Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Are we more or less moral than we once were?

Collected on the Internet:
"You therefore can never argue that Judaism is immoral, or that one culture is more moral than another, or that one era is more moral than another. Possibly you can show that a particular culture or community does not live up to its own stated moral standards, but that’s about all you can do. For a skeptic to claim... that our post enlightenment society has superior morality than the middle ages is simply baseless. By what objective standards of morality could you possibly base such an assessment on? "

There's some initial sense to this argument, but the conclusion is so stupid it drools. Let's begin at the beginning. OF COURSE MORALITY IS SUBJECTIVE.

We think murder is wrong because this is what we've been conditioned to believe by our culture and our religion. Someone with a different conditioning, Tony Soprano, for example, might delight in murder. And the fact that murder is brutally unfair to the victim, and also causes pain to the people who have been left bereaved is, for Tony, irrelevant. He will happily agree that murder hurts people unjustly, but he won't care. Is Tony wrong? Why? Or as the blogger cited above might say, "On what objective standards do you base that assessment?" Answer: None.

(Some of you are shaking your heads and saying that God provides the objective definition of morality. I happen to agree with you, but the human mind, alas, is incapable of grasping it objectively. Our understanding of the world and everything in it is always subjective. One we start trying to figure out what God said, and what He meant, and all the rest we're engaging in an act of interpretation, and that, my friends, is subjective.[More]

The argument breaks down, though, when he argues that its unreasonable for us to compare ourselves favorably to the middle ages. We may not be able to criticize the middle ages objectively, but we can't say anything objective about morality at all. Its all subjective, and according to our own subjective standards, we're living at the most moral time in human history. This is an important point. Most people -religious people especially - imagine the past as a place of severe moral rectitude, with order, rules and respect. However, as noted earlier today, most people are idiots. The truth is the past, even the recent past, was a pit, and violently immoral by our standards.

Related: From The New Republic: Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth.

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