Moral Laws vs Moral Fashions

Well-known atheist Richard Dawkins managed to grab himself some less than positive reactions a couple weeks ago when he gave an interview in which he dismissed the “mild pedophilia” which was common in the English school system of his youth as not being such a big deal if one considered the climate of the times. Justifying this attitude Dawkins explained:

I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.

The points most people drew from this are:

– Actually 18th and 19th century racism was pretty bad, many at the time did recognize it, and we should in fact condemn it.

– Identifying “mild pedophilia” as some kind of okay thing is something only a sick person with no morals would do.

I don’t disagree with these points. Nor is this new territory for Dawkins, who has something of a history of trivializing child abuse. He’s the one who argued, “Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.”

But I think there’s a more general tendency to be seen in Dawkins’ comments which is worth discussing as well. As a thoroughgoing materialist, Dawkins doesn’t recognize the existence of objectively real moral laws. Rather, what he sees is a sort of moral fashion. In the 18th and 19th centuries, racism was common and socially acceptable. Even “good people” who you’d want to have in your drawing room were often highly racist. (After all, it paid to be racist: slaves were the most valuable capital assets in some whole countries, including the US.)

In Dawkins’ mind, this apparently made it less bad to be racist in prior centuries. Never mind the fact that racism arguably caused more damage to people during those centuries precisely because it was so widespread and socially acceptable.

Now, there’s a sense in which someone might be less culpable for a sin which is widely accepted and practices in society than for a sin which is widely condemned. Someone who killed another man in a duel in 1800 had a lot of societal expectations telling him that it was the honorable thing to do to defend his honor in that way. Today, someone who shot another man for insulting him would be violating a host of social norms which teach us from out youth that killing each other is not an acceptable way of resolving social quarrels. So you could perhaps say that someone who shoots another person in such a quarrel today is likely more culpable as he has more voices in society telling him that what he’s doing is wrong.

However, sin is at all times discernible to us via natural reason. Even when slavery and the racism that supported it were common practice, people could and did think about the matter clearly and come to the conclusion that it was wrong. And in the 1950s England of Richard Dawkins’ youth, anyone who thought about it knew that reaching into a young boy’s pants was wrong — even if “child abuse” did not have the social stigma then that it does now.

Those of us who recognize the existence of moral laws should try to be especially aware of how they differ from moral fashions of the age. It’s easy to recognize sins where moral law and moral fashion align. However, it’s where the moral fashions of the age do not recognize a sin as being particularly wrong, where those fashions assure us that “good people” can do something, that particular abuses occur.

We easily identify the sins of the past where moral fashions have changed. This has been striking me as I read War & Peace. Killing someone in a duel or beating a subordinate while you’re drunk is considered quite socially excusable, while being caught publically lying or cheating is absolutely world ending. Fornication is considered almost infinitely worse than it is now (at least, for women) but adultery is considered almost tolerantly as fornication is in our society. (Not so much by Tolstoy, who is rather the moralist, but by the society which he is portraying.)

But, of course, sin is sin. And it can be all the more deadly to us when we allow social convention to lull us into the idea that it’s not so bad, something that “basically good people” can keep on doing without too much blame.

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