Thinking online…

I dislike inconsistency, especially in myself. It occurred to me that I have embraced two apparently inconsistent philosophical positions.

So I gave the matter some thought. Here’s the problem, and my synthesis.

The other day I linked to what I consider an outstanding article by historian Tom Holland. In it he explains how he gradually came to realize, though his research, that modern ideas of cultural relativism are false. It’s not true that all societies are pretty much the same. The Christian West espouses (though often fails to practice) the highest level of morality we know of, superior in every way to civilizations of the past that scholars love to praise. The Greeks and the Romans, for instance, from whom Enlightenment thinkers thought they derived their ideas, knew nothing of human equality and never contemplated ending slavery. It’s only the Christian West that has even striven for these things.

That’s one position I embrace.

But I also embrace what C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Abolition of Man, calls “the Tao.” The Tao (as Lewis used it here) is a universal set of moral precepts that appear to be inborn. They are reiterated in cultures all over the world, across racial divisions and epochs of time alike. “Don’t steal.” “Don’t murder.” “Keep your promises.” “Honor your parents.”

Does that contradict the Western exceptionalism I praise in Mr. Holland’s article?

No. There’s a distinction here.

Lewis’ Tao is remarkably consistent around the world. Along broad lines, it appears to be a natural law, common to all people who are not insane.

But in general, all human societies have applied those rules only to “us.” You didn’t steal from your kinsman or neighbor. You didn’t murder another member of your tribe. You couldn’t lie to a fellow countryman.

But (generally speaking) all those rules went by the board when you were dealing with outsiders. Members of other clans. Foreigners. Infidels. In dealing with them, you could do whatever you could get away with. Thus (in an obvious example for me), the Viking raider considered himself an honorable man when he raided England or Ireland. Those people weren’t “us.” They didn’t count.

What Christianity brought to western civilization was the idea (inconsistently put into practice, we admit) that even “the Samaritan” was our neighbor. One was to treat everyone – even enemies – as one would like to be treated oneself.

That was the new thing. All the other moral advances sprang from that.

2 thoughts on “Thinking online…”

  1. In the opening pages of Mere Christianity, Lewis repeats the observation that all cultures have a moral code but he also makes a second observation that no culture consistently obeys it. Though they all uphold some sort of respect for life, respect for property and an ideal of fidelity in marriage, no culture is without its murderers, thieves and adulterers. Thus he introduces the concept of original sin and universal depravity, another anathema to modern liberal philosophy.

  2. Perhaps this idea of treating strangers as nastily as you can get away with is the reason so many people act like jerks when they believe they won’t be held accountable. I read several anecdotes the other day of people who used a language barrier to say racist or other hateful things to get a laugh from a friend without the knowledge of their target. They were humiliated when they learned their words were understood, but it’s surprising what people will say (like online comments) when they think they are shielded by a barrier of some kind.

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