Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Dawkins' "Shifting Moral Zeitgeist"

I can't stop thinking about this theory of Dawkins'- the [youtube] Shifting Moral Zeitgeist (SMZ).

In sum, Dawkins points out that even the most enlightened men of their past generations 40 or 100 years ago say things we would say are immoral, while the evilest people of our times would seem more tame by comparison with the same time frames.

Abe Lincoln, HG Wells, TH Huxley all enlightened for their times would seem horribly immoral for our own times, irrespective of one's religious views (unless one is a muslim, puritan, jewish, fundamentalist of the most extreme proportions).

Likewise a Donald Rumsfeld would seem like a pussycat compared to Bomber Harris of England in WWII during the blitzkreigs on Dresden.

You can take anyone, say Thomas Jefferson and point out he was a slave owner, for example. We all collectively shrug our shoulders and acknowledge that we can't hold people from so long ago accountible for our morals today.

Dawkins' point is transformative- it is like a time machine that by its presence in a room explains why a person in colonial garb is standing next to you.

We can come up with all kinds of theories as to why this phenomenon is, whether it is a good thing and so on, but do we agree Dawkins is in fact correct? If he is, he has identified why "Conservatives" are less "moral" by today's standards than "Liberals/Progressives."

That is, Conservatives wish to hold onto the values and viewpoints of the past. Liberals, at a minimum want to "live and let live" but often prefer to push the envelope in terms of what is accepted. These are generalities, broad-brush statements, but they tend to show how conflicts arise. They also explain why the press and universities are for the most part more socially/morally "liberal."

The press is by and large comprised of reporters and editors who have exposure to universities, and universities, at least nowadays work hard at presenting diverse viewpoints. Of course, the press and universities weren't always this way! It took social change from within and without to shape the collective "morality" of these two institutions.

A few examples of how this whole SMZ plays out:

Race and the Rights of Women and Children, and of people in general.
If conservatives have essentially longed to hold on to what they have, and have consistently done so, then they have fought hard for slavery, and to keep women from voting, and to maintain segregation, and to limit civil and criminal rights for the general public.

So, were/are they immoral to do so? That is an irrelevant question. The important question, from where I'm sitting is, who is most likely to shape morality of the future and is this a "good thing?"

I think we can see from Dawkins' examples that we can all agree racist attitudes that blacks are inferior genetically to whites or that women are less intelligent than men are immoral nowadays. We feel good that we've come so far, that women can vote and blacks are considered equal citizens in our democracy (something even Abe Lincoln was startlingly against at one point).

We might even think to ourselves, what can we do next? Gays' rights and acceptance seem to be the next step. If we were to fast-forward 100 years, or perhaps just 25 years, would our societies' current attitudes toward homosexuals seem awful or immoral? Are we better now than we were decades ago? It would seem, with all the gay-oriented TV shows and movies and the like that a lot of progress has been made in that regard.

But one liberal's "progress" is likely to be Exhibit A of the decline of western civilization to a conservative commentator.

Yeridas HaDoros?
According to Orthodox Judaism, there is a phenomenon that earlier generations were on a "higher spiritual level" than ours and call this "yeridas hadoros" - declining of the generations. I think we can only imagine what it would be like to be in the company of a man from 3000 years ago. The image, especially if the person is an ancient Jew, is one of perhaps someone pure and simple, but with totally distorted and deficient views on human interrelations, science and social justice. For him, multiple wives are fine, even necessary. Same for slaves. Same for selling or beating ("abusing" nowadays) his wives, children and animals. Same for genocide on the biblical scale and corporeal punishment and torture.

Can we really say such people were on a "higher plane?" "Of course not!" you would reflexively say. But they clearly were for their time.

In reality, we judge morality from our own vantagepoint, even the religious among us do. Reading the Talmud on a daily basis, perhaps even for the whole day every day, is in many ways a time transport back to medieval times and mindset. I think that is what irked me the most about it. Sitting in daf yomi and just getting a fast forward of how backward the sages were compared to our times was very grating for me.

Apologists try to harness whatever moral progress has been made and apply it to the Torah or the Talmud. However, the authors of the torah and gemara would be appalled by our modern day sensibilities, that much we can all agree on.

Picking and Choosing- Even Chazzal and the Gedolim Do it
Perhaps the most profound lesson to learn from the Shifting Moral Zeitgeist theory is that it shows a road map of picking and choosing, even by the most religious people (other than wahabbist moslems who seem impervious to progress of any kind).

For example, even the most religious man in Lakewood or Israel wouldn't dream of having two wives. It would be unseemly and overtly sexual. And yes, the reason for the extra wives in the old days absolutely was sexual one. The men who had enough money or property and possessions could have more than one wife and this suited him to not just have other women available during the times his wife was nidah or too pregnant/infirm/etc, to serve his needs.

Hence, when we hear about King Solomon's 700 wives and 300 concubines (not the 1000 wives of the artscroll version, btw) we are talking about a man whose wives were much more sexual objects for him than anything else. The Shifting Moral Zeitgeist meant that even in medieval times, the Jews had to abandon polygamy. And nowadays, even the richest or most powerful or most learned Jew wouldn't think of having a second wife and would feel queasy just thinking about owning slaves. He likely wouldn't want to see even Saddam Hussein have hot lead poured down his throat rather than hanged.

This is why the real blowhards like Dennis Prager and Medved and all the christian evangelical nuts are so infuriating when they selectively quote the bible, or want the 10 commandments in a courthouse. Don't they see how many other parts of the torah they are overlooking because such parts are so immoral in comparison with the zeitgeist of today?