Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Culturally Detemined Absolutes

Michel Foucault's writing on the history of sexuality sheds a great deal of light for me on a much broader area of human behavior. Foucault begins with the basic premise that deviance and normality in human sexual behavior are both determined, quite arbitrarily, by culture. Isn't the very idea of right and wrong arbitrarily determined by culture? Perhaps the reason that spiritual texts have endured as moral baselines is that there are so few culturally specific rules that make sense as a universal truths. We can agree across time and geography that killing is wrong but imagine how absurd it would appear to the 31st century cultural anthropologist to dig up a few stone tablets with some of the eminent truisms of my short lifetime.

"Communism is evil, capitalism is good"
"Christianity is a religion of peace"
"Islam is a religion of peace"
"Religion is an important part of a child's upbringing"
"Torture is wrong"
"Every human being has inherent rights"
"Killing civilians is acceptable collateral damage"
"Habeas Corpus is an inalienable right for US citizens"

Are any of these statements true? And if true are they True? Would they make sense to someone from another time and culture.

Dostoevsky's famous maxim 'without God anything is possible' serves as a reminder that a moral framework is all that stands between the inhumanity of man and his fellow man. But in our history the moral frameworks have been repeatedly cited as justification for horrible atrocities. A deviant interpretation of Islam justifies 9/11 a deviant interpretation of Christianity justifies the Salem Witch trials and the Inquisition, nationalisms and patriotism yield massacres in Armenia, El Salvador, and The Katyn Forest.

I have never been completely clear on the definition of moral relativism but it seems to me that it should be defined as such: a moral relativist is one who advocates that an action is morally wrong when undertaken by one party but morally correct when undertaken by another. If killing civilians is wrong then it must always be wrong. It cannot be abhorrent when undertaken by those who are classified as terrorists but acceptable when undertaken by those who are classified as conventional military. Everybody thinks they are fighting for the greater good, that the sacrifices of the few are necessary for the good of the many, but that is of little relevance if you are one of the 'few' who are killed in the struggle.

This of course assumes that death is a bad thing. Death in combat has been venerated by a myriad of cultures as the highest aspiration in life. The Roman centurion, the Teutonic Knight, the Samurai, the Kamikaze pilot, the mujahadeen, and the suicide bomber have all sought death in battle as a great reward.

But what about those who believe in reincarnation? If one has lived according to the rules of cosmic ascendancy should not one look forward to death as a release from the tortures of their present life? Assuming for a moment that suicide of any kind is considered a black mark on the reincarnation record the kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers are out of luck but it seems that the major religions which have reincarnation as an underpinning, Hinduism and Buddhism, are fairly hostile toward violence in general. So would a worldwide conversion to these two religions end all wars?

Sometimes I think that if religion can possibly have any value it is in its ability to change a person's behavior for the better. A criminal who discovers Islam or Christianity in prison and changes from a petty thug into a brilliant leader is a testament to the value of religion. I read somewhere once that there are atheist rabbis who continue to do their work in the synagogue and in university because they believe in the inherent value of religion even though they do not believe in God. This idea completely fascinates me. A person is willing to pretend to believe in something that they secretly believe to be false for the benefit of their fellow man. Ironically this is the type of thing that makes me believe in God. Atheist rabbis lead agnostic to belief...film at 11.

And then there are places like Auroville, India. I almost moved there a while back. It was mentioned in a few books by Stanislav Grof and I found their website and started researching the place. I wonder if that is where Steven King got the idea for "the Mother" in The Stand, or the Wachowski brothers for "the Oracle".

A monastery should not have a flag. A monk friend of mine told me about a beautiful dream he has in which the angel Gabriel comes down in the night and takes all the flags in the world away. But religious symbols are flags too. In my dream he takes those as well.

Duvall in Apocalypse Now and Giovanni Ribisi in The Postman. They would be opposed to the removal of the flags of the world. They both defined their identity by the wars of which they were a part, without flags, symbols and ideology wars seem even more pointless.

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