MORAL, adj. Conforming to a local and mutable standard of right. Having the quality of general expediency.
It is sayd there be a raunge of mountaynes in the Easte, on one syde of the which certayn conducts are immorall, yet on the other syde they are holden in good esteeme; wherebye the mountayneer is much conveenyenced, for it is given to him to goe downe eyther way and act as it shall suite his moode, withouten offence.
– “Gooke’s Meditations”
(Ambrose Bierce; from The Devil’s Dictionary)
“My Facebook feed looks like a battle broke out between the confederates and a Skittles factory.” So posted one of Quilly’s Facebook friends, in response to the events of the past week. During which the Supreme Court Junior (the one in Washington DC, USA) ruled against the sacred icon of exclusively heterosexual marriage, and the Supreme Court Senior (the one on social networks) ruled against the sacred icon of American chattel slavery.
“It’s immoral“, scream those offended at SC Jr.’s ruling, “to accede to the demands of primal lusts, against Nature and against Scripture!”
“It’s immoral“, scream the ruling’s defenders, whose emblem is a rainbow (hence the Skittles reference), “to deny to anyone the desires of the heart, and to society the benefits to it of social acceptance!”
“It’s immoral“, scream the defenders of the Confederate battle flag, “to deny heritage to any free Americans. Not to mention a violation of First Amendment rights!”
“It’s immoral,” scream the opponents of the battle flag, “to preserve in a free society any emblem preserving the memory of chattel slavery and using that emblem to deny liberty to any free Americans!”
The argument over the battle flag, and the institution it has come to symbolize, has been going on since at least 40 years before that flag came into existence, during the
Confederate Revolutionary War American “Civil War”.
The argument over marriage, and the matter of sexual preference for which it has become the poster child, has been going on at least since Moses
parted the Red Sea found a safe path across the Sea of Reeds.
Long ago, Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba formulated Amoeba’s Rule, applied to neverending squabbles such as this:
If an argument goes on forever, it’s because the participants are arguing over the wrong thing.
Thus, YFNA, rather than trying to eeeny-meenie which moral side to take, looks for other questions he can ask that might help understand the matter.
On the ‘marriage’ question: Prohibitions against non-heterosexual, and indeed any extramarital, sex have existed, in writing, for at least 2,800 years, and have predominated in most of the world’s religious and ethical systems until very recently. What factor(s) supported this predominance, and what has changed recently to permit serious challenges to this predominance?
On the ‘slavery’ question: Slavery was the norm throughout most of civilization until the 19th century, during which it abruptly disappeared. What supported it, and what changed to kill it?
Over the past little while, YFNA has sifted through all sorts of social, political, and theological arguments over and about the ‘marriage’ question. None of which have mentioned the one topic that YFNA considers to be critical:
Some years ago, YFNA lived in Australia, and visited a koala sanctuary. He was saddened to learn that most of the animals in that sanctuary were sick, and their prospects for survival, never mind reproductive success, were poor.
The diseases that were wiping out the koalas were sexually transmitted. It was a reminder to him that sex is a great way to transmit disease. The more copulations, the more risk; the greater the number (and species diversity) of partners, the greater the risk.
The Hebrews of ca. 800 BCE (approximately when, if YFNA remembers correctly, the Torah – “Laws of Moses” – were first committed to writing) knew nothing of germ theory. Germs (microbes such as bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and protozoa) were unknown until directly observed in the 17th century by the first microscopes, and not conclusively tied to disease until the 19th century. They nevertheless took steps that, whatever their initial inspiration, served to limit sexual contact and thus the spread of disease – especially compared to their neighbors, who (history tells us) practiced frequent ritual prostitution, both heterosexual and homosexual, and whom the (healthier?) Hebrews conquered. To YFNA, it makes sense that a people who could, on what seems to a modern observer to be very few clues, enact kosher food laws that, on the whole, make sense today, would also have been able to enact what amount to effective, pre-scientific public health laws.
Moreover, while establishment of the germ theory of human disease, including STDs, didn’t take place until the intensive efforts of 19th century scientists, effective control of the germs discovered didn’t take place until the even more intensive efforts of scientists in the 20th and 21st centuries. To most people now alive, control of syphilis and gonorrhea is a matter of a course of antibiotics (which first passed through syringes in the 1940s); a dwindling number of folk remember when those drugs were not yet available, and that, without them, these STDs were life – and death – sentences.
Thus, YFNA argues, it was moral to enact prohibitions against most forms of sexual contact, denying personal feelings and liberties in the name of a greater social good, the impetus for which was, as yet, dimly perceived. It is now moral to allow these personal feelings and liberties, as the principal cause for the prohibitions has been identified, by intensive scientific effort, and (temporarily?) addressed.
As for slavery, its sudden demise worldwide during the 19th century neatly coincided with the invention and widespread deployment of those scientific and engineering marvels, the steam and internal-combustion engines, which at a stroke (heh) rendered a hired hand cheaper, and more productive, than a slave at most jobs. Especially once those engines began to be fueled with coal, petroleum oils, and natural gas. Historians of the period have recorded how machines allowed women to conduct farm and factory labor that previously had been far more productively done by men, with their greater physical strength – and how this development, prosecuted ever since, greatly expanded personal productivity as well as worldwide wealth, permitting both the abandonment of chattel slavery and the emancipation of women.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it was moral to hold slaves, and women as property, as a means of ensuring the protection of these people against the vagaries of a society that was marginally able to provide for them, at the cost of their loss of liberty. Subsequent to the Industrial Revolution, it was moral to reverse the strictures on enslaved people, and women, allowing all to take advantage of the opportunities that a broader wealth base, driven by an active scientific enterprise, provided.
Opportunities that will continue to be available to a busy world …
… so long as the fossil fuel subsidy holds out …
… or the climate change driven by fossil fuel use and multiplied by rampant population growth, doesn’t turn the planet against us …
Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba is glad that people of all sexual orientations, people who have experience of economic or emotional slavery, are able, in the memorable week just past, to celebrate major political and social victories; to fly rainbows, and piss on Beauregard’s St. Andrew’s cross. He asks merely:
For these things, have you thanked a scientist today?
Will you continue to support scientists in their work (something that is far from assured in today’s world) lest these gains be lost?