Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
The Sources of Morality
Gordon Stein's AnalysisGRiggs
From whence stems a person's ethics? I was reminded of this when glancing through some of the reference sources on "freethought" recently, while checking out the library for information on a related matter. From the shelf, I took down the first volume of Gordon Stein's recent Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Under "Ethics and Unbelief," Stein painstakingly anatomizes the extent to which one can look on the phenomenon/action X as being innately good and the phenomenon/action Y as being innately evil. He starts by showing that common consent is an unreliable yardstick, at best, for judging what is right or wrong. He than gives the sad and infamous example of slavery, a phenomenon generally thought tolerable for far too long.
From this, he proceeds to suggest that something different from common consent is clearly needed to judge the morality of X or Y. He thus ends up flirting with the supposition of an innate benevolence in the unswayed human being, a basic instinct or inclination (essentially, Jefferson's idea of an "innate sense of morality", to quote E.C.'s wording), that might have brought slavery to an end far sooner than an undue dependence on society's fiat.
But Stein soon declares there are problems with a dependence on an unthinking "kindly" instinct. He proceeds to treat on an extremely explosive issue, occasionally brought up in the political arena in our nation's past: the issue of miscegenation. (That very word with its suffix of "mis" can carry with it sadly negative, pejorative connotations.) Stein proposes (and I frankly agree) that a couple from two different races should, in the end, be free to love each other without incurring society's condemnation. To accept such a love as being perfectly fine and beautiful seems to Stein the more sane and peaceful, as well as more moral and socially responsible, attitude. Intolerance of such a union can only lead to infinitely more intolerable social upheaval than its ultimate acceptance.
Thus far, as I've stated, I agree. It is his sequel that, frankly, threw me for a loop.
Stein suggests that socially more destructive feelings (and actions) towards such a union stem not just from socially warping tendencies, but from something deeply instinctive and all too innately human. He, in fact, argues that it is more natural than any tolerance to violently balk at the idea (and I'm only paraphrasing here) and rebel at the notion of two such physically different persons being brought together in love. Why the very idea, runs Stein's essential argument regarding humanity's universal instinct in this matter, of feeling anything but repugnance at bringing two such disparate beings together.
If instinct, says Stein, would fly only with the most bigoted of the bigoted, then, asks Stein, what causes certain humans to fly to the aid of such embattled lovers? What causes certain humans to do clearly the right thing and allow two people to love each other in peace after all? Why, it's not instinct at all, says Stein, but ratiocinative, reflective and anti-instinctive judgement! Only judgement, suggests Stein, which has nothing to do with either instinct or natural inclination, can lead one successfully to buck common consent and to make everyone realize that miscegenation is the couple's own business.Eyler Coates
If I may, I would like to step in here and play a little bit the Devil's Advocate and take Stein's side to some extent. Having presented one argument above, I would like to tentatively suggest a different view. If we assume that the moral sense is indeed "as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling," might we not also assume that this innate sense could very well have developed over time, perhaps even as a part of man's nature with evolutionary significance, and that the intolerance of miscegenation is a naturally developed aversion? In other words, the aversion to miscegenation could easily have developed as a way to protect the survival of the species in the form of one's own racial group. And if, indeed, the moral sense is innate, might not this aversion to miscegenation also be innate? Because there are exceptions and some are able to bridge this difference between the races does not necessarily mean that the general rule does not apply. As Jefferson wrote in a related context:
"The Creator would indeed have been a bungling artist had he intended man for a social animal without planting in him social dispositions. It is true they are not planted in every man, because there is no rule without exceptions; but it is false reasoning which converts exceptions into the general rule." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814.
This is not to pass judgment on one side or the other, but merely to note that if the moral sense is truly innate, then perhaps it brings with it certain innate sensibilities that a higher reason might find disagreeable. In fact, we could carry it one step further (as though this step is not far enough), and say that both approaches to the moral sense may exist at the same time in the same individuals, though, perhaps, each in varying states of dominance or recessivity. Thus we have an innate sense of right and wrong, and we have a reasoned sense which in some instances might beneficially overrule the innate sense; in other instances, the reasoned moral sense might be overruled by the innate, and in still others reason might overrule, but do so detrimentally because "led astray by artificial rules."GRiggs
For our own perspective, putting Stein aside for a moment, tolerance for miscegenation is somewhat comparable to Jefferson's take on the non-danger of the phenomenon of conflicting religious beliefs: "It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
Getting back to Stein, I have a problem with Stein's conclusion that the "judgement" leading one on to do the "right thing" comes out of an urge in opposition to human instinct and human inclination. Doesn't that very "judgement" Stein so praises stem from a human inclination? By Stein's own admission, one is bucking a social tide when one demands that society leave the couple alone. Nothing other than inner feeling, therefore, is left as a reason for having, presumably, informed society it should lay off.Eyler Coates
I suppose what I am suggesting is that this may be a case of instinctual moral sense and ratiocination in conflict. Some persons may be led by one, and some by another. And come to think of it, if you examine carefully the KKK types that always take what we would call the instinctive side, you must conclude that they are invariably rather "primitive" in their other behaviors also, prone to instinctual violence and led more by prejudice and bigotry in all their judgments rather than reasoned considerations. In other words, with such persons, the instinctual definitely predominates over the intellectual.GRiggs
Sherlock Holmes says, in one of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, that when one has eliminated all other solutions, whatever remains, however uncomfortable, must be the truth.
Now, society has certainly not pressured an altruistic individual to inform them that one's private love life is none of their business, if we go by Stein's own scenario. Quite the contrary. If society has not called upon such individuals to be true to the better angels of their natures, then it has to have been "innate" feelings that trumpeted the summons to decency and tolerance.Eyler Coates
This gets back to the nature vs. nurture argument, perhaps; but different persons experience different nurtures, and I would suggest that individual tolerance comes more from training (i.e., nurture) than from anything "innate."GRiggs
A big question.Eyler Coates
Although society as a whole may not have pressured an individual to act with tolerance, it is entirely possible that the segment of society that the particular individual experienced did educate him in tolerance and that he, in exercising his free will, chose to come under that influence. I add that third element, because I believe there are three considerations at work: nature, nurture, and choice.GRiggs
I may be prodding us into something circular here, but I wonder what the dynamics of such a choice are (and I agree choice is a clear reality here). Am I just being dense, or is there a slight ambiguity in what you are describing?Eyler Coates
It would seem that there is a necessary ambiguity, because the three elements of nature, nurture and choice each necessarily exist in varying degrees as we move from one individual to another. Perhaps I feel compelled to posit choice as a factor, because without it, we are mere automatons, incapable of change, using our rational minds for nothing more than to justify actions dictated by our nature and our nurture--which, or course, we often do anyway. But isn't that the anatomy of our moral development? Isn't that struggle between rational choice and the internalized forces that would control us actually a measure of the difficulty we experience as we become more mature human beings?GRiggs
In other words,
a)does the "tolerant one" choose to remain under the influence of an "open-thinking" circle of acquaintances--judging such influence as being salutary--after having had no initial choice in one's "salutary" cultural surroundings? Or
b)has one actively sought such a circle of acquaintances in the first place--as you put it, "chose to come under that influence"--having arrived at such an "open-thinking" synthesis on one's own?
If the latter, then clearly something "innate" has urged one in the direction of cultivating the acquaintance of, say, a Benjamin Franklin and not a General Burgoyne. What faculty is it that has made one realize that such cultivation is worthwhile? Can we say?
If the former, then nurture does have as much to do with the case as choice, even though it has clearly been choice as much as nurture that has dictated the decision to continue in the original spirit of "salutary, open-thinking" cultivation and friends.Eyler Coates
Surely, the faculty of reason can enable us to realize that the cultivation of morally salubrious influences is worthwhile, can it not? Aren't we capable of looking at a proposed course of action and, with our reason, determine whether it is conducive to our "enlightened self-interest"? If our perspective is sufficiently broad, can we not see without being told by our environment, and decide without being pushed by our unthinking urges? Indeed, isn't that very capacity the indispensable faculty of the "free and moral agent" which Jefferson spoke of in the following:
"I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, 1789.
And isn't this independence of thought the necessary ingredient for becoming a free and moral agent? Can persons be held responsible for their actions if they do not have the capacity to make such determinations?
Thus, I seem to be saying that rationality itself, which is an inborn human trait and is developed by experience (nature and nurture), nevertheless in its function represents the choice of a "free and moral agent," and that this choice precedes both "a" and "b" of your dichotomy.GRiggs
In this regard, rather than lapsing into a possibly worthwhile discussion concerning which scenario seems the more likely (the scenario of "innate" tolerance impelling the eventual seeking out of like-minded acquaintances or the scenario of early and unsought influence eventually attracting one to the social and moral benefits of "open thinking"), an altogether different inquiry may prove the more fruitful.
Jefferson's Moral Principles and His PracticesJohn Goff
After reading your discussion on the Sources of Morality and Jefferson's Moral Principles I cannot help but attempt to relate your thoughts to Jefferson's life as he lived it. In considering his moral principles we may begin with his statement, "My principle is to do what is right and leave the consequences to Him who has the disposal of them." It is perplexing in this context to differentiate between his ethics and his morality on the question of slavery.
With regard to his ethics, he considered slavery an abomination and one would expect that his rules of moral conduct would be to reject it not only in principle but in reality as well, yet he remained a slave holder to the end of his life. If morality is conduct that is proper, or conformity to rules of right conduct, wasn't he immoral in not freeing his slaves?
There is nothing subtle about slavery. No splitting of hairs about its right or wrong. Next to murder, slavery is no doubt the most obviously egregious violation of humankind's natural and inalienable rights, and yet the culture of his day was generally well disposed towards it, saw nothing inherently wrong with it, and defended it as an institution. Where then was the "The moral sense, or conscience, as much a part of man as his leg or arm" that Jefferson perceived in every ploughman? And having his own conscience raised on this issue why did he choose not to live out his ethics in his own life?
Is the answer that his lifestyle depended upon slavery, and that he would destroy himself and his usefulness to the nation in freeing his slaves? And that in freeing them they would be cast adrift, helpless without their bondage? He observed that "Men are disposed to live honestly, if the means of doing so are open to them." In his own mind had he decided that "...doing what is right and leave the consequences to Him who has the disposal of them" meant keeping his slaves?
Jefferson's holding slaves has always been a stumbling-block and a source of consternation to honest inquirers. The puzzle could not be more honestly and straightforwardly stated than as was done by Mr. Goff. I have addressed this issue with greater detail in one of my "Notes on Jefferson" at my Jeffersonian Perspective website and will only provide an outline of the argument to serve our purposes here. Readers wishing more detail might refer to that page.
The problem of Jefferson and his ownership of slaves raises a host of issues that are of the utmost importance in any consideration of ethics and morality. I believe an understanding of this problem can help us better understand morality itself and the application of moral and ethical principles in our daily lives.
Simply stated, the puzzle is: Jefferson was vehemently opposed to the institution of slavery, yet he owned slaves himself. How could he, as a man of integrity, believe the former and do the latter? What could possibly excuse such a contradiction? What lessons does this apparent inconsistency have for our understanding of the practice of morality?
The first lesson is that things are often not as simple as they seem. The very idea of one human being owning another human being is almost incomprehensible to us today. Yet every moral dilemma involves circumstances and conditions, and in order to fully appreciate it, those circumstances and conditions must be fully understood. The Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," is set forth in the same book that admonishes, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Every statement of moral principle has associated with it other principles that sometimes modify or override it.
In spite of the fact that slavery seems such a cut-and-dried issue, there is much to understand, and a full understanding could, in my opinion, lead a reasonable person to conclude that, in fact, it was not possible for Jefferson to have freed his slaves.
Most acknowledge that Jefferson was a tireless and consistent opponent of the institution of slavery. This opposition was expressed long before he wrote the section in his draft of the Declaration of Independence condemning the slave trade--a section that was later deleted by Congress. To Jefferson, the real problem was not simply a matter of freeing certain individuals bound in slavery, but the elimination of the social institution of slavery itself. For him, on an individual basis, the freeing of slaves was fraught with problems. He felt that to do so would be like turning children out on the street. They faced an uncertain future after being raised in a form of "protective custody."
But the controlling factor that made it virtually impossible for Jefferson to free his own slaves, one that I have never seen cited by those who would condemn Jefferson as a hypocrite for his slave-holding, is this: Jefferson was burdened with tremendous debts. His creditors could easily have foreclosed on him during his lifetime and seized all his property in payment for those debts, but they did not do so out of love and respect for this great man. As we know, slaves were considered property in the society of that time and under the laws of the state. If Jefferson had freed his slaves, he would have been wiping out a portion of his assets that, by rights, belonged to someone else, i.e., his creditors. It would have been an act of unmitigated ingratitude, a dishonorable, even despicable act given the social mores, against those creditors, for him gratuitously to further diminish his assets in the face of their forbearance.
Even in his opposition to slavery as an institution, however, Jefferson always considered the establishment and preservation of republican government to be of greater importance than the elimination of slavery. He was not about to throw away "the world's best hope" over the single issue of slavery. Besides the fact that there seemed no completely satisfactory solution to the problem, if the republic were lost, whether slavery continues to exist or not becomes irrelevant.
Thus we are presented with these factors in applying moral principles to ordinary life:
1. There are no moral principles regarding human existence that can be adhered to without consideration of modifying circumstances and conditions. Morality is not a matter of following simple, horn-book rules, but a matter of using understanding based on hearing all the relevant evidence. The ploughman doesn't follow a laundry list of dogmatic rules, but follows his instincts after being acquainted with all the details. Whether it is slavery or killing, there are always other factors and, perhaps, higher principles to consider. Notice, I say killing, not "murder." Murder already has the modifying circumstances and conditions built into the concept, and hence can be readily condemned. Similarly, we might find mitigating circumstances in the existence of slavery, but NOT in the pursuit of the slave trade. This, again, because the slave trade has circumstances and conditions built into the concept which render it reprehensible under any circumstances. But once a person owns slaves, he then has "the wolf by the ears," and is compelled to take into account a multitude of circumstances and conditions. He cannot simply let go, without considering the consequences.
2. Moral decisions require a consideration of all the moral principles involved in the given situation. In some cases of conflicting principles, the pursuit of one moral principle (the establishment of rightful government) may take precedence over another (the abolition of slavery). The ideologue will reply, "No government is rightful if it permits the existence of slavery." But that is foolish, simple-minded bigotry, and although quite "moralistic," it is short-sighted and self-defeating. It is not given to man to realize perfection, but only to work and move towards it. To establish rightful government in as many respects as can be attained at any given time, is surely better than to abandon all effort for rightful government. Mature people do as much as they can, given the circumstances they are engaged in. They do not throw the baby out with the bath water.
Thus, in the matter of slavery, I have little doubt that Jefferson did what he thought was right. Moreover, I am compelled to say that, in the complex circumstances, conditions and times in which he lived as they relate to this issue, his path through this multitude of thorny issues was probably the only rightful path he could have chosen.
I did not know about Jefferson's enormous debts. That being the case, he had to keep his slaves, and not because they were "somebody else's property." In his day, an owner could of course free any slave he pleased, but he could not do so just by saying "Go!" There was quite an amount of money involved; exactly what, escapes me, but you had to send a freed slave out with clothes and money. Effectively, you had to buy your own slave's freedom for him. If Jefferson was strapped, he could not have done that, for more than a very few.
And how would you begin to rid the world of slavery, Lee? ---By NOT BECOMING ONE! ---The definition of "non-slaves " describes people who hold values and personal convictions above their own personal existence or the safety of their loved ones.—How do you think legalized slavery as an economic concern was abolished in this country? Hundreds of thousands of men on both sides of the Civil War refused to compromise their personally adopted values. Many perished because of it. The Civil War was fought over unfair labor practices. It was won by those who expect to be paid what their services are worth or have the unconditional right to seek employment elsewhere.
Enslavors are slaves themselves: – They are slaves to the profits derived from dealing in FORCED human compliance, never receiving the best work possible from anyone they force to do their bidding. By not receiving the best from their "Forced Labor" the pendulum of the Free Market system swings toward the superior products produced by those who WANT to do that particular work.
Why do you suppose "Communism" as an economic and social structure failed the Soviet Union? Communism is the epitome of human compromise and sacrifice. – All acts of slavery are acts of compromise and sacrifice. They are all acts resulting from the choice between doing the bidding of the slaver (the state), or suffering forced imprisonment.----- Just because people inflict atrocities upon one another, does not make it right or an inevitable form of human behavior. ---By ignoring or succumbing to, the pressures exerted by all forms of "compromising human behavior", individuals allow this type of human behavioral disease to sustain itself. The one thing never gained by any party to an act of human slavery is SELF-Respect! --- All acts of slavery are committed through the choices of the enslavor to enslave, and the slave to be enslaved. An act of slavery, any act of slavery, cannot take place unless these conditions are met. An act of slavery must begin with the action of at least one individual proposing the act, and another individual complying with the proposal. The acts of the "individual" are the acts of the "self": --Therefore---- All Slaves Are SELF-made!John Goff
Similarly his view on miscegenation was that it was unnatural and deplorable and yet if we are to believe Fawn Brodie and Annette Gordon-Reed he fathered five children with Sally Hemings, a woman one quarter black. Joseph Ellis concludes "...that the likelihood of a liaison with Sally Hemings is remote." And that if it did exist it "...defied the dominant patterns of his personality." But if he could hate slavery and keep slaves he could most certainly fear miscegenation and make love to a beautiful black woman. After all the abolition of slavery and the mixing of the races were only theories, abstract ethical concepts. Lifestyle and love were real life.
Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson's young daughter when the latter joined him in Paris. At the time, Sally was 14 years old. Thus, the whole scenario takes on a sense of the absurd. Did his "affair" begin then with a 14 year old? Shall we add Carnal Knowledge to his sins? Would his daughter be unaware that her companion was the mistress of her father? Did all this happen at the same time when Jefferson was having an affair with Maria Cosway (whether consummated or not, we do not know; her husband was right there)? When all the factors are added in, the whole story becomes somewhat preposterous and unbelievable.
In the last analysis Eyler Coates has summed up the disparity between his ethics and his morality beautifully as the "...struggle between rational choice and the internalized forces that control us is a measure of the difficulty we experience as we become more mature human beings."
Based on the whole structure of his thought and the depth of his perception, neither of which can be successfully faked, I would judge Thomas Jefferson to have been one of the most mature human beings to have ever walked the face of the earth. The Sally Hemings story should be dismissed in the absence of DNA evidence (which, if I understand correctly, is a real possibility), since it is otherwise just unresolvable hearsay and conjecture. However, the matter of Jefferson's slaves I view as a series of totally rational, although complex and difficult, decisions that are easily criticized in the light of modern times and circumstances. These decisions become infinitely more understandable when considered in the context of the times in which they occurred.
Meslier as an Example of Moral ResponsibilityGRiggs
Why not see whether it's possible to ascertain, using strictly the validated history of such altruistic figures as we can all agree upon, the precise circumstances under which certain enlightened historical figures were actually nurtured in the first place? For the purposes of this thread, that seems fully as pertinent to the essence of what such altruists said and did as anything we could examine. For such inquiry, I offer up one hostage as possibly bearing out my reluctance (and--to an extent--E.C.'s?) to assume that feelings of impatience with both knee-jerk intolerance and dogma in general can come, finally, only(?) from the influence of one's immediate circle and from nothing "innate," however distinctive, intelligent and courageous may be the subsequent cultivation of one's circle and its "open" ideas.
That hostage is the Abbe Jean Meslier, who died in 1729 and left a posthumous tract, Mon Testament, already cited in my first posting for this thread. Whether one regards religion as salutary or noxious, Meslier's story is highly suggestive in its display of apparent independence from any of the Establishment influences with which Meslier grew up. As an Abbe, he was clearly part of the ecclesiastical Establishment. And yet Mon Testament is one of the very earliest openly espousing expositions of atheism. And, whether readers of this thread view that with regret or with assent, Mon Testament was also a clearly enlightened indictment of the depredations visited on the poor by both the secular and the sacerdotal branches of the French Establishment. Probably, as a card-carrying member of that establishment, Meslier directed that Mon Testament be released only on his death because he feared the opprobrium of his immediate circle. Imagine keeping such ideas bottled up in one's desk for a lifetime!
One biographical detail that is known of Meslier concerns his clash with the local nobility and with the archbishop of Rheims, who apparently sided with the concept of feudal privilege--even against Meslier's relatively mild demur--and who openly castigated this "open-thinking" curate. As it was, Meslier narrowly escaped losing his position. He attended scrupulously to the physical needs of his congregation, but in Mon Testament he admits it grated on him to have to--ostensibly--profess to them certain norms that clearly trampled on their essential human dignity.
There is more. According to certain sources, Meslier's childhood friends and his immediate family all encouraged--really badgered--him into entering the priesthood!
After all that, where in God's name (oops!) did Meslier's independent ideas spring from? Please, I'm open to correction on any of these details, but I have a feeling that there are others in the empirical laboratory of history that will give us a similar picture of the "open-thinking" figure as one whose thoughts spring forth fully grown with no evident nurture. If this is an overstatement, please let's hear from you.
And please, let's hear of any similar or dissimilar biographical details others can contribute regarding similarly pathbreaking altruists like Martin Luther King, Jr., Lincoln, Jefferson, Locke, Rousseau, Empiricus, Carneades, Socrates, Jesus, Confucius, Khayyam, et al.Eyler Coates
I suppose that what I am doing here is trying to understand the "moral process" based on my own observation and experience. Without subjecting myself to open-heart surgery on the World Wide Web, I would suggest that someone could, for example, be born into a family of right-wing bigots who would deny members of another race their inalienable rights, and yet that person could turn out on the other side of the tracks. Or, presumably, just the opposite could happen. What causes this? Surely, in all our lives, we come up against a variety of influences. Some of them we go along with, some of them we reject. Why? No doubt, natural predispositions have something to do with our choice. No two children in the same family have the same personality. But is that all there is? Are we just acting out a script written by nature and environment? What about the amelioration of bigoted attitudes we have seen in matters of race over the past thirty years? Is this due solely to environmental factors, or has there actually been a raising of the level of consciousness? And if the latter, surely that is something more than just environmental influence, isn't it? Because we observe that it is not effective in all individuals still.
Table of contents for "The Jefferson Bible"