The Moral Dimension of Things

When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
— Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), French economist

Certain hierarchs of the Catholic Church in Latin America used prayer as an anesthesia to put the people to sleep. When they cannot dominate us with law, then comes prayer, and when they can’t humiliate or dominate us with prayer, then comes the gun.
— Evo Morales, President of Bolivia (July 13, 2009)

The single most important quality needed to resist evil is moral autonomy. Moral autonomy is possible only through reflection, self-determination and the courage not to cooperate.
— Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) German philosopher

Why do political leaders seem to be lying most of the time? Why is uncontrolled greed so prevalent in corporate rooms? Why do wicked men wage wars of aggression and become indifferent to the killing of innocent people? Why does materialism seem to trump everything else? Why do we have the uneasy feeling that our society is going in the wrong direction? The very fact that we have to raise such questions may be a sign of the times.

Indeed, when the stench of moral decay becomes overwhelming, bad things inevitably follow. Historically, it can be shown that when the moral environment in a society is deteriorating, problems tend to pile up.

We are presently living in one of those times, characterized by deep and entrenched political corruption, by routine abuse of power and disregard for the rule of law in high places, and by unchecked greed, fraud and deception in the economic sphere. The results are all there to see: Severe and prolonged economic and financial crises, rising social inequalities and social injustice, increasing intolerance toward individual choices, the disregard for environmental decay, the rise of religious absolutism, a return to whimsical wars of aggression (or of pre-emptive wars), to blind terrorism and to the repugnant use of torture, and even to genocide and to blatant war crimes. These are all indicators that our civilization has lost its moral compass.

With all these throwbacks to an unpalatable past, it is not surprising there is a resurgence of interest nowadays for questions of morality and of ethics.

The contradiction between modern problems, new scientific knowledge and the inadequacy of our prevalent source of morality or of ethics, which are mainly religion-based, has led a humanist like me to write a book, The Code for GLOBAL ETHICS, Ten Humanist Principles, [ISBN: 978-1616141721] prefaced by Dr. Paul Kurtz and published this year by Prometheus Books. The book is a down-to-earth discussion of ten basic humanist principles for our new global context.

Why such a renewed interest in the moral dimension of things? —First, partly because many of our problems and threats are not only severe but they have also become global in nature. —Second, the fact that we seem to be unable to solve our global problems might also be because our scientific and technological progress is advancing much faster than our moral progress, with the consequence that problems arise faster than our moral ability to face them and to solve them. —And third, this is also partly due to the fact that the old religion-based rules of morality are of little help in solving these new problems, basically because they belong to the past and because, unfortunately, they have not incorporated new scientific knowledge.

Indeed, humans’ vision of themselves in the Universe has been forever altered by three fundamental scientific breakthroughs:

  • Galileo’s proof, in 1632, that the Earth and humans were not the center of the Universe, as suppposed holy books have proclaimed.
  • Darwin’s discovery, in 1859, (On the Origin of Species) that humans are not some god-like creatures unique among all species, destined to live forever, but are rather the outcome of a very long natural biological evolution.
  • And, the Watson-Crick-Wilkins-Franklin’s discovery, in 1953, of the structure of the double helix DNA molecule (Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid) in each of the 46 chromosomes in human cells, and the devastating knowledge that humans share more than 95 percent of the same genes with chimpanzees.

I would add, also, that ongoing research about how the human brain functions has cast new light on how some phenomena, such as different thoughts, including religious thoughts, are generated in different zones of the brain.

Therefore, nobody can claim anymore that the Earth is the center of the Universe; nobody can claim that humans are unique in the scale of things; and nobody can claim that the human body and the human mind are two unrelated entities. This knowledge has tremendous consequences for our moral stance.

My best hope is that we will avoid falling back into an age of obscurantism and of decadence, and that we will be able to build a truly humanist civilization for the future.

Rodrigue Tremblay is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Montreal and author of the book The New American Empire. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Rodrigue, or visit Rodrigue's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on March 6th, 2010 at 10:05am #

    Some people or a person had stated that morality is not reality. It had been invented, as i understand it, in order to deceive.
    For, to me, morality is reality. Morality consist of feelings which are as real as a rock.
    Nature is infinitely valued; we are part of that nature; thus also infinitely valued.
    Nature had endowned us, i think, with ability to greaten or lessen our iniquities that we perp against nature, self, and other people.

    Actually, it is a fact that nature had endowned us to build a better life for all citizens. Life in finland, norway, denmark, et al appears much better than the life in US; US citizens being by far more enserfed than most european citizens.

    Millennial miseducation by clergy and ancient and modern ‘nobility’ had been the main cause for most people’s abandoment of their basic human rights.
    Division of people into lesser-valued and more-valued had been the last nail in the coffin of an egalitarian society we must have had at one time.
    But once shamans and later priests come along, the idyllic society we had, had been utterly destroyed in all socalled civilized societies.
    Now the only thing that can prevent extirpation of biota and humans is getting back our inheritance. tnx

  2. Don Hawkins said on March 6th, 2010 at 10:23am #

    Rodrigue yep. Let’s just read one thing that means the end of the human race as we lnow it as a start.

    Widely overlooked, Hansen says, is that as the debate raged, two significant pieces of research were published that made the depth of the problem clearer than ever.

    The first dealt with the planet’s energy imbalance. As a result of the greenhouse effect, more energy comes in from the sun than radiation leaves Earth. In his book, Hansen said the best evidence suggested the imbalance was half a watt per square metre – smaller than the three-quarters of a watt climate models had predicted. By the time the book was published in December, this was out of date.

    ”Papers have now been published based on measurements from Argo floats – a couple of thousand floats around the world’s oceans supplied by different governments,” Hansen says. ”Now, these floats have a yo-yo that goes down to a two-kilometre depth … For the first time, they really have got good measurements of the oceans’ temperature and how it’s changed since 2002. And it turns out the imbalance is about three-quarters of a watt.

    ”That is really important because that tells us where the planet is headed: the planet is going to continue to warm up until it gets back to energy balance.”  Hansen

    Am still not sure most get it and what this means. War, millions then billions on the move to nowhere, more war, freedom maybe for only a few and on and on. The climate bill here in the States is a joke a bad joke. We must change the way we produce energy and now. It can be done and will take a lot of us on the same page. It can be done and very sure the powers that be will tell us it can’t next on there list of things to tell us. Right now here in the States they are fighting over health care the money with nonsense and each day they do that we get closer to a tipping point one human’s have never seen. Yes it’s to late for many changes and man it’s going to get tuff so what let’s try.