Conversations on Morality

Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics

Recent Postings

Date: Mon, 8 Nov 1999
(NAME)  A.C.
I'm wondering if Clifford has ever even met a "Negroe" in person
or talked to one. I don't know how you grew up, but it is pretty
clear how you were educated. And why can't you talk like a [bleep]
normal person. You act like you know ten times more as the nxt guy
but it's really sad that through all your ethical [bleep] you've lost
a ton of insight. Okay, first of all, you base everything you say on
the Idea that there is no truth or god or reason or whatever you want 
to call it. You are as dogmatic as the people I assume you hate most.
You are on opposite sides of the pole but I will say that you are both
wrong. Don't tell people how to think or what to believe. Jefferson would
kick your [bleep] if he was alive.

[The above comment posted to The Open Forum]

Wed, 29 Dec 1999 (NAME) N. Friedman --------------------------------------------------------------------------- I don't think I can be of much help on your questions about Roman law, since my areas of "expertise" in political science are mainly postwar Japan and Russia since the Revolution. I never even took Latin! The Encyclopedia Britannica (I have 1991 ed.) in the "Macropaedia" long entry on "Legal Systems" has a section on Roman law that uses the distinction you mention between public and private law, so it must be very basic. I think you have to keep in mind that rulers claimed to rule by the will of the gods and religion was integral to the state, so that public duties included religious ceremonies, etc. Therefore Roman scholars might simply not have recognized the distinction you are bringing in from modern times, between religion and public law. In other words, and I hope I am not oversimplifying here, "divine and human affairs" might have meant the same thing as "public and private affairs," as there was no separation between church and state. It is also interesting that you seem to have found a precursor to Jefferson, etc. on the subject of "natural law," but perhaps it is not as surprising as you might think since education in Jeff's time meant primarily studying the Greek and Roman classics, and after all there are few really new ideas under the sun (an ancient Greek said all matter is made of "atoms", etc.). One thing that did catch my attention in the Britannica entry was that when a Roman slave was freed, he automatically became a citizen. Thus, apparently slavery was a legal condition, not an inherent status of some "inferior" humans. [The above comment posted to The Open Forum]
(NAME) G Riggs (comments) --------------------------------------------------------------------------- [placed after Eyler's] "So, I see no need for the "either-or." It could only lead to divisiveness and conflict, as indeed it has throughout the world today." G Riggs The question that Eyler has raised lies very near the heart of any scholarly or scientific attempt to locate the “nerve center" of humanity’s moral compass. More specifically, while I find myself in general agreement with Eyler's assertion that "morality can exist apart from religious dogma and faith," I am teased by a further consideration: It is not hard to see why certain posters like Ms. Kelderman may feel passionately that, given the far-reaching repercussions and original thinking of an utterly altruistic figure like Jesus (or, among other religions, a figure like Moses, like Buddha, like Confucius or like Mohammed), morality itself can only come out of an engagement with the metaphysical. Does such a passionate engagement with the metaphysical have, necessarily, a built-in monopoly on the moral and the ethical? Clearly, the preponderance of truly ethical pioneers like Buddha or Jesus would suggest so. But such a conclusion is really based on a set of impressions (however strong, even correct, such impressions may be), not on rigorous scholarship of a kind that -- I believe -- is yet to be sytematically undertaken. But though such rigorous scholarship has not been attempted on as thorough a scale as I might wish, that does not preclude its being undertaken on precisely such a large scale at some point in the not-too-distant future. I strongly urge that such an inquiry is essential to understanding more deeply the ramifications of a profound question for which we are in Ms. Kelderman’s debt. Yes, I may be an agnostic. But it is precisely because I am an agnostic that I feel entirely open to the idea once and for all of applying modern scholarship and research to the question of the genuine derivation for the bedrock moralities and ethics that humanity has lived by for the last six thousand years. Of course, this begs the question, in turn, of whether humanity’s basic instincts are more benign in the long run or more selfish. In addition, one can talk all one likes about the basic, innate instincts of humanity being automatically useful or beneficial regardless of ultimate derivation. The fact is that historical, cultural scholarship has not yet advanced to the point where we can be really sure about any of this. The instinct for Altruism occasionally asserts itself in the face of immediate, individual peril, even though the aggregate benefit for all concerned may be self-evident. Is the Altruism instinct, then, tied to an instinct for family, community, or, even, species survival, making even humanity's basic survival instinct very complex and farsighted (enlightened) indeed rather than invariably of a parochial “dog-eat-dog” variety, concerned only with looking out for Number One? Or, in its occasional neglect of individual survival, is the selfless Altruism instinct in fact in conflict -- constant conflict? -- with a basic survival instinct that, in its raw, uncultured form, may bear no more of a resemblance to a Dr. Schweitzer than would Jack the Ripper, making no prioritizing distinctions among self, community, species, what-have-you, at all? In other words, is humanity's survival instinct tied strictly to self and to nothing beyond that, making the Altruism instinct its implacable foe? If so, of what does the Altruism instinct consist, and from what is it derived? Going further, if we suppose, for the sake of argument, that Altruism is not even an instinct at all, then that begs the question: How come humanity can boast of certain paragons who appear to have shown any altruism at all? Is altruism a counter-intuitive phenomenon, crying out for an explanation that is somehow inevitably moored in considerations strictly outside of the immediate here-and-now of the daily human psyche? If altruism is indeed counter-intuitive after all, where does such a seemingly illogical urge, however lofty, come from? The materialist may argue that it must come from an inherent instinct after all, one as thoroughly innate, in fact, as any of the rawest, most selfish survival instincts imaginable, while the less skeptically inclined may argue that its very loftiness and counter-intuitiveness demonstrates a manifest presence of some thing utterly outside our immediate consciousness, some thing which always works quietly with our usually inadequate, humdrum -- and sadly egotistical? -- psyches. To understand the dynamics of all the greatest cultural breakthroughs in altruism throughout time, and their equally important and selflessly courageous pioneers, much more information and sifting is needed than humanity has so far attempted. I would submit, and I realize I may be going out on a limb here, that such sifting may, at least, give us a clearer picture than we have today of where precisely the cultural contexts, the seedbeds if you will (philosophical, theological, humanistic, skeptical, ceremonial, political, or whatever), for these pioneering concepts really nest. One does not have to be a genius to recognize that the insights, for instance, of a Buddha, a Confucius, a Socrates, or a Jesus are all nested in a seemingly visceral sense of awareness, on the part of each pioneer, of the reality of the metaphysical as an ever-present phenomenon, fully as real as any human companion walking by their side. But what then does one make of the clearly upright moral qualities of a Baron Holbach or a Mr. Ingersoll, both of whom led exemplary lives while being thoroughgoing skeptics? Here’s where scholarship can play an invaluable role. Yes, there may be no question that figures like Holbach or Ingersoll introduced impeccably upright ways of living that were fully as courageous and pioneering as any of the more metaphysically inpired ways of living. Moreover, they formulated their new and lofty ways of relating to their fellow man in intellectually rogorous writings that many would claim to be the equal in originality and depth of the extant thoughts left us by the metaphysical pioneers such as Buddha and Jesus. But today’s scholar -- or scholars plus historians et al, in order to ensure multi-denominational consensus -- who studies the mainsprings of such pioneering ways of life coming from the skeptics can perhaps determine to what extent the impeccably ethical ideas of a Holbach are truly original rather than partly borrowed from a set of cultural assumptions easily traceable to the breakthroughs of some entirely metaphysical pioneer(s) after all -- be that pioneer a Moses, an Isaiah, a Jesus, or whoever. Likewise, and here is where a certain amount of courage may come in on the part of today’s scholar, it may be possible to trace certain of Jesus’s ethical pronouncements to an earlier skeptic like Democritus, or certain of Moses’s ethical ideas to various earlier, more secular laws, or Confucius’s ideas to Wen Wang, and so on. There is no telling where such research may lead. One may find that the most truly original, least borrowed, breakthroughs throughout time come from exclusively practical, political contexts, strictly divorced from theistic worship of any kind, or one may find that the original, earliest seedbeds of all of the most crucial ethical breakthroughs throughout time come exclusively from pioneers whose whole lives were intensely bound up with an overwhelming sense of the metaphysical after all, or one may find that even the most consistently original breakthroughs still show utterly mixed patterns leading neither to one conclusion or the other. Even that last possibility need not discourage us. The energing consensus -- and I would envisage this emerging consensus establishing itself on a long-term generational basis, very much like the staggering generational timeline involved in the exhaustive and inspiring odyssey behind the New Oxford English Dictionary, for instance -- would be infinitely useful whatever the outcome. If this project should take on the dimensions of something like the New Oxford Englsih Dictionary, then there is all the more reason to launch such a project as soon as possible. The New Oxford English Dictionary gave an exhaustive survey of the origins of English words the project I propose would constitute an exhaustive survey of the ultimate origins of the truly pioneering, epoch-defining moral ideas. I believe such a survey is possible. However, since each century only has a hundred years, we don’t have much time if we want to make the twenty-first century the moment when humanity brings to bear the combined energies of the scholar, of the historian, of the anthropologist, of the scientist (even of the brain surgeon?!) and of any number of other specialists on the philosophical, the cultural, the historical (even the biological?!) patterns relating to genuinely pioneering altruism. It's the "hardwired" source of a courageous spokesman's *lone* instinct, validated only through the course of humanity's better -- and more universal -- instincts as shown through *later* centuries, not at all through the temporary abuses of some backward culture constituting the dangerous background for some courageous spokesman's highly risky pronouncements, that -- I admit -- chiefly interests me. It's just that the allocation of sheer manpower and rigorous, unbiased brainpower adequate to the task of scientifically studying the "*lone* instinct" phenomenon is staggering. Still, that old cliche is no less true for being shopworn and a bit trite: The longest journey starts with a single step. It's the generational conclusions coming decades from now out of such a staggering task that would be more valid than anything we could state here today regarding the following, highly fraught question: To what extent do humanity's earliest articulators of either "Atheist Ethics" or "Theist Ethics" dovetail most precisely with the future discoveries concerning humanity's most truly original ethical norms and their first truly original pronouncements by pioneers who frequently risked life and limb just by advancing such ideas? Perhaps, online forums such as this one can now help foster the climate needed for such a mammoth project sooner rather than later, as we start a new, pitifully uncharted millennium, where the actions of any one country (or mogul!) can have instant repercussions around the globe, the like of which even our most immediate ancestors could never have dreamed. I freely confess I regard this kind of research project as part scholarship, part wake-up call. The basic building blocks of Altruism itself become more pertinent than ever as humanity’s very survival appears more and more vulnerable to the imponderables of Altruism’s unfortunate absence from far too many corridors of power. [The above comment posted to The Open Forum]
Date: Fri, 19 Nov 1999 (NAME) Eyler Coates (comments) --------------------------------------------------------------------------- Surely there is such a thing as morality apart from religious dogma and faith. Morality is essential to the foundation of a just political system, and that morality must be based on reason, not on religious faith, else we become engulfed in the political tragedies we see acted out almost everywhere. And not only that, a true basis of morality should be something where ALL decent religions can find common ground with. So, I see no need for the "either-or." It could only lead to divisiveness and conflict, as indeed it has throughout the world today. [The above comment posted to The Open Forum]
(NAME) Nancy Kelderman (comments) --------------------------------------------------------------------------- I am enjoying this dialogue even though I find some of it a little boring.I also suffer from a very high IQ that displaces me in many ways in our "society". I have come to accept that and now travel at very high levels. Jesus Christ is my mentor, my example and I have found my greatest comfort from the Holy Spirit. We are all called according to His purpose and all things work together for the good of them that love the Lord. This is all I need, all I want and all I desire. The debate going on here, in my humble opinion, is simply between a group of human beings that each have a differnt point of view. Each view represents a fraction of the whole of truth. As Pilate asks, the Truth, WHAT is THAT? So Jesus also, in John 8:31-32 reminds us that until we comprehend, accept and act upon the truth of His ministry, we are slaves with not rights, because we do not know the truth. Those of us that seek out God's will in our lives, just as Chirst did, KNOW the truth. We know because we possess. We are all born in an inherent corrupted state. That came from our choice to know the differnce in good and evil. We were created in God's image, we were given the choice so that we might chose Him, but becasue we didn't, we pay the consequence. Yet, God loved us so much, that he gave us his only SOn, the person of Jesus Christ, to live, die and rise again to the right hand of God our Father so that he COVERED it ALL and then could petition the Holy SPirit to guide guard and protect us as we follow Jesus's example in DOING OUR FATHERS WILL in our lives. The law is only to convict us of our wrongfullness. It is at the seat of judgement we find mercy. So where does that leave Manson, Hitler, Richard Spek? They are dealing with the consequences of unjust acts they have committed and our society does NOT accept at this point in time. God, our heavenly father loves ALL of us...this is where we are all equal. Not one of us are capable, of any work towards truth, without following Chirsts lead back into communion with God. Without the work of the Holy SPirit, not one of us can even grasp what this is about, and with that I mean to say that the honor and glory and CREDIT is not OURS! This is one of the reasons that I enjoy dialogue with those that are agnostic or even athiest, because in a sense, they are absolutely right, just as much as those that do have a strong belief in God. It is important for us to understand that the dialogue that has been going on here could go on forever. What really is the point? What is the payoff? What do we as individuals gain from it? Who gets the credit? Where is the edification? [The above comment posted to The Open Forum]

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