24 April 2023

Moral absolutes and uncomfortable questions

In earlier posts on the nature of morality, I've made the distinction between (1) real morality, which is an evolved instinct in humans and comes naturally to almost all of us, and without which human social organization would be impossible; and (2) taboos, the arbitrary and random prohibitions imposed by local religions and cultures -- against eating pork, homosexuality, trimming one's beard, speaking certain words, working on certain days of the week, etc.

This distinction allows us to accept that real morality is absolute and invariable (at least within our species) even though the taboos which many people mistake for morality vary dramatically from culture to culture and from era to era.  But I've come to suspect that it's not that simple -- that there are some areas of morality which are too deep to be considered mere taboo but which are also subject to disagreement or variation that I don't think can be squared with morality being an immutable inborn trait.

In this post I'll discuss two such cases that especially concern me.  As always, my interest here is in the concrete, the pragmatic, the real world -- not in airy philosophizing abstracted from the specific.

o o o o o

1.  Meat-eating

From my viewpoint, the immorality of meat-eating is self-evident.  Doing it requires imposing death and hideous suffering on other self-aware beings -- in fact, supporting a vast industry which routinely does so against countless millions of them.  Yet the great majority of humans in my culture, and in the world generally, don't see it that way.  Some may be unaware of the extent of the cruelty and suffering that the meat industry inflicts (though I don't think many can be totally unaware of at least some of it, not nowadays), but all must know of the killing, and almost all Western people today have some comprehension of the fact that other animals have some degree of self-awareness and ability to suffer, even if it is less intense than our own.

The answer, evidently, is that they assign the moral issues different weights than I do.  To them, the physical enjoyment (and the imagined health benefits) that they derive from eating meat outweigh the death and suffering of animals which is necessary to provide them with those pleasures.  In the abstract I can understand the argument, because I accept a similar one in a different context -- medical research.  If experimentation on animals (which also causes suffering and death) is necessary to prevent suffering and death in humans, then I accept this as justified because our self-awareness, and thus our capacity to suffer (and the value of our lives) exceeds that of other animals.  Human life and relief from disease outweigh animal suffering, but to me, at least, mere gustatory enjoyment does not -- not even close.

While my own position here strikes me as self-evidently correct, I'm aware that I could not prove it, by appeal to an objective standard, to the satisfaction of someone determined to reject it. This is a moral question, not just an arbitrary taboo like forbidding work on Sunday, yet it can legitimately be considered a difference of opinion.

The same could be said of other cases in which different observers give different weight to conflicting moral imperatives and thus come to conflicting conclusions -- if the actual difference of importance of the conflicting imperatives is small enough that observers can legitimately disagree about which is greater. The reader can probably think of examples without much effort.

o o o o o

2.  Slavery

Slavery -- the owning of one human as property by another -- is today considered self-evidently immoral, and the fact that it once existed in our country is considered the greatest blot of shame on our history.  But if this is indeed self-evident, why did that judgment not seem to occur to anyone until two or three centuries ago?  Complex societies have existed on Earth for about six thousand years, and all of them had slavery.  Babylonia, the Persian Empire, Classical Greece, China, the Roman Empire, Sub-Saharan Africa, medieval Europe, the Islamic Empire and its successor states -- all of them practiced slavery.  The Bible and Koran accepted it as a normal part of society.  Neither Jesus nor Muhammad ever condemned it.  The judgment that slavery as an institution is immoral did not exist for the great majority of human history; the consensus we have today is an aberration which most of our ancestors would consider bizarre.  How is that possible, if the wrongness of slavery is part of the innate morality inborn in humans?

Some might point out that in primitive cultures morality applies only within one's own social group, not to outsiders, and that slaves were not considered members of the social group.  But that explanation doesn't apply in this case.  Most of the societies mentioned above were sophisticated civilizations, not primitive tribal groups.  And we confuse the issue by thinking of slavery only as it existed in the US and Brazil and the Caribbean, with slaves being imported from Africa, distinctly racially different from the masters.  Indeed, much of our modern sense of moral outrage against slavery is due to the association of slavery with racism.  But this is not typical of slavery throughout history; slavery in most cultures had little or nothing to do with racism.

In most times and places, most slaves were of pretty much the same racial and cultural origin as their masters.  Most slaves in China were Chinese, most slaves in Sub-Saharan Africa were black, etc.  Even in the medieval Islamic Empire, rich and powerful enough to import vast numbers of slaves from Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, many slaves belonged to the same Arab and Persian ethnicities which made up the dominant classes.  Slavery was part of the intricate system of variations in personal status which all complex societies have.  Financial or political misfortune could reduce a free person to slavery; in most cases, other circumstances could free individual slaves.  And everyone involved accepted this general state of affairs as normal, however much individuals may have resented their own situation.

(As an example, Abû Nuwâs, one of the great Arab poets of the middle ages, was actually a slave for much of his childhood.  As a free adult, he became the poet laureate of the Islamic Empire and a personal friend of the caliph (emperor).  He certainly was not shy about challenging the dominant values of the society; much of his poetry celebrates his own homosexuality and wine-drinking, and he expressed views on religion that eventually got him into serious trouble.  Yet as far as I know, he never criticized slavery as an institution, nor even showed any interest in the topic.)

I'm not at all convinced that the abolition of slavery, or the eventual conclusion that it is immoral, were historically inevitable.  It's not clear why this vast change of heart occurred.  Some claim that slavery was abandoned as technological progress made it obsolete, but even today, there are forms of manual labor which machines cannot replace, at least not at reasonable cost.  Also, in most societies, one of the most pervasive uses of slaves was sex, something which technology still cannot replicate.  The emergence of the consensus that slavery is immoral was a true change in morality itself, not explainable by such practical considerations.

Most advanced ancient cultures had laws which somewhat limited the abuses to which slaves could be subjected.  It's possible to imagine an alternate history in which modernization was accompanied by steadily-more-enlightened laws to make slavery more and more humane over time, but in which the existence of slavery as such never came to be judged immoral.  In that case, even in a modern technological society on par with our own, people could still own slaves, but there would be an accumulation of laws mitigating how they could be treated -- much as the real world now has laws against cruelty to animals, without anyone ever imagining that owning an animal is morally wrong.

o o o o o

If legitimate differences in judgment can exist on the morality of meat-eating, based on different views of the relative importance of clashing values, then they can exist on at least some other issues as well.  If a solid universal consensus on the morality of slavery could stand for millennia and then completely reverse itself worldwide in a century or two, then in at least some areas, human morality is not absolute and immutable.

If human history and the process of modernization had followed a different course, the moral consensus on either meat-eating or slavery, or both (and other issues too) might have been very different today.  And just as in the real world, whatever consensus did exist would be viewed as an obvious and immutable part of absolute morality, any challenge to which would be greeted with righteous indignation and a lot of exclamation points and words written in all capitals.

Some aspects of our morality may be more arbitrary than we want to accept.  And if (as some believe) parallel worlds in which history took a different course do actually exist, they may be far more alien to us -- and to each other -- than we expect.


Anonymous Rick Shapiro said...

Morality can't be understood without distinguishing between two separate questions: 1) What is the basis for moral rules and 2) Why should I obey them?
With regard to 1), there can't be any deontological principle that can be derived from the reality of the universe. Neither is there an inborn sense of morality. But there are inborn tendencies (empathy, resentment of unfairness, disgust) which we have in common with other animals, and which are recruited by our social environment to produce a moral sense.
With regard to 2), we are molded by society (both blindly and also partially by intent) to want to obey moral principles irrespectively of whether those principles are part of a religion; because the terrible feeling of disliking onesself is a strong repellant.
Slavery could theoretically fit into a spectrum of social arrangements; but it would always be a means of enabling selfish and/or vicious oppression. Just look at the way labor partial monopsomy grinds down workers who are nominally free. Selfishness and viciousness are always in play; and must be reined in by social structure.

24 April, 2023 05:38  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The basis for moral rules is explained in the two links in the first paragraph -- they're an innate human trait produced by evolution like other innate human traits are, and human social organization could not exist without them.

Slavery certainly did "fit into a spectrum of social arrangements" for most of human history. Whatever basis one has for claiming that slavery is moral or immoral, the issue I'm discussing here is why the consensus on that issue for most of history and the consensus for the last couple of centuries are opposite to each other -- that is, the consensus about morality changed.

Please don't use language like "deontological" and "monopsomy" on my blog. Thanks for your consideration.

24 April, 2023 09:41  
Blogger Ami said...

I never considered morality until I escaped from religion.
Until then, everything was either right or wrong, and there was only one authority.
Of course one of my reasons for leaving religion was the realization that no two 'interpreters' (fill that in with pastor/preacher/elder/deacon/always-male-person who told me what to do) saw things the same way.

About 10 years post-escape, while I was raising two young humans, an ultra-religious person I met demanded, panic on her face, horror in her voice, "But how will you teach them morality if you don't believe in God?!?!"

I didn't have a complete answer then, and I really don't now, either.
It's a fascinating question.
My guess is that most people have different answers, whether stuck in a religious belief system or not.

I appreciate the time you take to write your blog. I always leave with something to think about.

24 April, 2023 11:36  
Blogger NickM said...

You ever met a pescatarian? I dated one, once. She was a theology student. I guess she wouldn't have had to look up "deontological". Alas as a mere astrophysics graduate I did ;-)

It's all about "othering". The more you can "other" the more you feel you can morally get away with. US racism follows from US black slavery as a post-hoc justification. Even Huck Finn, after a while on the raft, concludes, "Jim was alright for a n...". That self-justification pervades our nature. Because we have to have a reason (however fictious) to think of the eaten, enslaved or killed as something else and something lower in the order of things. And visual differences like skin colour make it much easier to delineate types and therefore to define some as "lesser". Once you get into that it is easier to make convenient moral accomodations... Whether it is because it's a "tasty burger" or "cotton don't pick itself" or, well, anything. I somehow suspect we'll get into the real moral tangles with AI when it turns up in cute or humanoid robots. "Good Night Oppy" is a taste of what is to come. The folks at NASA came to regard their robot on Mars as their child. And that is hyper-rational rocket scientists. That it looked a bit like WALL-E may be a coincidence.

Look at wartime propaganda... The Nazi stuff was all about picturing Jews as physically grotesque goblinesque creatures. The US did much the same about the Japanese. All of this makes it much easier to persuade large numbers of people to kill or to herd people onto cattle trucks. Note the cattle trucks - it is the same othering as the meat trade. The NAZIs managed to animalize Jews to such an extent they got people to treat them as animals. Annecdotal accounts (there are millions) of 20th Century warfare contain references to the enemy which generally show that war across racial/cultural groupings tends to be vastly more vile than when it occurs within such groupings. In the latter case, in particular, prisoners of war are treated very much better. The flip side of "othering" is empathy. It is much easier to walk a mile in someone else's shoes if those shoes look like your own.

25 April, 2023 08:20  
Blogger NickM said...

I appreciate the above is only partially correct because it doesn't take into account quite how vile civil wars can be. I suspect a different dynamic is at play there. Would an analogy with domestic violence be going to far?

So, meat-eating and inter-racial slavery boil down to much the same in the sense that they use the same moral salve for justification. Intra-racial slavery is much more complicated and as Rick correctly says (in a billion words - or whatever - it felt like a billion) it really depends on history as oppossed to a priori (sorry!) thinking. He is correct in suggesting that at certain points in history slaves were not necessarily the lowest of the low. History complicates everything. It is a major split in the sciences - the historical and the non-historical. In certain ways evolutionary biology has more in common with cosmology than either of them have with either biochemistry or astrophysical fluid dynamics respectively.

Even though this is a long comment it is also an incomplete one. Because I'm leaving out any historical angle. I'll restrict myself to a simple example. Consider attitudes to male homosexuality. In some ways classical Greece was much more gay-friendly than anywhere in the modern world until really recently (even the Daily Mail will report on some celeb splitting with his husband without scare quotes) but I doubt the Athens of Aristotle (who was a bugger in more ways than just for the bottle) would even consider gay marriage a thing. By which I mean I doubt they'd even be against it. It just wouldn't make any sense as a concept down the forum...

I hope this at least partially contributes in some way to the very important issue the OP was about. I know it doesn't fully tackle the question but then it was a hell of a big question. You do know how to pose 'em infidel!

25 April, 2023 08:21  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ami: Thanks you for the kind words -- I appreciate it.

I would say that religion is the worst possible basis for a system of morality, because it really is completely arbitrary. You're stuck with obeying whatever random set of rules happens to get enshrined in this or that holy book or in the sayings of this or that prophet or messiah. It's just random, unconnected to any underlying basis.

I would also argue that only people who don't believe in an afterlife are truly moral. A believer does certain acts and refrains from others, not really because he believes some acts are right and others wrong, but out of hope for reward or fear of punishment in the afterlife. He would do even the most immoral things imaginable if he believes that those things are what God will reward him for after death. The unbeliever has no such expectation of reward or punishment. He does good things solely because they are good and refrains from doing evil things solely because they are evil. That is, he is acting purely on the basis of morality.

So I would say, it is easier to teach morality when you don't believe in God, or at least, if the person you're teaching doesn't.

25 April, 2023 09:18  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

NickM: You are certainly right that "othering" plays a role in making it easier to treat people inhumanely. The interesting point in this case, though, is that this would seem to suggest the opposite of how attitudes about slavery actually changed.

For thousands of years, people all over the world had slaves who were mostly of the same race and culture as themselves, without feeling they were doing anything wrong by owning them. Then, a mere few centuries ago, the societies of the Americas started practicing slavery differently -- all their slaves were imported black Africans or their descendants, markedly different in race from the masters. That unusual situation should have made it easier for the masters to "other" them, making the emergence of moral questions about slavery even less likely than ever before. Yet what actually happened was the opposite. It was in the US (and in Britain and France, which controlled the similar slave systems in the Caribbean), that a movement opposing slavery on moral grounds first arose.

It's certainly true that the ancient Greeks would not have thought same-sex marriage made sense. The adult-adolescent homosexual relationships that Greek culture cultivated were viewed as benefiting society due to their mentoring component, but they were not expected to last more than a few years; that is, they didn't have the same purpose as heterosexual marriage, nor the same presumption of permanence, so an institution like marriage would not have made sense. As far as I know, real same-sex marriage didn't exist in any pre-modern culture (I admit my knowledge is not complete here) -- certainly the ancient Romans and Persians, to whom homosexuality was as unremarkable as to the Greeks, didn't have it. Marriage was traditionally meant to serve the needs of family formation.

One thing I hold to be important in my writing is to be able to express ideas -- even complex and unfamiliar ideas -- in plain and clear language which any fully-literate native speaker of English can easily understand. I give considerable attention to this. In this post, for example, I used only one word which such a reader would be likely to find unfamiliar -- "caliph" -- and so for that word I provided a definition which, if not strictly accurate in detail, sufficed to clarify its significance in this specific context. Philosophy is a notoriously gobbledygook-prone topic, but that tendency must be resisted -- as I suggested in last week's post, clarity above all. There's no point in writing something that most readers of the blog would struggle to understand. It's an important principle to me.

25 April, 2023 09:48  
Blogger NickM said...

I don't think religion is always that arbitary. Pork goes off very quickly and pigs need a lot of water. That a ban on pork is associated with two religions from the Middle East doesn't seem arbitary. Having said that I some stuff is so arbitary as to defy any justification. For sure you can get very sick from eating pig flesh that has gone off but mixed fabrics?

I think personally, and I know I am very far from alone here, regarding this life as a perverse dress rehearsal for the life-eternal is morally repugnant and absurd. I am Nick. I am not reading the lines in before the casting director to be judged as to whether I get the role of the one true Nick in the real movie.

25 April, 2023 12:11  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Well, it's mostly arbitrary. If by "two religions" you mean Judaism and Islam, remember that Islam, like Christianity, is basically derived from Judaism, so the fact that they have similar sets of taboos is due to copying, not to both developing independently from conditions in the Middle East. I'm not aware of any evidence that the pork taboo originated from the ancient Hebrews knowing about the dangers of eating badly-prepared pork -- and eating any other kind of meat that was similarly badly prepared probably wouldn't have been much safer. It's almost certainly just another random taboo that developed for some quirky reason now forgotten.

Believing that real life is just a preparation for an afterlife is a great way of wasting that real life by doing things that will have no actual benefit to you. However, it's also a great way of manipulating you into spending your life behaving according to the dictates of those who claim to speak for God. As is usually the case with religion, it's about controlling people.

26 April, 2023 00:39  

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