“Morally Benign” Children and Human Sacrifice

“Morally Benign” Children and Human Sacrifice February 1, 2019

Well, extra points for trying to shoehorn in weird blog titles, I guess.

So, yesterday I talked about how children are often more “idealistic” and “morally benign”. I will admit that the use of the term “morally benign” was at best nuanced and unexplained, and at worst rushed.

The question is, can children even be properly moral?

This comes down to whether they are sufficiently conscious, self-aware, knowledgeable and advanced in their brains and minds to make properly moral decisions. Indeed, we often say that animals ripping other animals apart in order to eat them are not being moral; a crocodile killing a human is not acting immorally. The crocodile doesn’t, people argue, have the mental capacity (whether in terms of personhood and all the characteristics and behaviours there involved) to make moral decisions and carry out moral actions.

Yes, philosophers argue ad infinitum over what personhood is and whether morality requires personhood, and at what point in human development a human properly gains this label and thus the capability of being moral.

I personally think this is a conceptual pursuit up or down a (slippery) slope that has no clearly defined boundaries.

Clearly, when considering some kind of ordinary morality, we would all agree that a foetus has no moral capacity (at that stage – let’s ignore ‘potential’). And we would probably agree (moral skepticism aside) that a neurotypical adult has moral capacity. Already, we will get ourselves in trouble because philosophers still can’t agree on what morality really and definitely is.

For me to say that children are generally more morally benign, what I really meant in that context was that they are morally naive and more likely to have a simplistic and idealistic moral framework. The complexities and difficulties of moral philosophy would be beyond their ken until, at some arguably arbitrary point, they get it. As such, they tend to make decisions that, to us, err on the side of being simplistically morally good.

As C Peterson commented:

I’m not at all sure you can make much of an ethical comparison between children and adults. Children’s brains are still developing; it’s unclear what state their moral engines are in. Certainly, we know that humans don’t have a fully developed sense of actions and consequences until they are in their mid-20s. And aside from neural development, children are still learning to be members of their society, learning what those around them label “good” and “bad”.

Of course, definitions or demarcations of adulthood and subsequent moral responsibility differ the world over. Suffice to say that most countries, if not all, do not wait until people are in their mid-20s before allowing them the moniker of adult.

Yes, I could bang on about the Sorites Paradox here, but my regular readers have heard it all before.

The main point is that children’s minds don’t yet have the required [insert thing here that you think they need] to make moral decisions and to be morally accountable. Or, at least, it is an incremental process that happens over time.

Let’s rewind to the time of the Maya or Aztecs or whoever. Let’s assume that human sacrifice was rife and they did it because they thought that, by doing it, the sun would continue to rise, and the world would live on. I mean, if true, thank goodness they did that. What a service to the planet and all its life forms!

If they genuinely thought this, then their lack of requisite knowledge about any decision that had moral implications would mean, arguably, that their decisions could not be evaluated in the same way than if present-day humans, with our knowledge of how the solar system works, committed that same crime of human sacrifice for the same reasons.

In other words, given their lack of knowledge, their moral decisions need be evaluated contextually, and more in light of their general intentions. For us, human sacrifice is bad; but, for them with their knowledge, it was good. Using consequentialism, then, they were duty-bound to carry out this human sacrifice. Since the Enlightenment and moral philosophy were out of the sphere of knowledge, they were not in a position to argue from deontology or virtue ethics or some other moral philosophy to arrive at a different conclusion. Some societies tried to lessen the harshness by entitling the victim to a year of being treated like a king. Some used it to get rid of prisoners of war, and so on.

If the Nazis (Godwin’s Law and all) genuinely thought that Jews were less than human, and genuinely thought things that completely distorted their moral frameworks and moral calculations, then what does this say of their morality?

Furthermore, if religious cult leaders and members genuinely believed their claptrap, then how does this affect their morality? We can always argue that, from our points of view, all these things are heinous, but for them, they are acting morally.

I always get met with an “Oh, yeah, wow, I guess so…” when I tell people that Hitler was being morally good. He didn’t wake up and say to himself, “I’m going to be a complete evil bastard today, again!” Rather, he would wake up and say, “I’m going to continue my mission of making this world a better place.”

The difference is, his moral framework and requisite knowledge for making those decisions differ from ours, and quite cosiderably, one would hope.

Now, religious people will argue that this is why you need objective arbitration in the form of God, but we know this merely makes matters worse. Otherwise, every religious person from the beginning of time would have agreed on their moral frameworks and evaluations and would have acted accordingly. We don’t know the mind of God, so we need to do that moral reasoning ourselves. The rules of the Bible are often completely wrong, and the interpretation can be hijacked or certainly differs from believer to believer.

Morality is inarguably subjective, even with the gods we have invented. The job of humanity is to agree as much as possible, as to what the best moral framework is, using the best knowledge we have, and being as reasonable and rational aas possible, and enshrine this in law and policy.

This is why knowledge (scientific knowledge to boot) is so very important to us as humanity, because it informs us so well on what the best decisions and policies might be.

I don’t think, in and of itself, it helps us construct (at least, not on its own) those initial axioms in defining our goals, but once those are in place, knowledge of the world is super important.

That’s why children and historical figures can’t do morality as well as “we” can or should be able to do (other than by accident). We don’t always succeed, but we have a better capacity to do it than ever before.

And this is why we need to spend so much time and effort sifting and sorting fact from fiction, truth-finding heuristics from biases, because these are the tools that help us be moral; these are the bricks out of which we build our moral frameworks.

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