Moral Revolutions: How?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Over at Slate is a really interesting piece by Paul Berman that considers a point raised by Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Honor Code. Under consideration is the following question:

Vast moral revolutions do take place once in a while, but it is hard to figure out exactly what sets them into motion or brings them to success. A high-minded prophet in some part of the world denounces an old and dreadful social custom. A smattering of do-gooders plead for reform. The reform in question appears, at a glance, to be impractical, unpopular, and unlikely. And yet enormous masses of people somehow--but how?--end up suddenly embracing the revolutionary idea, and they bend to the task of digging a new foundation for the whole of society. The improbable reform, upon completion, turns out to be irreversible. And in retrospect, absolutely everyone, or nearly so, solemnly agrees that good has, in fact, been done, and moral progress on the grandest of scales is more than a figment of the wistful and naive imagination.
Appiah's answer, according to Berman, is that the reformers both re-cast the notion of personal honor and appeal to the sense of honor of those they are hoping to persuade. Berman, while sharing Appiah's enthusiasm for the moral progress he recounts, isn't persuaded. He looks briefly at the milieus in which these changes occur and finds, as a common thread, the involvement of Christian missionaries.
... Appiah's own account of moral revolutions over the centuries makes me wonder whether something deeper and vaster hasn't ultimately been driving the grandest of the reform campaigns--something deriving from Christianity, maybe.
In the sense that each man seems a little to me like a blind man attempting to describe an elephant, I have to say that I think that each man is on to something. The same thing.

As I have noted in the past, Christianity is a package deal of some very good and some very bad elements. One of the very good elements is that it has, in the sense of each human being being regarded as special by the Creator, a rudimentary concept of individualism. Granted, this concept isn't moored to a rational consideration of man's nature, and it is severely compromised by the Christian ethics of (human) sacrifice (committed by the victim himself). Nevertheless, individualism is even less well-developed, or of a much lower priority in most other religions and philosophies, so even this is an improvement over many of them. (This holds, of course, only so long as that element of Christianity is dominant. Clearly, that is not always the case.)

With the conception that one's self is holy, it follows that others are, as well. Wherever and whenever this idea is common in a culture, I think there is fertile soil for people to develop magnanimity of the soul, a genuine benevolence towards others, an ability to empathize with the suffering of others, and a powerful indignation when such suffering is due to the actions of others. (Note further that all of the examples under discussion involve an end to sacrificing others to self, and none involve enforced self-sacrifice, such as instituting a massive welfare state.) Appiah's sense of honor is an expression of the magnanimity, but it arises from the seeds of individualism -- the "something" Berman doesn't quite see, although he has a good guess about who's casting those seeds around.

Of course, for all the moral progress discussed -- the ends of slavery in the British Empire, foot binding in China, and dueling among the British aristocracy -- humanity still has a long way to go, including in those parts of the world most strongly influenced by Christianity. This is a direct result of the deficiencies in the Christian ethic and its concept of the individual -- coupled with the fact that benevolence, although a very powerful force for cultural change, needs to be channeled by rational guidance for such change to be positive. One need only consider the darker episodes of Christian history to see this.

-- CAV


: Added a clarification.


Steve D said...

“humanity still has a long way to go”

I suppose you can say that Christianity has taken the low hanging fruit as far as moral revolutions are concerned. However, the big one is still to come and Christianity does not have and can not have an answer to that.

Certainly there was some moral progress from Christianity as well as some moral decline. Had anyone been able to merge Christianity’s good points with the philosophy off the ancient Greeks we might have avoided the dark ages. However that would have required taking a very long hard look at the work of the ancient philosophers, especially Aristotle and going back to the very fundamentals. That this took more than two thousand years to accomplish even in theory is sobering.

Like I said the low hanging fruit has already been captured and we are going to need a very large revolution this time if we want to make further progress. So while there may be some lessons here overthrowing altruism is going take time and probably there are going to be a few surprises along the way. I don’t think any further progress can be made with altruism as the prevailing morality. And it is prevailing at this time no doubt about that. We live in interesting times.

One positive development I think is perhaps the modern concern for the individual. Perhaps there is a bridge here somewhere to a more fully individualistic society. A lot of our rules and regulations while wrong on principle at least seem to be designed to protect people so perhaps there is some hope. I am thinking about laws such as seat belt requirements; even though no one has any business telling forcing you to wear them the law does seem to be motivated by concern rather than simple power hunger.

Gus Van Horn said...

Intellectually, Christianity has little to offer, but the concern for the individual it has left in its wake can offer us a way to begin to appeal to people, by knowing how to pitch our arguments.

Specifically, we have to make people aware of what things like regulations mean to themselves and others, such as small businessmen, on a concrete level (as the founder of Home Depot is doing now). In part, this is simply applying what we know about human cognition to the field of communication (i.e., concretizing our abstract points), but these concretes also portray a fellow human being being harmed. This isn't mawkishness, but making good use of the fact that people still see themselves and others as fellow individuals and so are somewhat benevolent.

madmax said...

Very interesting conversation, especially the discussion of Christianity. Here is an excerpt from Machiavelli's 'Discourses'; written a full 350 years before Nietzsche.

In thinking, therefore, of whence it should happen that in those ancient times the people were greater lovers of Liberty than in these times, I believe it results from the same reason which makes men presently less strong, which I believe is the difference between our education and that of the ancients, founded on the difference between our Religion and the ancients. For, as our Religion shows the truth and the true way (of life), it causes us to esteem less the honors of the world: while the Gentiles (Pagans) esteeming them greatly, and having placed the highest good in them, were more ferocious in their actions. Which can be observed from many of their institutions, beginning with the magnificence of their sacrifices (as compared) to the humility of ours, in which there is some pomp more delicate than magnificent, but no ferocious or energetic actions. Theirs did not lack pomp and magnificence of ceremony, but there was added the action of sacrifice full of blood and ferocity, the killing of many animals, which sight being terrible it rendered the men like unto it. In addition to this, the ancient Religion did not beatify men except those full of worldly glory, such as were the Captains of armies and Princes of Republics. Our Religion has glorified more humble and contemplative men rather than men of action. It also places the highest good in humility, lowliness, and contempt of human things: the other places it in the greatness of soul, the strength of body, and all the other things which make men very brave. And, if our Religion requires that there be strength (of soul) in you, it desires that you be more adept at suffering than in achieving great deeds.

This mode of living appears to me, therefore, to have rendered the world weak and a prey to wicked men, who can manage it securely, seeing that the great body of men, in order to go to Paradise, think more of enduring their beatings than in avenging them. And although it appears that the World has become effeminate and Heaven disarmed, yet this arises without doubt more from the baseness of men who have interpreted our Religion in accordance with Indolence and not in accordance with Virtu...

Steve's comment about taking the best from Pagan antiquity and merging it with the best of Christianity is an excellent one. Although, I am tempted to ask what exactly, other than the salvation of the individual soul, was good about Christianity. There are so many things wrong with it. A non exhaustive list:

* Original Sin
* hereditary guilt
* collective punishment
* the elevation of sacrifice to a cosmic level
* a god that stands "outside" of creation (that one really screwed up metaphysics)
* the Triune Godhead (more metaphysical destruction)
* substitionary atonement

and on and on. But Steve is also right in saying that egoism is going to be heavily resisted, or said differently altruism is going to be heavily defended. I think that is Christianity's greatest sin against mankind, that it enshrined altruism such that morality is seen as inseparable from it.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for expanding on Steve's point, the quote and the short list of bad elements of Christianity. This fleshes out WHY Christianity not only can't lead humanity out of its crisis, but also why its vices threaten humanity anew.