He drew on the joint and passed it on. “It’s like my grandad taught me. He was a colonel in the US Marines. Sammy, he’d say, the ends always justify the means. And you know what Richard? He was right.”
I was about to disagree, but I realized he was winding me up again. Instead I replied, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.”
Sammy smiled and turned to look at the sea.
Alex Garland’s The Beach had sat unread upon my bookshelf for a few months before I thought to catalyse the escapism that my occasional foray into the world of fiction brings with that of this summer’s week-long family holiday beneath the Mediterranean sun. Reading it was a wonderful experience, supplemented by the flow of rum and nicotine in the late hours on a hotel balcony overlooking the curved horizon of the tranquil water beyond the coast.
It was not until much later, however, that the pertinence of above passage occurred to me in light of a core theme pervading throughout this excellent (and highly-recommended) book, and, as I have come to realise, through out much of my own work on this blog. The issue I take with much of what goes on in our world’s happenings and commentary can be distilled and understood in terms of what I view to be a failure to discern the underlying principles at play in our discourse. This has been at the core of what I have been advancing in my positions concerning free expression, affirmative action, acquiescence to theocracy, “victim-blaming”, truth over utility, the advocacy of violence to quell bad opinions, presumed belief in cases of sex-crime allegations, and much more.
The theme is no less prevalent in the subject of this post, as again I find myself beseeching that we examine the content of our moral pronouncements and search for the principle that may lie beneath them. This is the process of moral induction, a tool available to all of us in both our individual and communal quests to not only discern what might be wrong, but more importantly, why it might be wrong.
American astronaut and author Scott Kelly has issued an apology on Twitter for his earlier tweet invoking a quote from wartime UK Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill (“in victory, magnanimity”). The apology, offered in appeasement to a so-trite-it’s-now-cliché backlash from an internet mob, denouncing Churchill as a racist in equivalence to Adolf Hitler, read: “Did not mean to offend by quoting Churchill. My apologies. I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support. My point was we need to come together as one nation. We are all Americans. That should transcend partisan politics.” Much has already been written in response to this apology, and there is a good portion that I agree with. But the particular line that I wish to take here involves taking a razor to the words themselves in the worthwhile effort of being left with the logical implications of what acceptance of this apology might entail.
Jonathan Haidt’s meticulously worded fictitious account of Julie and Mark, siblings who decide while vacationing to explore sexual intercourse with one another, has been invoked in discussions on morality in philosophy and psychology by notable writers in the fields such as Paul Bloom and A. C. Grayling. What is fascinating is the phenomenon of the “moral dumbfounding effect”, occasionally referred to as the “yuck factor”. When asked to comment on the morality of the siblings’ choice, many of us remain steadfast in our condemnation despite having our reasons advanced for the condemnation being refuted. Julie and Mark use two forms of contraception, thus allaying the procreative concern; they decide to keep the affair a secret between them, sparing the feelings of their family; and the account stipulates that the experience only brought them closer to one another, negating the worry that they would feel deep regret for their actions.
Disgust or aversion alone cannot be the measure of what makes something right or wrong for the simple reason that such emotions have led historically to the condemnation and mistreatment of untold numbers of people making innocent efforts to live their lives as they wished, infringing the rights of nobody. Examples which spring to mind are the attitudes to, and treatment of, mixed-race couples and homosexuals. This is why it is incumbent upon all of us to examine our condemnations of practices, and to seek to understand why what we think to be right or wrong might be so.
When considering the practice of invoking quotations from long-deceased and prominent figures from history, it is meaningless to declare a particular instance as being wrong unless we can also do two things: (1) discern and provide the principle by which we can understand why it is wrong, and (2) ensure by examination of that principle that it does not descend into a reductio ad absurdum (i.e. that it does not lead logically to an absurd outcome). I submit that the absurdity of declaring notable historical figures as unquotable due to their ethical shortcomings by today’s standards will be plain and untenable for anyone with a modicum of principle to their positions.
The doctrine of cultural relativism—beloved by the Left and often confused for moral relativism on the Right—holds that we should understand and judge an individual’s beliefs, practices and values with reference to that individual’s own culture, and not based on another. I take no issue with this outlook in principle, but must confess a great annoyance for the fact that the doctrine is very often extended to promote a relativism between cultures themselves. In any event, it seems to me obvious that the dimension of time is no less appropriate than that of geography for drawing such boundaries. It also occurs to me that there is an irony in the fact that much of the condemnation for Scott’s invocation of the words of Churchill comes from a sector within our society that espouses the virtue of relativism, cultural and otherwise.
Think of your many years of procrastination; how the gods have repeatedly granted you further periods of grace, of which you have taken no advantage. It is time now to realize the nature of the universe to which you belong, and of that controlling Power whose offspring you are; and to understand that your time has a limit set to it. Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone, and never in your power again.
Among my favourite thinkers is Marcus Aurelius, the 2nd century Roman emperor, whose Meditations are strewn with wonderful pronouncements, both for their Stoic and far-reaching application, and their subtle eloquence. The spectacle of torture, slavery, human-sacrifice and conquest that the Roman Empire was at this time, and the degree to which the emperor advocated, permitted or partook of the practices, hinders me not one jot from appreciating the beauty that sprung forth from Aurelius in his considerations on the nature of reality and morality. Similarly, I am satisfied in seeking to understand the beliefs and positions of Socrates, Aristotle and Mohammed in the context of their own time, but in invoking the latter, a short digression on the effect of religious belief is warranted.
In November 2006, the Salk Institute hosted the Beyond Belief conference (the subtitle of which was “science, religion, reason and survival”). Among the speakers were Steven Weinberg, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael Shermer, Carolyn Porco and Sam Harris. Though I personally found Lawrence Krauss’ presentation to be somewhat of a confused mishmash, he delineated one key distinction between religious and scientific reverence which applies here. Science has heroes; religion has prophets. The concept of relativism, in either dimension, becomes entirely irrelevant in the context of a belief that an individual’s life can serve as an example of perfection in all times and all places. If anyone can be judged absent reference to the culture in which they lived, it is Mohammed in light of the religious assertion that his life’s example was perfect. It seems to me wholly dishonest to defend against claims that Mohammed was a sexist, blood-lusting, paedophilic warlord by appealing to the context of 7th century Arabia, while simultaneously holding his deeds up as beyond the judgement of mortals.
The moving parts in this discussion are not dissimilar to that concerning the practice of vandalising, or demanding the removal of, public statues depicting figures from history, whose views—often racist and sexist—are now untenable. What strikes me as both arrogant and vain, however, is the implication that the standards by which we now judge the opinions and expressions of the past—with the benefit of societal hindsight—somehow constitute the zenith of human understanding. The raw fact of the matter, no doubt explaining a particular religious appeal of divine command theory, is that we have spent much of our time being unequivocally wrong about many things, both in terms of epistemology and ethics.
As we learn more about the world in which we inhabit, we are able to appreciate the moral implications of our practices in what Peter Singer envisions as our “expanding circle” of moral value. Though hardly an original notion, it is my belief that we will be judged very harshly by our descendants for our mistreatment of animals as the science of suffering yields more and more unpleasant truths about the misery which we inflict so callously. It may be that if we survive long enough to develop the synthetic meat industry and sustain ourselves on much more ethical produce, that we will look back in disgust at the deliberate blind eye which we turned for so long to the plights of our fellow creatures.
Should such a circumstance come to pass, what will we think of our posterity demanding apologies for quoting heroes of our age such as Christopher Hitchens, Steven Pinker or Carl Sagan, or defacing statues of the great statesmen or stateswomen of our time (whom I confess are more difficult to name)? The logical implication of such demands in our age is an absurd one. No hero, dead for any number of years, can be said to have only held beliefs, advocated policies or done acts that would survive judgement in collision with modernity. As such, to demand an apology for quoting Churchill (not to mention the irony that a man who actually fought Nazis is being held to a standard by individuals who scream the word at anyone Right of them), in denouncing the practice as wrong, is condemning equally the invocation of words spoken by any figure from history. If we can’t quote Churchill, we can’t quote anyone.
We cannot expect our heroes to be prophets. Those worth revering achieved great things and often gave hint to a foresight transcending the confines of their own culture in certain respects. But to hold every aspect of them up to the spotlight of an ever-evolving moral standard at this particular point in our history, is a failure to discern principles on a grand scale. Scott Kelly was wrong to apologise for quoting Churchill, and it is a great shame that his acquiescence may have poured oil on the ground beneath us as we look down towards the sordid and irrational end of this slope in our terrain. We must take care to discern why we believe something might be wrong, not only because identifying the principle can lead us to discover other wrongs, but because we might learn that we had no good reason for believing it was wrong in the first place.
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