No reasonable person would dispute that a just state and its laws must rest on moral foundations. Never mind the circularity of the claim. The term “just” is a moral term in the first place and therefore highly suggestive of the argued-for connection. Far more important is the derivative character of our laws from morals, complicated as it is by the element of historicity. The recent controversy surrounding the release of “the torture memos” is a case in point.
“Let it rest,” is everyone’s advice, especially since the laws regarding “torture” are in the process of being revised. If “enhanced interrogation techniques” were considered benign under Bush’s regressive policies and his interpretation of the law, that’ll surely change under Obama. Until we’ll have another occupant in the White House, and then another. And then, things will get back to “normal,” or not, depending on the whim of the president’s legal advisors and the president himself.
And so the argument goes, making it seem as though that the entire thing turned on definitions. And that definitions could always be defined and re-defined ad infinitum. What we once considered “enlightened” might revert someday to being thought of as shallow or stupid. The wisdom of the ages may yield to another perception that it was a folly. Nothing’s settled, and nothing should remain settled because we humans have the power over definitions. Things are so because we say they’re so. We’re the true masters of the world in every sense of the term because it’s a world of our own making.
Gods should be envious!
I beg to differ. Our powers are greatly exaggerated. And yes, we do operate under certain constraints – moral constraints! The history of humankind supports this contention. I’m yet to be swayed by the notion of historical progress. It’s a painstaking process and snail-paced besides.. Still, it’s progress nonetheless.
The Other Boleyn Girl comes to mind. It’s a heckuva movie if you’re keen on comparing our present with our historical past. The past, in this instance, is the tail end of the Tudor era, the reign of Henry VIII, and the treatment of women, not just of the peasant stock but also of noble bloodlines, defies imagination. From childhood, they were groomed as assets and pawns – to advance the family’s interests and ambitions. The girls had no say in the matter, none whatever, but to do their family’s bidding.
Such is the story of Ann Boleyn and “the other Boleyn girl,” Mary, Ann’s younger sister. The first ended up with her head chopped off, the second in exile. Thank their loving family, which introduced both girls to Henry’s court for his sole use and pleasure to serve as concubines once it became apparent that Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s lawful wife, was about to fall into disfavor.
Where am I going with this?
For one thing, we’ll never go back to “the good ol’ days” when women were habitually mistreated. Our history is replete with pendulum swings, with significant shifts for the better only to experience a reversal – two steps forward and one step back. But it is also true that the voice of reaction will take you back only so and no further. Parts of our past are irretrievable, simply because the gains we’ve made had trickled down to the popular consciousness to preclude any possibility of radical backsliding. And this covers a whole gamut of human relations where gross injustices were once prevalent throughout our inglorious past only to be rectified in times since, including the present, in light of heightened consciousness.
We can’t turn a blind eye anymore on practices we now regard as abhorrent: slavery, exploitation of women, discrimination against gays, African-Americans, and the handicapped, unfair labor practices and sexual discrimination in the workplace, glass ceilings, and all such. Any practice which only a while ago was considered the norm, today it violates our ordinary sensibilities and consciousness. Too much time has elapsed to ever revert to our old barbaric selves and the barbaric views which were part and parcel. Once we acquired a third eye, as it were, it’s impossible to shed it. And If that is not an argument for progress, I don’t know what is.
Which brings me to another, more perturbing question because it seems to fly in the face of common understanding: Why did it take us so long? Must we traverse two thousand years of darkness and oblivion to finally realize that some rules of conduct — especially appertaining to justice and equality under the law — are not privileges to be accorded to the few but ought to apply to all humans regardless of gender, skin color, or ethnic background?
It’s not exactly that the nobles in Henry’s court were unaware of the moral issues involved in the treatment of their children. For indeed, one could argue that the ideals as to what constituted proper conduct were no different or less accessible to them than they are today. And the same could be said for the Christian values of love, empathy, and charity. And yet, very few indeed, if any, appeared to pay heed to these eternal precepts or considered their conduct deplorable.
It wasn’t until William Shakespeare that we’d become exposed to a different view of women, on par with the best in men regarding such qualities as native intelligence, ability, and wit. It’s a sad commentary, indeed, on the extent to which cultural prejudices and biases of the day affect the common sensibility, so much so that only the brightest lights seem capable of rising above them. And when they do, they shine like a beacon of light.
Indeed, even Aristotle was blind to the many evils and prejudices of his day, such as slavery or exploitation; Euripides may have been the only exception.
Hence my argument on behalf of historical progress: it has less to do with discovering (or rediscovering) our moral compass by the select few and more with the general expansion of consciousness, of having the light shine on all of us, or with the enlightenment, if you will, spreading to include the many.
In Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky spoke of “collective guilt” we all share as part of our responsibility to our brothers and sisters. The theme would influence the writings of such literary giants as E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf.
Well, perhaps there is a “collective consciousness” as well. I’m speaking of “shared consciousness,” shared in common by the society at large, or at least by the increasingly growing segments of that society. And it is this, perhaps, that is the most beneficial and lasting effect of humanity’s advance, the pilgrim’s progress when applied to a collective: a heightened consciousness in Everyman, for only in that can there be assurance enough that we shall never again revisit our ugly past. And that consciousness, so it seems, must attain sufficient critical mass if it’s to ensure against radical reversals.
I believe we’ve reached such a point in the history of humankind, comparable perhaps to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, which made the word of God available to the many — without priestly intervention. And barring unforeseeable circumstances, it’s only going to get better.
And this brings us full circle to the key idea – the derivative status of all laws from morals. Even in the best-case scenario, our laws are but a replica of our heightened sense of morality. You can’t expect every member of civil society to live up to the highest standards of thought and deed. They’re bound to be individual differences, and our laws must reflect that. They must accommodate to the extent possible the element of diversity.
In short, they must ensure a relatively peaceful co-existence and resolution of conflict for the good of the whole.
None of this is to say that there won’t be any significant advances because of heightened consciousness. In time, our laws will come to reflect more and more the aspirations of humankind. The injustices of the past will eventually be set aright. But don’t expect miracles. It’s not going to happen overnight. Meanwhile, let’s take solace in the fact that humanity is on the march. Only a better and brighter future awaits us.
The current controversy concerning the abhorrent practice of torture – – “enhanced interrogation techniques,” to use CIA’s vernacular — is an excellent example of modern consciousness in the making. The controversy was prompted by the recent release of CIA “torture memos,” which became a number one topic on American political itinerary. (See also “Random Thoughts On Torture” regarding various means of justifying the practice.)
Regardless of how we will resolve this thorny subject or how soon, I want to take a larger view and say that years from now, we shall all put it behind us as an ugly episode in American history because that’s all it will be. Our laws will change, and so will our practices, and we shall never again suffer a national disgrace, not on this score anyhow.
I’ll discuss our prospects in the forthcoming articles.