How I learned to love moral relativism & cultural chauvinism
Over at Crunchy Con Rod Dreher points me to a new book, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, which, in Dreher’s words “attempts to defend St. Paul against his modernist critics (e.g. those who consider him an impossible troglodyte for his views on women and homosexuals) by explaining the Greco-Roman social and cultural context in which he composed his letters.” If you open the Bible and read it front to back, there is much to defend, or as academics would say, “contextualize.”
As a young unbeliever with some fluency in the basic texts of the Christian religion I would occasionally point to the “politically incorrect” aspects of scripture, or commentaries by the Church Fathers, in arguments with my devout friends. The main issue which prompted me was the contention by my righteous interlocutors that their religious tradition espoused timeless values, that they had access to Truth untouched by historical contingencies. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. Liberals are wont to point out the selective reading of scripture by cultural “conservatives.” The sections devoted to homosexuality have great relevance today, but those speaking to the sin of divorce are less emphasized in a society where many “Bible believing Christians” engage in serial monogamy.
Attempts by Christians to genuinely “roll back the clock” in a more credibly consistent manner have met with little success. Doug Wilson, a Reformed theologian and pastor prominent in right-wing Calvinist circles, attempted to defend the Biblical basis of slavery. Wilson’s argument is logically consistent. Christianity Today noted:
In his quest to mock modern-day cows of Bashan, however, critics say Wilson has sometimes gone too far. His local opponents will not soon forget the fall of 2003, when a pamphlet that Wilson co-wrote years earlier came to their attention. The aim of Southern Slavery: As It Was, authored with Louisiana pastor Steve Wilkins, was to compel Christians to acknowledge God’s sanction of slavery as it is biblically portrayed. Wilson and Wilkins argued that if Christians admit that the Bible’s treatment of slavery may be outdated, it’s only a short way down the slippery slope of relativism toward relinquishing the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and other hot issues. “If we respond to the ‘embarrassing parts’ of Scripture by saying, ‘That was then, this is now,’ we will quickly discover that liberals can play that game more effectively than conservatives,” they wrote.
Wilson’s particular line of thought in Southern Slavery seems to have been an attempt to revive the Christian arguments for Southern Slavery exposited by the Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney during the antebellum period. This is nothing compared to the 2,000 year gap which separates us from St. Paul. Though Dabney’s ideas on slavery have been rejected by all excepting a few such as Wilson, he has influence in other areas. The Christian historian Susan Wise Bauer cites his ideas on pedagogy approvingly, all the while explaining how misguided Christian slaveholders relying on Dabney’s framework were. I am sure as a conservative Christian who accepts a temporally invariant Truth Bauer believes she sees clearly where Dabney was being influenced by his times (slavery) and where he had access to Truth (his ideas as to the instruction of young minds). How convenient for her.
Of course I’m not a total relativist. The truths of much of science are ahistorical. The truths of history in a low-level concrete sense are, or are not. Alexander battled at Gaugamela on a particular date. But when it comes to our moral sensibilities there are a few core aspects of human nature, and many extraneous customs, traditions, and values which evolve and change over time and space. All humans in all societies would accept that it is immoral for a son to copulate with the body of his recently deceased mother. Traditions which might countenance such behavior, such as the dark strand in Tantric thought, do so only conditionally upon an understanding that this behavior is a warped perversion of the universal moral sense.
In contrast, you have a phenomenon such as slavery. It has been a feature of all advanced societies until the recent past. In some places and times, such as the American South in the 19th century and the early Roman world a substantial minority of the population were slaves. In China and India slaves were ever only a minor element in society, often criminals, prisoners of war or soldiers (in the case of India). In many cultures slavery was not seen as a benefit to society. In ancient China the humanistic Confucian theorists frowned upon slavery, as the institution undermined the basis of a stable political order and cosmic harmony, the primary production of the free peasant (in a later age this would be termed “Free Soil”). In western Eurasia both Christians and Muslims were enjoined to enslave only unbelievers. This was of course often honored in the breach, Muslim slavers would routinely have villages declared in a state of apostasy on flimsy grounds so that the letter of the law was followed, while the Normans found slavery to be widely practiced in the Christian Anglo-Saxon England which they conquered. Islamic, and later Christian, penetration into Sub-Saharan Africa was attracted by the huge reservoir of pagan slaves on the continent.*
Is slavery then natural? Aristotle certainly thought so. His idea that there were natural slaves whose labor allowed for the emergence of a refined leisure class was popular and various points in history, having a last efflorescence in the Deep South in the 19th century (some thinkers in South Carolina even argued for the benefits of enslaving lower class whites!). But I would suggest that having the argument as to whether slavery is natural is a pointer to the likelihood that at a deep level many found the idea of human chattel disturbing. So justifications had to emerge to salve the consciences of the owners of human property, and those who had to witness the ownership of humans, as well as those who worried that they themselves might one day be owned, or have to sell their own children during times of distress.
Human nature is flexible, but not arbitrary. The flexibility of that nature is manifest in the diversity of human societies. The incest taboo between first order relatives, parents and children, and full siblings, is very strong. There are powerful genetic reasons for this having to do with recessive lethal alleles, but there is an exception to this truism: it was not only the pharaohs of ancient Egypt who married their sisters, many common folk also engaged in this practice. Because Egypt is dry, and papyrus preserves relatively well, property records from Roman antiquity attest to the persistence of the practice into the Common Era. This does not mean that the first order incest taboo is arbitrary, rather, it shows that human cultural plasticity can overcome it, and a new equilibrium can be established for a time (though I suspect eventually the Egyptians would have given up the practice as inbred family lines regularly went extinct).
We are used to thinking of the diversity of human cultures in a spatial sense. As modern people we often have a visceral understanding of cultural diversity through migration and travel which ancient peoples did not have. But diversity also occurs over time. 15,000 years ago all humans were living as hunter-gatherers, in small groups. This I believe was the context of our core moral sense, what evolutionary psychologists would term the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness,” the EEA. Leading up to the Neolithic Revolution in many parts of the world these groups were growing in size and complexity. With the rise of agriculture we see mass sedentary societies. Historical records only begin about 5,000 years ago, but it is clear that the outlines of the world of economic specialization, rentier classes and the state were already fully formed before the first cuneiform was baked.
It is in the period between the Neolithic Revolution and the literate city-states of Sumer that I believe the seedbeds of what might today be termed “traditional” morality emerged. Social complexity in small hunter-gatherer bands is limited because specialization could not emerge in that context; there was simply not enough marginal economic product to steal so that a class of those who were not primary producers could crystallize. Certainly gods, inchoate taboos and superstitions predate the Neolithic Revolution, but the racket of institutionalized religion emerged only in the context of complex societies which could support priests. The flexibility of humanity is evident in the new ideologies which we took to, and turned into second nature, during the period of great agricultural civilizations. Ideologies such as Confucianism and the Abrahamic religions claim to be a distillation and revitalization of the primal human order, but in reality they’re radical intellectual retrofits on an evolutionary timescale.
So should we do the “natural” thing and abandon all the accoutrements of the past 10,000 years of civilization? To some extent that was tried in the early 19th in New York’s Burnedover District, and in the 1960s among the Counterculture. I think the empirical record is that by and large experiments in Noble Savagery fail, largely because the humans are not particularly noble, though somewhat savage, and the mores of the hunter-gatherer society are not appropriate to people embedded in a technological world.** If one wishes to revert to the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer living on the Malthusian margin, barely above subsistence level, then small-scaled communal living is workable. It worked for thousands of years. But most modern humans do not wish to abandon all trappings of consumer luxury, and lifestyles are package deals.
The empirical record does not seem to show that complex societies allow for human flourishing on the thin basis of core morality, the toolkit which is deeply hardwired into us because of the million year hunter-gatherer phase of humanity (or, if you constrain humanity to the behaviorally modern, the 50,000 year hunter-gatherer phase of humanity). In fact, hunter-gatherer societies themselves did not subsist just on the thin core, rather, they’re riddled with a superstructure of queer taboos and customs which scaffold human action. The specific nature of this exhibits great diversity, but the general tendency is still evident in Jewish or Islamic law, or Confucian fixation on proper rites and names.
The rise of traditional societies has seen an elaboration of formalized rules and rituals to channel human behavior. The dehumanization of the Other certainly predates the Neolithic, at least judging from hunter-gatherer cultures still extant, but advanced civilizations extended and elaborated the concept ingeniously. The barbarian, the kuffar and the infidel are primitive concepts, dressed up in specific cultural garb. Similarly, the empathy and fellow feeling which is natural between members of the same band has been extended to the point that universal human brotherhood is an explicit doctrine of several religions, and implicit within modern political thought. Complex human societies are riddled with fictive kinship.
Many of the meta-level intellectual structures of the previous age are now under stress as societies are becoming restructured by mass affluence. The American phenomenon of “shopping for a church” discomfits many religious traditionalists, but it is part and parcel of the consumer culture and the taking for granted of individual flux in identification. The hunter-gatherer didn’t have to deal with the peculiar institutions which arose after the Neolithic Revolution to manage a peasantry on the Malthusian margin, and the modern consumer is shedding the monopoly that these institutions have on the choices they make and beliefs which they adhere to. But their life is also characterized by an incredible flux which would bewilder the hunter-gatherer.
In the flux one needs to take a step back. Let’s take it as a given that humans have a particular moral sense, a thin core set of presuppositions which are species universals, and can be subverted only through mass social conditioning. But humans are also conditioned toward a thicker network of rules, rites and customs which demarcate their trajectory through the sample space of possible choices and behaviors. The peasant had their world bounded by the traditions of their village and the necessities of the farming life. The dweller in a Jewish shtetl were bounded by the traditions of their community. In much of the modern world the control of the lives of individuals by corporate entities is melting away, as civil society becomes radically voluntary and fluid.
Some see the variation in mores and values over time and space and use that to argue that all is chaos and caprice. These would argue that every man is a barbarian unto himself, that civilization is a fiction predicated upon lies. I believe this is radically wrongheaded. I certainly believe that Christianity is a fiction. And I certainly believe that Confucius’ contention that he was only resurrecting the ways of the ancients was a fiction. But there are broad similarities in the ethical-moral systems of Confucianism and Christianity, or any civilization. To fully flourish as a human one must be a social creature, embedded in the community. For a community to function there must be a common set of values binding individuals together with common currency. The exact currency may vary, but it serves the same function.
St. Paul was a barbarian. He was certainly not a barbarian without moral merit. Rather, he was a barbarian because he was of an alien civilization, specifically a Greco-Roman world which was antecedent, but not analogous to in many ways, to the modern West. This does not mean that St. Paul was not admirable, but it does mean he was profoundly different, alien, and in some ways morally unintelligible. The same can be said for contemporaneous cultures where some acts are not commensurable in their significance. The symbolic role of suicide for example differs in Japan from the West; in Japan suicide has a strong social valence which it does not in the West (in fact, in the West suicide often is a symptom of individual mental pathology, not an act with social consequences).
When it comes to ideologically grounded values which one presumes are temporally invariant the admirable barbarian becomes problematic. This is why religious individuals with an intellectual bent spend a great deal of time contextualizing the barbaric strands in the pasts of their own traditions. The God of the Hebrew Bible is famously often a very disturbing individual in regards to the genocidal commands which he issues from on high. Repeatedly in Christian history the heresy of Marcionism has broken out precisely because some intellectuals simply could not reconcile Yahweh with Christ.
Another problem with religions with a long history predicated on the idea of an ahistorical Truth is that past barbarisms can reemerge like the Phoenix, because past barbarisms are given precedence as the world began with Truth, so subsequent ages are more likely to be deviations. In Christianity this resulted in some of the weirder features of strange sects in the 19th century. Mormon polygamy was partly justified in part on patriarchal precedents. But the bizarre debut of Salafi radicalism in the 20th and 21st century is probably a more salient instance of the atavisms of religious ideology. The Salafists wish to recreate the utopian world of the first few decades of Islam. This naturally leads them to argue in some cases for the reintroduction of slavery. In other ways they’re a radical departure from Islamic tradition which probably has little real connection to 7th century Islam. Finally, the contingent event of there being massive oil fields in Saudi Arabia has resulted in a fortuitous economic structure which allows for the Saudis to run their nation on a primitive Islamic framework. This flowering of “moderate” Salafism is an aberration, and is likely not sustainable over the long term because of the structural nature of an economy based on resource exploitation (by analogy, some Counterculture enthusiasts can fund their lifestyle through their inheritances, but these will become exhausted over the generations).
Most societies are robust and allow for human flourishing only when they develop organically out of their own traditions. The disasters of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and more modestly much of the Communist world, attest to that. But over time these traditions, the guidelines of human life, evolve and change. The traditions themselves do not reflect invariant Truth; just as the greenback is not the True currency of the United States. And just as the guidelines can change over time, they change between societies. Some values, extending core moral concepts such as empathy, have spread across all human societies. Slavery is simply no longer acceptable, at least openly and formally. On the other hand, a Western concept of gender equality is not universal. Is there a difference here? I do think there is. Slavery violates our sense of individual human dignity more than enforcement of differentiated gender roles; I believe as an empirical matter Aristotle was wrong that there are natural slaves, but there is an empirical reality that men and women start out biologically different, and there are average group differences in disposition and outlook.
It would be inhuman if a society began to raise other humans as meat animals. In contrast, way Saudi Arabia treats its female population is simply barbaric. Many Saudi women accept and endorse the strict enforcement of gender, because their values are barbaric. I do not think their values are untrue, rather, I can not evaluate clearly how women in Saudi Arabia can properly flourish, so alien is the cultural context. As a social creature with empathy, who wishes to communicate and engage with my fellow human with common moral currency, I wish that the people of Saudi Arabia would give up their barbaric values. But, their behavior is not actionable in the same manner that raising humans as meat, or slavery, would be. These strike much more closely to triggers of abhorrence rooted in our universal individual human nature, as opposed to our socialized Weltanschauung.
That some of morality is invariant on a historical and spatial scale is an assertion about how things are. That much of morality is relative on a historical and spatial scale is an assertion about how things are. It does not follow from the latter than societies must abandon a thick set of morals and customs. Just because a value or custom is not True is a deep sense does not mean that it lacks essential utility toward the ends of human flourishing. Just because fiat currency is not backed by real assets does not mean that it is not useful in furthering economic activity. As a scholarly matter there is no point in judging intercultural differences. But as a conventional human who is a creature of social habit and custom, an aversion to the ways of aliens is a normal reflex. Our cognitive capacities exhibit scarcity in the supply of mental energy, and so much of our daily activities and our beliefs emerge out of the reflexive implicit mind, informed by our instincts, personal experiences, and social milieu. To examine all acts and beliefs “rationally” simply invites exhaustion of mental energy. To demand genuine consistency with Truth in the messy and sordid world of human affairs is likely folly, and will only detract from the enjoyment of the small things in life. It does not seem to me that grand transcendent Truth trickles down from on high to a society, rather, it is through personal self-cultivation and enjoyment of life that society can flourish and transcend simply being the sum of its pedestrian parts.
Addendum: I focused on religion when it comes to worship of Truth. But it need not be religious. Consider a friend who insisted to me that the Founding Fathers were multiculturalists! His admiration for the Founding Fathers and adherence to multiculturalism was resolved by simply reworking history. In contrast, other adherents of multiculturalism revile the Founding Fathers as “Dead White Men.” They were what they were, and need not be sacrificed before the idol of Truth.
* The push by the Teutonic Knights into the pagan Baltic fringe in the 12th to 14th centuries is a forgotten episode of the Christian war against unbelievers which redounded to economic benefit of the Crusaders. Because the Baltsa were outside of the pale of Christendom warlords could extract maximum marginal product out of their pagan subjects without any interference. As in the American South, some of the ostensibly Christian warriors prevaricated in allowing the pagans on their lands to be converted to Christianity and baptized.
** Additionally, many sixties radicals seem to have a weird concurrent adherent to the Blank Slate ideology, along with copious utilization of the Naturalistic Fallacy.