Rejuvenating Moral Duties
10 May, 1999
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It is now several weeks since the shootings at Columbine High. After Columbine there have been several other incidents scattered over the United States and Canada where outcast teens have made threatening gestures against their peers and their teachers and at least one fatal shooting at a school in Taber, Alberta that we in Canada know about.
The entire society children, parents, educators, law enforcers, politicians, clergy are talking about this manifestation of what at first glimpse is seen as completely demented and unexplainable action by young teenage males. The unsatisfying conclusion often reached in endless debates about this dilemma is that there seems to be no single answer for it. There is much finger pointing and assessing of blame for who made, or let, these kids go bad. In various proportions, blame is placed on parents, the educators, entertainment media movies, videos, music, and the news media for giving the incidents too much publicity. There is also an almost universal lament over the quickly deteriorating moral fiber of todays society. An eerie mood of inevitability lurks in the background, fueled by dire predictions of apocalyptic messianists who are looking for the End Times. Perhaps, then, the degeneration of mankind is inevitable, as prophesied.
However, as new incidents of kids shooting kids are reported and past ones are re-examined, a common denominator is being finally identified in almost all of the shootings and threatening confrontations. In discussions there now are people who voice thoughts that begin to approach the root cause of these incidents. There is finally a recognition that the perpetrators were ostracized by their teenage peer community. There is evidence that in many cases these social undesirables had withstood long periods of slights, taunts and even physical abuse by their peers who collectively regarded the outcasts as a lower tier, if not a lower class, in their society.
The day after the disaster at Columbine, I could not resist the urge to try to put the thoughts of the hosts at my favorite talk-radio station on the right track by e-mailing them a message which said that the problem is encapsulated by the words from a popular old American song : You have to be a football hero to get along with the beautiful girls. There is a much broader meaning, characterizing American culture (particularly the culture of the young), contained in the words of that song than what one would notice at first. There are also in that refrain vestiges of the primeval instinctive drive for dominance by the physically fittest in the herd, pack, or tribe. Of course, what comes to us from nature we cannot eliminate, but we learn to control and subdue it. Thats a part of being civilized, and culture is one of the instruments we use to do so. But, there is also general esteem of success in competitive activities and adoration of the socially debonair in American culture. This leads to an unwholesome veneration of testosterone-driven athletic triumph, particularly in a team (pack?) setting. The result is a regression to primitive urges in young males to exact submissive obeisance in all aspects of social interaction from the athletically inferior members of the group. Except that a teenager today can resist this sort of subjugation with much more than tooth and nail, if he sets his mind to it.
Of course, a problem of this severity has causes that run deeper than just culture. The heinous cold-blooded killings were done by male teenagers who exhibited a complete lack of conscience and none of the basic moral sense of right and wrong: the universal standards by which we measure our humanity across all cultural borders.
Leaving aside aspersions of blame for the time being, we can then at least say that the reasons for the psychopathic behavior by adolescent males are to be found in some failure or flaw in the moral and cultural areas of human interaction in this society. There is a third important factor that shapes and influences the first two. It must therefore be looked at first in considering the cultural and moral factors. Yet, it has not been touched upon in discussing of the problem in the media. That factor is a new and potent intellectual force arising from the scientific and technological advances of our time, and the globalized, immediate exchange of ideas, information and knowledge. It is changing, at an ever faster rate, the way that even the most primitive of humans in the most back-water corner of the earth thinks about the universe we are a part of and mans role in it . This intellectual force that is slowly penetrating the most closed of everymans minds, is debunking religious myths in the minds of millions. Organized religions are powerless to stop the debunking, because a myth can not be defended, it can only be believed in.
I propose that the societies which we know as the democratic West and which have evolved in Christendom, or have been culturally assimilated by Christendom, are now in a hopeless moral crisis, because - so to say - the string has run out, the con based on a hoax that worked literally like a charm for many centuries can now be sold only to the very credulous. It is not the loss of belief in a religious dogma per se that brings on the crisis. Religions have come and gone throughout history. Rather, it is because moral standards that have been, in this instance, made completely a part of the religious dogma for many centuries, are now being dragged down along with the religious dogma. Therein lies the moral disaster facing Western civilization.
I have in front of me a book by a Roman lawyer and politician, Marcus Tullius Cicero. The book is titled On the Moral Duties (De Officiis). It is written in the 46 43 BCE period and is in the form of a long letter of advice to his son who is a student at Athens. The advice is, as the title suggests, on what one must and must not do to live the good and honorable life. I mention Cicero because he was a practical man, not given to philosophical musings. Yet, like most educated people of his time, he was familiar with the ideas and teachings of the great moral philosophers of the 500 years preceding his lifetime, and like good men do, he lived his own life according to the moral standards defined by the moral philosophers. In De Officiis he entreats his son to do likewise.
I have often wondered how much better off Western civilization would be today if Christianity would not have appeared on the scene. Im quite sure that if the philosophy of ethics and morals begun by the ancient Greeks had continued to evolve and flourish as an independent discipline, unmolested and uncontaminated by religious claptrap, we would today have a solid moral and ethical tradition of nearly three millennia-worth of unfettered thought inculcated into us. This tradition would stand strong on its own feet.
Instead, starting already in the early centuries of the Christian era, the Church has carried on a constant and systematic eradication or usurpation (as the case may be) of all other sources of philosophical and transcendental thought in order to achieve a totalitarian monopoly ( the totalitarians of the 20th century could not do as good a job) on all intellectual and spiritual endeavors of men under its control.
So it was that the sources of the ancient moral and ethical philosophy were deliberately occluded from public view, and the contents of the philosophy contorted to fit the Christian myth. Thus, instead of encouragement to do good and admonishment not to do evil for the sake of ones own benefit and that of ones fellow men, Christianity enmeshed these concepts and teachings into the myth of heaven with its accompanying rewards of immortality and eternal bliss in the presence of Jesus for the good folk, and the myth of hell with eternal burning and suffering for the bad people.
It can not be denied that Christianity was very effective with this carrot-and-stick approach. The by-and-large na´ve, uneducated and superstitious society it controlled was conditioned and coerced to behave. Most people were constrained from doing bad things by the fear of ending up in hell, and not necessarily because they had the moral foundation within themselves that commanded them not to do bad simply because it hurt other people and things. However, it must also be recognized that for so long as the concepts of good and bad have been subordinated to the religious myth, that is for how long society as a whole has been denied access to a genuine understanding and appreciation of these moral and ethical concepts. There has now been a hiatus of close to two thousand years in the cultivation of moral and ethical ideas for their own sake, and the catastrophic consequences of it are becoming more glaring every year.
It is worth repeating that it is not religion, or to be specific Christianity, that has brought on the desperate moral crisis. Rather, we see the consequences of a grave error of judgment by Western man, perpetuated through the centuries, of subordinating the moral code to religious dogma. Now we can return to what I identified as the third important factor in the current crisis simply put, our growing understanding of all of Gods creation through scientific and technological progress. It is this, our growing understanding of everything, not least of which is our own history, that is debunking the Christian myth with deadly consequences for the foundations of our morals which have been woven into the web of that myth for many centuries.
The more that modern ideas have challenged the Christian myth, the more zealous and intense have grown the actions of those who defend it. In the American culture the confrontation between Christianity and its debunkers has become quite vicious in tone, particularly so in the political arena. This confrontation is also plain to see in the educational establishments, and it is one of the major factors for the caste-like division between the teenagers who believe that to be good you must believe in the divinity and omnipotence of Jesus and those teenagers who say that they do not believe in the Christian dogma. As the struggle between the self-righteous Christian jingoistic moralizers and the self-styled nihilistic atheists escalates, the last vestiges of societal morality (as opposed to the religious kind) are destroyed.
Is there any hope for rejuvenating the moral and ethical development of Western man after centuries of neglect? Probably not while Christianity persists. It is highly unlikely that any thought could be given at this time to starting a mandatory program call it Moral Duties, if you will that would encompass the best of what both Western and Eastern philosophies can offer; a program that would teach the persuasive logic of Socrates, Confucius and, most of all, Aristotle, and gradually imbue the minds and hearts of the children from an early age on with moral and ethical feelings and concepts that are virtuous in their own right and devoid of religious coloration of any kind.
Comprehensive instruction in moral duties would make all children better persons both as individuals and as a society. There would be few psyches that would become twisted because they were starved of moral nourishment, and less likelihood that what amounts to a caste system would be practiced by the majority of high school teenagers.
If the young were to be inculcated vigorously with a religion-free code of morals and ethics drawn from the best that Western and Eastern philosophies have to offer, it would also eventually modify the American cultural tradition, in which the testosterone tyranny that idolizes the male athlete and spurns the physically inept would be moderated by a general awareness in everyone that it is not physical prowess but the practice of the moral virtues that make a human being worthy of admiration.
Cultural traditions are slow to change; so are the moral and ethical traditions; in many respects they are one and the same. Before a program of instruction in the moral duties at schools is possible, there must be a cadre of teachers trained to give it. It is better yet, if the parents of the child also understand and try to live by the moral duties. In the end it is society as a whole that determines what is taught in the schools. In the present conditions, one part of society fiercely hangs on to their perceived religious prerogative to be the sole custodian of moral values, and the other part of society, having discarded the religious myth, now thrashes about in amoral confusion. It would indeed be a miracle if society suddenly, and in a quantum leap, comprehended the crying necessity for instructing the young in the moral duties based not on religious myth but on the achievements of our own intellect that reach back into antiquity. Perhaps that will happen in the next millennium.
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