When arguing that moral rules are in reality objective, I usually point to the traditions of the community. Such traditions exist objectively, as matters of fact rather than opinion: while they can be interpreted and reinterpreted, they are not to be trifled with. The moral assertion “all men are created equal,” for example, is difficult to convert to “all men except blacks.” We know this because, in our history, the conversion was tried and found unpersuasive.
But what is the community? What holds it together? Is each country a community, because it issues passports and has a police force — does the power to compel make a community? In that case, the Soviet Union and the Nazi empire once fell under the definition, though both disintegrated later. Maybe community is really line of sight: the people I personally know and interact with. That would include my neighborhood and my city, but not necessarily (say) California. Or maybe only a powerful common bond, like that of the early Christians, can forge a community.
The question is important because the nature of community determines the validity of morality.
Many thinkers, following Marx, believe in the gang war theory of history. On this account, every human population is an aggregate of mutually hostile social groups. A political unit — like a country — represents the territory of a ruling gang. The moral rules, in turn, exist to enhance the interests and prestige of the top group. A capitalist morality benefits businessmen, a feudal morality benefits aristocrats. Morality becomes a weapon in group warfare, nothing more.
If community means the rule of a powerful elite, and morality is merely a trick to confound the weak, then an appeal to tradition can be just one of two things: either a fraud or a form of superstition.
Varieties of this theory are defended even by advocates of liberal democracy. I just finished reading Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of the Scientific Philosophy, published in 1951. The book seeks to separate the uses of logic and deduction, which are empty of information, from those of empirical data and inference, which must be case by case and never admit projection into the future. It’s the work of a brilliant mind, and of an opponent of Hitler and totalitarianism, who left Germany on the latter’s rise to power.
Yet when Reichenbach turns to ethics the result is puzzling. He believed, rightly, that neither deductive nor empirical philosophy have anything to say about moral values, but maintained that the latter could describe what morality must be: nothing more than “volitions,” assertions of will power. These are “conditioned” by social groups.
The virtue of democracy, for Reichenbach, consisted in opening the forum of debate to all groups, with the understanding that those who persuaded the majority could impose their will, pretty much without qualifications. Private property, for example, can be taken away if a group demanding better housing for the poor received a majority.
This version of the gang war theory can be quickly dismissed. A primary function of morality is to make human behavior predictable, so people can make plans for the future. A political entity in which every moral principle was up for grabs at every election would soon disintegrate into anarchy and violence. Those who have worked all their lives to accumulate property will not easily relinquish it; ultimately, however, no reasonable person will work to create or acquire wealth, since Reichenbach’s democracy sanctioned seizing the wealth of rival groups.
In a true liberal democracy, debate and decisions play out within a narrow band of unsettled questions. Surrounding the issues in dispute are large areas of agreement about proper behavior and the limits of power — the moral rules that make life in a community possible.
The gang war theory is true in trivial ways. Every set of rules, even if perfectly fair, will work to someone’s advantage. The race really does go to the swift, and the battle to the strong. More importantly, every human community is — and probably must be — hierarchical, and persons and groups at the top of the pyramid often seek to twist morality to their advantage. Sometimes, they succeed.
But the briefest peek at the record will find evidence of the profoundly uneasy relationship between morality and power. Brutal tyrants never make a virtue of brutality: the history of the abuse of power is coextensive with that of public hypocrisy.
This means absolute dictators have had to bend their words, if not their actions, to fit a moral standard beyond the reach of their power. Even Hitler, who truly believed murdering Jews was a glorious enterprise, worked hard to keep the Holocaust a secret from his countrymen.
We read in Breasted’s The Dawn of Conscience that the kings and lords of Egypt made great proclamations of their zeal in protecting the weak and the poor. On the truth of these statements hung their access to immortality. Sincerity, however, is besides the point here. If morality emanates from the ruling class, one would expect the first commandment to be “If Pharaoh beds your wife or daughter, you are a lucky man.” Yet in Egypt and elsewhere no one was exempt from judgment.
The gang war view of human history projects a naive toughness born in the ashes of the revolution of 1848, the event which silenced forever the naive idealism of the Romantic generation. Each citation of Karl Marx’s name should append, immediately after, the descriptor: “disciple of Hegel.”
What, then, is community? The answer comes from a proper understanding of morality. We tend to think of morality working in a static way: individuals heed or disregard the rules, actions are good or bad. This is an error of perception. Morality is always directional. The moral plane can be compared to a kind of airport or train station: a place of tremendous striving and struggle, in which persons and groups travel at various speeds toward specific ideals of behavior.
These ideals include human universals — for example, the glorification of motherhood and of loyalty. Ultimately, however, choices must be made. The warrior can’t easily coexist with the businessman or the monk. The choices emerge out of the collision of historical events. Sometimes they are consciously embraced, more often they crystallize after a series of confusing developments. Our own morality first evolved among the prophets of Israel, who reflected on various disasters visited on their nation. Similarly, the Athenians achieved democracy almost by accident, following a string of tyrannies and civil disorders.
Sometimes, the choices are made by members of the ruling elite. Sometimes, necessity plays the key part: idealizing the warrior, for example, may be a requirement for survival. Sometimes, a revolution offers the power of choice to a new group: consider the conversion of Constantine. Often, the choices are imposed by the persuasion of a moral genius. Few of the latter issued their moral instructions from a throne.
The relation between morality and community is the opposite of what is normally portrayed. The moral rules aren’t imposed by a community, but are constituent of it. Morality makes community, not the other way around. The rules, the behavioral choices they represent amid the turmoil of history, the ideals they raise up as an endpoint to human striving — these are the frame, the flesh, and the beating heart of every community.
To appeal to tradition, then, is to recall the foundational principles that have made a community what it is. It aligns the present with the future and the past. It’s a way of saying, “If we wish to retain our way of life, this is the path we must take.”
To ignore tradition and the constituent power of morality, conversely, is to destroy in some degree a way of life. That is neither an illogical nor an illicit desire, but it should be engaged in with eyes wide open — with full awareness of the pain and frequent failure resulting from “rational” and “scientific” experiments in living — never as a fashionable pose.