For most of our intellectual history, religion has claimed a monopoly on morality. It should be no surprise that today, with the slow retreat of religion from the public sphere, believers are on the defensive and using morality as their battle flag.
One problem with morality discussions is that we group a lot of different things under the term “morality.” Christians call the rules of the Bible “morality,” but I would argue that they do not add up to anything of the sort. I call “morality” any set of principles which provide us with the tools to independently evaluate actions. The Bible provides us with orders from God with the threat of death or eternal punishment backing them up; orders are not principles or ways to evaluate actions.
Nevertheless, it is true that the Bible tells people what to do and what not to do, which is probably a more common definition of “morality.” But if that’s true, then any authority becomes a moral compass. And I think you can already see where this is going…
This topic was first brought up by blog reader tnt666, who posted this comment:
It’s the reason I think morality and BS like the Golden Rule are but more tools to keep the powerful in place, and the peons in their place. Morality never applies to those with power, but it sure is a common discourse for the ruling class, protecting their collective arses from peon retaliation, we are so well subdued by the moral imperative and the delusion of pacifism.
The rule of law is really the cover of hypocrisy used by criminals to shield themselves from punishment. It is not justice.
Although this is not directly related, I can’t help but think about how Nietzsche addressed the issue of master morality and slave morality, especially as regards to Christianity. Nietzsche’s idea is somewhat different, in that he believes master morality and slave morality develop independently in response to their proponents’ social status, but, even if Nietzsche is right, it’s clear from history that the development of slave morality leads to masters manipulating it for their own purposes. Nowhere did we see this better than in their treatment of actual slaves.
If we look at the kind of morality that is authoritarian by nature, then obviously there must be doubletalk. For example, rulers must say murder is bad from one side of their mouths and order the deaths of innocents from the other. This is not a function of how much corruption or democracy we observe in a society; it is a necessity in any hierarchical moral system. By virtue of being in control, authorities must claim for themselves the freedoms that they must deny to their subjects.
We learn to deal with this concept at a very young age. Not only do we learn that our parents can order us around, but also that those orders don’t apply to the parents themselves. Accusing parents of hypocrisy is pointless, since parents know they are in control of their children and that little can prevent this (apart from child protection services or the police, but they rarely get involved, and even when they do, the punishment is extremely light).
Throughout history (at least until post-WW2 democracy), a major problem of authorities has been preventing revolt. This is why slave morality has always been engineered so the masses do not revolt. Christianity has famously been used to pacify slaves and the destitute, by reminding them of the bounties that awaited them after their death (as famously parodied in the song Pie In The Sky, which I’ve quoted before).
There are many responses that have been offered to the possibility of revolt throughout history. Murder is a very common one, accompanied with the threat that revolt is futile because it will be met with violence and there’s just no point in trying. An equally common response is an ostensibly moral one: that revolt is wrong and that authorities have the right and the duty to preserve their authority in the name of the country/God/economy/whatever.
Back to my first point. A moral principle (note that I am not here talking about intuitions but about their formulated corollaries), like any other principle, has a justification, can be defined and analyzed, and one can pass judgment upon it on the basis of their own reasoning. When a parent tells a child to clean their room, that’s an order, not a moral principle. When a government passes a law outlawing homosexuality, that’s not a moral principle either. Neither is any other law.
So we must make a distinction between universal morality and master/slave “morality.” In the past, I have defined the universality principle as such:
An ethical principle or system is invalid if it is asymmetrical in application (to locations, times or persons).
Tnt666 brought up the example of pacifism, which is a good one. The dispossessed are always enjoined to remain non-violent, and that violence is always an immature and criminal act. The powerful, on the other hand, never hesitate in using various levels of violence to quell protests or direct action.
Yes, non-violence may be a winning strategy, but it may also be an easy way for one to get massacred. The more publicized a cause is, the more likely pacifism may lead to success. The creation of martyrs is absolutely useless if it is not witnessed; then it is only a death amongst many, and governments excel at killing people.
The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.
Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (not Seneca the Younger!)
Gibbon here is talking about religion, but the quote can apply equally to any other hierarchy that exists in our society, including false morality.
One of the prime characteristics of false morality is that it makes it impossible to differentiate right from wrong, which, by the way, is what morality is supposed to do. So as moral systems, things like laws and doctrines are complete failures. But in their actual purpose, which is to secure control over populations, they are on the whole imperfect but generally successful (keep in mind that many revolts are actually one hierarchy over another, such as patriotism towards one’s original country as opposed to that of an invader country).