Sunday, June 13, 2010
When Lesbian Nazis in Bell-Bottoms Attack: The Historical Debate Over Morals
I would like to continue discussing the role of theism in morality. Earlier I argued that theism is necessary for morality not because people cannot be moral without God, but because the very act of making statements about morality require distinctively theistic assumptions about the nature of the universe. When I say that slavery is wrong, I distinctively need to be saying something more than I "personally" believe that slavery is in "bad taste." In order for there even to be a conversation I need to be arguing that there is some sort of universal law, recognized even by slavers, that opposes slavery.
When I posed this argument to James Maxey on his blog he responded:
Today, many cultures regard killing and theft as bad stuff, but if you were a Viking or a Hun or a vandal, it was your day job. Rape is an especially heinous crime today, but the Roman Empire had a foundational myth that boasted of stealing women from neighboring lands and raping them. Slavery is way up at the top of the no-no list, but we revere men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who bought and sold slaves. We hold in such moral esteem that we put their faces on our money. Today, ethnic cleansing is regarded as a war crime, but see how far the Cherokee get if they start arguing we should give back Georgia and North Carolina, taken from them by force in well-documented history, by men who have statues erected to them in our nation's capital. If morality is composed of universal principles, did we just get lucky in stumbling onto them in the last fifty years or so? Had all men who existed before now been abject failures in the eyes of the universal moral authority? Or do morals change as people change?
Personally, I welcome the idea that human morals are constantly being changed by humans, for humans. For the most part, it looks like our ability to change our moral attitudes has resulted in a kinder, fairer world for blacks, women, children, not to mention you and me, than the world we would live in if some moral authority had fixed what was right and what was wrong at some point in the distant past.
Before I continue I would like to thank James for treating me in a respectable fashion during our various back and forths. He is also an extremely talented novelist and I urge readers to check out his Dragon Age books. Beyond the issue of morality, as a historian, I find James' statement to be objectionable. He brings up the issue of slavery in the United States. His narrative of how slavery ended is that values simply changed. What this ignores is the debate that went on in American culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where abolitionists challenged the rest of society as to how they could tolerate slavery when slavery contradicted principle of "all men are created equal," a principle that even ardent slave owners claimed to believe in. Remember, it was Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, who put these words into the Declaration of Independence as a founding principle of government. It is certainly possible to justify slavery while still maintaining some form of "all men are created equal," but it requires an extensive background in classical political theory and risks rendering the entire premise meaningless. Supporters of slavery were put on the defensive, both in terms of what they had to say to society and to their own children, and, over the slow course of decades and centuries, they lost this debate. They lost the debate over slavery and eventually they even lost the debate over segregation. This debate relied upon the assumption that there are core moral truths, without which there could have been no debate. The distinctively religious nature of this debate was not a coincidence.
There are practical implications as to these differing models as to how we come to our moral beliefs. As with fashion, popular morality is subject to change. Those who attempt to fight the shift in fashions are no different than those who expect society to respect the absolute validity of their holy books. The religious fundamentalist who believes that women should dress a certain way because his holy books say so is going to be in trouble when he comes against people who reject either his interpretation of his books or reject their authority completely. James and I can only grin when this person tries to get his daughter to dress in a certain way by beating her over the head with his book as she, in turn, rejects that book and proceeds to pursue alternative modes of dress, such as bell-bottoms, and even alternative lifestyles. This scenario ceases to be funny, though, when our daughters, in addition to deciding that women and bell bottoms are hot, read Mein Kampf, watch Triumph of the Will, decide that these Aryan values speak to them and want to become lesbian Nazis in bell-bottoms. What is James going to tell his daughter; that he personally is a liberal, but he recognizes that values change and that he will respect her lifestyle choices no matter what, even if it means becoming a bell-bottom wearing lesbian Nazi? I will be able to tell my daughter that before she comes in to lecture me about my moral duty to accept her no matter her lifestyle choices, she has to accept the concept of universal morality and explain how her Aryan supremacy beliefs are consistent with this universal morality. Do that and I'll throw in the bell-bottoms and lesbian parts. Fail to do that and I will throw her out of my house, disown her as my daughter and, if the situation calls for it, put a bullet in her head.
I do not question whether individual atheists, like James, can be moral. I do have my doubts, though, as to the plausibility of creating a society of moral atheists and for atheists to pass on their morality to their own children. I know that I have no control over the changes in fashion and sexual mores (maybe bell-bottoms will come back in fashion). I cannot even hope to have a discussion about fashion, let alone win it. I do hope, though, to be able to talk to my children about moral values and there is even a chance that they might listen so that even if they make different lifestyle choices from mine they will frame those choices in the same universal laws that I strive to live in accordance to.