I’ve recently written a couple of short blurbs about how our sense of right and wrong develops from nature. This is extraordinarily unsatisfying and offensive to many people. They want to know how we avoid moral pandemonium without a set of rules about right and wrong that come from on high. This is a different question than what I am asking but is closely related. So how do we know what to do? How do we set up a legal system? I am invariably asked how to hold rapists or Hitler responsible for their actions if there are no morals that are eternally enforceable?
These are good questions that wrap ideas about free will and morality and god into one so it can be hard to winnow out simple observations. But the idea that morals are unchanging is historically and theologically indefensible. We can use any religion but I’m most familiar with Christianity: what eternal truth can be championed as an unchanging expression of god’s character? Maybe that children are treasures? I think they are as do most parents but the Hebrew God doesn’t. There is the story of God telling his favorite, Abraham, to take his child’s life as a test of faith. And I’ve read the Bible story about Lot who, in order to save a group of visitors from harm, offered his daughters to a group of gang rapists. I read in the prophets where God instructs Israelite warriors to not even spare the enemy’s children, but to smash their heads upon stones. And while they’re at it – just for good measure – to ‘rip open their pregnant women’.
In each case there are theological explanations. And that is fine. But the idea of the sanctity of children as a universal moral stance isn’t supported. A similar conversation can be had about marriage. We see plural marriage, old men marrying young women, and men taking women as possessions throughout the scriptures. And when there are no men around, as in Noah’s time, we read that his daughters drunked him up and had sex with him. Noah isn’t thrilled about the event but there is nothing to indicate that what the women did was morally wrong.
That fact is that morals are a moveable feast. We sense them as overarching and inviolate because they are those things in our culture. And culture moves slowly. It took a hundred years of US history – where all men are created equal – to remove chains from Africans. It took another hundred to finally call them equal. It took 150 years to recognize that women are smart enough to vote. We still struggle with allowing a human being to love anyone they want to.
Knowing that morals developed culturally due to genetic proclivities doesn’t lessen their importance. In a sense, it heightens their value as they give insights into how we are programmed to live successfully within groups. It does, however, remove the onus to follow beliefs handed down by fiat, only because we are told to do so. It elevates the importance of the human being and reduces the importance of religion. Which, of course, is what all the hubbub is about.
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