Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
Jefferson's Moral Principles, Cont'd
May I repeat my question - What is the purpose of these 'Conversations on Morality'?
I suggested the pragmatic purpose of any moral system, of ethics, of certain parts of philosophy and of much of religious teaching is to provide a set of 'values' which can be caught by the great majority of individuals (but not by all to the same degree - a view Jefferson supports apparently) in a particular group/culture at a particular time which will enhance the likelihood of the survival and development of that group/culture. Is that a fair statement of how the members of the group view the reality of our communal life?
The ideal behind my inception for this forum was to gather together, to the best of modern scholarship's ability, in- depth information as to the exact contents, the biographical, social, and historical context, and the ethical results for our own time of the earliest stratum of information and text for each and every moral tradition that humanity has ever paid homage to or attempted to live by. This comprises every instance of philosophical, sociological, political, ideological, theological, or secular enlightenment ever developed during the last six thousand years of human culture. Figures like Socrates, John Locke, Pericles, Aeschylus, Jefferson, Confucius, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, Muhammed, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, or Mahatma Gandhi are all pertinent to this. Each of these would be subjected to a process of rigorous scholarly and ethical scrutiny.
Thus, for instance, for a proper treatment of Socrates--of what precisely Socrates most likely thought and said--it would be necessary, as a first step, to focus as strictly as possible on those earlier Socratic dialogues where Plato is not yet inserting his own more developed ideas into Socrates' mouth. This means eschewing later works like Phaedo, Meno, and so on, where Plato's own biography and philosophical development play a heavy part. It means--probably--concentrating instead on the earlier Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, and Protagoras. (Actually, even here, Hippias Minor and Ion may have to be set to one side; some scholars believe they are not quite so well authenticated as the other six.)
Having first come to a scholarly consensus as to the central biographical and philosophical authenticity of this rigorously restricted set of dialogues (granted, absolute unanimity is impossible and we should not expect it), the best translation(s) would then be duly determined, based on what the very newest scholarship could yield regarding the intricacies of textual transmission for all eight (or six) dialogues.
Important addendum to the preceding: I have now determined that there are, in fact, no serious authenticating problems connected with the Hippias Minor at all, only with the Ion. Furthermore, the Hippias Minor is clearly one of the earliest, least "axe-grinding" dialogues Plato ever wrote.
Actually, Laches and Protagoras are the more ambivalent ones in this group. They may indeed come from the earlier third of Plato's output, but that's about it. There are already some signs in them of aspects of Plato's later style/ideas. As such, they cannot be placed among those dialogues where we might have a relatively strong case for believing that we are truly studying Socrates the ethicist when studying them.
Currently, there is a general consensus as to a core group of five early dialogues--the earliest in Plato's earliest third--that can be taken as embodying Plato's most alert and scrupulous picture of Socrates the mentor. Those five are:
Charmides, available online at
Hippias Minor, available online at
Euthyphro, available online at
Apology (possibly the heart of Socrates' teaching), available online at
and Crito, available online at
Following that, the actual ideas of Socrates as expressed in the newest translations of these restricted dialogues would be rigorously scrutinized for their precise meaning.
Finally, from that process would be extracted the ethical implications of Socrates' apparent ideas and their pertinence to the human dilemma of 1997.
This carefully structured scrutiny would be applied to all such historical figures.
Of course, in this entire scrutiny of a Socrates, a Karl Marx, a Jesus Christ, or a Thomas Jefferson, tremendous expertise would be needed. The consensus arrived at in each stage would have to come from the most authoritative specialists humanity can offer.
Naturally, this present forum is only a starting point for such an exhaustive scrutiny. One cannot hope to gather together such a specialized team and accomplish such a daunting project at one fell swoop.
We can only use such resources as come to us in the course of this discussion.
For instance, it is quite likely that Mr. Sharp is very well informed on the development and variety of Indian thought and culture. This is an example of the kind of assets that could be extremely useful as this forum attempts to lay the groundwork for an eventual in-depth scrutiny of all cultures and cultural pathbreakers throughout history.
Specialization is probably less essential for the final stage of such a scrutiny, since the extrapolation of ethical implications for today depends more on a sense of proportion and philosophical outlook than on an in-depth knowledge of the specific historical pathbreaker under discussion.
Ultimately, crucial points of ethical and prescriptive contact amongst the many cultural pioneers scrutinized could be established, leading to a determination on where all such historic mentors jibe in their concerns and in their approach.
By determining which approaches appear to have been the most universal in the past and to be the most applicable to the present, it may be possible to determine which approaches might work best for humanity's uncertain future. Thus, this could be a way of determining which "values" would be most easily "caught" by the greatest majority of individuals tomorrow.
Indeed, it may even be possible to determine through this process whether or no altruism itself has certain "family characteristics." Are these characteristics empirically ascertainable through the rigorous scholarly study of moral and ethical history that I am proposing? Can such characteristics be readily assimilated through an intelligent educational process that would be based on the knowledge gained from the sifting essential to this scrutiny?
This ultimate stage of the inquiry is taken up at somewhat greater length in the final chapter of this site.
In GRiggs' last contribution, he put forward the thesis that these conversations were aimed at providing an agreed synthesis of every moral tradition that humanity has ever paid homage to or attempted to live by in order, at the end, to extract the ethical implications and their pertinence to the human dilemma of 1997.
This approach was initially very much in my mind when I was preparing to write my book, and one of the major influences affecting my final conclusions was The Golden Bough, written by Sir James Frazer, in which he said, "The moral world is as little exempt as the physical world from the law of ceaseless change and flux," and much of my other reading supports that view.
The search is for some kind of Absolutes which, deriving from the intrinsic nature of humanity, will hold good (MORE OR LESS) for all men (and women and children) at all times and in all circumstances. And the "more or less" is the rub, for any such moral law, rule or precept has to be interpreted with mature judgement to enable it to fit with today's extraordinary power over our environment. "Thou shalt not kill" makes a good starting point as a basic requirement for any cultural group to survive and to expand, but what use is it for determining when to switch off a life support system for someone who has been in a coma for years? What precept is there which can tell us whether it is right or wrong to use foetal material in the treatment of Alzheimers disease? And there are many, many more problems of a similar or even more complex nature which I do not believe are likely to be resolved by the type of lengthy analysis which is proposed.
Our Western culture is formed by, and must respond to, the rapid rate of change inherent in it and, while a knowledge of previous attempts to establish different interpretations of morality may be helpful, any such discussion will remain mere verbiage unless it is looked at from a pragmatic point of view. What real difference will it make must, I suggest, be ever present in our minds if the discussion is to be fruitful. My own studies led me to an analysis of Values because it is those (and our interests as determined by our values) which, in my view, provide the motor operator of any moral system.
Please understand I am not attempting to divert your philosophical discussion; only to put it into the sort of perspective which was forced on me by the preparatory work for my book.
I appreciate that; and Mr. Sharp's contribution has been stimulating and highly challenging. It has had the effect of clarifying my own outlook on these questions, always an invaluable process.
On the question "What real difference will it make," my feeling is that any reacquaintance with precepts once held dear teaches us something important not just about the "values" that informed those precepts but about humanity itself as well.
Such precepts could reveal either positive or negative aspects in what makes us tick.
Thus, the scholarly recovery of these precepts or dicta are not just intended to uncover, on the one hand, ethical guidelines to be honored but are also intended to reveal, on the other, the crooked path by which certain guidelines may have seriously jeopardized the prosperous future of humanity--in ways that we are only dimly aware of today for the first time.
Furthermore, though certain uncovered and renewed guidelines be deemed eventually as entirely salutary and ethical through the crucible of this extensive project, even such vindicated guidelines may clearly not apply to all circumstances surrounding tortured ethical issues like fetal research and so on.
Nevertheless, the degree of renewed clarity afforded through such renewal of historical understanding of such time-honored dicta is still worth it for its own sake. Indeed, if certain tortured ethical issues remain unresolved after such a process, that in itself may be a useful indication that individual families, communities, and cultures may be allowed greater independence in such matters without necessarily tearing at the social fabric after all.
Rather, that very prioritizing process of allowing a degree of individual and community independence when it comes to certain restricted matters may only strengthen the universal respect eventually accorded the more fundamental importance of those universal dicta respecting killing, caring for one's neighbor, self-scrutiny, and respect for one's ecosphere. This would be an incalculable boon.CSharp
G Riggs said "Finally, from that process [of detailed analysis of historical wisdom about morality] would be extracted the ethical implications.. and their pertinence to the human dilemma of 1997". I would like to revert to the statement that we must start with the concept ‘all men are equal’ and explore this assumption a little further against the background of our awareness that in all physical and mental features (and in terms of their ‘values’) they all differ.
For the purpose of this particular exercise I will assume provisional acceptance of the following facts (or assumptions, if it is not granted they are ‘true’ within the limits I am setting).
1. In any culture/group there is, at any time, a broad consensus of what is regarded as ‘fair’, ‘decent’ and ‘seemly’ behaviour which is determined by a set of ‘values’ which, it is considered, will be likely to encourage that generally approved behaviour. Such behaviour is, consciously or unconsciously, aimed at enabling that particular group culture to survive and to prosper, i.e., it will be considered pertinent to the group’s (current) human dilemma.
2. In any group there must be a degree of tolerance of deviations from those commonly accepted group ‘values’ but that degree of tolerance must be restricted to ensure that blatantly anti-social behaviour (by the psychopaths, the serial and mass murderers, etc.) does not destroy, or seriously impair, the social fabric. We all use our personal ‘values’ to assess others’ values and ‘interests’ and also to determine how to further our personal ‘interests’.
These restrictions on universal tolerance are of two kinds first, in general, the customs and mores of the group and, second, certain laws which are legally enforced to a greater or lesser degree, their effectiveness depending on the extent to which each individual considers them as ‘reasonable and ‘fair,’ e.g., most individuals will be reluctant to kill but are quite willing to avoid paying tax as far as they consider it sensible to do so.
3. All the time we are interacting with all the others we have a relationship with, whether long-term or short-term, and we are continuously assessing what we guesstimate their interests and values to be using our own ‘values’ as a personal yardstick.
4. Such individual ‘values’ are influenced by both genetics and by culture, nature and nurture, some have a biological origin and these tend to be genetically determined while others (which largely determine how we express our ‘values’ in action) are strongly influenced if not wholly determined by our culture and our upbringing.
Now consider the proposal that "all men are equal" against this background - I have already suggested that, unless we regard it as a myth (something held to be true for reasons of faith not reason) it can only hold water if we treat it as an assumption that "all men should be treated as equal BEFORE THE LAW." Even here it tends to break down when one set of cultural values conflicts with another.
Let me cite a well known example from the history of the early settlement in Australia. The original settlers, who in many cases had been sent to Botany Bay following conviction for theft, did not understand that the original inhabitants, the aborigines, living a wandering life, had little or no sense of personal ownership except with regard to anything they could actually physically carry with them. For them, any animal or plant which was on the land they habitually wandered across ‘legitimately’ belonged to whoever caught or plucked it. So when they found a sheep on ‘their’ land, they did not recognize that it ‘belonged’ to someone else and they killed and ate it. For the early convict settlers this was theft, which according to their law was punishable by death or imprisonment and, all being treated as equal in front of their (European) law, they either ‘executed’ the offender(s) or imprisoned them - a penalty usually leading to suicide. In Tasmania they went further and, regarding them as sub-human and incorrigible, hunted them down and exterminated them. I have little doubt that somewhat similar instances of cultural conflicts can be found in the early history of the USA.
This, to me, highlights the sometimes inhuman results which can result from starting from general principles derived with apparent logic from a scholarly examination of historical views regarding human nature. Any such precepts or moral rules must be so hedged about by provisos that they cease to be of much guidance except in the simplest of cases. Examining history, it is clear that killing other people is very much part of human nature, but most civilisations have found it desirable to establish as a precept ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ But this fails to be a useful guideline when faced with the problem of when it is ‘right’ to switch off the support system for someone who has been in a coma for years. And there are many other examples familiar to you, abortion and euthanasia among them.
If instead you approach the problem by saying that for the purpose of maintaining equity between individuals with broadly the same cultural ‘values’ we propose to treat each and everyone as ‘equal before the law’ then I suggest the result is far more likely to prove to be effective in providing solutions which are likely to lead to behaviour helping to resolve the ever more complex problems continuously being provided by our growing control over our environment, including ourselves.
To attempt to establish some Absolute precepts derived from an examination of the voluminous literature on the complex subject of ‘morality’ is, I consider, most likely to prove to be self-defeating . It has been attempted before (e.g. Frazer’s Golden Bough) and has always failed, for what we mean by ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is the simplest of questions and those are the most difficult to answer in real and exact terms.
May I end with what I regard as a revealing quotation from William Lecky:
"There is no possible line of conduct which has at some time and place been condemned and which has not, at some other time and place, been enjoined as a duty"
Like all generalizations, it is not wholly true but is sufficiently so to make me doubt of anyone’s ability to achieve any kind of synthesis of all the ‘wisdom’ of all the ages on which to base a set of ‘values’ which will enable us to meet the diverse challenges now being forced upon us by the fruits of the scientific method. We need to start from what we know of human nature and our behaviour in today’s rapidly changing conditions. This I have attempted to initiate in a very preliminary way in my book on ‘The Origins and Evolution of Human Values’ which, to my mind, is just the beginning and not by far the end.