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Monday, 26 December 2011

Black & White?

Is there any such thing as a black or white moral issue?
Your gut reaction is likely to be something along the lines of yes. It’s wrong to rape, wrong to kill children. We can probably conjure up a number of principles that we consider as absolutely carved in stone.

Ok then, travel back with me a few thousand years to the time of our ancestors. Some civilisations believed that in order to bless a new building they were required to bury alive a child in the foundations. To us now, this is an abject unquestioning horror, yet the evidence tells us that this was a practice that was indeed carried out. Similarly, children were sometimes sacrificed in order to ensure that the rains came, that the sun shone, and the very act of sacrifice was deemed for the greater good of the community.
Fast forward a few thousand years and we’ve learned that the robustness of a building is not dependent on a child being buried beneath it, or that the offering of infant body parts has no bearing on whether the rains will come or the crops will flourish. We have accrued good reasons to think that child sacrifice is an entirely unsatisfactory and profane way to achieve any such goal.

I’m not done yet. Let’s think about rape. Rape’s bad, right? Ok then, let’s journey back even further in time to when the human lineage dropped in number to as low as 50-60,000. Who’s to say that the prolific rapist didn’t actually ensure that you and I were able to exist? Would you rather he’d gone and made himself a nice cup of tea?

Today’s point? I’m challenging the whole idea of black and white, or this idea that there exists some moral absolutes that when transgressed, demand condemnation. Yes, we know now that killing children and raping indiscriminately do nothing to enable a society to flourish. The reason for this is accrued knowledge, our evolution from base primates into creatures slightly more advanced and reflective. Next time I build a shed I won’t demand that one of my daughters occupies a space beneath it, no more that I intend to rape a complete stranger because she happens to be in my company when I have an erection. If I tried to pull either of these stunts you’d rightly lock me up.

Humans learn. We move from the minus of ignorance to the plus of knowledge. It may be in years to come actions that we deem appropriate now are scorned upon, but today we continue to operate using the cognitive tools at our disposal. Imperfect us, wonderful us. Woeful us, remarkable us.

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