"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Are We More Moral Than The Romans?

There are two schools of thought on the issue of morality.  There are those who feel that civilizations have evolved over time and that having learned the lessons from history, each successive society is more moral than the previous one.  Civil law has replaced the law of the jungle; and Christian conscience and charity have replaced the more austere and punitive ‘an eye for an eye’.  Perhaps we may want to covet our neighbor’s wife, steal from him, and kill him for his transgressions, but most of us choose to live within the framework of the Ten Commandments and, perhaps more importantly, within the boundaries of the law.

Others say that we haven’t evolved one bit.  Although there are no Genghis Khans thundering down the steppes, marauding, pillaging, disemboweling, and raping; we did have Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung not that many years ago.  Each of these despots killed millions of people with no less enthusiasm that the Tamburlaine and the Mongol hordes who followed him.

There are now rules of war, say these optimists – the Geneva Convention, Arms Control, and movements against landmines, chemical and biological warfare, and torture; and even if not perfectly or uniformly enforced, they represent a step forward. 

Yet the United States as well as its allies and its enemies have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.  There is little doubt that the United States would play its nuclear card if pushed; and it is a near certainty that Iran and North Korea would.  It is highly unlikely that Israel would be continent and careful in its geopolitics and keep its nuclear arsenal underground.

Many people think that the American war in Iraq was immoral – an invasion of a sovereign country on trumped up charges for self-serving and selfish ends.  Lyndon Johnson deliberately lied about the Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ because he was spoiling for a war with the Communists in Vietnam, and rumors of war are heard every day in the Pentagon as military strategists play war games. Does the United States really operate on the basis of a moral foreign policy?

Civilized nations, such as the United States have outlawed slavery, optimists say; but the commerce has simply turned elsewhere.  ‘Trafficking’ is the new slavery, and those on the far Left consider capitalism an immoral, predatory, and destructive system which keeps millions in economic slavery.

It is hard to see how we have evolved at all.  Take slavery, for example, an institution which has been around a long time, and no less than the Greeks, who gave us democracy, the rule of law, and the basis for a civil society, practiced it as a matter of course.  The buying and selling of slaves was as common then as it is now in many parts of Africa and was in the United States only 150 years ago.  Yet, one must consider Ancient Greece profoundly moral, for ethics or moral philosophy was founded on the principles of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates.  Compared to that early civilization, American society, awash in popular culture with few moral anchors in place, is profoundly immoral, or at least amoral.

It is often said that America is a very religious country, perhaps the most religious along with India.  This devout Christian faith, it is argued, is this anchor; and American society, so respectful of the teachings of Christ and guided by them, not only is moral but has been ordained by God to provide a beacon of faith and right behavior to the world.

Yet, fundamentalist Christians are in many ways the least Christ-like of any Americans; and they have come to be known for their intolerance and defense of the status quo.  What is moral or Christ-like in the religious politics of exclusion?

America’s religious sentiments are evident in our retention of the death penalty, for we hew to Old Testament injunction.  There is no evidence that executions deter crime; and the only reason we persist in putting people to death is because it seems right, Biblical, and just.  Europeans, however, think that America is profoundly immoral because of what they consider our barbaric policy of capital punishment.  Torture may or may not extract information from the enemy, but we continue to practice it because even if there is a small chance that it will save American lives, it is worth doing.  We are as a nation Constitutionally forbidden from exacting cruel and unusual punishments, but most of us don’t give a second thought to Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, and unlawful search and seizure – if it is done in the interests of national security. In fact, while not as morally suspect as the millions of Germans who were complicit in the extermination of the Jews, or even worse, the good burghers of Vichy France who helped the Germans round them up; Americans sit idly by while questionable actions are carried out by our government.

Adherents of the Occupy Movement blame Wall Street for the nation’s ills and characterize it as the most immoral institution in the country.  Wall Street, they say, is responsible for creating wealth for the few while enslaving the many.  Greed is not good, these Occupy partisans say, but immoral and evil; and yet capitalism is based on greed. Although we reined in the Robber Barons of the early 20th Century, they reemerged with a vengeance a few years back, and their credit swaps, derivatives, and mortgage bundles were yet another expression of naked avarice. If such a system was legal and opportune given the profit motive of Wall Street capitalism, could it also be immoral?  And was anyone who worked on Wall Street trading these securitized commodities immoral and guilty as charged?

History and literature have clearly shown that we have made no moral progress over the millennia.  In fact, and more to the point, the idea of moral progress itself is a fiction.  Societies merely configure the moral code to serve as a current, reasonable, and appropriate guide to behavior.  Morality is relative and actions cannot and should not be judged from an absolute position. Surely no one would claim that the Zapotecs who performed human sacrifice as propitiation to pagan gods were any less moral than perpetrators of a ‘just war’; and just as certainly paganism, with its cosmology, deities, respect for a higher power, and powerful link between man and his environment, cannot be any less moral than Christianity.

Nietzsche was on to something when he explored his ideas of amorality or living beyond good and evil.  He understood the captive nature of arbitrary and temporal morality, and felt that the only validation of life was the absolute expression of Will.  His Supermen were truer to human nature and to the nature of human society than any member of the following herd.

Within the context of this ‘captive morality’ there is always a tendency to ascribe moral blame.  Nothing inflames the temper more in America than slavery, for race has been the defining issue of our society for over 300 years. Somebody has to be blame for this evil enterprise; and who must bear the greatest moral opprobrium? Perhaps it should be African tribes who enslaved each other as a matter of course, traded and bartered in human cargo, and based their economies and society on it.  Or the Arab middlemen who bought from African tribal slave owners and sold to Europeans; or the Portuguese, Spanish, and English merchants who sailed the Atlantic with their valuable product.  Or the American shippers of New Bedford and Providence who provided easy passage down the coast and facilitated the Three Cornered Trade.  Or Southern grandees who came from a leisured class in England and for whom free labor was anathema; or the ancestors of these grandees who developed the system of economic and social dependence brought to America.  Or finally, perhaps it was the Ancient Greeks; or more importantly the Romans who introduced slavery throughout their vast empire.

Shakespeare has written long and eloquently about the permanence and ineluctability of human nature.  It never changes, he has observed, and throughout his many Histories kings, queens, and pretenders act according to the same impulses of self-preservation, acquisition, expansion, and conquest.  Morality was not an issue.  Although in his many ‘Governance’ plays, Shakespeare allows his characters to reflect on valor, courage, and the rule of law, he makes them act according to their venal, self-serving, and demanding natures.

The fundamental difference between Conservatives and Liberals is the perception of human nature and the nature of morality which derives from it.  Conservatives have made their peace with the world, and see it as a continuing cycle of wealth and penury, societal ascents and descents, attacks and defenses, and expansions and retractions.  The true Conservative places no value on the temporal changes and realignments which are part of life; but understand that they are only adjustments and reconfigurations and have no inherent value.

Liberals believe that with commitment, vision, a sense of purpose, courage and gumption, the world can be made for the better.  Human nature is not immutable, but infinitely changeable.  We human beings may have had a rocky and pitted road to follow along the way to perfection, but it is the only road there is; and it will ultimately end in a good place.

The debate will go on, for morality is after all only a matter of opinion.

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