Universal Moral Standards
Sat Jul 12 10:27:55 2008
“Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” I Samuel 15:3
“The Melians surrendered unconditionally to the Athenians, who killed all the men and sold the women and children as slaves.” Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War
“Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.” Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder
If we are judging history it is much easier to apply moral judgment than if history were judging us. Genocide-like actions have been glorified and praised as heroic through much of history. Slavery was so widely practiced and accepted that many of our best moralists did not even think about it. The economic foundations of civilized society might not have been possible without it. Infanticide seems abhorrent to a society that debates the ethics of early-term abortion but has been an essential practice in many cultures. My caring and altruistic vegan friends believe the use of animal products is universally immoral, yet such a practice would virtually destroy any indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures—as well as a critical historical step in human social evolution. Perhaps their “enslavement” of a dozen cats in a small urban apartment for personal amusement could be viewed at some enlightened time of the future as a form of animal cruelty. I am not sure the standards are as clear as we often like to think. Looking for a universal historical moral standard would probably leave us living today with many practices we could not accept.