The EVOLUTION of Moral Values

The EVOLUTION of Moral Values

John M. Chrisman

One way to think about how morals evolve is to compare the process with the amoeba. Many perhaps remember the amoeba as it looked under our microscopes in elementary biology class: as a slithery, little one-celled blob. It moved slowly by sticking out tentative fingers of itself (we learned these projections were called pseudopods) and now and again simply flowed all of its blob into one of the pseudopods while abandoning and withdrawing from the others. Simultaneously it was already putting out new pseudopods, into one of which it would then flow.

If there were a particular direction achieved by all of this, one could see that the amoeba had “moved” to a new location while abandoning the old. What did it accomplish? If lucky, it may have surrounded and absorbed an item of nourishment or escaped a danger. In other words, this is how it lived and enhanced its existence.

If we look back over our cultural history it can be seen how our values have developed in a similar living way and how they are still in flux. For example, slavery was gradually abolished in Western culture, first in Europe and then in the United States: an abolitionist voice or deed here or there, more and more voices and deeds, insurrections, a presidential debate, a war. Owning other human beings as chattel–a practice accepted for millennia–became unthinkable. Before the 1920s women, incredibly, could not vote in the United States; now, after a long struggle, they can. Alcohol prohibition has come and gone but drug prohibition is still in flux. Capital punishment is still in flux–at least in the United States. Abortion has become acceptable to many but is still unthinkable to others. And the choice of suicide to end terminal illness is gaining support.

But these are modern examples. Rules about warfare–what is or isn’t “just”–have come and gone throughout human history. The killing of civilians, for example, has usually been unacceptable in theory but instances of doing so abound. After debate in Athens, fifth-century Athenians slaughtered all adult males and enslaved the women and children in the city of Melos–yet just a few years earlier had voted to spare the people of Myteline in a similar situation. The Romans frequently massacred or decimated entire populations or starved them under siege.

Throughout the Middle Ages concern for noncombatants gradually developed, but in U.S. history we had such things as Andrew Jackson’s order that as many Cherokees as possible should perish along the infamous Trail of Tears and the slaughter at Wounded Knee. By the time of World War II we had the deliberate bombing of cities, beginning with Guernica in Spain and escalating on all sides. In the end, we had Winston Churchill’s demolition of Dresden and Harry Truman’s decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–all generally approved by the citizens of their respective nations. Then again, we have the storm of disapproval over the massacre at Mai Lai.

The point is that acceptable morality ebbs and flows into one pseudopod after another as society’s consensus adopts new attitudes. Despite the fact that most people like to think that values are eternal and that without a god that has created them “anything goes,” what we find in historical experience is that values are relative and are humanly created. We find ourselves in a given complex of circumstances, and we choose to act in an expedient manner–that is, in a way that achieves our human ends. This does not rule out altruism or acting for the good of the whole, especially for the good of the family or the tribe or the nation. What is deemed expedient will take into account the principles and values of the most recent past as part of the value complex out of which the action is chosen.

Just as the amoeba always moves from where it was, values do not spring out of a vacuum. Yet values will change. And when they do we will either accept human responsibility for choosing the changes (I think this will happen more and more) or else we will “reinterpret” our external authority to make the supposedly absolute rules conform to our present requirements.

Here are two clear-cut but typical instances in which absolute authority has been altered to fit human purposes. According to Mosaic Law, “thou shalt not kill.” This has always been “reasonably” interpreted to mean “thou shalt not kill wrongfully.” Killing in self-defense or in war or as capital punishment is not considered by many to be wrongful. In order to keep “God’s” law universal and absolute it has been necessary to reinterpret it as circumstances seem to justify–even in such extreme cases as Dresden and Hiroshima. (It is to be hoped that the pseudopod that “justified” those bombings has been pulled back forever. And yet the bombing of cities still goes on.) In another example, according to medieval theologians usury–or the charging of interest for the use of borrowed money–was always and absolutely wrong. As we know well, however, the needs of commerce brought about considerable relaxation of interpretation in this matter; today the term usury has no meaning except interest charged “above the legal limit,” whatever that may happen to be.

The changes we make never become fixed as new absolutes, even if our institutions of authority might announce them to be such. Nor are they likely to be universally accepted, let alone universally practiced. (I’m not talking about tautologies such as “It is always wrong to be cruel to children.” Of course, it is. That’s what we mean by “cruel.”) The evolution of values is by nature open-ended and fluid, just as it is likely to be criticized and condemned as it is happening.

As the amoeba moves, the conservators of the status quo exclaim that we are sliding down one slippery slope after another. Nor are the changes all going to work out well in practice, especially if we try to institutionalize them into moral requirements to fit all cases. For, indeed, human experience is a slippery slope on which no two situations are precisely identical.

At the heart of our difficulties with value evolution is the nature of our discourse as we discuss what to do. Human speech takes place by means of words and concepts that are necessarily universal (that is, they have to apply to all possible instances whenever they are used) and, therefore, they are going to be used as labels. We are going to pass these labels onto each individual situation as though it were a universal situation whenever we name the thing in order to talk about it. This is both the glory of speech (it enables us to communicate) and the downfall of speech, if and when we forget this universalizing requirement and ignore its effects. Moral discussion is in the abstract. Moral agency and moral decisions are down in the trenches.

Take the term abortion, for example. It is a label we apply to any and all situations in which a pregnancy is deliberately terminated. And because the label is universal, there are those who think it is possible and desirable to condemn all abortions, no matter what the circumstances, as wrongful. (Likewise, few would maintain that abortion is always the proper thing to do.)

Yet, in fact, there are no universal abortions, only particular ones. The pregnant person may be thirteen or thirty or forty-five. She may or may not be in good health. She may be pregnant by a loving and responsible partner or by a teenage friend or by a rapist or as a result of incest. She may be financially secure or she may be impoverished. She may or may not feel it would be possible to give up a child to adoption. The fetus may be healthy or may be defective. The possibilities go on and on–many of them subject to an infinite number of degrees. The point is that no two situations are identical. It is really only an outsider who can treat a particular “abortion” as if it were universal, and it is only the pregnant person who can truly and fully appreciate it in all its particularity. Those who condemn entire labeled classes are dealing with abstractions, not with real life.

Incidentally, the same sort of considerations apply to the living process being carried on within the womb. We may for practical reasons label various stages of the process as zygotes or embryos or fetuses (viable or nonviable) or we may label the entire process as a baby. What is actually happening is an ongoing development that is continually changing, and what is there at any changing moment is precisely what is there–no more and certainly no less.

For example, to ignore the fact that we are dealing with a gradual process by calling it a baby is to be very imprecise; a baby, as we ordinarily use the term (and most always a child), will have already been born. But both of these are labels. Like all labels they are nothing more than the means by which we identify certain things in the world around us, and we must remember that in applying them to the unborn they don’t alter what is there–in this case, an ongoing process of gestation.

Calling the entire process a baby is very often a propaganda device, just as much as bringing on a discussion of when life or human life first evolved. As we now understand it, human life began several million years ago in a continuous development that leads up to the present. Our ova and sperm have human life. To me it is begging the question and is counterintuitive to simply assert that a full human person begins to exist at the moment of conception. But if what we intend to discuss is the question “at what point (if any) do we intend to take away from a pregnant woman the right to choose to terminate the process that is (at that point) an intimate part of her own body, keeping in mind that she and only she will be the mother,” then that is the question we should address. And that, too, will be an abstraction for all but the woman involved.

The amoeba analogy we are using has a great deal of relevance to that most common metaphor in all moral reasoning: the slippery slope. It is hardly possible to proceed far in any discussion of values without encountering a reference to it, usually by someone who is trying to preserve some absolute and unchangeable position. Even when it appears absurd, as when the National Rifle Association uses it to oppose regulation of owning any weapon whatsoever, the flowing of the amoeba shows that there is a certain validity to the NRA’s fears. As more and more people find it preferable to outlaw certain weapons or to make it more difficult to acquire them (as more and more opinions flow into that possible pseudopod), there is an “erosion” of the NRA’s position and it becomes increasingly difficult to “draw the line” (two other very common and related metaphors).

The very ease with which we universalize and the concomitant tendency we have to avoid the hard work of making distinctions combine to make the slope a very slippery one. The fears of the absolutist are indeed well founded. However, one need not be an absolutist to see a need for being on guard against this tendency, even when one advocates judging each moral decision in its own unique situation.

There will be those watching over a moral agent’s shoulder and demanding that she or he be choosing for all “similar” situations and for all time. Because the fact is that even though the moral agent alone must choose, he or she is a member of society and is, willy-nilly, contributing to the creation of what may be a new “policy” or new consensus. Each time one chooses anything other than obedience to the status quo a new pseudopod is being suggested and society is being invited to move in that direction.

It is no wonder that those who believe in divine authority fear the deluge when the authority is questioned in the slightest. If, for instance, it is possible to allow terminally ill people to “play god” by choosing their time of death, then doesn’t that invite slipping into approval of suicide in all sorts of cases? And if suicide is allowed, won’t that lead inevitably to approval of euthanasia? The answer, of course, is that suicide and euthanasia are universal labels and already many actions that could be so labeled are being performed every day. What is inevitable is that sooner or later they will be more readily admitted to, openly advocated, and perhaps some of them generally approved. There simply are, and always have been, situations in which “suicide” and “mercy killing” have been the humane thing to do, and people have chosen to do them–which is very far from saying they would be proper in all cases.

The point is that human moral agents, sometimes contravening the accepted rules, will continue to decide particular cases whether or not we accept our right to do so. Whenever such a choice is made, others will be invited to follow and, if more and more decide to do so, a new general policy may be formed. Moral argumentation will no doubt be taking place while the amoeba is moving, but in my opinion it will move because people are concurring with the rightness of the new choice rather than because they have been converted by the rationalizations that have been buttressed to support it. We choose first and only later do we defend our choice by finding reasons to justify it.

To say that fear of the slippery slope is a valid fear is not he same as saying it is a valid argument against a particular choice. To claim that X leads to Y is no ground to avoid X. X ought to be chosen or rejected on its own merits; it will be time to judge Y when its situation arrives. The tendency we have to be lazy and to fail to make distinctions is no excuse for not attending to the requirements of situation X.

When a moral agent is struggling to create the right course of action in a concrete situation, the slippery slope will not, in actual practice, be a decisive factor. How often would one think “this is the right thing to do but I can’t do it because it might cause others to think for themselves”? It is only in the abstract that such a consideration would arise, and it is precisely there that it will become the first refuge of the absolutist. What the absolutist really fears is that the moral agent will exercise her or his autonomy rather than obey the absolute that is preordained by the external (or eternal) authority. The erosion of obedience–this is what the slippery slope is often all about. Moral agents will “play god.”

Consider, moreover, that the slippery slope becomes the first tactical weapon of absolutists when it comes to eroding a particular label of which they disapprove. For example, the law of the land at present makes abortion generally legal, and those who oppose it are at present attempting to roll back the right to choose late-term abortion. This in itself would be legitimate insofar as the whole question of abortion is a proper subject of law (although, personally, I believe this is debatable) since, after all, they are making distinctions (between “early” and “late” abortions).

But the fact is that the anti-choice movement is explicitly using this as a tactic–most especially as an emotion-generating tactic–rather than just on its merits. And it isn’t only late-term abortions they hope to abolish, it is all of them. (If it were only late-term abortions they had in mind, they could help prevent all but the most necessary ones by throwing their weight behind keeping early abortions available. Obviously they aren’t about to do that.) What they want is to “get their foot in the door.”

My own opinion of abortion is that the choice belongs to the individual woman. Not only does she have the autonomy of any moral agent but it is unthinkable that outsiders should have the right legally to interfere with what is obviously the most intimate functioning of her own body. To those who would protest that women alone should not control the future of the human race and that all of society has a legitimate voice in reproduction and in the laws that govern it, my answer is as follows. The future of the human race has always depended on women and their bodies. Their maternal, nurturing goodness is legendary and should be trusted. The choice should be left to them and, by and large, it is in good hands. “By and large” is not only the best we could expect but it has always been more than enough. Billions of human beings have existed and every single one of them has been delivered from the body of a woman.

The moral system being advocated here is obviously what is called situation ethics, so it is well to offer a passing answer to the usual complaint that if everything is relative then how does one explain a Hitler? The reply is that the policies of a Hitler are like those of any other tentative pseudopod: they are to be resisted by all who disagree. At the heart of situation ethics is the functioning of autonomy in human choice. Autonomy is the ultimate being of a self-conscious person; one is forced to choose by virtue of being a self who creates options (one cannot do otherwise). Even if one chooses to abnegate the self by choosing the option of obedience to an external rulegiver (saying “thy will be done”), this is still a self-choosing.

They key difference between the autonomous moral agent and the mere rule-follower occurs not when the former chooses an option other than the rule but when she or he does what the rule happens to require precisely because it is felt to be right. Incidentally, ordinary experience seems to reward the exercise of autonomy. To choose obedience when one really prefers a different “path” is usually considered shameful–this is the basic meaning of the Nuremberg principle that following orders is no excuse–whereas “marching to one’s own drum” is usually considered praiseworthy.

I have discussed abortion at length and even expressed my own preference about it because it is not only agonizingly relevant to our present moment but so typical of the way the amoeba of morality lives and moves–and also because this controversy presses against, again and again, another huge problem of morality: the making of laws. For better or worse, humankind attempts to codify rules for governing our conduct. We want the amoeba to remain as fixed as possible at the most perfect place it could be. Just as many of us want a divine lawgiver to dictate our morality, we want an earthly lawmaker or body of lawmakers to coerce us into what we must do (or at least what our neighbors must do).

Every law student learns all too soon that the ideal of the law seems to be to give stability. She or he is trained to search out the cases that have already decided the matter at hand and, if the existing precedents do not provide the desired outcome, then to learn the legal squirmings that are the life of the lawyer and the bane of all too many judges. This principle is called stare decisis–“to stand by decided matters.”

Unfortunately, the principle doesn’t work and never has. Life goes on and human autonomy will confront and deal with an endless variation in human problems. Stability is not the ideal of the law or even a Bill of Rights. To facilitate justice is the ideal of the law and, this being so, freedom to create the best solution is also ideal. A minimum of laws and the more tolerance the better–these are fruitful policies for human interaction. The amoeba of the law puts out new pseudopods as precedents are overturned, cases are heard in equity, and juries nullify bad laws or laws that don’t properly apply to the facts.

A final thing to be said for the amoeba metaphor is the manner in which it encourages participation in cultural change. If values are evolving in a living way, one doesn’t need to stand back in despair and isolation. A pseudopod is put forth; one can either disagree with it and oppose it or join it and help society flow into it.

During the height of the Vietnam War a number of people at the university where I was teaching would form a line in front of the student union during the noon hour and stand in silent vigil. We didn’t say anything or hold placards. We just stood there. As the war went on the line became longer. We did other things, too, but looking back on it I think that small sort of thing, multiplied all over the country, increasing everyone’s consciousness in small increments, helped to end the war. Who knows what seemingly small things may cause the amoeba to move in a hoped-for direction?

As John Dewey put it, “The world is going to change anyway. Why not change it for the better?” In terms of this essay, we humans are going to create our own moral values anyway. Why not trust ourselves to take on this task responsibly, as individuals and in concert? Or to put it another way for those who believe in an omniscient God: wouldn’t any god worth believing in want us to use our minds to solve our problems honestly and as best we can instead of just standing around wringing our hands and awaiting an unwanted fate?

John M. Chrisman is retired and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where he studied with Leslie Dewart. He wrote this article after re-reading Dewart’s book, Evolution and Consciousness: The Role of Speech in the Origin and Development of Human Nature.

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