Saturday, August 22, 2015
Left-Right Differences on right and wrong
Dennis Prager is right below but seems only dimly aware of the philosophical difficulties in the idea of moral truth. The basic problem is: "How do we check it?" Where is the information that confirms what we think? If I think that a dog has four legs, that is easy to check. I just look. But where do we look if we think abortion is wrong? Under a rock somewhere? A statement "X is wrong" sounds like "grass is green" but is clearly very different. There is no obvious way to check it. That it is just an opinion is the obvious conclusion. And that is where Leftists get their claim that "There is no such thing as right and wrong".
Christians of course have no such difficulties. The Ten Commandments say: "Thou shalt not kill" so abortion is clearly wrong.
But many conservatives (particularly in Australia) are not religious. Even if they believe in God, the idea that the churches know any more about him than anyone else just seems implausible. So what do they do about morality?
They view morality as having evolved. Moral standards are what have enabled us to survive as social creatures. They are what has been found to work in building a civilized society. If we abandon them we embark on a voyage without a compass and without a map. And the sorry results of abandoning them are often seen. When, for instance, standards of restraint, moderation and self-discipline are abandoned in favor of "me, me, me" we often find people descending into drug abuse and early, miserable death. Most people would wish not to end that way.
The only really interesting question concerns the very long time humans have had to acquire ideas about what has survival value and what has not. As far back as history takes us, we know that formal moral codes have changed little over the last 4 or 5 thousand years. The code of Hammurabi (who died around 2000 BC) has a lot in common with the book of Leviticus. So the ideas of right behavior that have guided us to where we are today are pretty clear. Successive generations and successive societies have come to pretty similar conclusions about what aids survival and the good life. There are differences of detail but the basics alter little.
But does the encoding of those ideas go back even further? It does. It goes back a very long way indeed. Chimpanzees have been observed to have behaviour customs that assist the survival of their troop. And it seems that some of the behaviours concerned are learned -- but not all. Chimps still behave in chimp-like ways even if brought up in isolation from other chimps. So some instincts of right behaviour have apparently become genetically coded and transmitted among chimps. How much more so should that have happened in us?
And it has. We very often have an instinctive response that something is "Just wrong" (harming babies, for instance). The "authority" for the rightness or wrongness of something is within us, not anywhere outside of us. We cannot find it under a rock or anywhere else. It is a large part of what is called our "conscience". It is our evolutionary wisdom. It is a set of responses that comes from deep within the past of our (human) race. Morality really is in our genes. The history of our species is encoded in us.
It is of course not a perfect guide to adaptive behaviour any more than any law is. There are always situations that a law does not fit well, and our instincts of rightness can be swamped by powerful external influences -- such as a belief in Islam. That explains why Muslim parents can rejoice in their children blowing themselves up as suicide bombers. All normal parental instincts are swamped by mental conclusions about what has value.
So there will always be debate about what is right and wrong. For non-psychopathic individuals, however, moral instincts will be our best guide, particularly when supported and supplemented by verbal traditions such as the Ten Commandments. We abandon our past at our peril.
There are, of course, no unchallengeable answers in philosophy. A moral rejectionist might, for instance, say: "What's all this bit about survival? That doesn't bother me. I just want to enjoy myself while I am here. Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse!" There is no good answer to that if it is a sincerely held view but it rarely is. I could, for instance, reply: "Then you will not object if I put a bullet through your brain right now". That will normally induce some hesitancy.
We see something similar when Leftists say that "There is no such thing as right and wrong". They will very often follow that immediately by a claim that racism, inequality or something else is wrong. Racism is something that does not exist?? Moral rejectionists have their own very large philosophical problems -- which is why they need Freudian neurotic strategies such as denial and compartmentalization to remain (marginally) sane
How can we determine what is morally right? The answer to this question — the most important question human beings need to answer — is a major difference between Left and Right.
For conservatives, the answer is, and has always been, that there are moral truths — objective moral standards — to which every person is accountable. In America, this has meant accountability to the Creator, the God of the Bible, and to Judeo-Christian values.
For the Left, the answer has always been — meaning since Karl Marx, the father of Leftism — that there is no transcendent source of morality. On the contrary, as Marx wrote, “Man is God,” and therefore each human being is the author of his or her own moral standards.
There are, of course, both religious leftists and secular conservatives, but the secular-religious difference explains many of the fundamental differences between Right and Left.
As a rule, leftists fear and have contempt for people who base their values on a transcendent source such as religion and the Bible. Such people, in the Left’s view, “can’t think for themselves — they need a God and a religion to tell them what’s right and wrong.” Leftists contrast these conservatives with themselves, people who think issues through and do not need God or religion.
This ideal of thinking everything through for oneself sounds admirable. And to a certain extent it is. People should think things through. And too often, religious people can sound like they haven’t done so.
But if there is no God and religion, there are no moral truths, only moral opinions. Without God and religion, good and evil, right and wrong, don’t objectively exist. They are subjective terms that just mean “I like” or “I don’t like.”
Therefore, no matter how much one thinks things through, without God and religion — specifically, the God of and the religions based on the Bible — the individual’s conclusions about what is right or wrong can only be opinions about what is right or wrong. Without God and religion, morally speaking, there is no fixed North or fixed South. The needle points wherever the owner of the compass thinks it ought to point.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Recently, in The New York Times, a professor of philosophy wrote about this complete absence of moral truth among younger Americans:
“What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised? I was.
"The overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.
"Our public schools teach … there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
"It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.”
So, then, if there is no moral truth, how do most secular people arrive at moral decisions? According to how they feel. On the Left, personal feelings usually supplant objective standards.
Many liberal parents and teachers do not tell their children what is right and wrong. Rather, they ask their children and students, “How do you feel about it?”
In fact, feelings often supplant reason, not just moral truths. On the Left, feelings for the poor, for selected minorities, for the downtrodden, gays, women, Muslims and others are frequently all that is necessary to formulate policy.
For the conservative, as important as feelings may be, feelings are just not as important as standards in making social policy. But for the contemporary liberal, feeling — or “compassion,” as the Left puts it — is determinative.
As much as one may — and should — feel about historic injustices committed against black Americans, the conservative will not eliminate standards. Therefore, conservatives oppose lowering admissions standards at academic institutions for black students; liberal compassion is for it.
Conservatives generally oppose changing the marital standard of one man-one woman; liberals' compassion for gays supports it. Indeed, given the supplanting of standards with feelings, liberals will find it difficult to oppose polygamy. If love between people is the criterion for marriage, two people who love a third person should not be denied the right to marry that person.
Conservatives oppose abolishing the biological standard of gender identity and therefore oppose allowing men who identify as women to play on women’s sports teams; liberals have compassion for the transgendered and therefore drop the athletic standard.
Conservatives' commitment to a standard of true and false means identifying terrorists as Islamic; liberals feel for the many good Muslims in the world and therefore often refuse to identify Islamic terror by name.
In his Farewell Address, President George Washington’s most famous speech, the first president perfectly expressed the conservative view on the need for God and religion for moral standards and for societal standards generally:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … these firmest props of the duties of Man and citizens.”
Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).