Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Ultimately There Is No Getting Past The Necessity of Religious Morality If Egalitarian Democracy Is The Goal

NTodd,  has  one of his always interesting historical posts up in which he notes the history of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence by the young, more idealistic, less "enlightenment" Thomas Jefferson, which carried ideas that John Adams, his friend and colleague on the drafting committee knew wouldn't pass - the evil of slavery is mentioned by him as something they would never go for in the Continental Congress.   Adams, a savvy politician knew that his unpopularity would complicate things so when he was asked to review Jefferson's draft he didn't cross anything out, he depended on Benjamin Franklin and Roger Sherman, also on the Committee of Five, to make it more likely to pass the Continental Congress by not alienating, particularly, the Southerners.   Adams noted that he convinced Jefferson that a Virginian should be the one to draft it - apparently there was already an anti-New England bias in our politics even before our politics had started.

But that's not what I'm concerned with here.  In addition to John Adams' letter to Pickering, NTodd also quotes from Walter Isaacson's biography of Franklin, talking about his edits to the draft Declaration:

The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using the heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson's phrase “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”"

The idea of “self-evident” truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jefferson's favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. In what became known as “Hume's fork,” the great Scottish philosopher, along with Leibniz and others, had developed a theory that distinguished between synthetic truths that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia”) and analytic truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition (“The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees”; “All bachelors are unmarried”). By using the word “sacred,” Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin's edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.

We could use more such assertions of rationality in the Trump Epoch...

That last sentence is NTodd's and I agree with that entirely.  Reason can be a good thing, it is certainly an indispensable and important tool for getting through life and, when it's put to good use it can enhance the power of good intentions and conscience.  Can be, but not necessarily is a good thing.   Reason, an amoral instrument,  is just as effective a tool for doing evil.* To elevate it as the only or even merely the supreme good is to invite its use for evil.  I'd go so far as to say it virtually guarantees it.

Like it or not, the good of equality is not self-evident, it is not something which can be demonstrated as an exercise in mathematical logic, it is not something that can be treated scientifically, THE NEO-DARWINIAN CLAIM THAT SUCH TRUTHS OF MORALITY ARE THE PRODUCT OF NATURAL SELECTION IS A TOTALLY DISHONEST AND IRRATIONAL ASSERTION, BECAUSE NATURAL SELECTION ASSERTS THE GOOD OF INEQUALITY. **

EQUALITY IS ONLY ENSURED WHEN IT IS NOT STRICTLY A MATTER OF WHAT'S IN IT FOR ME, WHEN IT IS NOT SEEN AS AN EXPRESSION OF SELF-INTEREST BUT IS SEEN AS A DIVINELY IMPOSED COMMAND.  Once it is expressed in that enlightenment era artificial substitute for unfashionable morality, "self-interest" it is on the downward slope into rationally calculated self advantage and, then, jealously obtained and maintained privilege.

I think that in such things as Jefferson going from the young man who drafted a passage which John Adams - one of the few founders who never held anyone in slavery - knew would not be acceptable to the rest of the Founders to an older man who, two decades later increased his own slave holding and advocated owning more slaves to his friends because of his rational calculation of how having more slaves increased his own wealth is a microcosm of the struggle between cold, calculating reason and the assertion of the belief that all people are created equal.  That right to equal treatment can't be located by science, it is a product of belief, in any rational articulation of it I can think of, ultimately a religious belief.   Science, materialist philosophy, other systems have not come up with a rational foundation for a belief that all people are equal and endowed BY THEIR CREATOR, that would be GOD with rights which are unalienable - that is NOT REMOVABLE BY ANY PERSON OR EVEN BY UNANIMOUS VOTE OF ANY SOCIETY.  

I think that is one of the enduring problems with the Constitution, that its 18th century creators were largely under the sway of the fashionable late 18th century enlightenment which seems to always have found a way to reason their way out of any morality which would be to their disadvantage.  The provisions dealing with slavery were some of the most evil of things ever written into a Constitution by a Western country, its other impediments to egalitarian democracy, through the Electoral College, through the unequal representation in the Senate and through the rather naive construction of the Supreme Court - one of the most regressive features of our government - are things that have had quite evil effects in our history.

I have come to see American history as largely a struggle of people for equality, for morality often against the order established under the Constitution.  Look at the struggle to get the federal government to make lynching a federal crime if you want a blatantly obvious example.  As I mentioned the other week, the relation of the Second Amendment to the slave patrols, the predecessors of the lynch mobs, are a part of that issue.

Egalitarian democracy, the only kind of democracy which is worth the sacrifice of  a drop of sweat or even blood, is a question of morality at the start and at the end.   Reason applied to that end is reason well used but unless that is the goal, reason will end up enhancing inequality.  I have become entirely convinced that it is a matter of religious belief of a majority of people in a real and continuing democracy, unless they have that belief and really believe it is morally required of them, they will reason their way out of equality and into privilege and as their votes are cast that way, the whole thing goes to hell.  There was a reason that so many of the enlightenment materialists, such figures as Voltaire and Hume were full believers in inequality and not really that opposed to the enslavement of those who they believed inferior to white people, why Thomas Jefferson as he did that quintessential enlightenment act, calculating value expressed in money dropped the emancipation of slaves stuff.

There is a reason that even as they did that it was religious people such as John Woolman who campaigned tirelessly against slavery, why former slaves such as David Walker expressed their opposition to slavery in Biblical terms.  It wasn't because the milieu in which they lived required it, it is because that was the source, the foundation that their abolitionism was founded in.  As I studied the history of abolition, going back into the early centuries of the common era, it was independently discovered out of that very same source, starting at the beginning with St. Macrina and St. Patrick and others.  It's a direct result of reading Paul telling slave owners to treat those legally considered slaves as they would want to be treated, something he got from the Gospel of Jesus,  perhaps through the teachings of Hillel but, ultimately, from Leviticus, in the commandments of economic and social  and personal equality from people who believed they had escaped slavery under the Pharaoh.

There is no accident that the history of every reform, including that of LGBT rights, has depended heavily, at times exclusively, on the assertion of religious morality, on the belief in equality and unalienable rights granted by The Creator, which isn't a product of rationality but of belief.  Really, in the end, even accepting the efficacy and products of reason are dependent on belief.  As I've noted recently, the impeaching of the mind and the consciousness by modern atheists and materialists leaves reason itself without any other foundation than a belief that it is, as well, an endowment of our Creator.  Materialism is that destructive a belief.

* It was in the 1970s, looking at the doings of Henry Kissinger that I realized there were many very smart people I knew who I suspected the world would be better off without but I couldn't think of a single good person, some of them not that bright, who the world would be better off without.  It's more important to be good than it is to be smart.

** That claim is an afterthought come up with as people noted, from within the decade after the Origin of Species was published that its claims would abolish all morality, any idea of equality.  It is an irrational assertion which is a direct contradiction to the theory.  It was a patched-up PR move that was contradicted by everything which the advocates of  the theory of natural selection claimed were its results in the human population even as they mounted the con job.


  1. "Self-evident" means "to people who think like me," which is not the transcendent value it is taken to be. Indeed, it's not meant to be transcendent at all. Anyone who disagrees is "NOK," and to be ignored. And, of course, it isn't even "self-evident," unless we define "man" as, not homo sapiens, but as a specific gender and of a specific skin color or national origin.

    But nothing is "self-evident" unless an interpretation of it is already agreed to. Back to Hume's Fork: the assertion of a synthetic, or an analytical, statement is an assertion of interpretation first, and that interpretation is turned into a fact or an opinion (Hume's distinction). Opinions were meaningless, to Hume (you can argue about them all day and reach no conclusion or "truth"), and facts were inarguable, but also pointless to the basic concerns of human existence. "No matter, never mind."

    "Sacred and undeniable" is a different assertion; sacred means set apart, and to be preserved as it is because it is set apart. Love that leads to marriage becomes a sacrament in the Roman church (on this Protestants could learn something) because it is a condition that should be preserved throughout the marriage. "Those whom God has joined together let no person (let's modernize, shall we?) break apart." "Undeniable" places it beyond cavil, beyond purview, beyond argument, but for different reasons. It places it, in fact, beyond interpretation.

    Hmmmm....something to think about....

    1. You articulate something I didn't realize I meant until I read your comment.

  2. TJ et al were self-evidently flawed, contradictory Men. And we live with those flaws and contradictions to this day, sadly.

    1. You have to grant him this, he expected people would change it as they gained experience and found out what didn't work very well.

  3. It's actually a pretty Quakerly naivete.