Thursday, March 03, 2016

History and Morality

I would like to recommend a couple of podcasts . . . Or, more precisely, a pod-caster by the name of Mike Duncan. His podcasts are, "The History of Rome" and "Revolutions." The latter is ongoing.

Both are available – free - from iTunes. (I would recommend a donation to Mike Duncan if you find it worthwhile.) The History of Rome is done with about 200 episodes, while Revolutions is ongoing.

Just a note: The History of Rome was Duncan’s first podcast. Going through the nearly 200 episodes, one also sees Duncan’s growth through the process. I have listened through this podcast twice.

Here is what I find interesting about this.

I pretend to be a moral philosopher, concerned with what is right and wrong, and I come up with a set of ideas.

Then, I listen to one of these podcasts and ask the question, "Where does moral philosophy fit into this?"

At one point in Roman history, the Praetorian Guard in Rome auctioned off the title of Emperor to the highest bidder. The winner, Didius Julianus, won the bidding war with a bid of 25,000 Roman sesterces per man.

Where was morality?

Slavery was an unquestioned institution until the 1700’s. Nobody questioned it – not even the slaves. A particular slave may declare that his or her enslavement was unjust, but slavery itself was a legitimate institution.

Where was morality?

In September, 1792, the armies allied against France had just won a significant victory and were at risk of marching on Paris itself. The people in Paris were afraid that the people it had locked in its prisons would side with the attackers. To protect Paris – or so the claim goes – the citizens of Paris entered the prisons and executed between 1200 and 1400 prisoners. Prisoners were hauled in front of a “court”, often declared guilty in a short trial, and then thrown to the mob who hacked them apart with axes and knives.

Where was morality?

Augustus killed Caesar’s teenage son because “Rome can only have one Caesar.” In doing so, he probably prevented a future civil war. Many philosophers talk about trolley car problems where a person has to decide whether to push a fat man in front of a trolley to prevent it from slaying five others. However, this is not an actual moral problem. Nobody ever actually finds themselves in this situation, so there is no need to mold a set of institutions to cover a situation that does not ever happen. Now, think of an actual, living, teenage boy - and the prospect of continued civil war.

While the Declaration of the Rights of Man declared, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights,” the government excluded what is now Haiti from this declaration because its people were simply making too much money from the slave plantations in the colony.

With respect to the status of women that we often hear about in the Arab world? That actually originated in Ancient Greece – the Greece of Plato and Aristotle, and exported to the Middle East through the conquests of Alexander the Great. Those ideas certainly did not come from any god. And, in fact, it did not originate in the Middle East. They came from a culture that many people in the west hold to high esteem. This particular fact is not found in the podcasts mentioned above, but does help to illustrate some of the lessons of history.

For my atheist readers who think religion is the source of all strife, history provides some evidence against this. In the history of Rome, religion is almost never a cause of bloodshed and injustice, yet there is no shortage of either.

It is from here that I draw the lesson that people do not get their violence and injustice FROM religion. The give their violent and unjust dispositions TO the religions that they invent. Eliminating religion would not solve the problem because humans would still be humans. There is no violence or injustice written into religion that cannot also be written into a secular philosophy. In fact, many prominent atheists today are quite content to write new injustices into their secular philosophies.

When we look at the French Revolution we can see how atheists played a prominent roll in defending The Terror.

Precisely because many atheists see religion as a source of problems, they blind themselves to their own capacity to write injustices into their secular philosophies. It is a blindness that is hard to maintain when one looks at the amount of violence and bloodshed in history that required no religious motivation at all.

Seriously, if you have an interest in ethics, I would strongly recommend spending some time studying history. Plug your ideas about morality into real-world decisions that real-world human beings were making. The results can be illuminating. Ask yourself whether your moral system exists only in an academic bubble, or whether you can say something about the real world.


Doug S. said...

The problem with "religion" specifically is that it's a lot harder to change or argue with than a secular ideology - when someone writes violence into a religion, it's very hard to get rid of it and it can continue to inspire violence for centuries.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Well . . . are you saying that 1000 years from now the Nazi philosophy will be less anti-Semitic? Ayn Rand objectivism will be less selfish? Social Darwinism will be less racist? Marxism will be less violent?

It is one thing to say that fewer people will accept a particular secular philosophy - but quite a different thing to say that the philosophy itself will change (and, yet, still the same name).

It actually seems quite likely that, once violence or some other form of wrongdoing is written into a secular philosophy, that it is just as hard to get rid of.

As a matter of contingent fact, the longest-lasting philosophies we know about are religious. However, this is a contingent fact - one that may become false as time passes.