Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
A Moral Prospectus
Is humanity perfectible? Can humanity, under the pressures of a genuinely global village today, draw on its better instincts to convert its social customs, public institutions, and personal integrity to such a condition that society and personal ethics will be conducive to a world where the perennial cliche-hope of each individual's best potential will be fulfilled?
To accomplish this, it is generally assumed, probably rightly, that a set of prevailing moral assumptions based on something other than fiat from above, whether that dictatorial Herr "Above" be temporal or metaphysical, have to take root in the community of humanity as a whole. For such assumptions to take hold, individuals have to take cognizance of long-term interests woefully neglected in the public dialogue today. Such cognizance has to be arrived at through induced reflection rather than the jackboot. To induce such reflection, humanity in the past has paraded notions such as "all men are created equal," "know thyself," the Golden Rule, and so on, to inculcate a sense of responsibility towards one's fellow man in one's own words and deeds.
As a white man living in America, I believe that the morality of redressing wrongs done by the white man in enslaving the black man, in robbing the red man, and in bombing the yellow man is self-evident. But the simple assertion of the rightness of any redress too often evokes a ho-hum response. One reason this is so lies in the inability of a bald statement of this kind to be compelling enough.
Like it or not, anything defined as good or evil must be defined so within a context of tradition and custom. Otherwise, it loses all meaning and rhetorical strength.
One regrets the neurotic refusal of too many would-be moral spokesmen of today to take the bull by the horns and take a leaf out of Martin Luther King's "spin" in--successfully--persuading the United States--and the world--of the rightness of his cause. Why was Dr. King successful? Because he dared to be "sentimental" enough to invoke "the true meaning of our nation's creed" in calling on his countrymen to change their ways. Now one needn't necessarily invoke the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution to awaken one's hearers to a critical awareness of a social hypocrisy in this or that unexamined practice. One might just as well invoke the U.N. Charter, the Magna Carta, the Koran, the Gospels, the Ten Commandments, Solon, Socrates, Buddhism, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, or whatever establishes itself as an inescapable standard for one's hearers in showing them the monstrous dimensions of whatever requires immediate redress. But at least, one needs to invoke SOMETHING!
Therein lies the fundamental dilemma for humanity in the twenty-first century. With environmental or social anarchy in the offing, or a combination of the two with numerous nationalistic horrors added to the mix, humanity no longer has the time to muddle through. Otherwise, it no longer faces the mere possibility of general chaos and annihilation on a global scale. It faces the certainty.
How to take account, then, of the ways in which humanity has brought our globe to this pass by practices indulged in either with or without the sanction of certain possibly noxious creeds or assumptions? What has emerged as positive in some of these assumptions and what has emerged as destructive?
These are the questions we must tackle and answer decisively before the twenty- first century becomes a global graveyard.
Far too often, the essentially benign nature of an ethical creed such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.N. Charter, the Beatitudes, the laws of Solon, or whatever, get transformed either through well-intentioned carelessness or through thoughtless egoism during the course of only a few generations. Sometimes, a quick, general acceptance of a clearly ethical proposition falls afoul of its very success through a half-baked application of its principles on such a widely accepted scale that its initial premises get lost in the shuffle. Frequently, the flawed practitioners themselves are unaware that they are even invoking some bygone ethic let alone distorting it.
This means that, for true understanding of any ethical code, only its initial proponent and the details of its initial formulation remain relevant to a proper application of its positive or destructive effect today. Since precisely such a contextual application is essential to rescuing mankind from utter destruction, rigorous and nondenominational scholarship applied to those successive strata lying behind such ethical traditions is essential to separating the wheat from the chaff and ascertaining just what made the consciences of the initial "formulators" tick. What motivated them? What gave their reflections coherence and meaning for the hearts and minds of their hearers? How valid were their own personal ethical understandings in the light of the perils facing humanity today?
This does not seem to me to be a meaningless exercise. Humanity must come together in brotherhood today or perish. Since the use of the jackboot is clearly out of the question, thoughtful and universal agreement instead must precede an acceptance of the general validity of any creed's integrity. This means that the initial formulators through history must be internationally judged, through this scholarly sifting process, as genuinely upright and worthy on their own cognizance after all, as having a significant degree of intellectual and ethical rigor in the arguments buttressing such creeds, and as having shown a human aptness to connect with the hearts and minds of fellow countrymen-- without whom any creed, however worthy, dies on the vine. In addition, they must be seen to have demonstrated the moral courage to espouse their outlook in frequent contravention of their immediate peers and as a gadfly with a seeming disregard of their physical well-being. All this will probably have to be established in addition to any determination of a formulator's validity within the contexts of the social, environmental and ethical realizations of today.
Still, having now enumerated the various ways in which an initial formulator must be judged worthy--through such a sifting process--of thoughtful consideration and due heed by future generations, we cannot forget that, in the end, it is words that have consequences. It is what the formulators said that remains most crucial of all.
It may be true, as I have conceded above, that the initial formulator of a doctrine must be judged as much on the basis of what he or she did as on what he or she wrote. But what he or she did is not going to affect the livelihood of someone fighting for human rights in the twenty-first century. It is the reproach coming down through time from the actual written or spoken remarks of someone held in veneration, the extent to which a doctrine hitherto given mere lip service is suddenly given cultural teeth, which will affect most directly the quality of life for each and every individual in the coming centuries. Hence, the marked success of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in invoking "our nation's creed."
A related example by way of illustration: In a thoughtful philosophical argument, each proponent may help in refining and clarifying the thoughts of the other-- at least, to a certain extent. Granted, that's not exactly "winning" an argument. But maybe this shows us that winning an argument is somewhat beside the point. As the cliche goes, winning isn't everything; and I would add: Rather, the clarity and the relevance of words is. Being something of a skeptic myself, there is one thing I take to be just about as close to sacred as anything can be in a realistic world: language and its use. Arguments are "won" or, failing that, accommodations and deeper understandings are reached through the conscientious application of words.
For instance, Jefferson didn't win his arguments for freedom and equality on the world stage through denying women their right to posts in his Cabinet (which he unfortunately did), through keeping slaves on his farm (which he unfortunately did), or through being Commander-in-Chief of the United States for a season (which he assuredly was--and there was nothing wrong in that). Instead, he won his arguments by saying that
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
For good or bad, much of humanity has lived by these words for over two centuries. Though the sword was used by the colonists against Great Britain, it was not the Sword that made much of the rest of humanity awake to this sense of its worth around the globe; it was the almighty Pen, thank you very much! Yes, it was certainly wrong on Jefferson's part to keep slaves, it was wrong for him to coldly say "the country is not ready for women in the Cabinet and neither am I." But in the history of ideas, which may be the only history for humanity worth bothering about in the end, such biographical details do not matter one whit!
America's Civil War did not happen just because each side wanted a certain degree of power not accorded the other willingly. It happened because of an appalling, hideous, unevadable, hypocritical disconnect between Jefferson's "all men are created equal" and Southern slave-holding! Jefferson could have seduced dozens of slaves(!); that would not have made his words any less devastating or uncomfortable!! Words matter, and if words and language aren't really sacred. . .well then they ought to be! So there! (I suppose this is shooting from the hip!?)
Mankind has long tussled with the nature and genesis of conscience. In the kind of project I am suggesting, we might be able to develop some kind of empirical method of scrutinizing that very question as to the essence of conscience. The rigorously historical analysis of humanity's chief icons would be a bold start. Who knows? Such a project might ultimately entail a scientific judgement as to a) how come humanity has a conscience, b) if there is indeed even such a thing as an abstract conscience in humanity at all, and, c) if there is, what could be its purpose.
Indeed, how can anyone but the overwhelmingly, the self-evidently good be useful in furnishing, by means of the empirical laboratory of humanity's history, genuinely rigorous and empirical data on the mainsprings of altruistic action?
Kant once remarked that there are no ethics without an appeal to the transcendental. That may be too broad an assumption. But it brings up the crucial enigmas at the back of this scholarly project. Where, indeed, do ethics come from if not from conscience? Now, does conscience emanate from the transcendental? This begs the question whether conscience itself is universal or subjective. Is conscience illusory? Is conscience real and empirically of this world, independent of the transcendental? If so, does its very independence from the transcendental constitute evidence of the unreality and the illusory nature of any concept of the transcendental? Is atheism therefore true? OR ... is conscience itself proof of the existence and the reality of the transcendental after all?
In other words, can the reality or nonreality of an absolute universal conscience and of the concept of the transcendental be determined by the humble human mind?
I... Don't... Know.
But I am not so certain that humanity, temporal humanity right here on terra firma, is incapable of knowing the answer.
(So, is this all chop logic or would anyone like to jump in?)
One can only say that if the historical--moral--gadflies do furnish any ancillary perceptions on the true nature of things, such perceptions might only become relevant should there develop a general consensus, arrived at in a disinterested, scholarly and uncoercive manner, on the self-evident probity of the gadflies themselves in the first place and of the relevancy and immediate usefulness for today of their moral outlook.
I'm going to close with an extract from a rather frank reply I gave to an inquiry by a German e-mail user who has offered to send me an English translation of Matthias Knutzen's first atheism pamphlets of 1674 as soon as he, the e-mail user, has the opportunity. He was not taken aback by the details and the occasional hyperbole(?) of my answer to his inquiry and, in fact, assured me that he too occasionally felt impatience with some of the stupidities of the world. We remain on the best of terms.
Here is my reply to his initial inquiry:
Q. What is the purpose of your study. Do you do this privately?
"Fair question. I am currently interested, strictly as a private hobby, in the history of figures of conscience, of whatever denomination, who have articulated philosophical, programmatic, ethical breakthroughs to the pressures on humanity. These might range from the laws of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments to the U.N. Charter, from the Declaration of Independence to Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, from the Sermon on the Mount/Plain to the Bill of Rights and its separation of Church and State, and so on.
"I find it incredible that, with all the ease with which I've been able to gather editions in English of the various political, religious and philosophical breakthroughs humanity has evolved--from the earliest Buddha sermons translated from the original Digha-Nikaya to the remarks of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.--the only atheist writings that are generally available are those of figures like Hume (actually a Deist), Ingersoll, Russell, Nietsche, and so on!
"To me, this is like contenting oneself with the remarks of De Tocqueville as a stand-in for Jefferson, the remarks of Mencius in place of Confucius, of Paul in place of Jesus, of Napoleon in place of Rousseau or Voltaire, and so on. Some of these figures may have been both sincere and intelligent in the way they formulated their ideas. But they seem clearly inadequate and altogether irrelevant in the study of the ideas discussed as a discrete historical phenomenon, which is the context where I am interested in studying them.
"In other words, What is the warp and the woof of the reasoning whereby one man, John Locke--or whoever--first stated that "all men are created equal" (an idea taken up by Rousseau and Jefferson), what is the warp and the woof of the reasoning whereby one man, Jesus of Nazareth, first stated that we should love our enemies, what is the warp and the woof of the reasoning whereby one man, Matthias Knutzen, first stated that it was possible to evolve a code of enlightened ethics without invoking the concept of deity, and so forth.
"These are fundamental pivots in the historical development of the way humanity views itself, and we have a right to know about them. In this much vaunted information age, are we to remain in ignorance of what made the various seismic shifts in humanity's philosophical view of itself tick? Should we fall victim to the incorrigible negligence of history so typical of the unaware and uncaring and unknowing Anglo culture that threatens to engulf the whole globe?
"I want to know about these ideas. I want to know about the historical inception of these ideas. I want to know about the first formulations for the historical inception of these ideas. And I want to know and learn about this in a context free from special pleading of any kind, pro or con.
"The history of philosophy and ethics, whether secular or theological, becomes critical in our day and age. Not only is this period termed the so-called information age. It is also a time when the world is becoming, truly, one: a global community, where everyone is suddenly aware of what every other human being is foisting on his brother. We're starting to understand the newly counter-productive dynamics of any constant foment of violence and ethnic resentment on the world stage, the self-destructive effects of self-centered acquisitiveness of natural resources in this time of ecological and environmental uncertainty, and on and on. I recall that Nelson Mandela summed up this feeling at the 50th anniversary of the United Nations when he remarked:
" '[Our youth are] bound to wonder why it should be that poverty still prevails in the greater part of the globe, that wars continue to rage and that many in positions of power and privilege pursue cold-hearted philosophies which terrifyingly proclaim, "I am not your brother's keeper." For no one in the north or the south can escape the cold fact that we are a single humanity.'
"These are the reasons why the dynamics of the very inception of each and every philosophical and ethical breakthrough of humanity's last six thousand years seem of critical importance today."
I wish to thank one and all for their patience in reading through all this. I look forward to any responses some of you may have.
Table of contents for "The Jefferson Bible"