Tuesday, September 28, 2010
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.
Today: Added a clarification.