Censorship and the Moral Imperativeby jason on Dec. 21, 2011, under Art & Culture, Biblical Inerrancy, Christian Self-Righteous Arrogance, Christianity, Clarity, Critical Thinking, Economics, Education, Ethics, Faith, Fundamentalism, Gay Marriage, God & Bible, Government, History, Logic, Reason, Religion, Sanity, Science, Separation of Church & State, That's Life!, Willful Ignorance
A recent exchange with anon3 prompted me to give my definition of morality: Good promotes life and the growth of knowledge, and evil destroys those things.
I contrast this with a common religious view: Good is what God likes and evil is what God doesn’t like.
Both definitions leave us with many questions. The first: Who’s life? Who’s knowledge? What does it mean to “promote” those things? The second: Who’s God? How do we know what this God likes and doesn’t like? What if God likes something that all of our other knowledge tells us is really bad?
And for both: Is there any moral rule that is more important than all others?
Whether you believe in God or not, it is important to recognize that moral standards require human beings to learn, understand, and apply them. Since human beings are fallible, it follows that human beings are subject to making moral errors. There are two main types of moral errors. The first kind of error occurs when we know the correct moral course of action but for whatever reason we don’t choose to follow that course. The second kind of error occurs when we choose to follow the course of action that we believe to be moral, but our knowledge of morality regarding the situation is incomplete and/or incorrect so our actions are immoral.
People commonly attribute most human-caused evil in the world to the first type of error: By this line of thinking, people know what’s right, they just don’t choose to do it. It is common to regard morality as manifest - either obvious from nature, or revealed in religious books that were written millenia ago. That may sound reasonable until you think about our moral history. Consider America a mere 200 years ago: people had very different and demonstrably inferior moral views compared to today, despite widespread access to, reverence for, and reading of the same Bible that Christians claim reveals eternal moral truth and the same natural world upon which most atheists base our morality. Perhaps not everyone at the time thought slavery was a good thing, but it was not considered a moral requirement to treat people of other races, particularly blacks, as equals. It was widely accepted that children and wives could and should be savagely beaten for petty offenses like speaking out of turn. Taking land from Indians, not to mention wholesale slaughter and biological warfare against them was thought to be not only no big deal but part of our “Manifest Destiny”. It’s not that most Americans knew these things were evil but just couldn’t muster the self-discipline to do right. Believing that would require believing that modern Americans are somehow more disciplined in their application of morality than our predecessors were. No, the difference is that most people then thought these things were good, even though today most of us know those things were evil.
Yet early 1800′s America itself represented a substantial moral improvement over many earlier periods and other places, wherein witch burning, torture, rape, human sacrifice, and cannibalism all had their times and locations of widespread moral acceptability. It is common to think of our current era as morally decadent, but we’d be hard pressed to name any place and time more than a few decades ago where a person from 21st century America wouldn’t find something morally outrageous in widespread practice that is worse than anything in widespread practice today.
Does that mean that we’ve now reached the pinnacle of human moral understanding? Absolutely not.
It would be supremely arrogant and foolish of us to think that people in another 200 years won’t look back on some of the things that we accept as perfectly normal today with the same disgust and revulsion that we now feel towards slavery, domestic violence, and genocide. Our knowledge of morality has grown over the centuries, and it should continue to grow right along with the rest of our knowledge. It’s important to not only accept this fact intellectually but to implement the idea comprehensively: to live life with the understanding that there are a great many things we think we know today, that our children and grandchildren are going to demonstrate convincingly are not only ridiculous, but outright evil. What things? We don’t know yet. We have to learn.
We learn moral truths the same way we learn everything else: conjecture and refutation. We think up different ideas about morality, subject the ideas to criticism, and the ones that survive our best criticisms are the ideas we use as working theories until we think of better ideas and better criticisms – a process of gradual evolution and improvement. People who seek final certainty and revealed eternal truths (predominanty, though not exclusively, the religiously minded) reject that approach at an intellectual level when it’s explicitly presented as I just did. But it’s the only approach that seems to work, and it has worked because we’ve practiced it in our society to a fair degree of effectiveness even when it wasn’t preached from church pulpits.
While we ought never lose sight of the individual need to avoid errors in implementing the morality we know, the most important moral concern is to correct the errors in our knowledge of morality itself. Why? Because relatively few people will knowingly commit great evils. We correctly regard this relatively small number of people as either criminal or criminally insane sociopaths, and we lock them up to protect the rest of society from their actions. On the other hand, when something that’s evil is widely or uniformly regarded as good, the evil goes completely unchecked. Historically, people have placed the most zealous evil doers in positions of power, at least in part because people incorrectly thought that what those leaders were advocating was good.
Thus, in the long run the worst possible moral mistake we could make would be to act as if we now know all that there is to know about morality. If we believe that moral truths are manifest, either in nature or in ancient holy books, then we stunt the conjecture and refutation that is necessary to correct the errors in our knowledge.
When a society’s rulers treat their current moral knowledge as complete, the logical consequence is state censorship. After all: if you know with certainty what’s good, and someone advocates something different from what you know is good then they must be advocating evil. Since moral truth is manifest, anyone advocating evil must be either evil themselves or insane, so such advocacy should logically be suppressed. The ultimate power to suppress lies with the state. Using state censorship, leaders not only refuse to engage in their own moral conjectures and criticisms, they punish anyone else who dares to. Fortunately most people at least in the west have come to realize at a practical level that the suppression of criticism is the handmaiden of just about every kind of human evil there is, because morality is neither revealed in holy books nor manifest in nature. When you are certain you are right is when you are most likely to be wrong.
So if we want to conjecture a moral imperative, I regard it as this:
Don’t do anything, either as an individual or as a society, to interfere with the means of correcting errors in our knowledge.