The consistency of morals

I’ve recently written a couple of short blurbs (here and here) about how our sense of right and wrong develops from nature. This is extraordinarily unsatisfying and offensive to many people. They want to know how we avoid moral pandemonium without a set of rules about right and wrong that come from on high. This is a different question than what I am asking but is closely related. So how do we know what to do? How do we set up a legal system? I am invariably asked how to hold rapists or Hitler responsible for their actions if there are no morals that are eternally enforceable?

These are good questions that wrap ideas about free will and morality and god into one so it can be hard to winnow out simple observations. But the idea that morals are unchanging is historically and theologically indefensible. We can use any religion but I’m most familiar with Christianity: what eternal truth can be championed as an unchanging expression of god’s character? Maybe that children are treasures? I think they are as do most parents but the Hebrew God doesn’t. There is the story of God telling his favorite, Abraham, to take his child’s life as a test of faith. And I’ve read the Bible story about Lot who, in order to save a group of visitors from harm, offered his daughters to a group of gang rapists. I read in the prophets where God instructs Israelite warriors to not even spare the enemy’s children, but to smash their heads upon stones. And while they’re at it – just for good measure – to ‘rip open their pregnant women’.

In each case there are theological explanations. And that is fine. But the idea of the sanctity of children as a universal moral stance isn’t supported. A similar conversation can be had about marriage. We see plural marriage, old men marrying young women, and men taking women as possessions throughout the scriptures. And when there are no men around, as in Noah’s time,  we read that his daughters drunked him up and had sex with him. Noah isn’t thrilled about the event but there is nothing to indicate that what the women did was morally wrong.

That fact is that morals are a moveable feast. We sense them as overarching and inviolate because they are those things in our culture. And culture moves slowly. It took a hundred years of US history – where all men are created equal – to remove chains from Africans. It took another hundred to finally call them equal. It took 150 years to recognize that women are smart enough to vote. We still struggle with allowing a human being to love anyone they want to.

Knowing that morals developed culturally due to genetic proclivities doesn’t lessen their importance. In a sense, it heightens their value as they give insights into how we are programmed to live successfully within groups. It does, however, remove the onus to follow beliefs handed down by fiat, only because we are told to do so. It elevates the importance of the human being and reduces the importance of religion. Which, of course, is what all the hubbub is about.


Tolstoy, Mother Earth News, and Can’t We All Just Get Along?


First, an apology

Sometimes, I think I should apologize to my friends and readers. Blogging wisdom tells authors to select a topic, write about it widely and deeply, and provide usable and shareable content for readers. And don’t forget the SEO! Besides the brute fact that I hate the very concept of content there are just too many things that fascinate me to limit my writing to one topic.  I tried running multiple sites one time and it was just too time consuming. So I appreciate every reader who hangs in there when something like Tolstoyan communes pops up.

I saw this article in the New Yorker about life in one of the last Tolstoyan communes. Now, I love me some Tolstoy. I’ve read most of his major writing at least once, took up Russian – Здравствуйте! – to read his books in the original (and have never done so), and whenever asked, I’m happy to offer my opinion that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written. It’s a little embarrassing but I even started dressing like the Great Man once. Nothing like wearing a bright green smock with a wide belt to get you some stares.

Tolstoy Communes

It’s well known among students of Tolstoy that he basically invented his own religion based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He rejected mystery, miracles, and the spiritual and considered Jesus to be a wise but very human teacher. He corresponded frequently with Gandhi about non-violence and pacifism and ate a vegetarian diet. He identified with the poor, setting up schools and eschewing a life of wealth and ease. He tried to forgo sex and struggled deeply with his ‘animal lust’ as Troyat outlines in his biography of the writer. In other words, he actually lived the way he talked. It’s unheard of today, even in religious circles, and certainly one reason for his appeal in a time of great tumult.

Wiki says that there were Tolstoyan communes throughout the world and all adhered to principles of non-violence, non-resistance, and vegetarianism. Commune members lived simply and did not participate in government. They considered the state to be a violent and corrupt means of artificial control. In many ways, they were similar to the British and American Shakers. Alas, Tolstoyan Communities had a short history. Most attempted to be self-sustaining and weren’t able to support themselves. Neighbors were often suspicious of their non-violent neighbors. Governments made life difficult for them. Finally, it’s hard to keep a movement growing when you fail to propagate membership from within. Abstinence wasn’t a requirement but was very highly regarded.

Tolstoy had mixed feelings about the groups formed after his name. He was happy to see people joining together to champion non-violence and simplicity but argued strongly he should never be propped up as a model and that every man should seek out his own answers within himself.

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