The L.A. Times headline caught my attention, “Obama calls on the world to morally evolve”. That was an intriguing concept. Is humankind evolving morally? Are we capable of evolving morally? I read the article and then the transcript of President Obama’s speech at the site of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
It turns out that President Obama was not seeking moral evolution but rather a moral revolution. Evolution and revolution are very different concepts. Evolution just happens. Revolutions are made to happen. But the wordsmithing of the L.A. Times was also intriguing. Is moral behavior an outgrowth of natural selection? Or does moral behavior require leadership and direction? Don’t you think that if we are to have a moral revolution then there must be a standard or behavior that we are seeking to instill?
In his speech, President Obama did not mention Japanese aggression or the wartime atrocities that necessitated the use of nuclear weapons to end the war. He made a point of not referencing right or wrong.
“The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations. Their civilizations had given the world great cities and magnificent art. Their thinkers had advanced ideas of justice and harmony and truth.”
But different cultures have different moral systems. Justice, harmony and truth may not be the aspirational goals of all cultures. Moral relativists may not draw a distinction between the moral systems of different cultures, but when those cultures interact these moral systems inevitably come into conflict. A moral revolution may require one moral imperative to overwhelm another. President Obama noted this later in his speech.
“My own nation’s story began with simple words: All men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Realizing that ideal has never been easy, even within our own borders, even among our own citizens. But staying true to that story is worth the effort. It is an ideal to be strived (sic) for, an ideal that extends across continents and across oceans. The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious, the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family — that is the story that we all must tell.”
However, in 1945 the American ideal referenced by President Obama did not (and still does not) extend across continents and oceans. The Japanese culture and its moral system at that time did not value those ideals. The American occupation of Japan after World War II imposed a moral revolution on Japanese culture. Although Japan remains very different from the United States in many ways, their moral system is now much more compatible the America’s. Japan is now a good fried, ally and business partner to the US. Did their moral system evolve or was it revolutionized?
In our globalized world, cultures and their moral systems often come into conflict. This is especially true for cultures that require absolute and unforgiving obedience to their moral systems. Whether the culture is based on ideological dogma, cult-like leader or fanatical religion, these cultures do not wish to live peacefully with our more open society. President Obama wants a peaceful and nuclear free world. But how will this occur when other cultures do not share this goal.
This leads us back to moral evolution versus moral revolution. Can a warlike culture evolve into a peaceful civilization? How much evil can occur during this evolutionary period? Western civilization led by the United States has tried to create a free, prosperous and peaceful world but finds itself opposed by other cultures with different moral guidelines.
I don’t mean to be intolerant. There is a lot to be said for a diversity of opinion and points of view (I am in the middle of Scott Page’s book on the power of diversity). It’s great to learn from others and to see ourselves from other peoples’ perspectives. The power of diversity is its ability to find a better solution. But while many points of view can be considered, not all points of view can be accommodated.
We have nothing to be ashamed of. We have an obligation to defend our culture and system of morals. Western civilization has been a great benefit to the world even though its track record is far from perfect. Moral relativism would doom us and our progeny.