Moderns starting to realize how inhumanly difficult their morality is

Modern morality is often thought of as a deliverance from the harshness of past moral codes.  But that’s only because we don’t take it seriously.  If we do, then it is absolutely inhuman in its demands, a sprit-crushing, insatiable monstrosity, whether modern morals are taken in their Kantian-personalist or, especially, in their utilitarian form.  Can you imagine being required to maximize the total happiness of mankind, never treat anyone as a mere means, or value everyone on Earth’s happiness equally with your own every moment of every day?  Every human good would be strangled, and no one could ever be happy again.  One begins to appreciate that the legalism and casuistry of pre-modern morality functioned not to burden mankind but to us from the hell of unbounded altruism.

This has not gone unnoticed by the moderns.  See this review of Susan Wolf’s “Moral saints”, namely an argument against trying to become one.  Wolf appeals to all the “non-moral” goods that can only be preserved if we limit our commitment to modern morality.  Interestingly, the reviewer, Daniel Callcut, points out that one way to escape from the dilemma would be to return to pre-modern virtue ethics, in which an altruism restricted to neighbors is held in balance with other goods as parts of a comprehensive good life, and he notes that Wolf rejects this option.  Wolf is left to construct a solution which limits universalist altruism while granting it the monopoly on morality it has had in modern thought.  She must claim that we should be somewhat altruistic but that we should not aspire to “moral sainthood”, i.e. allow the admitted demands of morality to entirely structure our lives and crowd out other goods.  Indeed, I agree that one should not allow utilitarian ethics to ruin one’s life, but I see no way to coherently assert this while admitting utilitarian ethics.  One is applying to a “should” which is more authoritative than the “should” of morality, but such a thing cannot exist.  The ruling “should” is one’s true morality, and it’s better to make it explicit.

4 Responses

  1. Ironically as I get older I learn to my cost that the old moral codes are self protection almost as much as anything else. Cecil B Demille may not have invented the saying but when he said “we cannot break the law we can only break ourselves on the law” he spoke some serious truth.

    It’s only stultifying when you teach the fear of God by the precepts of men, as the good book says. I understand the reaction against that but the core concepts of the seven virtues and the seven deadly sins lead to actions that may not be easy but are definitely easier ON you.

  2. Could you offer a link to a description of “pre-modern morality”? Also, please proofread the OP for errors.

  3. See Cicero’s “De Officiis” and, of course, Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”.

  4. […] and Altar: Moderns starting to realize how inhumanly difficult their morality is (December 17, […]

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