top of page

306. Morality and Existence: Tracing the Evolution of Human Thought

Introduction


In our perpetual quest to understand our place in the universe, morality has always been a central theme that guides human existence. By examining our ethical frameworks and the values that inform them, we can unravel the fundamental nature of what it means to be human. The exploration of morality has been a captivating subject for philosophers, scholars, and thinkers throughout history. William Search's seminal works, "Why" and "Conversations with chatGPT: Exploring the Theory of Morality and Existence," delve deep into the intricacies of this topic, providing invaluable insights and perspectives on how morality has evolved alongside human understanding.


In this blog post, we draw inspiration from Search's theories and embark on a fascinating journey through the shifting landscape of morality as it has developed across historical periods and cultural contexts. As we traverse the intricate terrain of moral thought, we will uncover the essence of what makes us human and how the concept of morality has been instrumental in our growth as individuals and as a society.


We will begin by exploring the historical perspective on morality, delving into the distinction between 'man-as-he-happens-to-be' and 'man-as-he-could-be' as outlined by Alasdair MacIntyre. This distinction helps us grasp the essence of morality as a map that guides us from our current state to the idealized vision of what we could become. However, this moral map is unique in that the starting point, destination, and route are all created during the journey itself.


Throughout this exploration, we will shed light on three major historical shifts that have significantly influenced our understanding of morality. These shifts include the breakdown of heroic society and the rise of the Axial Age, the emergence of monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and finally, the advent of modernity.


In the pre-modern world, morality was deeply intertwined with the structure of the community, and each individual's place in society determined their duties, rights, and obligations. As we progress through history, we will see how the transition from heroic society to more settled, productive societies brought about a new appreciation for human dignity, with moral discussions increasingly focusing on the idea of humans as rational beings.


Ancient gods were often capricious and unreliable, while humans were seen as accountable for their actions. This stark contrast between the divine and human realms led to a sense of tragedy as the defining human condition. However, amidst this tragedy, there was an inherent dignity that arose from the human capacity to impose order and morality upon an unpredictable world.


With the rise of monotheistic religions, our understanding of morality underwent a significant transformation. The vision of a single, all-powerful God reshaped our conception of human nature, expanding the notion of human dignity and redefining the relationship between free will and moral responsibility.


However, monotheistic equality and agency came with their own set of constraints. While equality was perceived as universal in the eyes of a Christian, Islamic, or Jewish God, the concept of agency was often limited by the religious context in which it was understood. Pre-modern traditions such as Greek Stoicism, Buddhism, and the philosophy of Mo Tzu in China offered more revolutionary visions that transcended the confines of monotheistic faith.


Throughout this blog post, we will delve into the complexities and nuances of morality's evolution, acknowledging that our understanding of ethics and human nature is an ever-evolving tapestry that continues to shape our existence. As we journey through the fascinating world of moral thought, we hope to illuminate the profound impact that our ethical frameworks have on our understanding of humanity and our place in the cosmos.




Historical Perspective on Morality


Understanding morality from a historical perspective requires us to appreciate the distinction between 'man-as-he-happens-to-be' and 'man-as-he-could-be.' This distinction, first noted by Alasdair MacIntyre, helps us see morality as a map guiding us from our current state to an idealized vision of human potential. Intriguingly, the starting point, destination, and route on this moral map are all created during the journey itself, reflecting our evolving understanding of human nature. In this section, we will delve into three major historical shifts that have shaped our moral understanding over time, as highlighted in William Search's "Why".


Three Major Historical Shifts

  1. Breakdown of heroic society and the rise of the Axial Age: This period witnessed the decline of heroic society and the emergence of more settled, innovative societies in regions such as Greece, Persia, India, and China. The Axial Age, as termed by Karl Jaspers, saw a wave of new moral thinkers, such as Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, and Mo Tzu, who all sought to use reason as a means of understanding human nature and morality.

  2. The rise of monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: The emergence of monotheistic faiths brought about a transformative shift in moral thinking. The concept of a single, all-powerful God redefined the relationship between humans and the divine, as well as the notions of human dignity, free will, and moral responsibility.

  3. The coming of modernity: As societies progressed into the modern era, moral thought continued to evolve, reflecting the changing social, political, and cultural contexts of the time.

Morality in the Pre-Modern World


In the pre-modern world, morality was closely tied to the structure of a given society. Each individual's position within the community determined their duties, rights, and obligations, and moral rules both derived from and defined their role. The ancient world was characterized by a sense of fate, and the inevitability of death, sorrow, and suffering shaped the moral landscape.


Transition from Heroic Society to Settled Societies


As heroic societies gave way to more settled, productive societies, human dignity began to acquire new meaning. Moral discussions increasingly centered on the idea of humans as rational beings capable of reason, which could be employed to find answers in a world constrained by fate.


Ancient Gods and the Human Condition


Ancient gods were known for their capricious and often unreliable nature, while humans were seen as accountable for their actions. This contrast between the divine and human realms led to the notion of tragedy as the defining human condition. Yet, amidst this tragedy, human reason and morality served as essential tools for navigating and imposing order on an unpredictable world.


Monotheism and its Impact on Moral Thinking


The rise of monotheistic religions created a chasm between the human and divine worlds not previously seen. Monotheism endowed humans with a unique dignity derived from their God-created nature, redefining the relationship between free will and moral responsibility. However, this new understanding of human nature and morality also brought its own set of constraints and challenges.


Constraints of Monotheistic Equality and Agency


Monotheistic equality refers to the idea that all individuals are equal in the eyes of a Christian, Islamic, or Jewish God. However, this equality was often limited by religious context, leading to debates over the status of non-believers. In contrast, pre-modern traditions such as Greek Stoicism, Buddhism, and the philosophy of Mo Tzu in China offered more revolutionary visions of equality that transcended the confines of monotheistic faith and offered a broader understanding of human dignity and agency.


The concept of agency within the context of faith


Agency, or the capacity for humans to exercise their will and make choices, also faced limitations within the monotheistic framework. For example, in Christianity, the concept of agency is closely tied to the belief in the Fall and Original Sin. The idea that all humans are tainted by Adam and Eve's disobedience of God in eating from the Tree of Knowledge restricts our understanding of free will and moral responsibility.


A more revolutionary vision within pre-modern traditions like Greek Stoicism, Buddhism, and the philosophy of Mo Tzu in China


Despite the constraints imposed by monotheistic faiths, other pre-modern traditions offered more revolutionary visions of morality and human nature. Greek Stoicism emphasized the importance of reason and virtue in the pursuit of a good life, while Buddhism focused on the path to enlightenment and the alleviation of suffering. Similarly, the philosophy of Mo Tzu in China championed universal love and the rejection of aggressive war, providing alternative frameworks for understanding human agency, dignity, and moral responsibility.






Conclusion


As we reach the conclusion of our exploration of morality and its historical evolution, it is vital to acknowledge the intricate tapestry woven from various philosophical and religious traditions. From the ancient world's focus on fate and the constraints it imposed on humans, to the transformative impact of the Axial Age and monotheistic faiths, the development of moral thought has shaped our understanding of humanity, the human condition, and our potential for growth.


Acknowledging the complexity of morality's evolution throughout history


Delving into the works of William Search, specifically his books “Why” and “Conversations with chatGPT: Exploring the Theory of Morality and Existence,” we have seen how morality has served as a guiding force for human existence. Morality's evolution has been influenced by numerous factors, including the breakdown of heroic society, the rise of the Axial Age, the emergence of monotheistic religions, and the coming of modernity. The way we envision humans and the potential for what they could be has continuously transformed, as have our moral frameworks and understandings.


Each historical shift has contributed to our evolving moral landscape, allowing us to better understand the complexities of human nature and the ongoing interplay between various philosophical and religious traditions. As we continue to navigate this ever-changing moral terrain, it is crucial to recognize the importance of learning from our past and embracing the wisdom and insights of diverse traditions.


The continued development of moral thought and its impact on our understanding of humanity


The ongoing development of moral thought promises to further shape our understanding of humanity and what it means to live a moral life. As we strive to create a more just and compassionate world, the lessons gleaned from historical perspectives on morality become even more essential. By engaging with the ideas of thinkers like Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Mo Tzu, and others, we can foster a deeper appreciation for the intricacies of moral reasoning and the values that underpin our actions.


Moreover, the continued development of moral thought is not limited to the philosophical and religious traditions of the past. The emergence of new ethical frameworks in response to contemporary challenges, such as environmental degradation, social inequality, and technological advancements, highlights the ongoing relevance of moral inquiry in our modern world.


As we grapple with these pressing issues, it is crucial to draw from the rich history of moral thought, recognizing the valuable insights offered by various traditions. By doing so, we can cultivate a more nuanced understanding of the human condition, the role of agency and free will, and the potential for growth and transformation. This will enable us to make informed decisions and engage in moral actions that contribute to a more just and compassionate world.


In conclusion, the historical perspective on morality offers invaluable insights into the evolution of moral thought and its impact on our understanding of humanity. From the heroic societies of the ancient world to the transformative power of the Axial Age and the rise of monotheistic religions, our moral frameworks have undergone significant shifts throughout history. By acknowledging the complexity of morality's evolution and embracing the wisdom of diverse philosophical and religious traditions, we can continue to develop our moral thought and foster a deeper understanding of humanity, its potential, and its moral responsibilities. The lessons of history can inspire and challenge us as we strive to create a more ethical and compassionate world.




5 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page