The Morality Talk

Here is the problem with my wait-till-you’re-married argument. It only holds meaning for a person who has been married and recognizes the need for things that strengthen and sustain a marriage. I supposed it would be like a sailor giving me a long lecture about how necessary it is for me to get my sea legs before taking a long voyage. I’ve never been on a boat for a long period of time and it would all too easy for me to dismiss his advice betting that it won’t be as important as he says it is. Or like a master artist telling a student that they need to get better at the fundamentals before moving on. The student can say that the master is overstating the need, and go on to make art. It might be decent art, and sadly, the student may never know how lacking it is because it’s such a subjective field. In the same way, a person can have a decent marriage, never knowing the excellence and purity that abstaining from premarital sex could have brought.

I suppose most moral imperatives share this characteristic of elusive utilitarian application. In other words, we have to trust that the Thou-Shalt-Nots exist for a good reason regardless of our ability to apprehend how they make our lives better. The other alternative is a utilitarian approach to morals in which a moral mandate is never valid unless I, as an individual, have verified its benefit. It seems to me that this approach effectively cuts us off from the wisdom that those who have come before us can impart. It also refashions my moral world into a set of maxims for my success, minimizing the aspect of moral behavior that is concerned with societal cohesion and peace. There are all sorts of new moral standards that I can come up with that will benefit me while chipping away at general social stability in my culture at large. Even if I’m not a villain, the process of viewing my moral choices like a menu at Denny’s and picking what I think will work best for me, seems like an exercise in training my brain to think in a me-first sort of way.

Even if I’m attempting to follow Jesus’ golden rule, I could still end up like this if I need some sort of experiential evidence for the validity of traditional morality. This leads me right into one of my big existential conundrums. I’ve argued before that we can’t simply follow tradition blindly. We Christians wouldn’t tell a Muslim or a Hindu to blindly follow their traditions. We Protestants - if through some sort of sub-space anomaly - found ourselves face to face with Martin Luther, probably wouldn’t tell him to blindly follow his tradition. The yet-to-be apostle Saul followed his traditions until he was struck blind.

So how does one balance a healthy respect for the wisdom that has come before us (intertwined and ossified as it is with institutional bias) and a proper, humble analysis of our received traditions. Maybe I’m asking how we can be critical (in a technical sense) without being critical (In attitude).

It seems to me that morality evolves as people bump against each other over and over in every possible combination of interaction and offenses. Over time we’ve kind of figured out how to make a society relatively stable for extended periods. We’ve learned that if we punish people who steal or murder our society functions smoother. We’ve learned that if we ceremonially commemorate the union of people who have kids, and discourage the father from taking off, we end up with more well-adjusted children. In recent times we found that giving people incentives to create and invent leads to sustained growth and technological progress. We’ve learned that it’s much easier to govern large complex societies if the general population feels like it’s choosing its leadership. We even decided it’s uncool to enslave people. These lessons are instantiated as moral axioms. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. People should profit from their innovations. Democratic government is the most fair government. Slavery is evil.

These are all maxims that sometimes affect our lives directly, but most of the time it’s quite indirect. And I think that’s why a moral system built on one’s own intuition as to what works best for society is bound to work less effectively than just doing what has been handed down to us. With caveats, of course. I already mentioned some moral changes that our society addressed rather than just accepting the common zeitgeist of history. Things like abolishing slavery and acknowledging the rights and value of the individual would not have happened if people hadn’t been kicking against the pricks. The question is whether these moral innovations are truly new imperatives, or just a result of an ancient moral wisdom finally surfacing through the crusty ichor of human social constructions. Did we just invent these superior moral mandates, or were they simply laying dormant, waiting for the right philosophical key to free them?

I’m guessing that a humanist would say we are evolving superior morals that should supplant the old order. I think most monotheists would say that the new morals are not new at all, they simply gained enough traction in society to finally stick. I’m not sure what a Buddhist or Hindu would say. And I suppose, not surprisingly, I side with the monotheists. Taking the view that our moral order is a God-breathed attribute rather than the side effect of evolving man-monkeys figuring out how to survive together. Just for the record, I think the truth could be both. God imbued humans with morals via the evolutionary process He so brilliantly designed. The important part is the intent of a creator rather than the mechanical process that was employed.

And really, I guess this is beside the point I’m trying to make. Or rather, it shows why the atheistic humanist may not agree with the point I’m trying to make. If directed or designed, our moral order has a backbone. It’s not a hodge-podge of varying anthropological tribal ideals at war with each other. If we have One moral author, then there is a basis for a universal, unchanging moral code. But if our morals are just the random vestiges of scattered groups of hunched over, hairy folk, then there is no way to order our morals except by power. There is no basis for appealing to a person’s universal morals because there can be none. What is right and wrong can only be determined by who holds the power to force others to adhere.

Of course most humanists would disagree with this. They would say that the vast majority of cultures share most moral mandates. Most societies agree that theft and murder are wrong. Of course that is true. And just as in the field of biology, an atheist can point at something and say it’s clear proof of random mutations, and a theist can point at the exact same thing and say it’s clear proof of design. So in anthropology they can say universal moral code shows common descent and I can say it shows the mark of design. But we can agree on the data set. We can agree that most cultures share a pretty wide set of moral values. However, it really starts to break down when you look at how those morals are utilized. Just look at the difference between the way a typical western nation values its women and the way a typical middle-eastern nation values its women. Our different expressions could be based on the same moral ideas, such as ‘women ought to be protected’, ‘women ought to be respected’, etc. It’s just that many Muslims think that covering them from head to foot in a burka and keeping them at home is the best expression of these ideas. We westerners for the most part are appalled at this and most of us probably consider the treatment of these women to be immoral. Here’s where the rubber meets the road. A theist can say that Muslim laws are a corruption of a higher moral order. The argument is only coherent because the index for right and wrong transcends individual cultures. But an atheist cannot be coherent in their criticism of Muslim repression of women, because they can only put forth the way they think things should be.

Let me be clear about something. Both the theist and the atheist have to go about reforming morals in the exact same way: pressure. “Don’t keep slaves or we will stop trading with you.”, “We will picket your factory until you stop using child labor.”, “Stop threatening me or I will call the police.” The difference is that the theist can make a coherent argument for applying that pressure, whereas the atheist can only state a preference. “You need to stop beating your wife because there is a higher authority than you or I.” is more valid than, “You need to stop beating your wife because a majority of humans agree that it’s better that way.” It’s not that the atheist argument is worse; it’s just not a valid, logical argument. It can appeal to the emotions, but not logic. The fact that a majority of humans agree that some activity is good or bad has no logical repercussions unless an individual chooses to adhere to that popular opinion. But if you replace ‘popular opinion’ with ‘a transcendent being Who has implemented a system of moral expectations’, there is a valid case for forcing John Doe to stop beating his wife.

I want to be careful not to undermine the motive for the atheist idea of the ‘good of all’ as a measure of morality. I’m not saying atheists are immoral or shouldn’t try to impose moral order on those around them for the betterment of us all. I’m just pointing out that the authority that they cite: ‘popular opinion’, or ‘the good of all’, is a very unruly beast, prone to wild mood swings and barbarous behavior. After all, what defines ‘popular opinion’? Majority rules? During most of history the majority thought that beating you wife and owning slaves were fine things to do. In that climate of popular opinion, on what basis does an atheist have to argue against such acts?

Well, to be honest, they have the same basis that we do: an appeal to a higher authority. We say God, they say the-betterment-of-society. We both have to make arguments about how and why our moral standard is superior in order to convince anyone who disagrees with us. What actually makes a society better is debatable, and what God actually says is debatable (What with all the competing claims); so really, we are in the same boat. …. Hahaha! I seem to have pontificated myself to the other side of the argument. I guess the lesson I bring from this is that since everyone is dealing with subjective interpretations of what the higher authority commands, we should all conduct ourselves with utmost humility as we propose our social agendas.

Anyway, my pontification has also caused me to meander off my point a bit. I was trying to build a case for not pissing all over our moral traditions just because we can’t see the point of keeping them. As with my advice to the bachelor that he remain chased. A lot of bachelors don’t see the point. I tried to explain the point, but found that the very state of bachelorhood disinclines one from understanding it. They figure that if there are two consenting adults in a loving relationship; who cares what goes on in the bedroom.

I think this is symptomatic of our culture’s personal freedom fetish that excuses almost any action that seems like a “victimless crime”. Besides fornication, the other big ones in this category are drugs, prostitution, pornography and homosexuality. It seems obvious to me that the nature of our society is an aggregate of the nature of its individuals. It’s not like a culture is some disembodied entity separate from the collective of people who live under it. So it seems mind-numbingly obvious that the more individuals lower their nature through these activities, the lower the culture as a whole is going to sink.

That’s kind of abstract. Specifically, we are interconnected, and even our private actions effect individuals around us. We live in a market-driven society where demand is always met with supply. Want to make sure that there is always plenty of drugs and porn? Keep consuming it. Want to make sure that abused girls with low self-esteem are continually shunted into prostitution or pornography? Just keep the demand high.

There is no such thing as a victimless crime. You are always voting with your dollars and shaping your culture accordingly. It’s just naive to think that you can have your little guilty pleasure without affecting anyone else. Every dollar stuffed in a stripper’s g-string is more incentive for desperate women to turn to that profession. Every blunt smoked is incentive for a collective of people to do desperate, illegal, immoral things to make sure you get another one. Every divorce produces more wrecked children that will need more help to be healthy, and will be more likely to fall into vice. Every internet porn link that is clicked is another incentive for sleazy guys with cameras to sucker broken girls into a life of debauchery. Please keep in mind that I’m pointing at myself as much as anyone else. I’ve been down the porn and divorce roads. But I’m not going to pretend like my actions don’t hurt other people indirectly.

This is what I’m trying to hone in on here. If we suffer under the delusion that our private actions don’t affect others, then how can we accurately assess the wisdom of tradition? How can we stand in judgment over these ideas that were forged in the fires of thousands of years of society building? How do we balance the concept of the good of the whole with the concept of the good of the individual? Surely both are important. If we only look at the whole than horrible things like eugenics are perfectly acceptable solutions to some problems. If we only look at the individual than horrible things like prostitution and drug addiction are perfectly acceptable solutions to psychological needs.

I want to find a framework from which I can assess the moral imperatives that I’ve inherited. A framework that allows me to see what imperfections there may be. (Like slavery or racism.) But also allows me to be a part of what makes a society strong, healthy, and most importantly, inclined to love God and one another. I feel like I can guess what sort of person I need to be to bring that about. But I don’t see a way to discern a morality set that universally applies to all individuals.

I suppose my main thought on this is that since you and I are doing so much guessing about how to morally navigate through this life, it would probably be wise to defer to the host of witnesses who have come before us, unless there is some stark offense that can be easily identified and reformed. Things like slavery and child abuse seem to stick out like a sore thumb when examined through the lens of the golden rule. But hazier stuff like premarital sex, gambling, cursing, modesty standards, etc. are much harder to discern. I think the key is the realization that our private actions have ramifications for others, in many ways that we can’t even recognize. If a person can wrap their head around that I think it will provide some respect for tradition that can keep us from rashly discarding standards that we don’t like or can’t see the point of.

But this is a hard sell. Especially to younger people who haven’t been down the road far enough to see some of the unintended harvest that their tradition-breaking has sewn. I’m guessing that’s why older people tend to get more conservative.

Taking this to heart, I think I am going to be looking for ways to imbue this sense of how our private life affects others into my kids, so maybe, just maybe, when I’m telling them how important it is to hold off on sex until marriage, they’ll listen.


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