(A version of this article was published first in Blogcritics, Politics section)
No reasonable person would dispute that a just state or its laws must rest on moral foundations. Never mind the circularity of the claim (since the term "just" is already a moral term and therefore highly suggestive of the argued-for connection). What's of greater interest is the derivative character of our laws from morals, complicated as it is by the element of historicity. The recent controversy surrounding the release of the torture memos is a case in point.
"Let it rest," is everyone's advice, especially since the laws as to what constitutes torture are in the process of being revised. If "enhanced interrogation techniques" (such as waterboarding, for instance) were considered benign under Bush's regressive policies and his interpretation of the law and therefore "not torture," that will surely change under Obama. Until, that is, we'll have another occupant in the White House, and then another, at which time things will get back to "normal," or they will not, depending of course on the whim of the president's legal advisors and the president himself.
And so the argument goes, making it seem thus that the whole thing turned on definitions, and that definitions could always be defined and re-defined almost at will. For what goes up must always come down. What was once considered enlightened may revert some day to being thought of as shallow and stupid. The wisdom of the ages may yield to another perception that it was a folly. Nothing is fixed and nothing should remain so, because we humans have the power over definitions. It is so because we say it is so. True masters of the world in every sense of the word, because it's a world of our own making! Gods should be envious.
I beg to differ. Our powers are greatly exaggerated and yes, we do operate under constraints – moral constraints, first and foremost. The history of humankind supports this contention. I'm yet to be swayed by the notion of historical progress, but progress it has been – a painstaking one and snail-paced, to be sure, but progress nonetheless.
The Other Boleyn Girl comes to mind. It's a heckuva movie if you're keen on comparing our present with our historical past. The past in this instance is the tail end of the Tudor era, the reign of Henry VIII; and the treatment of women, not just of the peasant stock but also of noble bloodlines, defies imagination. From childhood, they were groomed as assets – to advance the family's interests and ambitions. The girls had no say in the matter but to do their family's bidding, none whatever.
Such is the story of Ann Boleyn and "the other Boleyn girl," Mary, Ann's younger sister. The first ended up with her head chopped off, the second in exile – thanks to their loving family, which introduced both girls to Henry's court for his sole use and pleasure to serve as concubines once it became apparent that Catherine of Aragon, Henry's lawful wife, was about to fall into disfavor.
Where am I going with this?
First, let's just say is that we'll never go back to "the good old days" when women were so mistreated. Our history is replete with pendulum swings, with significant shifts forward only to experience a reversal – two steps forward and one step back. But it is also true that the voice of reaction will take you back only so and no further. Parts of our past are irretrievable.
Why? Simply because the gains we've made had trickled down to the popular consciousness to preclude any possibility of radical backsliding. And this pertains to any area of human relations where gross injustices were once prevalent throughout our inglorious past only to be rectified in times since, including the present, in light of heightened consciousness. We simply can't turn our blind eye anymore on practices we now regard as abhorrent: slavery, exploitation of women, discrimination against gays, African-Americans and the handicapped, unfair labor practices and sexual discrimination in the workplace, glass ceilings and all such; any practice, in fact, which only a while ago was considered the norm, but which now seems to violate our common sensibilities and consciousness. Too much time has elapsed ever to revert to our old barbaric selves and the barbaric views which were part and parcel. Once we acquire a third eye, it's impossible to shed it. If that is not an argument for progress, I don't know what is.
Which brings me to another, more perturbing question because it seems to fly in the face of ordinary understanding: Why did it take us so long? Must we traverse two thousand years of darkness and oblivion to realize finally that certain rules of conduct, especially in such matters as justice and equality under the law, are not privileges to be accorded to the few but, by their very nature, ought to apply to all humans regardless of gender, skin color, or ethnic background?
It's not exactly that the nobles in Henry's court were unaware of the moral issues involved in the treatment of their own children, for one could well argue that the ideals as to what constitutes proper moral conduct were no different or less accessible then that they are today. The same can certainly be said for the Christian values of love, empathy and charity. And yet, very few indeed, if any, appeared to pay heed to these eternal precepts or considered their conduct deplorable. Not until William Shakespeare are we exposed to a different view of women, on par with the best in men when it comes to such qualities as native intelligence, ability and wit – a sad commentary, indeed, on the extent to which cultural prejudices and biases of the day affect the common sensibility, so much so that only the brightest lights seem capable of rising above them; and when they do, they shine like a beacon of light. Even Aristotle was blind to the many evils and prejudices of his day, such as slavery or exploitation; Euripides may have been the only exception.
Hence my argument on behalf of historical progress: it has less to do with discovering (or rediscovering) our moral compass by the select few and more with the general expansion of consciousness, of having the light shine on all of us, or with the enlightenment, if you will, spreading to include the many.
Dostoyevsky spoke of "the collective guilt" we all share as part of our responsibility to our brothers and sisters. Well, perhaps there is such a thing as "collective consciousness" as well – a consciousness which is shared in common by the society at large, or at least by the increasingly larger and larger segments of the society. And it is this, perhaps, that is the most beneficial and lasting effect of humanity's advance, "the pilgrim's progress" when applied to a collective: a heightened consciousness in Everyman, for only in that can there be adequate assurance that we shall never again revisit our ugly past. And that consciousness, it seems, must attain sufficient critical mass if it's to ensure against radical reversals.
I believe we've reached such a point in the history of humankind – comparable perhaps to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press which made the word of God available to the many. And barring unforeseeable circumstances, it's only going to get better.
This brings us full circle to the key idea – the derivative status of all laws from morals. It should be clear by now that even in the best case scenario, our laws are but a poor replica of the heightened morality. Understandably so, because you can't expect each and every member of a civil society to live up to the highest standards of thought and deed. There are bound to be individual differences, and the nation's laws must reflect this basic fact, accommodating to the extent possible the element of diversity. In short, they must ensure a relatively peaceful co-existence and resolution of conflict for the good of the whole.
Which isn't to say that significant advances won't be made because of heightened consciousness. There will, as they already have, and our laws will come to reflect more and more the aspirations of humankind. The injustices of the past will be righted, never to be revisited again. But don't expect a miracle. It's not going to happen overnight. Meanwhile, take solace in the fact that humanity is on the march. Only a better and brighter future awaits us.
How does this relate to the recent release of the torture memos and the resulting controversy?
I'd like to take a larger view and say that years from now, we shall all put it behind us as an ugly episode in American history because that's all it will be. The laws will change, and so will our practices, and we shall never again suffer a national disgrace.
I'll discuss our prospects in the forthcoming article.