Although we are largely unaware of it, we experience morality at two different levels. The first is the level of moral principles or commandments. We subscribe to formulas such as “Thou shalt not kill,” or “The greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Americans today are both aware and quite comfortable with this approach. We think morality should be run like science, from first principles.
The problem is that such principles are generic, and require many exceptions. Thou shalt not kill, for example, is voided by soldiers at war, or those engaged in self-defense. The exceptions also require exceptions. Soldiers at war aren’t supposed to kill helpless civilians, for example, and shooting passers-by out your window isn’t justified no matter how threatened you feel. This goes on to infinity, exception after exception. Trying to derive right action from first principles leads to moral paralysis.
There is great psychological resistance to allowing even the smallest change to impinge on first principles. In the old days, people believed moral commandments to be part of a contract with God; today, people place an equally strong faith in a rule-based, supposedly scientific, approach. Change threatens these fundamental beliefs.
Still, change happens. The Old Testament principle “an eye for an eye” was displaced long before Jesus came on the scene. But it has taken catastrophic cultural perturbations — the conquest of Judea by the Babylonians, for example, or the Christianizing of the Roman Empire.
The second level of morality is that of situation-specific behaviors. It is, in fact, how we learn right from wrong — one situation at a time — but because of our fixation with high principles we consider this plane of morality to be superficial, the stuff of etiquette and good manners.
Ancient moralists took the opposite tack. Despite the efforts of rationalists like Socrates, most in the classical world accepted mandated behaviors, tagged to specific circumstances, to be the sum of moral life. The Romans called it mos maiorum, the way of our fathers — and they would have puzzled over our distinction between manners and morals. Right behavior, to them, was right behavior.
Even in the most static community, daily life can be seen to change — the old disdain the frivolity of the young, sudden wealth or sudden poverty changes human relations, a national defeat brings into question the ways of the fathers, famous old families die out, new families become powerful, a hero embodies new ideal behaviors. Ancient moralists perceived such changes clearly. It was for them a symptom of decay.
Humanity, they imagined, was in moral decline: from a long-ago Age of Gold to a bloody Age of Iron. Christianity reversed the equation. Changes in specific behaviors — from rampant sexuality to abstemiousness, say, or from prideful callousness to charity for the unfortunate — were part of the pilgrimage from the Old Law to the New, and from the City of Man to the City of God.
Eric of Classical Values reflects on a putative example of moral evolution, on the situation-specific plane. Two recent incidents in what we are pleased to call the “news” stand at the heart of Eric’s speculations. In one, a U.S. senator was busted for apparently trying to solicit a homosexual partner in a public bathroom. The senator is now free and denying any guilt. In the other incident, the star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons was arrested for sponsoring dog-fighting on his property. He is facing multiple criminal charges, and almost certain jail time.
A century ago, the senator would, at a minimum, have been socially disgraced, and probably punished by the law, while dog-fighting wouldn’t have registered as a crime. Eric ruminates:
What is worse? A dogfighting charge, or a solicitation charge? If I had to select one or the other of these charges to face, I’d probably go with sexual solicitation. Not that I’m into that (for the record, I am neither a dogfighter nor a T-room sex-seeker), but I do think that it is far likelier to face major criminal charges in a dogfight case. Dogfighting is a federal crime and a major felony in most states, while sexual solicitation is usually a misdemeanor. Also, there’s the sympathy factor; dogfighters are despised and considered evil, while men who seek sex in bathrooms are more likely to be either pitied or maybe laughed at. As dogfighters are considered morally worse than men’s room sex seekers, the former is probably a worse thing to have on your record. Whether this means morality has changed, I’m not sure.
On the situational plane, there can be no question that the moral judgments relating to these behaviors have changed. What about the overarching principles? For at least a generation, homosexuality has been discussed in the public sphere strictly in terms of personal choice, as an alternative lifestyle; during the same span of time, animals have been endowed with rights, and protected by law and public opinion.
Yet I’m not persuaded that the psychological resistance against tinkering with first principles has been overcome. Would the quarterback, in Eric’s words, “prefer being thought of as a ‘T-room queen’ than a dogfighter”? Doubtful. The power of the mos maiorum still shapes our ideals of what a man should be: viciousness to animals is a venial sin, but sexual interest in other men falls beyond the pale.
The relationship between first principles and situation-specific behaviors is complex and tension-filled. Most individuals believe, with justice, that they aren’t living up to their ideals. Most people believe, like the Spanish poet Jorge Manrique, that “any past time was better.” Principles stand far above human behavior — only heroes and saints can come close to embodying them.
That has its uses. Reformers, Machiavelli observed, can appeal to first principles in their efforts to move specific behaviors — away from un-Christian superstition, as Luther believed, or from the un-American institution of slavery, as Lincoln argued. First principles are thus a source of both conservatism and adaptability in the moral life of a community.