Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
Rights, Morality & Government
If I understand him correctly, Eyler Coates considers that the form of government is a crucial factor in establishing moral 'values.' To my mind this is to take too narrow a view of our objectives.
In fact, I take just the opposite view: that the moral values of a people can and should shape and determine their form of government. But the idea that "the form of government is a crucial factor in establishing moral values" is an interesting proposition. Surely, the form of government and the principles by which it functions have a tremendous influence on the moral and ethical behavior of the people who live under that government. Government serves as a kind of model for what are the acceptable treatments of persons. If government pursues a pattern of injustice towards persons, is it not likely that persons living under that government will pursue similar patterns of injustice toward one another? Moral values do not materialize out of thin air; they are not created randomly or by fiat by philosophers or religious sages. Rather, they are the by-product of an intense search and understanding of the human condition - a process that is innate and instinctive with most of us, but which is illuminated and enhanced by the Great Souls ("Mahatmas") that dwell amongst us from time to time. If we choose to say that these values are "caught," it is only because they are matched with a receptive sensitivity that is already a part of our being. It is like a light shining on an object. The light doesn't create the object; rather it enables us to see it more clearly. Similarly, moral teachers do not create moral values; they enable us better to see what is really already there. Hence, a ploughman could easily possess a clearer vision of moral value than a professor. Morality is a matter of insight into the human condition, not a matter of academic study.
He would seem to endorse Jefferson's loose claim that the ploughman is as likely to decide a moral issue as well as a professor whereas surely the reality is that whether such a decision is right (for what purpose?) will depend on the individual values of the ploughman and the professor. And quite certainly different cultural values will almost certainly come up with very different answers.
Adopting what I regard as the fallible assumption that, in all circumstances, all men and women are equal will not necessarily lead to what I would regard as the fairest solution which, I believe, is far more likely to be determined if we start from the reality that everyone has different values and that there are no overarching principles much as we would like to be able to find them.
If there are no overarching principles, then one moral value is as good as another. We have no basis for condemning slavery or any other human behavior except on the basis of some generally accepted authority. If acceptable moral values are defined as those which already exist in the greater portion of the members of a society, then we have taken a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive, approach to the question. Moreover, we might then say we have allowed "overarching principles" to be established by embracing them under a different name, i.e., that which really exists, since one element of the "overarching principles" approach is that they are innate and in the vast number of individuals to some degree. In any case, a simple denial that there are no "overarching principles" does not make them go away. Asserting that there are no such principles creates certain problems that should not be ignored.
May I make one point clear - my book, 'The Origins and Evolution of Human Values,' sets out to examine just how those crucial 'values' originate in particular cultures and how each individual 'catches' those that fit his particular genetic inheritance. I was not directing my attention primarily to what those 'values' should be. My conclusion was that while some 'values' have primarily a biological basis (and can therefore be regarded as inherent) the bulk are culturally derived. Views on an ideal form of government, and on the system of laws which should be developed to control what is generally regarded as anti-social behaviour, would seem to me to be a matter of culture rather than biology.
The crucial issue of genetic inheritance versus environmental influences is dealt with at some length in Chapter 3 of my book, the broad conclusion being that one way and another the genetic factors carry the heavier weight in deciding which values are LIKELY to be caught. They will not decide this absolutely but they undoubtedly influence the fall of the dice.
May I suggest that it is necessary to look through the premise that all should be treated as equal and suggest it should be re-phrased "All should be equally entitled to be treated fairly." By fairly I mean that each of us should be considerate of others feelings, interests and values. If we recognize, as I believe we must, that everyone is different, having different requirements, we have to use our values to assess as best we can those requirements in others; and then, making as fair an assessment of the interaction between our own interests and needs as we can, decide what action we should take. In real life we do this continuously, and mostly automatically, without considered thought many, many times each day. It is because it is so largely unconscious that we do not appreciate what we are doing.
I think that the discussion of what a man feels is right, in a day when understanding is based on feelings, and what the truth appears to be is irrelevent. As time passes the truth changes. Yes, that is a logical statement. If at 9:00am I say "It's light outside" you have to agree. But as 12 hours pass the statement is no longer true. As time passes we are more enlightened on what the truth is. Take the discussion on the "soul" as an example. "Soul" comes from the Greek "psyche": talking about the thoughts of a person. "Spirit" on the other hand comes from the Greek "pneuma," meaning air or wind. Hebrews 4:12 tells about the differences. Also I Thes. 5:23. How important is the understanding, just from this simple understanding that the soul and spirit of man are two different things? Well, one religion will use soul scriptures and be talking about the spirit, and another will use spirit scriptures and be talking about the soul, causing confusion and division.Eyler Coates
The idea of "fairness" easily converts to a subjective judgment, not of what is fair to thee, but what is fair, and therefore most desirable, to me. On the other hand, the principle of equality recognizes the sovereignty of the other person, which is an entirely different attitude.
I recognize, only too well, that this provides no simple rule, or law, to guide our actions; but that is what happens in real life, so that I consider the prime purpose of any moral code is to establish what in current circumstances is fair treatment.
Perhaps, what Mr. Sharp is referring to when he writes of simple fairness is what others might term "basic rights." But we can assume that a certain number of readers may agree with Mr. Sharp that the term "rights" carries too legalistic a connotation. For such readers, a reference to the "rights of a slave to live free" may seem a macabre contradiction, since a slave had no legal rights whatsoever. That was, in fact, the fundamental horror of slavery all along.
Plenty of perfectly enlightened humanitarians in recent centuries have not subscribed to the notion of inherent human "rights" while, at the same time, subscribing to the equality of men and women, to the necessity for less inhuman prison conditions, to the necessity for greater religious pluralism, and so on.
In fact, Jeremy Bentham, whose ideas are discussed in the chapter on Epicurus, worked tirelessly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century on precisely those three issues. Admittedly, Utilitarianism, the philosophy Bentham founded, may have had its conceptual problems across the decades; but Bentham himself conceived of simple social justice in the most irreproachably enlightened terms.
At the same time, he scoffed at the idea of natural human rights. He did not go for the doctrine of the rights of man. He described it as simply nonsense and any idea of the "imprescriptible" rights of man as "nonsense on stilts." He called the French Declaration des droits de l'homme "a metaphysical work--the ne plus ultra of metaphysics." He divided its articles into three classes: 1) unintelligible, 2) false, and 3) both.
In the face of this opprobrium, though, one cannot forget that it was precisely because of his scornful take on inalienable, natural, human rights that Bentham considered it imperative to establish full legal rights for the entire human family. He regarded sweeping declarations, such as those from the French, as pernicious distractions from the urgent alleviation of abject misery. Such concepts of "inherence" struck him as immoral obfuscations of a self-evident litany of social horrors needing immediate--legal- -redress.
One of those horrors was clearly slavery. I appreciate Bentham's (and presumably Mr. Sharp's) bridling at the notion that an abused slave has any "rights" at all, as they understand the term. That being the case, is there some other term than "rights"--with its possible legalistic connotations--that readers in sympathy with Mr. Bentham's interpretation can suggest? It would have to be some term that would express, let's say, "the moral obligation that American society of the 1850s clearly had toward the enslaved Africans in terms of according them the fair treatment and the simple equity needed as a prerequisite to equal legal rights." This definition may seem like a mouthful, but at least it defines what many view as "inalienable rights," even for the slave.
Again, I realize that there are a fair number, including Bentham, that feel uncomfortable with the use of "rights" to express this moral obligation that a slave society owes the slave. With sincere respect, therefore, is there, please, some other term that would express this better than "rights," as far as those in sympathy with Bentham and Sharp are concerned? I appreciate that semantics like this are irritating to some, but I find misunderstanding, any misunderstanding, more irritating than anything. It behooves us to understand properly where exactly a perfectly intelligent person who is duly uncomfortable with the term "rights" is coming from. Thank you.
(Frankly, speaking for myself, I have always been comfortable with using "rights" in this way, and I see nothing restrictive in its connotations. The universality of its application has, arguably, become part of the English language by now. Nevertheless, if the admitted requirement for simple fairness that Mr. Sharp describes needs some other term, I'm more than willing to consider that.)
Government & Moral ResponsibilityCharles G. Willard
Thomas Jefferson said to William Ludlow in 1824, "I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious."
When God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Lord told them what they could and could not do. They chose their own path and suffered the consequences. The key is the fact that God gives us the right to make mistakes -- to choose our own path as we walk through life on his Earth.
Thomas Jefferson said, "The care of every man's soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or his estate, which would more nearly relate to the state. Will the magistrate make a law that he not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others but not from ourselves."
No Government -- Federal, State, nor local, should try to protect people from themselves. Good citizens should protect themselves from Government.
I should like to draw the attention of our readers to a thought-provoking post from "Magnify" concerning a recent horrifying incident, apparently implicating two New York policemen in a gruesome torture of a legal Haitian immigrant taken to the station house after a small-hours riot. Information now surfacing suggests that the so-called "perp" (it's still unclear whether the Haitian under arrest was even involved in the riot at all) was savagely impaled with the handle of a toilet plunger while in custody and then left untended for a couple of hours in Critical condition! Many have now sought to make some sense out of this senseless act of cruelty.
POSTING ON A SCANDAL AT THE 70TH PRECINCT IN NYCMagnify
I visited Brooklyn the day the "plunger" incident was broadcast on WBAI radio. Although I enjoyed my vacation days in Brooklyn and in Manhattan, I sometimes was uncomfortable. I felt that a certain tension hovered over everybody, on the subways, on the buses, even during our walking around town, to restaurants, to theaters, or just shopping around. And once back home in Rhode Island, after reading closely about the case against the police and the plight of the Haitian man, I believe now that whatever comes of the impending trial (or settlement) neither money or sentencing will truly address the problem of violence so casually visited upon so many people, including minorities.
As a middle-aged man, as a Korean War vet (though not ever in Korea; I trained soldiers in the states) and usually more the optimist than not, I must say that the past decades of rising police violence and abuse -- even as the media (quoting police and government officials) informs Americans that crime statistics, in practically every area measured, is on the downswing -- is a frightening phenomenon. Our country is at an impasse. The awful "plunger" atrocity in the 70th precinct in Brooklyn, the police shooting in Baltimore and now more Haitians (immigrants, if not citizens) stepping forward to tell their awful stories of police abuse and harassment should make us all wonder where the nation is headed. We surely must remember at least some of the many lessons of history. And prominent among them, "justice deferred is justice demeaned."
When police officials, sworn to protect and defend us in our communities, disrespect and trample the law, in whatever manner, the citizenry takes notice. An aroused citizenry, whether in Jeffersonian terms, or those through outrage visited by the horror of police brutality, once unified in the community, can bring about changes necessary to bring about the peace and security we all demand and have a right to, free from fear of police harassment and/or brutality.
Freedom, here and in any country, is a delicate thing. Many can't handle such concepts inherent in freedom, as in freedom of choice, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and ultimately, the freedom to be free. There are those who are opposed even to that. Each violence against an individual, each physical and verbal abuse against a man, woman or child, black or white or any other minority or ethnic person, is a criminal act; it is also an act of political force. It -- this violent act -- can bring about changes that some people never anticipate: Changes such as losing some more of our constitutional rights, the right to congregate, the right to speak out against violence, many other rights. They too can be taken away from us by government imposing unnecessary rules and regulations which undercut constitutional rights (already being chipped away) and potentially create a communal vacuum; that is, communities where paranoia rules and we each distrust the other -- that is the void which big and imposing government will jump into if necessary.
Anarchy has brought about the fall of many nations. From Rome to Russia to Yugoslavia: many nations have watched their freedoms crumble. And to think that such loss of freedom cannot occur here in the greatest democracy ever seen (yet a very young nation) is to be totally naive about history and its lessons.
We have to face the problems in our cities. We must face up to them all: racism, sexism, ageism, problems with our education system(s), employment, or lack of it, the need for decent living standards. We need to teach our youngest ones respect, for themselves and by extension respect for others: respect without prejudice. Otherwise, how do we prepare for a potential and uniquely American tragedy?
Whether or not we agree with every word in this post, the concern Magnify expresses over teaching the younger generation the twin concepts of self-respect and respect for others is very much on point for this forum. Personally, I also appreciate Magnify's placing of the potential for communal anarchy within the context of history and of the comparative youthfulness of this "American experiment."
One other point that Magnify touches upon should be emphasized also: In a democracy, the actions of government -- and the police together with the administration of justice are as much a part of government as any other function -- are the moral responsibility of us all. As Jefferson put it,
"No government can continue good, but under the control of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819.
And again, he notes the importance of the people being introduced into the administration of government at every point where they are competent:
"The people, especially when moderately instructed, are the only safe, because the only honest, depositaries of the public rights, and should therefore be introduced into the administration of them in every function to which they are sufficient; they will err sometimes and accidentally, but never designedly, and with a systematic and persevering purpose of overthrowing the free principles of the government." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823.
In the case mentioned above, this would suggest independent civilian review boards that would provide oversight of the police. This is something the police uniformly oppose, but something good government demands, since independence in government agencies only leads to corruption.
"Independence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1819.
Oversight and control are the moral responsibility of the people themselves, whether their agents are agreeable to it or not, and they should demand they have such authority before it is completely out of their hands.
In- or Un-alienable Rights?GRiggs
By the way, some modern Jefferson and Democracy compendiums read "unalienable rights"? Has the manuscript been misread lo these many (2) centuries? Was this one of the revisions? Is it actually unclear?Eyler Coates
This, according to my understanding, is the story: Jefferson in his original draft used "inalienable," as indicated in the photocopy, of which I have a copy. In his autobiography, he included a copy of the Declaration, noting the changes made by Congress, and this copy also used "inalienable." I seem to have heard somewhere that when the document agreed upon by Congress went to the printer, he changed it to "unalienable." But I have several printed versions of the Declaration that are unrelated to Jefferson's writings and some use "inalienable" and some "unalienable." It seems quite certain, however, that the official version is "unalienable." As you probably know, people in those days were casual about spelling. Jefferson, in fact, used both spellings of the word in his writings. In fact, the quote I use at the head of the front page of my Jeffersonian Perspective site, "Nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man," uses the other spelling. But since Chapter 1 of Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government, "Inalienable Rights," uses Jefferson's draft, not the final version approved by Congress (notice it is "inherent and inalienable rights," not "certain inalienable rights"), I used the spelling he used in that draft version.
Table of contents for "The Jefferson Bible"