Societal Moral (Dis-)agreement

Back in the twentieth century, the idea of moral relativism must have seemed like a good idea. Supposedly we could throw off old restrictions (usually regarding sex), and just enjoy life. But moral relativism always destroys moral agreement—something we need just to enable us to get along. If we lack that, we suffer in many ways, some obvious and some not so, but all important to our future.

Above are two simplifying illustrations, showing two relative states of moral (dis-)agreement among people (or institutions). The points represent the individuals or groups, and the directions of the arrows represent the desired moral heading each are aiming for. There is of course much more to moral disagreement than the images can depict, but they will suffice here.

Although the diagrams are themselves relative depictions, what does seem abundantly clear is that the US is heading in the direction of the red-arrow diagram. Moral relativism has been a growing phenomenon for many decades now, with people eschewing much of traditional (and therefore tested) morality for most of that time. In the growing absence of any overarching source of morality (traditional religions, for instance), moral wandering has been the result. People will experiment with whatever society will let them get away with, without any past wisdom as a guide. As a result, morality typically expands to allow more pleasure with less responsibility and fewer perceived obligations to others.

How do we know the US is headed in the direction of increasing moral disagreement?

  • Decreased social capital. This is measured by sociologists, and while they do not always pinpoint the growing moral divide as the central reason, the majority agree that social capital in the US is in decline.
  • Growing levels of societal violence and frustration (rioting, etc.) (This phenomenon will ebb and flow as particular disagreements flare up. One must look at longer-term trends than just a single year or “movement”.)
  • A widening political divide. No discussion needed.
  • Separation into physical enclaves. When people notice that the world is closing in around them morally speaking, with the disagreements with others getting more rancorous and even violent, the natural tendency is to form enclaves for protection and support. These clusterings give people the false impression that they are in a pseudo-majority at least in their set of beliefs. Enclaves further insulate people from outsiders, so that members get only filtered, caricatured impressions of what outsiders actually think. (Christians have a duty to break through these barriers, but it does not come naturally to anyone.)
  • Separation into online enclaves. Social media has been a great evil here, in allowing these engineered-to-be-addictive echo chambers to further isolate groups from each other.

See Chapter I of the book for more analysis on moral relativism.

The question for the reader (and for future blogging here): Is moral relativism therefore a sustainable moral viewpoint for a society to hold?

A Large-scale Historical Attempt at Revenge

Dina Porat presents an excellent case-study study of large-scale revenge, particular when fails. (This a from a review of Dina Porat’s book, Nakam: The Holocaust Survivors Who Sought Full-Scale Revenge as reviewed by Daniel Kraft, “The Failed Plot to Kill 6 Million Germans in the Wake of WWII: A new history of a group of Jewish ex-partisans who tried to even the score.” (link) )

Kraft’s summary sets the stage:

Nakam, whose title is the Hebrew word for vengeance, tells the story of a group of survivors and partisan fighters who remained in Europe after the war’s end, formed a clandestine group they called the Nokmim (Avengers), and, in response to the genocide of Europe’s Jews, attempted to kill 6 million German citizens—men, women, and children—by poisoning the water supplies of major German cities and by delivering arsenic-laced bread to German prisoners of war.

As the Bible (and my book) clearly point out, the Avengers were doing wrong here. First, they were (as Kraft details in his review) emotionally involved to a degree that rendered clear moral judgment near-impossible. Emotion is never a valid basis for revenge.

Second, the immediate danger of a resumption of the real Holocaust was past. Law and order was slowly being restored to Europe. Even though there were anti-Jewish groups that continued to threaten and even kill relatively small numbers of Jews, those groups posed no threat that would have required killing 6 million additional Germans to thwart.

But there are circumstances where violent action against those who are carrying out an even greater evil is required in the form of responsibility in order to protect the relatively innocent. While the full-scale Holocaust was taking place in Germany, the law there was not legitimate, and did not need to be obeyed. This is a different phenomenon from revenge.

With that said, there is more analysis to be conducted on this historical event: Even as an attempt to thwart evil, the plans by the Avengers seemed doomed to fail. Their lack of success (i.e., no deaths) speaks either to a lack of knowledge or of logistics. Perhaps they were not aware that using a crude chemical poison, even administering the LD50 all at once will only kill half those targeted. It takes time to distribute poisoned bread, during which time symptoms would have begun to arise in the first to be poisoned. Once they had carried out a particulate type of attack, that type would not be effective again.

Even a legitimate response to a large evil takes far more planning to succeed; sometimes only full-scale war can be successful.

Introduction to The Vivisection of Evil

This blog is devoted to the presentation of my book (available here as a PDF, and at Amazon Kindle), and the discussion surrounding it. The book itself is placed in the public domain, and may be copied freely. I hope that you find it thought-provoking, instructive and useful.

The following is the thesis:

Christians have incorrectly oversimplified the dividing line between good and evil. We are all sinners, and so each of us is guilty of some quantity of evil. The line is not naively drawn between good and evil as most suppose. As God makes clear through the Old Testament, the line is instead drawn between the initiation of evil on the one side, and good combined with necessary responses to evils initiated by others on the other side. This corrected view significantly changes the nature of our responsibilities on this earth.

As a consequence, we don’t just have a mere right to fight evil. We are actually obligated to oppose it and work towards its defeat. This obligation exists in complete harmony with the Bible’s general (but not absolute) proscription against doing evil, and persists despite the fact that we will not completely succeed in this earthly realm.

To see that these things are indeed the case, I first undertake a thorough review of man’s attempts at defining evil. This is a daunting task, as even such a basic thing as our finiteness gets in the way. As a result, no existing definition, including those derived from the Bible, can perfectly delineate good from evil. Our obligation to fight it persists despite this also.

Evil’s roots and methods are examined next. Its behavior at all scales is analyzed—from the actions of the schoolyard bully to the machinations of the totalitarian nation.

The book culminates in the detailed arguments that Christians must actively oppose evil. Pacifism in all forms is argued to be not only inexpedient, but often helpful to evil. The book concludes—unlike nearly every other philosophical exploration of evil—with an enumeration and analysis of the available strategies for fighting it, and their applicability in different situations. Knowing that God will ultimately solve the problem, the Christian need not despair, even though evil has the upper hand here on earth.

At the very least, I hope that any wisdom this book may contain results in fewer people becoming victims of evil.

I thank any readers for their feedback.

God bless you.

Suicidal Passivity

As an example of passivity combined with non-violent resistance on a large scale, consider something Gandhi–whose name is nearly synonymous with passive resistance–wrote in 1940:

I do not want Britain to be defeated, nor do I want her to be victorious in a trial of brute strength, whether expressed through the muscle or the brain. Your muscular bravery is an established fact. Need you demonstrate that your brain is also as unrivaled in destructive power as your muscle? I hope you do not wish to enter into such an undignified competition with the Nazis. I venture to present you with a nobler and a braver way, worthy of the bravest soldier. I want you to fight Nazism without arms, or, if I am to retain the military terminology, with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.

This process or method, which I have called non-violent non-co-operation, is not without considerable success in its use in India. Your representatives in India may deny my claim. If they do, I shall feel sorry for them. {Open letter, “To Every Briton”, New Delhi (2 July 1940); published in Harijan (6 July 1940).}

He was perhaps not aware of the full extent of Nazi brutality in 1940—brutality which made the British in India look innocent by comparison. If that was the case, then Gandhi’s foolishness might be excused. But to behave as he suggested was to commit suicide with little hope of a gospel of “non-violent non-co-operation” even surviving. Only in a place like India, where the British were unwilling to be as brutal as the Nazis, could such a technique have had any hope of working.

An Asymmetry of Evil over Good

People have found creative uses for the asymmetries between good and evil. (See Chapter IX of the book here.) One example is in the tactics of the mid-twentieth century community organizer Saul Alinsky. He pioneered methods of agitating for social change, publishing his advice as the book Rules for Radicals. Many radical groups have copied his tactics to attempt to force their kind of societal change upon everyone.

Two of his planned protests are illustrative of his general approach. (Note that these were only threatened protests; they were not actually carried out. But he was always prepared to follow through, because if anyone called his bluff, he stood to lose credibility.) Both quotes that follow are from Rules for Radicals. First, a threat against the city of Chicago via its airport:

O’Hare Airport became the target…we tie up the lavatories. In the restrooms you drop a dime, enter, push the lock on the door — and you can stay there all day. What are the police going to do? Break in and demand evidence of legitimate occupancy? An intelligence study was launched to learn how many sit-down toilets for both men and women, as well as stand-up urinals, there were in the entire O’Hare Airport complex and how many men and women would be necessary for the nation’s first “sh*t-in.” The consequences of this kind of action would be catastrophic in many ways. People would be desperate for a place to relieve themselves. … O’Hare would soon become a shambles. The whole scene would become unbelievable and the laughter and ridicule would be nationwide.

Regrettably, another of his protest threats had a similar theme:

I [Alinsky] suggested that we might buy one hundred seats for one of Rochester’s symphony concerts. We would select a concert in which the music was relatively quiet. [Those] who would be given the tickets would first be treated to a three-hour pre-concert dinner in the community, in which they would be fed nothing but baked beans, and lots of them; then the people would go to the symphony hall — with obvious consequences. Imagine the scene when the action began! The concert would be over before the first movement! (If this be a Freudian slip — so be it!) … The one thing that all oppressed people want to do to their oppressors is sh*t on them. Here was an approximate way to do this.

His juvenile tactics were effective because he knew it was far easier to threaten or commit harm, than to do something good: It is more provocative to rally people to occupy airport restrooms than to organize them to pass out food and drink to tired travelers. It takes only one day to ruin a symphony, but 90 lifetimes to create one. It is unfortunate, but evil does have this kind of perverse advantage over good.

We must avoid would-be leaders who exploit the advantages evil has over good. Reliance on such tactics to get what one wants is an indication of low character, and such leaders cannot and should not be trusted.