Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Why Bother

[Originally posted at "Down with Absolutes" on November 5, 2008]

Michael Matthews may or may not have intended to stir up a hornet’s nest on election eve, November 3, 2008 when he posted “As seen on cars outside Corpus Christi Church in Elsmere”. If he did, I was the first to take the bait, which generated a grand total of 22 responses, including a number of thoughtful and some not so thoughtful comments about religion and politics, the founding fathers, and the separation of church and state.

After also taking a stab at these issues, my second posted comment ended in an attempt at notching up the discussion to explore the underpinnings of our laws and government:

Mike, let’s take this to a broader and saner level. Can you at least acknowledge that there is a moral component to government, law and politics? We have laws against murder, stealing, fraud, tax evasion and (in most states) prostitution. Why? These laws are based on a commonly held morality for the good of society. Even traffic laws have a moral component to them.
Let me just leave you with a question as food for thought: What is that morality based on?

Jonathon Moseley offered some very insightful comments about our laws being built on consensus stemming from a variety of motivations, including but not limited to the influence of Christianity or other religious belief, as well as practical considerations that would contribute to a well ordered society. But I must go back to my proposition that law is based on some form of morality. Matthews objects to this proposition, calling himself a moral relativist and taking a stab at my deliberately extreme example of even traffic laws having a moral component:

As for there being some morality behind traffic laws, I disagree. When I do 75 in a 55, I don’t think of morality. I realize I’m breaking the law. If I get a ticket, I don’t get pissed off. I just realize I shouldn’t be so cavalier about the whole deal. In short, to me, morals are subjective. What YOU think is moral, I may NOT think is moral.

True enough. But aren’t you already making a moral judgment when you admit that you should not be so cavalier about breaking the speed limit? Why is it cavalier? Perhaps because you are potentially putting yourself and others in danger of serious bodily harm or even death? But if there is no fixed objective basis for morality, why would that even matter? Are you not acknowledging that you have a sense of morality, though it differs from mine?

My question to you is: what is the basis of your morality? Why should we have any morality at all? And what is the moral basis of our laws and system of government?

Let’s start with a familiar phrase from the beginning of our Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…

Actually, if we take that phrase in isolation, I must disagree. Anyone with even the slightest powers of observation will tell you that we are not equal. Some have the athletic abilities and muscular build of Olympic champion Michael Phelps or basketball legend Michael Jordan, while others of us look more like… Mike Matthews. The same can be said with regard to our intellectual capacities, our talents, etc. We are anything but equal.

So what on earth was Jefferson talking about when he said “all men are created equal”? Was he referring to human potential? Hardly. Let’s face it. Some of us just don’t have it in us. Was he referring to human dignity? You might say, “Yeah, that’s it.” But what is human dignity? Dignity according to whom? Well, let’s read the rest of the sentence:

“… that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Therein lies the fundamental difference between the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. The former had as its foundation a fixed basis of morality in the Judeo-Christian ethic and resulted in a nation that, though imperfect, became a beacon of hope to the world. The latter, relying on a mixture of humanistic rationalism and slogans like liberté, egalité, fraternité, resulted in an orgy of class warfare that filled the town squares with guillotines and the streets with blood.

Before you dismiss the comparison as an over simplification, let me ask the question in a slightly different manner. What is it that gives us the “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” Says who? Many of you who disagree with me politically still have an inner sense of right and wrong. It may differ slightly from mine, but from where do you get your sense of right and wrong? Why should you bother or care so passionately about human rights, economic justice, promoting the general welfare or saving the whales?

In his very thoughtful post entitled Jesus Christ, Mat answers my point about laws against murder, stealing, etc. being based on morality by stating:

This simply isn’t a precedent. Besides the fact that murder and stealing are prohibited by, surely, every religion and society, there are clear secular cases to be made against them. Murder creates a victim (except for, arguably, when the murder is in response to another murder). Theft, too, creates a victim. Prostitution, tax evasion and fraud all create victims.

But if there is no God, then why should we be concerned about victims? Darwin’s Origin of the Species was based on the premise that life evolved (i.e., improved) on the basis of natural selection, i.e., survival of the fittest. If this is the case, who cares about victims, as long as the victim does not happen to be me? What works perfectly well in the animal kingdom should work equally well for human societies. (Actually, what makes humans so special that we insist on separating ourselves from the animal kingdom?)

Oh, but you protest, we are a well advanced society in a technological age. We have evolved to the point where we are far beyond the natural selection processes of the animal kingdom, and we choose to live in a well ordered society. Well, perhaps the best example of a well ordered society is Nazi Germany. You gotta hand it to Adolf. He took the defeated economic basket case that was post-WWI Germany and turned it into a thriving society, revved up its economic engines, and turned it into a model of efficiency. The trains ran on time in Germany. And it was a perfect model of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, as it included in its program the elimination of elements of society that it considered undesirable obstacles to an efficient, well ordered and pure society.

If there is no God, who are we to say that the Nazis were wrong, or that our concern for victims is any better or advanced or noble than their taking natural selection to the next degree? Where did we come up with this silly notion of human rights and dignity?

Why bother?

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