The View From 1776

Morality and Political Order

There is a vast gulf between each person making up the rules to govern his own conduct and the broad-based, traditional moral ethos that must be present in any society, if it is to be politically unified, stable, and enduring.  The first is a prescription for anarchy, the other, what history shows to be the most essential quality of civilization itself.

Reader Brooks A. Mick, M.D., responded to Moral Models from Mainstream Media with the following observation:

Howdy, Thomas,

I beg to differ.? A clear and decent moral philosophy may be and has been developed without recourse to mysticism, as religion is.? There is no way to prove, objectively, that any religion is truer than any other.? Would you conclude that the Islamic terrorists, whose acts are based on their moral views based on their INTERPRETATION of their religion, are behaving morally?

On the other hand, basing a moral philosophy on duty, loyalty, and ?women and children first? can produce, and has produced, a set of principles for living a just and proper life that does not require a belief in a deity or other prop outside of recognition of human fellowship.

My reply:

First, I welcome a reasoned and civil response such as Dr. Mick’s.  In this case I don’t disagree with some of what he says about specific points.  Where we differ most is on the macro level, the implications for political societies.

My intent is not to attack Dr. Mick, but to use his comments as a starting point for illuminating contrary views.  Let me also acknowledge that nothing I write or have written in this vein is my ideas.  I am simply passing along the wisdom of many thousands of years.

With regard to his assertion that, “A clear and decent moral philosophy may be and has been developed without recourse to mysticism, as religion is,” it should be noted that the western world’s first examples of philosophy, in the Greek city states, did in fact arise out of their religious beliefs.  Both Plato and Aristotle acknowledged a single Divine source as the origin of the cosmos and,  ipso facto, the origin of being or existence itself. 

Plato specifically believed in the immortality of the human soul, not as a matter of mysticism, but as developed in philosophical logic.  This appears most clearly in his dialog, the “Phaedo,” in which Socrates’s sorrowful friends visit him in prison, just as he is about to drink the hemlock poison.  He comforts them with the certainty that his soul is about to pass over into a new realm.

One of the charges upon which he was condemned to death by the Athenian Assembly was leading the youth astray from the many, syncretistic gods brought into cosmopolitan Athens via the city’s vast foreign trade.  Plato, using the voice of Socrates, argued that there is only a single Divinity, and that Divinity is the source of moral understanding. 

The whole of Plato’s “Republic” is aimed at the concept that a just society must begin with this moral understanding and rest upon the morality of its rulers.  Roughly 400 years earlier the Old Testament prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah had repeatedly admonished the people of both kingdoms of Israel with the same message.

Let me turn next to Dr. Mick’s statement, “On the other hand, basing a moral philosophy on duty, loyalty, and ?women and children first? can produce, and has produced, a set of principles for living a just and proper life that does not require a belief in a deity or other prop outside of recognition of human fellowship.”

Observe that Dr. Mick starts with the assumption that concepts such as duty, loyalty, and ?women and children first? already exist as the foundation blocks for constructing a set of moral principles that will be independent of a belief in a deity.  But, where did they come from?

Again, in historical fact, those basic concepts ? duty, loyalty, and ?women and children first? ? all arose under political regimes rooted in religious beliefs.  It was in those codes that the earliest known statements of such basic principles occurred.

Every code of law in the western world, such as Hammurabi’s code from around 1770 BC, has predicated the official state god as its source of legitimacy.  Around 1500 BC, Moses in the same way transmitted the Ten Commandments from God to the Israelite people. 

In every case the formulaic structure is the same.  The ruler or spiritual leader rules by the power and grace of God, and the ruler’s law code is always seen as bringing God’s moral justice to his people.  Why should this be uniformly the case?

Eric Voegelin and Friedrich Hayek provide an understanding. 

My college mentor, Eric Voegelin, covers this question in magisterial fashion in “Israel and Revelation,” one of the five volumes in his “Order and History.”  Dr. Voegelin notes that religion and morality are not “things” or “objects” that a single person, or a committee of intellectuals, sat down and conjured up during a conference meeting.  He found it necessary to make this reality clear, in distinction to the modern-day, liberal-socialist view that societies and their political structure are simply “on the spot” creations of the minds of morally relativistic human intellectuals.

That misconception, for example, is the root of the disastrous savagery produced by the French Revolutionary intellectuals’ “ideas” about a perfect socialistic government.  As present-day French intellectual Andr? Maurois observed in his “A History of France,” the French intellectuals, unlike their English and American contemporaries, had never had so much as five minutes actual experience in self-government.  In contrast, the English and their American political heirs had struggled for centuries to hammer out their unwritten constitution governing the rights and privileges of individuals under law, against the crown.  Those political understandings were bound up in their religious understandings of the duty of sovereigns and subjects to God.  No English king, or Continental sovereign, could claim legitimacy without the blessings of the Christian church. 

That, by the way, is why Europe’s first secular and imperialist ruler Napoleon ostentatiously snatched the crown from the hands of the the bishop and placed it himself upon his head at the coronation ceremony.  Symbolically, this represented liberals’ hubristic presumption that they alone are the rulers of the universe and that they need no help from God. 

Perhaps they should have taken a second look.  As I stated in the introduction to this essay, socialistic, individual hubris that presumes to the capacity to make up its own rules of morality is a prescription for anarchic demise.

Socialistic and secular France, since the 1789 Revolution, has gone though more than a dozen different constitutions, republics, restorations of monarchy, and empires, all the while losing ground to England and the United States, whose citizens remained God-fearing Christians and preserved their unwritten constitution thereby.  England, then the United States, became the greatest and wealthiest political societies on earth.  Obsessively secular France steadily declined from cultural and militaristic dominance of the Continent into its present third-rank status.

Dr. Voegelin notes that religious revelation, or insight if you prefer, arose after the fact, as moral leaders looked back at the experience of their societies and were inspired with clearer understandings of God’s Will.  They could see, on the political level, that, in societies characterized by great wealth,showy charity works, and superficial adherence to religious rules, rulers and subjects alike tended to forget basics such as dealing fairly with widows and orphans and otherwise living in accord with the Golden Rule.  Thus, impelled by revelations of God’s Will, these religious leaders were continually calling the people and their rulers back to lives ruled by love of God and doing the right thing for each other.

Freidrich Hayek, a discussion group friend of Eric Voegelin in Vienna of the 1920s, states the same truth from a slightly different perspective.  Professor Hayek, a Nobel Prize-winner in economics, identifies socialistic intellectualism as “scientism,” rather than true science.

This scientism leads to the liberal-socialists’ belief that they they do not need God to intuit true morality.  It leads sensualist trendsetters like the New York Times to the conviction that the essence of a good society is orgiastic hedonism.

In the process of scientism, intellectuals conceive in the abstract what they believe to be the best possible conditions of everyday life for all peoples everywhere on earth, without regard to their histories, cultures, or geographic circumstances.  The best possible state, they conclude, is for all of society’s goods and services to be owned or regulated by the political state and for intellectual councils to devise rules, which they call social justice, for the allocation of those goods and services among the different classes of citizens.

Unfortunately for the intellectuals, the majority of people in those societies do not accept imposition of these “out of the blue” intellectual rules as legitimate.  Results range from the cultural civil war here in the United States to the Reign of Terror in France and Stalin’s liquidation of 20-plus million dissidents in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In “The Counter-Revolution of Science,” Professor Hayek, describes what the study of history actually tells us.  No highly complex system of rules ? such as religion, law, or international trade ? governing human conduct ever came into being from the abstract thoughts of an single group of human minds.  They are, instead, the product of practical experience and revelatory insights by many thousands of people, over many centuries.

As he was an economist, Professor Hayek used the universal systems of international trade to illustrate the process.  Originally trade was village to village, tribe to tribe, then city state to city state across the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin and as far east as China and India.  Traders like Marco Polo were able to travel safely thousands of miles into the interior of foreign lands, without harm, because societies had come to recognize them as useful emissaries, rather than as enemies invading their kingdoms.

Nobody sat down and, by pure reason alone, planned such systems or established regulatory commissions to control them.  They evolved by trial and error involving many different groups, most of whom never had personal contact with each other except through traders.  These widely accepted rules and customs of trade survived because participants were willing to sacrifice some of their local customs in order to gain greater advantages by respecting the procedures of trade established by tradition.

This gradualism, which is an essential characteristic of true conservatism, is what conferred their universal quality upon such systems.  A similar process, beginning with Saint Paul’s evangelical preaching of Christianity from Asia Minor to Spain, gradually spread the Gospel until, after nearly three centuries, it became the official religion of both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.  The broad consensus arising from this gradualism left Christianity as the sole unifying force in Western Europe when the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century AD.  And it was this catholicity of Christian faith that structured every aspect of Western civilization, from morality to law, education, literature and the arts.

In contrast, Professor Hayek tells us in “The Intellectuals and Socialism,”...socialist thought owes its appeal to the young largely because of its visionary character; the very courage [recklessness] to indulge in Utopian thought is in this respect a source of strength to the socialists….The intellectual, by his whole disposition, is uninterested in technical details or practical difficulties.  What appeals to him are the broad visions, the specious comprehension of the social order as a whole which a planned system promises.”

Bottom line: morality grows out of a slow process of revelation of God’s will and becomes a consensus legitimating moral rule in political society; liberalism’s revolutionary penchant for fashion arbiters and academics making up hedonistic, secular rules in their own minds and imposing them upon society causes anarchic disintegration of the political state.

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