February 24, 2008

The Changing Moral Zeitgeist

I would like to dedicate little essay to my father. He and I have had many heated debates.
Disagreement is the rule rather than the exception in our discussions, and we rarely convince each other of anything. Nevertheless they sometimes open up avenues of thought I hadn't previously considered and often help me to clarify my own thinking on topics. We once argued over whether the Ancient Greeks 'knew that slavery was wrong' That argument inspired this essay.

The Changing Moral Zeitgeist

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies

July 4, 1776

In the ideals that it professes the Declaration of Independence is one of the most inspiring documents ever written.

Thats why it saddens me that I have to disagree with a part of its message. Not with the rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. I think in this regard the Declaration of Independence is an expression of a profound moral truth.

What I have a problem with is the self-evident part. I really wish that it were true but History has convinced me that it just ain't so.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'self-evident' thus.


adjective not needing to be demonstrated or explained; obvious

For most educated adults in the twenty-first century racism is perplexing because it is such an obvious evil. Society has reached an almost total consensus on the unacceptability of racial bigotry. This doesn't really feel like an accomplishment, racism seems such a blatant wrong as to not even worth debating. Put simply, to be racist is to be an idiot and/or a twisted hate-monger.

As a fairly young person in 2008 living in the west I find it hard to imagine how any intelligent, well-meaning person could be a racist. I lack the moral imagination to conceive of a world where racist attitudes are not only tolerated but the norm, even among intelligent cultured and well meaning people. In fact it is our present world that is historically remarkable for its lack of racism.

The English writer Leslie Poole Hartley famously said

"The Past is a foreign country. They do things differently there"

The past is not only foreign but more foreign than we most of us realize. They don't just do things differently there but they THINK differently there.

"And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races?… those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go… And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness… is death… The men of the New Republic … will have an ideal that will make the killing worth the while.”

Who do you think said the above, dear reader? Adolph Hitler? Heinrich Himmler? In fact it was H.G Wells. Today Wells is remembered chiefly for such Science Fiction novels, as War of The Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The Time Machine (and the movie versions that were made of them)

Wells was passionate about education, science, rationality and progress.

He believed in the desirability of a World State, a planned society that would advance science, end nationalism, and allow people to advance solely by merit rather than birth.

Wells was a co-founder in 1934 of what is now Diabetes UK the leading charity for people living with diabetes in Britain.

He meant well.

How did such a self-proclaimed champion of reason come to advocate a program of genocide more thorough and ambitious than even the Nazis ever hoped to undertake?

I don't know.

When confronted by a man like Wells my moral imagination fails me. His categories of thought of thought and frame of reference are too far away for me to be able to even begin to understand.

In his lifetime and after his death, Wells was considered a prominent socialist thinker.
Upon his death a commemorative plaque in his honor was installed at his home in Regent's Park.

What Wells's life illustrates is that the ideological horrors that gave birth to Auschwitz were not as far outside the worldwide intellectual mainstream of their time as we like to pretend with hindsight.

Abraham Lincoln is the most arguably the most revered president in American History, memorialized for ending Slavery and preserving the Union.

Here is what Lincoln had to say about race relations in 1858

"I will say, then, that I AM NOT NOR HAVE EVER BEEN in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races---that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which will ever FORBID the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race."

4th Lincoln-Douglas debate, September 18th, 1858

I don't include this quote to disparage Lincoln or debunk his historical contributions and achievements. What I want to emphasize is that the above words were spoken by one of the most progressive men of his day, a man passionately committed to moral causes.

In many ways, the Doctor Dolittle stories by Hugh Lofting (written in the 1920s) are among my favorite children's stories. The authors warmth, love of children, and empathy for others shines off every page.

Right up until Polynesia, the doctors parrot starts calling Africans Coons, Niggers and Darkies.

How do intelligent, educated essentially good people come to hold reprehensible views?

In our collective imagination, the past is continually recast in the mold of the present, providing an illusion of continuity that masks just how different the the thoughts and attitudes of the past really were. Many of us get a large part of our idea of the past from movies.

Hollywood doesn't make movies about people from long ago. It makes movies about contemporary people in historical situations. Characters in movies set in the past - even those set only a couple of decades ago always have contemporary moral frames of reference. In movies made in 2008, "the good guys" can't be racist, even if the movie in question is set five hundred years in the past. I guess that this airbrushing of attitudes is necessary if we are to relate to the characters, but it does diminish our tremendous collective moral progress.

The fact is that nearly all of the bright, thoughtful, well-meaning people of the past held attitudes and opinions that would disgust us today.

Morally, just as much as technologically/culturally, we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The roots of all Western culture can ultimately be traced back to the Ancient Greece, specifically to Fifth Century Athens. Greece is the wellspring of western Democracy, Literature , Art, Philosophy and Science. The Greeks also had slaves. Greek philosophy attracted the most brilliant men of the age, men who relentlessly questioned every aspect of their physical and social reality. They were no respecters of taboos and criticized the most fundamental aspects of their culture.

Despite earnest inquiry into every aspect of life the great Athenian philosophers never came to criticize slavery as a social institution.

I don't believe that this was out of a lack of moral courage. (Socrates took poison, rather than to betray his role of social critic) but out of a lack of moral imagination.

If we can't even understand the beliefs of men and women who lived a few decades ago how can we hope to understand the perspective of those who lived thousands of years in our past.

The things that seem effortlessly obviously true today, were arrived at through much struggle, suffering ,courage and WORK. What is now 'self-evident' is the result of decades and centuries of slow and painful progress up the moral ladder, with many setbacks along the way.
We are the beneficiaries of a tremendous moral inheritance as well as a technological and cultural one.

If we could speak to one of the slaves of ancient Greece or Rome today, what would he say? I am sure he didn't like BEING a slave, but I doubt as to whether even he would have been able to conceive of the evil of slavery as an institution.

In relatively more recent times we have the strange story of Anthony Johnson, a freed African-American slave turned farm owner. In 1654 he was responsible for the establishment of slavery in Virginia when a court ruled that John Casor, also a black man was, his personal property.

What we can learn from the moral failings of our ancestors?

I think that the most important lesson is a modesty in the face of our own beliefs. We are likely to have ethical blindspots as glaring as those who came before us and our descendants will be utterly bewildered as to why we could not see. I hope they don't judge us too harshly.


Mitchell said...

You should go to a copy of Wells's Anticipations, which is available online, and find the passage you quote. You will find that the two final sentences actually occur much earlier than the others, and that between the first and second sentences quoted, he starts by saying that people will be treated as individuals first. He would actually appear to be advocating meritocratic eugenics, while still believing in the superiority of certain whites. The passage about killing, which is mostly about congenital disorders, also stipulates that this euthanasia is to be performed humanely.

But the sentences in your quotation appear to have been selected and arranged so as to make Wells look as much as possible like an enthusiastic advocate of genocide. And I find them repeated all across the net in this fashion, so I know this arrangement is not your invention. So I wonder who it was that first paraphrased Wells in this way, to make this point, and why.

Do you recall where it was that you acquired this example of how the past thinks?

mmasala said...

I think you are not asking the most important question: why did these progressive people believe those things about different races? You will find that it's not because they were different race, but because something in their philosophy made them think that. Their vision of the world based on efficiency and utility allowed them to compare people based on their accomplishment and civilizational development and thus to simply discard undeveloped nations and races, and their materialism made them regard people as having different essential biology (on the scale of evolution). Their opinions stemmed not from the stories their grandma told them, but from their own independent, rationally considered opinions (materialism, evolution, utilitarianism...)

So perhaps you could say that every age may have its own sins. It may resolve or discard the problems of the previous age but it may introduce its own set of prejudices and oversimplifications (which may be scientifically or philosophically based).

There are plenty of examples: 19th century racism, Marxist revolutionary violence, capitalist exploitation are not remnants of ancient morality, but are distinctly modern phenomena (just as Christian and Islamic fanatisicm were NEW for their time).

Now, out age may seem to have resolved all these delusions but it may come up with new ones. Human creativity is boundless in these matters.

(I am not a born-again Christian. Good post, nevertheless. Keep them going.)