Sunday, January 30, 2011
The Source of Morality
Gray's life was changed by his reading of Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium. (It happens to all of us). In that seminal work, Cohn argues that the millenarian movements of medieval times and secular totalitarianisms of the 20th century shared a foundational characteristic with the Abrahamic religions. They saw history as teleological. More than that: they considered history rectilinear, and so possessing both a direction and a destination. The secular totalitarianisms were essentially religious, because in sponsoring this teleology they saw human history as a moral drama whose final act is salvation. But whereas traditional religion is animated by faith in God, these secular religions are animated by faith in progress, as delivered by science.
Yet science, Gray contends, cannot deliver what we want it to, which is salvation from ourselves. Scientific knowledge grows incrementally, but moral knowledge can be lost as easily as it is gained. The cult of progress suggests that our values and will converge as knowledge grows, but 20th-century suggests that the opposite is true.
And what is the search for immortality, but the quest for salvation from ourselves? It fits neatly into Gray's scheme of animosity, and shows that we are yet to heed the central lesson of Darwin's work: humanity is no different from other species in being doomed to extinction on an unforgiving planet.
In documenting this history, he exposes the tawdry relationship between theology and ethics. Many immortalists, like the great ethicist Henry Sidgwick, think that without an afterlife there is no point in acting morally: the promise of heaven is the sole incentive to be good. Yet this view is a first step on the path to tyranny, because it empties moral actions of their true worth. Being good must be good in and of itself – rather than merely instrumental to some future experience – if people are to be convinced to act ethically. Gray's debunking of theology's grip on ethics is therefore timely and timeless.