A guest post on morality

Ernest N. Prabhakar (ernest@alumni.caltech.edu)
Tue, 26 Aug 1997 07:35:20 -0700 (PDT)

From: Dustin <laurence@alice.wonderland.caltech.edu>
To: "Ernest N. Prabhakar" <ernest@alumni.caltech.edu>
Subject: Re: Evolutionary thoughts (fwd)
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> Yup, that mailing list.
> http://xent.w3.org/FoRK-archive

Took me a while, but I did find some messages from the moral relativism
thread--I think that is what you mentioned to me. Looks like an
interesting discussion. One thing caught my eye, so I'll comment even
though it wasn't at all you who said them:

I noticed some argument that there is no alternative between moral
relativism and theism. I think that's a grand mistake caused by our
total cultural lack of perspective, and a good deal of intentional
deception. In fact, so far as I can tell moral relativism is quite young,
quite modern, and probably peculiar to our age and destined to vanish
after the transients damp out (but not certainly--as Lewis points out, we
have conquered ourselves and may coming close to making our 'ageist'
prejuices prejudices for all time).

I offer an interesting example I came across recently, the religion of
Sumer and the ancient near east. Apparently it was in some sense an
entirely rational transaction (you do what the gods say so they do nice
things and don't do bad things) or alternately one of fear, but with
little or no moral content at all. The book I was reading argues that in
some sense the Sumerian moral sense existed without real support from and
in a sense in spite of religion.

While it was pretty barbarous, and if the hard-core relativists shriek I
may be able defend that judgement without too much appeal to specifically
Western or Christian values, it should be noted that this religion was
universal (and swallowed up all surrounding religions without a trace) in
a highly intelligent an organized culture for, oh, more than 2500 years.
Unless you believe that the population explosion makes ideas more valuable
simply because a greater mass of flesh holds it, I don't think we can
discount it.

I've more than once called Lewis my intellectual father, not my spiritual
one, to emphasize that supposing I decided tomorrow that this whole God
business is wrong I would still not have the relativist option any more.
As long as I'm a rational being, intellectual honesty will force me to
acknowledge that the evidence of history and humanity demonstrates the
existence of the natural law.

Without God I would have no explanation for it, any more than without
quantum mechanics I would be able to explain the photoelectric effect. But
I could not then simply deny that the photoelectric effect exists. I
think the Sumerians more or less entirely failed to comprehend the most
basic *reasons* for the existence of moral law, probably much more so than
(to pick a controversial alternative) the Aztec religion which made such
mass human sacrifices. From what I could gather it was maybe the worst
religion I've ever seen. But they were in one sense more civilized than
we, because they acknowledged the evidence of its existence. We, who have
access to history in a way they could not have, have so successfully
destroyed its relevance that we cannot even do that. If nothing else, it
really helped me to understand at the gut level Lewis' argument that if we
must give up Christ we'd be better off with (say) the old Norse religion
(perhaps the most categorical non-relativist religion that I can think of,
BTW, for reasons certain FoRKers will understand very well) than popular

Oh well, back to work. Or something. Probably something. If any of your
FoRK friends have read 'The End of Racism' it might be interesting to see
what they thought of D'Sousa's analysis of moral relativism's brother,
cultural relativism. If nothing else, it is incendary enough in places
that it ought to throw a bit of gasoline on the fire (not to mention
nitrocellulose and a bit of C4). I highly recommend it if the rest of the
war gets a bit dull.