Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Us and Them

I am absolutely alone in my essential ethical position, and therefore useless.
-Lord Acton


I am rather jealous that this discussion about religion, science, and absolute and relative morality has taken off on Marco’s blog. I am not so terribly fussed how the conclusion ‘we should all stick together’ is reached, so long as it is. What is much more important is where we draw the boundary between ‘we’ and ‘not we’, and how logically defensible that boundary is.

Historically, the philosophies of advanced societies have followed one of two paths:

(1) There is a ‘soul’ that distinguishes humans from animals, and makes them ‘we’; it may be pre-existing or may be created with each new human; it may enter the body at conception, or it may enter at some later date (e.g., Aquinas’ three months). Animals and pre-ensoulment entities that are genetically human are not ‘we’. This, as you will be well aware, was the historical position of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic culture.

(2) Everything has a ‘soul’- or, which amounts to the same thing, everything does not. There is no essential difference between humans and animals. Societies holding this position have usually held up vegetarianism as an ideal, even if it was not realised, and had a shading of moral responsibilities from big souls to little souls.

A problem with ethics in our culture is that our habitual, traditional, instinctive line between ‘we’ and ‘not we’ is essentially that of (1), as it was drawn by the philosophers of the High Middle Ages, but this line is not consistent with post-Judaeo-Christian-Islamic core axioms, which logically support (2).

Realisation that there is no essential difference between humans and animals, 5th Century BCE: ‘Gosh, we’d better be nice to animals.’

Realisation that there is no essential difference between humans and animals, 20th Century CE: ‘Hey, we can make soap out of people, too.’

3 comments:

Marco said...

I am rather jealous

Don't be jealous - I just got lucky that I struck a nerve without pushing a button. Two other subjects I was keen on got completely ignored :-).

Historically, the philosophies of advanced societies have followed one of two paths:

Sure but modernally, moral responsibility in modern democracies has been decided 'ad hoc' as responses to various sob-stories or other democratic vices. This makes the link between the laws of a country and their background moral impetus very tenuous. Thus, taken as a whole, the morals of say "Britain" are logically inconsistent. Contrast the killing of a pet pig that has been stolen from a child to the merciless slaughter of complete herds to avert a non-fatal epidemic of say "foot and mouth". Any government that wants to be seen as "moral" or "doing the right thing" would protect the former and be merciless with the latter. And it certainly passes for an advanced society. Too few people saw the irony, as well!

winstoninabox said...

Don't feel jealous Dr. Clam. I've often wanted to make a reply to your excellent blogs too, but I find my Internet time too short to make a reasoned arguement. And when that happens I give the sort of half-arsed comment like I did on Marco's.

The great point of blogs is that one has the time to think about what one wants to say, unlike in a conversation.

A bad point is that often by the time one has reasoned out what one wants to say, the blog has long moved onto other matters, or one doesn't have the time to continue with the discussion via comments once the reasoning has been posted.

People are reading, even if they're not replying 8) I've spent a few restless hours thinking about the points put forth in your "I told you that story..." post.

Dr. Clam said...

Aw, shucks. :)
Thanks for the votes of confidence!