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.


Clarissa said...

"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 call for it, put a bullet in her head."

-Remember, though, that if it's your daughter, then you are the one who brought her up to be this way. Your child is a product of your child-rearing strategies, so don't blame her for being what you turned her into. :-) So I guess the head where the bullet should go is, you know... :-) (Kidding.)

Izgad said...

There is a tradition in Western thought of killing renegade children. I would point to the Bible having parents denouncing the “rebellious son” in court and having him stoned (even if in the Talmud this case is rendered impossible to ever happen). There is also the Brutus of the early Roman Republic. You cannot control what path your children choose, but you can take responsibility for it by cleaning up your own mess. :)

Larry Lennhoff said...

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?
This argument is made wearing my secular hat:

If it were my daughter, I would ignore the bell bottoms, have a long talk with her about why she desires and/or feels compelled to become a lesbian, and I would strongly oppose her choice of Nazi philosphy - to the point of potential ceasing to provide financial or emotional support and if she tried to put her Nazi ideas into practice by breaking the law I would turn her in. I don't need references to a universal morality. It is clear that Naziism does not 'work' for the values I hold by for a working society - and its failure mode is such that I will actively oppose it in its nascent stages.

What's up with this universal morality anyway? What is its basis? Is in the fact that the supreme being can infallibly punish us for violating his rules - i.e., the utlimate might makes right argument?

Is simply argument by right of creation? In the mode of child rearing in which I was raised, the parent eventually abdicates the authority role and lets the now adult child make their own choices. The supreme being may use a different model - my German grandmother said that the relationship between a mother and her eldest son was special and life long - she felt her needs and standards should supersede those of his wife. From watching various models I prefer the one I was raised under.

Is the basis of universal morality simply that of definition. God created the universe and just as he made the law of gravity he made the laws of morality and you can't argue with the latter any more than you can argue with the former? This seems disprovable to me - there is a clear difference between the law of gravity (which we have no way of breaking) and any morality I've ever seen postulated (since every one of those moralities have been successfully violated).

Izgad said...

In terms of our bell-bottom wearing lesbian Nazi daughter, I need to be able to offer a coherent statement as to why throwing my daughter out of the house for the third thing is right and decent, but closed minded and bigoted for the first two. What about the father living in Afghanistan where lesbians in bell-bottoms might bring societal condemnation or worse? What happens if public opinion turns in favor of Nazism?

For the purpose of this argument it is irrelevant if our universal law giver takes any active role in this world apart from the fact that it is in some sense responsible for our knowledge of this universal law. He does not have to punish us so it is of no concern whether he has the authority to do so. At the end of the day I may not be able to prove that you should follow this law. The goal here is to make a coherent statement. Saying that you should follow a universal law means something in ways that saying you should do something because it is my personal opinion does not.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out, the moral law is different from natural law in the sense that yes it can be broken. This does not mean that it is not a law, it is just that when we break the moral law we find ourselves swimming against the nature of the universe.

I may not be able to prove any of this, but at least when I talk about “fair” and “just” I actually mean something.

Larry Lennhoff said...

You really think that you won't be able to come up with a more coherent argument than "G-d decreed that it was bad" when your daughter becomes a Nazi? How about:
a) Nazi beliefs about Jews are provably false
b) Nazi definitions of race are cultural. not biological
c) To whatever extent they are biological, tell her about hybrid vigor vs. the genetic effects of incest
d) Point out how historically revolutions get out of control and how the leaders of the revolution are often the second up against the wall

and on and on, all without reference to a supreme being and its personal preferences.

Izgad said...

My argument is not simply that “G-D decreed so therefore it is bad.” I need to be able to distinguish between my opposition to bell-bottoms and lesbianism (matters of personal taste) and Nazism (a violation of a universal law outside of myself). Nazism violates universal law, among other things, by making false claims about Jews and claiming that race is biological and not cultural. I need to be able to tell my daughter that there is a universe outside of her mind, in which there hard facts that will not be budged by her passionate Nazi feelings. Furthermore I need to be able to insist that she submit her personal feelings to these hard facts. There can be no “I personally feel in my heart that Jews are a degenerate race plotting to take over the world.”

Larry Lennhoff said...

Your theoretical daughter is a Nazi Lesbian solopsist wearing bell bottoms? Why should she listen to your arguments when you may not even exist? You have a consensus reality to point to - why bring an invisible, immaterial creator into the discussion?

Are either of us saying anything new, or have we reached the rock bottom of mutual incomprehension here?

Izgad said...

At this point I think we are just going in circles and talking past each other.

You are concerned with step two, how I convince my daughter that I am right. I am still on step one how do I keep a straight face and make an internally coherent argument to my daughter so that in terms of, my own mind I can justify taking “oppressive” action against her. Once we get to trying to actually convince her of this argument, a major part is going to be challenging her to go five minutes without using words like “fair,” “true” and “just,” particularly if I have a gun pointed to her head and demand that she explain why I should not “clean up my own mess.”