The Specter of Morality

I think one of the problems with the teaching of history/our understanding of morality is that we look back on he past and think, “Oh it’s so OBVIOUS that X was evil, only evil people could have supported X. If I lived back then, I’d have been a good person who opposed X.”

For example, most people today think the Nazis were evil. Not just run of the mill evil, like shoplifters or people who kick animals, but cartoonishly, over-the-top, literal-Satan evil. Similarly, they also think that slavery was deeply, horrifically evil. Most people think that, had they lived in Nazi Germany or in antebellum America, they’d have opposed these evils–if not vociferously, then at least privately. Sure, other people–bad people–might have supported these evils, but we of course would have had the moral clarity and fortitude to believe the very obviously right things.

The thing history class tries to tell you, but really doesn’t get across, is that if X is widespread, then a majority of people probably think X is good. If you lived back then, you’d either think X was okay, or secretly question whether maybe you’re ta terrible person for not agreeing with X.

You think you’d be triumphant, the only good person on your block who sees through the lies. Instead you’d feel like you were going slightly crazy, wondering why you’re really the only person who can’t see the Emperor’s Clothes. And when you gently broach the subject with your friends, like as not, they make it clear that you are definitely a terrible person for even entertaining such thoughts.

And you don’t necessarily know whether your friends actually think you’re a terrible person, or if they’re just preemptively declaring, just in case anyone else is listening, that they are definitely not a terrible person like you and shouldn’t be lumped in with you, please don’t hurt me.

The difficulty lies in our social natures. If society declares that X is good and Y is bad, then unless you’re highly isolated or have some form of mental disability, then chances are good that you are sensitive to society’s judgements. Society’s morals underlie many things you (typically) don’t even realize are part of your belief system, like which historical figures make it into the textbooks. (Have you ever read a hagiography devoted to the guy who invented the seatbelt, thanking him for saving millions of people’s lives?) No one has the time to go read first-hand accounts of every historical event and reconstruct all of their ideas from scratch.

Anyway, Happy New Year, everyone. Sorry the blog has been quiet, lately.


20 thoughts on “The Specter of Morality

    • Almost certainly. But will it be feel-good stuff like “we would never eat meat in the 22nd century” or will it be less feel-good stuff like “how could those primitives of the early 21st century be so afraid of eugenics?”

      Liked by 2 people

      • As my old professor said:
        “Half of what I’m gonna teach you is wrong. Problem is, neither me nor you know which half”

        Liked by 3 people

      • So I read and analyzed a 1938 textbook for the Nazi Youth. The book is intended to instill the proper moral and social education for future Nazis, preparing them to lead future generations on the path to utopia. Fundamental features of this attempt are as follows:

        “1. Science has more or less completely “solved” existence. The immutable laws of genetics as described by Mendel and Darwin have enabled us to replace squishy, religious ideas like human rights, Greco-Roman notions of freedom and the delusion of individuality. These ridiculous and unscientific ideas can and should be dismissed as superstition. Instead, we should show people the simple, ultimate truth of genetics and, as such, unite them in ultimate scientific/moral truth, eliminating distractions and obfuscating science denial.

        2. Self-esteem should be divorced from accomplishments. It doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail, you should be proud of yourself just for existing. As long as you meet the genetic requirements, your goodness is guaranteed, freed from the dehumanizing competitive push to “matter through accomplishment” present in bourgeoisie society. The Nazi Youth are thus tasked with lifting from despair those deemed unfit by their families, their employers and their school mates.

        3. The reduction of suffering is the prime ethical mandate of a just society. We should exterminate the lesser races/handicapped people/homosexuals/etc, for example, because the immutable laws of genetics have doomed them to a long and painful extinction. Through humanitarian efforts such as gas chambers and sterilization programs, we can release these poor beings from the centuries of suffering they would otherwise undergo. Any appeal to personal growth through struggle is cruel, any appeal to the school of hard knocks is a superstitious insult to the scientific truth of genetics.

        4. Equality of condition is far more important than virtue. The inevitable progress of genetics is leading us to an utopia in which all genetic inferiority and diversity has been eliminating, leaving us all morally, spiritually and physically equal. With equality thus achieved, suffering and struggle can finally be ended once and for all.”

        Can you tell me with a straight face this doesn’t at least rhyme with what we teach today?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Point 1 does not, as far as I know, have analogues in any US textbook I have read. We are fond of our science, of course, but we’re also pretty gung-ho on the human rights concept and there’s still a legacy from the days when “Creationist” parents objected to any teaching of evolution in the schools.

        In the past years, public discourse has pivoted strongly to “believe science!,” of course.

        2. Self esteem has been a major component of public education/pop psychology since at least the 80s. This aspect is particularly present in minority education, since it is basically assumed that blacks and Hispanics underperform because they have low self-esteems, and that questions of “merit” are just another attempt to re-instate white supremacy.

        3. Well, I don’t think our modern textbooks advocate for gas chambers. There is a difference between the way Europeans and Americans tend to think of “the common good” and “what society owes each other.” The American concept is eroding in the face of the European one, but I still see the European one as foreign. Of course Americans do still try to reduce suffering.

        4. I think American textbooks tend to be quiet about genetics–this is mostly due to the historical touchiness of the subject with religious conservatives. Of course America suffers from utopianism and generally students are taught the virtues of equality and progress toward those ideals.

        Liked by 1 person

      • 1. Depends on the level of the text. Richard Dawkins is assigned in many colleges and he gets positively giddy at the idea of eugenics. Likewise, Neil DeGrasse Tyson thinks we ought to live in a “Rationalia.”

        If you talk to creationists is becomes pretty clear pretty quickly they don’t actually care about how old the earth is. They are creationists because they assume that evolution = atheism = nihilism = communists and Nazis. The way to convince them to accept evolution is to point out, gently, that evolution does not mean atheism and that while atheism is very closely associated with nihilism, it does not ALWAYS have to be.

        2. Yes, this is a mistaken belief that’s been widely discredited in both education and psychology. It’s a mistake shared with the Nazi Primer. It’s also a mistake we keep making because comforting lies are easier to explain to parents than unpleasant truths.

        3. Oh man, the idea that “reducing suffering” is more important than developing virtue or overcoming hardship is embedded deeeeeeeep into the modern education system. It’s the central rationale for helicopter parenting and it’s a central justification for social justice. It’s also connected to abortion, which I’ll address in 4.

        4. It’s not just touchy for conservatives. It’s touchy for the victims of Tuskegee, the victims of Auschwitz, the victims of Unit 731, the victims of eugenics in numerous countries, the victims of communism and anyone who looked at the deterministic ideologies of the 20th century and felt disturbed.

        In a point connected with 3, genetics is also already used in deciding who gets to live and who doesn’t – exactly the point of prenatal screening. Further, one of the more recent justifications for abortion is that “it’s better to abort someone if we think they’ll suffer.” I don’t point this out because I’m pro-life, I’m not. I point it out because this “compassionate” rationale is a million times more dangerous than the healthier, more selfish rationale of “I don’t want a baby.”


      • Well, if we’re looking at texts assigned in colleges, we have a *lot* of texts. Some courses assign Homer, some assign the Bible, and others assign the SCUM Manifesto. I’m not too worried about people picking up ideas from Dawkins, to be honest.


      • Lovely piece of work, that SCUM manifesto, isn’t it?
        I think it’s fair to say that I am enthusiastic about Dawkins-ish topics like evolution, genes, and memetics, and I don’t really see a lot of popular interest in these subjects among regular people. I see works like “The invisible knapsack” as much more influential.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Good post. In addition, what are the things we support as a society and other societies (past societies, future societies or other current cultures) see as a pure evil.

    Every culture thinks that it is good and other cultures are evil. Ours is not the exception

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Every culture thinks that it is good and other cultures are evil”
      The modern published Western culture is exactly the opposite. Everything “Western” is deemed altogether evil.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Is it really? I think it’s only so on the surface. Beneath the surface, liberalism (which is itself a part of Western culture) sees itself as universal, and thus inherently opposed to every other traditional culture in the world.


  2. Today the big difference is that morality is moving leftwards at such a speed that there are people who remember the previous consensus, a previous stage. Since professing what the leftist consensus was ten years earlier gets one canceled, deplatformed and hated, people falling off that train get together at least online with people who fell of twenty years ago, thirty years ago, and they notice that there was not an essential difference, it is just stages of the same movement. Then there is that fella who read a book about how it was a hundred years ago etc.

    Long story short, leftism moving really quickly lefter and lefter is a good way for a lot of people to stop believing in the whole direction of leftism altogether. But that is in itself not enough to win.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A new rule may even have been better than an old one at the time. For example, how does one deal with a defeated enemy? If they are allowed to live, then they may come back some day and have their revenge. So, at the time, having no better solution, they might kill every man, woman, and child. But then a better solution comes to mind, slavery. Slavery allows, at the very least, the women and children to survive. So, slavery was moral progress at that time.

    Similar situation with animal sacrifice. We have the story of Abraham taking his son up the mountain to be sacrificed. But wait, a lamb appears, and the rule that allowed human sacrifice was replace with a better rule, animal sacrifice. Moral progress is slow, but today, my sister fixes a vegetarian lasagna for Thanksgiving each year.

    Liked by 1 person

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