A Brief History of Morality: Part Two
Civilization degrades the many to exalt the few.
Amos Bronson Alcott
IN THE PREVIOUS POST, I described the natural morality of humans, which evolved along with our humanity over the 250,000 to 7,000,000 years we spent becoming sophisticated hunter gatherers.
Although any moral system can be improved upon, this one did, and still does, serve us very well.
If it were still the only moral system in use, we would almost certainly have honed it further, and be even more ethically advanced than we are now.
But something happened which, at the very least, crippled our ethical progress.
About ten thousand years ago, very recently in terms of our history as humans, a relatively small group of people managed to take over.
We call it the dawn of civilization, but the name is deceptive.
In a very short time the bulk of humanity was taken from the democratic, egalitarian, and relatively healthy hunter gatherer lifestyle, which was our birthright, and plunged into back-breaking agricultural, military, and construction labor.
The proceeds of this labor was enjoyed disproportionately by a small upper class—the kings, military men, bureaucrats, and priests who together engineered this new society.
The problem of the upper class, of course, was how to keep the workers in line.
The job was accomplished in multiple ways involving:
Economics—the control of food and other wealth,
War—the control of fear and loyalty,
Punishment—the use of force,
Religion—the invention of gods,
Hierarchy—the use of delegation to divide and conquer, and
Law—the appropriation and redefining of morality.
None of these early kingdoms separated church and state, so law, as they defined it, was, at the same time:
The commands of the gods,
The commands of the king,
The imposed definition of the identity of the people.
This led to a completely different approach to ethical considerations than the one we had developed in our hunter-gather days.
Morality was no longer fundamentally rooted in our natural values as human beings, or worked out in the negotiations of a community.
Now it was something that came from above, something about which we had no choice, handed down and enforced by the gods and the king.
Ethics was truncated to obedience.
Notice the subtle appropriation that takes place when a king or a god commands that which our natural values agree with:
Thou shalt not murder.
On the one hand, who wants to argue with that?
But on the other hand, our natural moral instincts have just been pre-empted.
What was once an outgrowth of our humanity and our wisdom has been reduced to a command.
Our agreement has become mere obedience.
We have moved from the status of moral agents to the status of slaves.
This slavery was maintained in part by controlling our world view.
A cosmic drama was invented which paralleled the local political drama and kept the workers in line.
This new, legal, model of morality was very different from the natural morality of hunter-gatherers:
It was a top-down affair, rather than bottom-up.
It assumed that humans were naturally defective morally, rather than reliable sources of value. (Which is why they had to be told what was right and what was wrong by a priest or a king.)
It assumed that morality was based in authority, force, and rules, rather than values.
It assumed that our values could not be trusted, unless they were dictated to us from above.
It assumed that values could be dictated from above.
It took the relativity out of morality. Right was right (what the kings and priests said it was). Wrong was wrong. There was no room for negotiation, for the balancing of values, for the consideration of circumstances.
It assumed that morality had only one ultimate source: the gods.
It assumed that right and wrong were therefore facts, which existed in isolation from the circumstances and values of the actual people on the ground.
It turned ethics into a field of knowledge (about the laws of the king and the teaching of the priests) instead of a realm of skilful practice (in navigating the social contexts in light of one's values and the values of others).
It was profoundly unscientific.
We are inheritors of this morality, this legal model, as well as the natural model of our ancestors.
Many humans today still take the legal model to be the only model, even though they may often use the natural model in practice.
They see right and wrong as merely obedience to the desires of some authority, whether it be a god (in practice, whoever speaks for the god), or a parent, or a book, or tradition, or some other human being who they think knows.
On the other hand, many of us who give no lip service to the legal model still have had our moral understanding corrupted by it.
We tend to want a top-down approach, putting ourselves under the authority of some principle or tradition, if not a person or book or god.
We tend not to trust our own values, or those of others.
But worst of all, perhaps, we tend to conflate the two models, so that our conversations about morality are often muddied and confused.
We are not out from under the thumbs of the kings and priests yet.
Next: The Natural Model,
The Legal Model, and
The Leap from Is to Ought...