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The Moral Philosophy of Mike Morris

In the rec.arts.books newsgroup Silke-Maria Weineck a long essay on Goldhagen's book about the Holocaust. Mike Morris wrote two longish posts trying to explain his problems with Silke's paper, one to me and to Silke. This note [edited slightly from the usenet posting] was posted in response. The issues are general and may be of some interest.

I shall try to summarize Mike's position as I understand it to avoid quoting large amounts of material ad nauseum. The main points he is presenting I take to be:

  1. He takes exception to the use of "moral code" in an ethically neutral sense on the grounds that it implies that all "moral codes" are equal.
  2. He feels that Silke is speaking in a language of cultural relativism in which all "moral codes" are equal.
  3. He feels that there is an absolute moral truth which people can discover in much the same way as they discover the truths of mathematics.
  4. He feels that the holocaust was an apocalyptic event, the single most important event of the millenium, where ordinary people committed terrible evils.
  5. He finds it hard to credit that the Nazi's believed that they were acting ethically or that there was a "Nazi bible".

There are more issues but I think these are the main points. Let us begin with point (5) which is the simplest issue to deal with.

There is clear evidence that the Nazi's believed themselves to be acting ethically - that the killing of the Jews was the "right and proper thing to do". It's all spelled out in the official papers and the speeches. One can go back and read Mein Kampf - it is notorious that people could not believe that Hitler really meant what he said there. One can go through the Nuremburg trial transcripts. There are bales upon bales of papers - historical evidence.

Now there is a separate question as to how pervasive these sets of beliefs were. Were they generally received in the German population or were they specific to the Nazi leadership? It's an important question but one beyond the scope of this article - I'm just trying to clear some underbrush.

That said let's go back to (1). Were it not for (2) and (3) I would have considerable sympathy for Mike here. What words should we use for repugnant (and to borrow Silke's term "frightening") "moral codes". It sounds rather odd to speak of immoral moral codes, to say the least, and yet most people would say of the Nazis that their "moral code" was quite immoral. We could, I suppose, use some long winded phrase such as "set of beliefs about morally correct actions" but that comes down to the same thing - that's what a moral code is. If Mike wants to come up with a different term, that's fine by me. Otherwise let's stick with "moral code" keeping in mind that someone's moral code may not be very moral by anybody else's standards. The Nazi moral code was not morally equally to the Christian moral code. That I think we can agree on.

However, to be blunt, I don't think that is Mike's problem. I think he has a real emotional incapacity to accept that the Nazis could actually believe that they were acting ethically.

Now to point (4). In one sense the holocaust was not exceptional. More people died in the social reforms of Stalin and Mao Tse Tung by far than died in the holocaust. Genocide has been a staple of this century - one need only think of Armenia, Timor, and several African countries. Nor is genocide a phenomenon of just this century - it recurs throughout history. Nor is the rate of killing extraordinary - one thinks of Cambodia or the 30 years war (which eliminated 75% of the population of Germany). Nor are the death camps an anomaly, except for their squeamishness in hiding their activities. Ghenghis Khan and Tamerlane quite happily piled up pyramids of skulls and exterminated the entire population of city after city on the slightest of pretexts. Blood, blood, blood. The pages of history are written in blood.

If it is a question of mere killing the holocaust is not exceptional - a high point, yes, but not something totally outre. But it was apocalypic in the sense that it violated the image that Western Culture had of itself (big blah reification alert). There was a real belief, starting with the Enlightenment, that we were making moral progress. We had Victorian Progress. We had scrapped the old superstitions. We had eliminated slavery. We invented democracy and the rights of Man. And so on and so forth. We were getting better and better, more moral, more civilized. And then this really awful thing happens. And it happened in Germany, not in some half-civilized barbarian nation (Eurocentric viewpoint alert.) Germany led the world in science and philosophy. It was cultured. That the creme de la creme of Western Culture could do horrid things, things out of the darkest pages of history, was image shattering. What is more they used science and engineering to do it. It is this shattering of cultural self-image that is apocalyptic.

Now let us consider (2) and (3). In this regard I will quote a representative fragment from Mike Morris.

It's like the fundamental question of moral autonomy has been prejudiced in favour of a moral conception that can only see "moral codes" as so many related social or psychological phenomena. This is the moral relativist heart of the whole evil in the first place.

There is a train of reasoning here which runs something like this:

(a) There is a true moral code which people ought to strive for
(b) Relativism denies this by treating all codes equally
(c) Without the guidance of the true code people fall into evil beliefs

The interesting thing about proposition (a) is that is de facto true. That is, people in general act as though there is "a highest good" irrespective of their religion or philosophy. They may disagree about particulars. They may not live by what they believe to be right. Still they justify or condemn their actions and those of others as though there were universal morality. As a note, this is far too deep and problematic a matter to settle in a short essay.

Irrespective of the status of (a), proposition (b) is very much a strawman. Few people believe that all codes are equal. To be sure one can probably find some who believes it; for any belief, no matter how inane, one can usually find somebody who upholds it.

However strawman cultural relativism is not the issue at hand here. One is not committed to assuming that all codes are of equal merit if one recognizes that people's moral codes are heavily culturally conditioned and they are riddled with rationalization. When one says "X believed that Y was an ethically correct action. How did they come to that belief?", one is not committed to believing that Y was an ethically correct action - even if they suspend their moral judgement of Y whilst considering the why's and wherefore's of X's belief.

Proposition (c) is arguably both false and dangerous. The danger is that it is all too easy to believe that one is already in possession of the true moral code. If one is denied the mode of dispassionate skeptical analysis one is left with the mode of rationalization of what one already believes.

Proposition (c) is essentially the charge on which Socrates was condemned, that he corrupted the youth by denying the validity of the Gods. The irony is that Mike believes himself to be speaking for the Good that Socrates spoke for but he argues with the arguments used by Socrates' judges.

This page was last updated August 7, 1997.