason lacking in human worth.

This, I think, is a pretty good example of how far contemplation of natural law can get you in the absense of any revelation.

Though at the same time, it is sadly worth noting that without the force of revelation, the Stoics and Epicurians and the like (fond though I am of them) never seemed able to get much real conformity to their precepts except among the naturally ascetic.

Anonymous said...

"while a democracy such as ancient Athens harnessed the energies of all the best mines and allowed an unprecedented flowering of culture.""

The Athenians would of course have laughed at the concept of "all men being created equal". Barbarians equal to Greeks? Other Greeks being equal to Athenians? Ridiculous! Then of course there is the point that much of the revenue for the Athenian state was gleaned from the silver mine at Laurium where 10,000-20,000 slaves toiled. What history demonstrates in this area is that most people in most times have emphatically not thought that "all men are created equal". It is only certain religions, chiefly Christianity, that lend any support to this concept. I think non-theists rapidly jettison this idea, as we see in such current debates as abortion, especially of children with genetic defects, and embryonic stem cell research. Once you no longer believe that human life has intrisic worth, it is all too easy to view people "not like me" as less than human, and, ultimately, disposable.

Darwin said...

"while a democracy such as ancient Athens harnessed the energies of all the best mines and allowed an unprecedented flowering of culture."

Actually, this was actually a case of spell checking gone badly awry. I ment to say "minds", but since silver mines were a major element in Athenian history, the typo took on a whole new set of meanings.