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

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Moral Laws vs Moral Fashions

Well-known atheist Richard Dawkins managed to grab himself some less than positive reactions a couple weeks ago when he gave an interview in which he dismissed the "mild pedophilia" which was common in the English school system of his youth as not being such a big deal if one considered the climate of the times. Justifying this attitude Dawkins explained:
I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.
The points most people drew from this are:

- Actually 18th and 19th century racism was pretty bad, many at the time did recognize it, and we should in fact condemn it.

- Identifying "mild pedophilia" as some kind of okay thing is something only a sick person with no morals would do.

I don't disagree with these points. Nor is this new territory for Dawkins, who has something of a history of trivializing child abuse. He's the one who argued, "Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place."

But I think there's a more general tendency to be seen in Dawkins' comments which is worth discussing as well. As a thoroughgoing materialist, Dawkins doesn't recognize the existence of objectively real moral laws. Rather, what he sees is a sort of moral fashion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, racism was common and socially acceptable. Even "good people" who you'd want to have in your drawing room were often highly racist. (After all, it paid to be racist: slaves were the most valuable capital assets in some whole countries, including the US.)

In Dawkins' mind, this apparently made it less bad to be racist in prior centuries. Never mind the fact that racism arguably caused more damage to people during those centuries precisely because it was so widespread and socially acceptable.

Now, there's a sense in which someone might be less culpable for a sin which is widely accepted and practices in society than for a sin which is widely condemned. Someone who killed another man in a duel in 1800 had a lot of societal expectations telling him that it was the honorable thing to do to defend his honor in that way. Today, someone who shot another man for insulting him would be violating a host of social norms which teach us from out youth that killing each other is not an acceptable way of resolving social quarrels. So you could perhaps say that someone who shoots another person in such a quarrel today is likely more culpable as he has more voices in society telling him that what he's doing is wrong.

However, sin is at all times discernible to us via natural reason. Even when slavery and the racism that supported it were common practice, people could and did think about the matter clearly and come to the conclusion that it was wrong. And in the 1950s England of Richard Dawkins' youth, anyone who thought about it knew that reaching into a young boy's pants was wrong -- even if "child abuse" did not have the social stigma then that it does now.

Those of us who recognize the existence of moral laws should try to be especially aware of how they differ from moral fashions of the age. It's easy to recognize sins where moral law and moral fashion align. However, it's where the moral fashions of the age do not recognize a sin as being particularly wrong, where those fashions assure us that "good people" can do something, that particular abuses occur.

We easily identify the sins of the past where moral fashions have changed. This has been striking me as I read War & Peace. Killing someone in a duel or beating a subordinate while you're drunk is considered quite socially excusable, while being caught publically lying or cheating is absolutely world ending. Fornication is considered almost infinitely worse than it is now (at least, for women) but adultery is considered almost tolerantly as fornication is in our society. (Not so much by Tolstoy, who is rather the moralist, but by the society which he is portraying.)

But, of course, sin is sin. And it can be all the more deadly to us when we allow social convention to lull us into the idea that it's not so bad, something that "basically good people" can keep on doing without too much blame.


Caroline said...

I think what Dawkins said is reprehensible, especially using the example of pedophilia. However, I can see his point too. It's so easy for us to look down our noses at "those people" in past times who were racist/had multiple wives/had slaves/engaged in horrific practices of warfare. And while there were exceptions (William Wilberforce comes to mind), it is good to remember that most of us unfortunately wouldn't have bucked the trend. I think about the South of my childhood, which holds some really backwards beliefs about race and where I frequently heard nostalgia about the Confederacy and "states rights" from otherwise decent people. So some of these things aren't as obtainable by natural law as they may seem.

Aron Wall said...

Leaving aside the question of how much a perverse moral culture could mitigate culpability for reprehensible deeds---can it really be true that homosexual molestation of children was regarded as morally upright in 1950's England?

It seems very dangerous to imagine that because something frequently happened in a given culture, it must therefore have been regarded as morally acceptable. The taboo against pedophilia may be somewhat stronger in our day (although the taboo on homosexuality is much weaker, obviously), but can it really have been entirely absent from England 60 years ago, prior to the sexual revolution?

Darwin said...


I think it is important to understand the way in which social conventions can either re-enforce or undercut moral laws -- such that "basically good people" in another era would, without thinking much of it, do things we'd consider reprehensible. However, I think there are two additional things to keep in mind that Dawkins' view doesn't account for well:

- The laws do still exist, and so in the objective sense we need to blame people just as much for violating moral laws even if they were doing so in a time whose standards would result in diminished (or absent) culpability.

- When we think about this only from today's perspective, we miss the fact that there are moral blindspots we have today that people were very conscious of in the past, so we get a false sense or moral progress due to the discounting the sins which society now doesn't pay much attention to. So yes, most of us (for instance) would not have "bucked the trend" living in the South 150 years ago. But on the flip side, there are things we don't think about much now which would have morally horrified people then.

Aron Wall,

I think you're right: Dawkins is overplaying things and there certainly was a taboo against pedophilia (even "mild pedophilia" which didn't involve intercourse) in 1950s, though it was both different from and not as strong as the taboo which exists now.