" 'I will tell you instead another anecdote, a very interesting and characteristic anecdote about Mr Ivan Karamazov himself.
"Only five days ago, at a certain social gathering, consisting mostly of ladies, he solemnly declared during an argument that there was absolutely nothing in the whole world to make men love their fellow-men, that there was no law in nature that man should love mankind, and that if love did exist on earth, it was not because of any natural law but solely because men believed in immortality.
"He added in parenthesis that all natural law consisted of that belief, and that if you were to destroy the belief in immortality in mankind, not only love but every living force on which the continuation of all life in the world depended, would dry up at once.
"Moreover, there would be nothing immoral then, everything would be permitted, even cannibalism.
"But that is not all: he would up with the assertion that for every individual, like myself for instance, who does not believe in God or his own immortality, the moral laws of nature must at once be changed into the exact opposite of the former religious laws, and that self-interest, even if it were to lead to crime, must not only be permitted but even recognized as the necessary, the most rational, and practically the most honourable motive for a man in his position.' "
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky - translated by David Magarshack.
Of course this is merely a novelist creating one character reporting another character; and the causal mechanisms are only sketched.
But it is striking how this has come to pass - albeit not 'at once'.
We underestimate sheer social inertia, due to the overlapping of human generations - and thereby mistake inertia for rationality and for human societies being self-regulating.
In fact we routinely rely on inertia to moderate policies with unacceptable implications - we assume that 'people' will be sensible (i.e. old-fashioned) about implementing them.
But inertia only slows down bad things, and does not prevent them; and of course inertia works both ways so that a trend towards bad things becomes very hard to stop: an insane 'logic' has an inertia leading powerfully towards ever more psychosis.
It must have seems 'crazy talk' back in the 1870s for anyone to suggest that moral inversion (" the moral laws of nature must at once be changed into the exact opposite of the former religious laws") would become established and coercively enforced throughout the whole West - but that is precisely what we are living through.