The Enlightened Caveman


The Rational Morality Debate
July 22, 2005, 4:06 am
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Philosophy

A recent post led to a fairly extensive thread that wandered into the subject of morality. At issue is whether morality can be rationally conceived, and whether it really makes that big of a difference. I think it can be and that it makes all the difference. Our welcoming wench, Alice, however, has finally got my number. Or does she…

Alice: Chris. You believe that there is a right way to proceed. You believe that free markets are always better than collective schemes. You believe that the only reason Hitler emerged is because of the Treaty of Versailles. You think the only way to insure having a good marriage is to move in together and have a trial run at it. You have a much clearer vision than I do.

I believe in the ebb and flow method, that there is rarely a clear path to anywhere and it is all of the myriad influences which are present which will produce the outcome.I believe in accidents. I think when things work out well, such as the formation of the United States, it’s an accident. Something which happened because of a confluence of events, not because of one or even a few men.

When you say it that way, my position sounds so Type A. More explanation is apparently needed. Perhaps a story.

I know a guy who has a brother. In his house growing up, parental discipline was pretty much non-existent. Nevertheless, both he and his brother have turned out fine – good jobs, family, stability, etc.. But it turns out that his two sisters are majorly messed up. There were never any consequences for doing stupid things when they grew up, and they are both now literally incapable of living responsible lives. They sign leases and break them. They buy cars on credit and end up having to have their parents pay for them. One even has two kids that are now being raised by my friend’s brother. It’s tragic.

There’s no question as to the cause of these girls’ misfortunes. Their parents simply failed them. They should have recognized that, though successful, well-adjusted people *sometimes* emerge from consequenceless homes, too often they do not. They ebbed when they should have flowed.

My position is not about some delusional prediction about what happens every time you do this or that – that would be quite contrary to my Kantian view of the universe – uncertainty is the starting point of all thought. It’s about probabilities and the stakes of mistakes.

I do happen to believe that free markets are always better than collective ones, but only because there has never been an example of a collective one that led to prosperity without coercion. I believe there are lots of Hitlers lying around this planet, and that the Treaty of Versailles created the conditions necessary for one to obtain absolute power. I don’t think the only way to have a good marriage is to move in together first. I believe that moving in together ahead of time dramatically increases the chances of the couple, should they end up marrying, going the distance happily. It’s an extended interview process – how is that interpersonal due diligence is so anathema to you? Is that rational?

In all of these areas, I believe the actions that are taken, based upon the prevailing morality – the person in question’s measure of right and wrong – have important ramifications on how things unfold later on.

This is no different than wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle – if the goal (the moral) is to stay healthy, and you can assume there’s a reasonable chance you’ll wreck (your fault or not), and you can assume that hitting your head at speed will be disastrous to your health, then a helmet is the obvious choice. It’s not about a clear vision. It’s about being informed and having an idea where you want to go in life.

So my point in all of this is to say it is possible to rationally conceive of our view of right and wrong, and that this is extremely necessary because our choices and actions have larger consequences than we often imagine. And in a society increasingly obsessed with instant gratification, awareness of this is that much more critical.

And lest I ignore an important historical sidebar, Alice also has this to say:

Take the Treaty of Versailles for instance. That begot the Marshall plan. It wasn’t invented out of the blue, it came about because people saw that punishing the loser didn’t work too well.

This is what I mean by ebb and flow. People are only smart in retrospect. We ain’t psychic.

More proof to my point. The aspects of the Treaty of Versailles that caused the problems that created WW2 were the punitive ones – the ones that forced Germany to accept full responsibility for the war, the ones that forced Germany to pay exorbitant reparations, the ones that forced Germany to relinquish colonies and territories. None of these were present in Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, which was the US model for the Treaty.

In fact, Clemenceau (the French guy, for the historically challenged) and Wilson were quite at odds through the entire process of establishing the Treaty, heatedly so. The French, having been severely ravaged by the war, and because Clemenceau was a bulldog of magnificent proportions, won out in the end. Nevertheless, someone did know better than to do the Germans as they were done, and that someone was the leader of what has become the greatest nation on this planet. He was enlightened, in a sense, which means he understood enough about humans to know that the French need for revenge would end up coming back to bite them, and maybe everyone else. His morality and his knowledge of his species were the guide to his vision. Several million people would be alive today were it not for an ebb when there should have been a flow.

Lastly, in response to my assertion that individual human action has been one of the most dramatic forces that have shaped human history, specifically my statement that without George Washington, there would be no USA, Alice comes back with this:

…to that I would say, no King George, no USA. If England had acted differently and had been in a different financial position and had not imposed such heavy taxation, it is unlikely the colonists would have agreed to revolt against the mother country.

See, it was the confluence of events. AKA, an accident.

No, it was not an accident. You’re quite right that King George’s oppression of the colonies was the catalyst for the revolutionary war, but his attitudes and actions were not accidental, not by a long shot. They were a direct result of his morality, which was based upon inherent absolute power of the monarchy and the obligation of all English peoples to bow to it. It is well known that there were those in Britain who recommended just cutting us loose. George would have nothing of it – his pride and his vision of how things should have been (his morality) were being challenged. He, too, ebbed when he should have flowed. It was the widespread dissemination of enlightenment ideas by people like Thomas Paine and John Locke that alerted the masses to his error. Just as Thomas Paine risked death by writing Common Sense, so did the colonial army in defying and clashing with the British, and both because of their morality, the one that was rationally conceived by a new generation of intellectuals.

At every step of the way through life, there are choices to be made, forks in the road. Each path corresponds to a ripple through the future – some are big, some are small. It is our morality that guides us in choosing a path, which means it is incumbent upon us to conceive of our morality methodically through the use of reason. More importantly, it is incumbent upon us to reject moralistic ideals that do not stand up to rationally scrutiny (read, dogmatic morality). This is a lynchpin in the enlightened modern mind.

(Sorry for picking on you, Alice, but we simply outgrew the comments area. This is an important and clarifying difference of opinion, and if anyone can take it, I know you can.)

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