Sunday 2 October 2011

Modern man: the ethical giant...


CS Lewis often pointed out the Christianity was added to and a completion of natural law and good paganism.

Therefore much of The Good, most, was taken for granted as being obvious, spontaneous, inborn.

The anciently conceived Good was a unity of virtue, truth a beauty.


So modern 'thinkers' arrive on the scene having rejected the vast submerged iceberg of the natural and the spontaneous, and having isolated virtue (ethics) from the true and the beautiful; and they tackle an issue like the death penalty, or war, or marriage by considering it on the assumption that all previous generations were evil fools and a few minutes of sensible consideration by people such as themselves should easily be able to supersede them...


And so we discover that the death penalty is evil, and pacifism is imperative, and marriage is just a convenient contract... and all of humanity before a few decades ago, and ninety something percent of humanity now, was and is wicked or stupid or both; and we ourselves, our generation, are in fact and in deed the most virtuous ever - modern enlightened humans are nothing less than ethical giants who colossally bestride human kind: evaluating, judging, laying down the law...



And yet.

I look around at the world of careerists, expedience merchants and intellectual pygmies who make these amazing moral discoveries such as the intrinsic and universal evilness of the death penalty; these sold-out academics, media pundits and pub debaters who claim to have superseded the justice of the ages (the great philosophers, the Saints and martyrs) - and am simply stunned at the mismatch.

It really is bizarre that the most self-indulgent and hedonistic generations to inhabit the planet should regard themselves as moral experts and exemplars - of all things!

Untrammeled pleasure-seeking, unbridled self-expression and changing the rules to facilitate these are one thing - but to preen oneself as an ethical giant?

Did Caligula and Nero regard themselves as moral authorities?



baduin said...

Nero considered himself to be a philosopher, an artist and a sportsman - with equally poor justification. (Although he did win at Olympic Games in 67 AD).

The fixation on morality is peculiarly modern.

And it cannot be denied that modern men are much more moral than any in history.

Their morality may be monstrously deformed, but they are really serious about it. No other civilisation in history attempted to commit a suicide for moral reasons.

Bruce Charlton said...

@baduin - Yes you are correct that modern man is serious about what he thinks is morality - it is simply that what he calls morality changes according to expediency.

In the past morality was regarded as fixed and men had to fit themselves to it - now morality has to fit itself to the desires of the elite, and again, and again - so that the current Western elite are always the most moral people ever or anywhere...

In the past morality included truthfulness and beauty - now morality entails lies and the destruction of beauty - the elevation of disgust and banality.

Morality: same word, different thing: different kind of thing...

ivvenalis said...

"It really is bizarre that the most self-indulgent and hedonistic generations to inhabit the planet should regard themselves as moral experts and exemplars - of all things"

It's not bizarre at all: the self-indulgence and unquestioning hedonism is a precondition of their attitude, especially when held by someone of intellect.

The Crow said...

There are very few words remaining, that mean, today, what they formerly did. And many more words are used, to convey ever less.
The subtle art of consideration, is also nearly extinct. It goes like this:
Hear one word.
Judge it.
Toss it out, or judge the next word.
If it appears to agree with one's own view, then consider it.
But mostly, just argue with it, or ignore it.

It seems to me, that civilization was built upon consideration of differing ideas. And that the destruction of civilization relies upon exorcising all but a single idea.

Thus morals are now things that are dependent upon convenience and political orientation, rather than fixed, unchanging ideals.

Rather like history, laws, hierarchies, etc...

ajb said...

"It really is bizarre that the most self-indulgent and hedonistic generations to inhabit the planet should regard themselves as moral experts and exemplars - of all things!"

Because they know more. (Or so they think.) This attitude goes along with advances in scientific knowledge, and supposed advances in things like sociology, biology, psychology, and so on.

The basic argument comes out of one that C.S. Lewis makes to buttress his claims that there is an objective Law of Human Nature:

"I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one many said to me, "Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?" But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. [...] There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there."

From this, one doesn't get that knowing more = more moral behaviour, but it's pretty straightforward to see how one might think that. ("We are more moral than people who burned witches. How? Well, they were wrong in believing that there were witches. Knowing things accurately leads to more objectively moral behaviour." or what have you.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I think that's more or less the reason.

Humans are simple, dichotomous souls - they can *only* think either the past is right until proven wrong, or wrong until proven right.