Thursday, May 24, 2012

TFTD: Thoughts on One Modern Rejection of Moral Obligations

Once upon a time people asked, "What ought I to do to live rightly?"  Today, many people angrily ask, "What right do you have to tell me how I ought to live?"  The difference between the two questions is stark and demonstrates the moral corruption of the West.

The first question recognizes that there is a way to live which is right which we ought to do.  The second question rejects anything that puts limits on personal hedonism.  The first recognizes that all people have moral obligations.  The second denies that.

The end result is that in the first case, one could recognize the difference between the principled person and the scoundrel.  Today, many people cannot.

About here, many people will miss the point.  The accusations come out pointing to some reprehensible behavior in the past and accusing people of wanting to return to those times.  These accusations are false, because it confuses the recognition of truth with the wanting to turn the whole of society back to a certain time when things were "perfect" (but overlooking serious societal faults).

Basically, that kind of argument employs a sort of chronological snobbery which wrongly assumes that:

  1. In the past, People believed in moral obligations (In the past, people believed [A])
  2. They also practiced slavery (They also believed [B])
  3. They were wrong on slavery (They were wrong on [B])
  4. Therefore they were wrong on moral obligations (Therefore they were wrong on [A])

The problem with such an argument is that just because a people were wrong on [B] does not mean they were wrong on [A] unless it can be shown that the acceptance of [B] was directly linked to the acceptance of [A].

For example, we can look at the Nazis and see that their treatment of non-Germanic people was directly related to their view that non-Germanic people were subhuman.  In this case we can say that the rejection of one necessarily requires the rejection of the second.

However, if we were to try to argue that:

  1. in 19th century America people believed all men were created equal. 
  2. But they also kept slaves.
  3. They were wrong on slavery
  4. Therefore they were also wrong to believe all men were created equal

…most people would recognize the claim was garbage.  They were certainly in error to believe 1 and not recognize that 2 contradicted it.  Yet the existence of 2 did not disprove the truth of 1.

Yet this is the reasoning that some people try to use to claim that because past times were repugnant in some ways, nothing they have to say is true.

Back in 2010, I wrote:

Let's envision a time in the 23rd century, where society has changed, and the world is a meritocracy.  Those with genetic advantages in the mental field are given positions of authority and power.  Those who lack are relegated to doing menial jobs, essentially the property of those who have.  Now, lets assume that a person comes forward, and brings up writings against slavery from the 19th century as showing arguments as to why the current system ought not to be tolerated.

Would it be valid to negate his arguments on the grounds that "people back in the 20th century believed [X], therefore they had no idea what they were talking about on slavery"?

The bottom line is claims need to be investigated as to whether or not they are true and then accepted or rejected on that principle.  To reject a thing from the past simply because it is "old" is not a valid reason.  The Pythagorean Theorem (A2 + B2 = C2) is  at least 2500 years old.  We don't reject it on account of its age, or because people from his time practiced slavery.  We accept it because it is true.

This certainly gives us something to consider. When people reject the concept of living rightly, and argue that this rejection is justified because of the moral flaws at the time of people who held this belief, we can be sure that they are merely making excuses, and not actually justified in their response.

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