I have recently become acquainted with two quotes on morality:
‘Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority.’ (John Stuart Mill)
‘No moral system can rest solely on authority. It can never be sufficient justification for performing any action that someone commands it.’ (Alfred Ayer)
If you read the words of classic philosophers, it appears that the moral code of classical society was the same as ours. That means our modern Western morality has been in existence since humans have had the ability to write. That means it existed before humans could write (unless a new morality emerged with the skill of writing?). How long before? Just a few thousand years or tens of thousands? It might even pre-date agrarian society (ie, developed by hunter-gatherer tribes). At any rate, its been around for at least several thousand years.
If John’s right (sounds reasonable to me) it means that we in the 21st century are living our lives according to rules laid down by an elite group that lived many millennia before us.
Who were these people? How do our interests correspond with their interests? Is the moral code they set up for themselves relevant for us? Shouldn’t we be questioning the validity of maintaining the values of people living thousands of years ago and whose day-to-day concerns bear little relevance to ours?
Alfred’s quote, too, sounds sensible to me. It sounds like the ‘Because I say so’ reason parents give their kids. From the minute we are born we are subject to the word of authority: parents, teachers, priests, scientists, bosses, ‘tradition’, ‘the law’, fashion magazines (and so on). They’re all vying, with varying degrees of tyranny, to impose their ideas on our impressionable minds (of course, they were indoctrinated in their turn, too, and bamboozled into believing in the rightness of their received ‘wisdom’).
A problem with questioning and re-evaluating morals is that people, in general, regard them as sacred. Even atheists do. What can you do about that? It’s not their fault – it’s how things are presented. Most people are narrow-minded – even those of us who believe ourselves to be open-minded – so once an idea has been accepted as true it’s pretty difficult to dislodge it.
Regarding societal mores as sacred has been compounded (ie, drummed into us!) by the religious authorities who held enormous powers during the centuries of the alliance between government and the Christian Church in the West. They expertly used the tools of propaganda to market their ideas as sacred – the word of God – a higher authority. It was a method of crowd control and it’s worked so well that we’re still living by the rules they proscribed.
Today, in our secular world, science has taken over from the Church in terms of imposing the dogma of an elite group with the aim of mass thought control. (I don’t have anything against science, by the way – far from it. I only have a distaste for the Machiavellian sort, which, alas, is rife… and how can ordinary mortals tell the difference?… they frequently sound very convincing, yet many are no less charlatans than those they accuse of charlatanism. Ho hum, what can you do? It has ever been thus.)
I don’t think atheism will free us from the psychic prison of our cultural beliefs. Atheism is a dogma as much as theism is. And many are vitriolic in their condemnation of anyone who holds different opinions (eg, my ‘favourite’ hysterical atheist, Richard Dawkins, said he thinks astrologers should be prosecuted and that he ‘despises’ them… so much for freedom of thought, so much for freedom of speech… sounds like the paranoia of the witch-hunters in Early Modern Europe).
I’m not sure about The Humanist Assocation (where I got those quotes from) either. I like the idea of humanism, but the Humanist Association comes across as an inflexible and persecutory propaganda arm of atheistic doctrine. Clearly The British Humanist Association doesn’t believe in freedom of speech or freedom of thought.
I say we should question the authority of a moral doctrine that is no more sacred than the tea I’m currently drinking. I mean EVERY moral doctrine.