A Journal for Western Man

 

The Overlooked Benefits of Traditional Morality

G. Stolyarov II

Issue CXIX - August 17, 2007

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This article was originally published on GrasstopsUSA.com.    

            All too often today, a large segment of the population is quick to throw aside the precepts of traditional morality because of a perceived lack of convincing justification for these precepts. To these people, little aside from religious teaching seems to validate these moral rules – and those who reject religion are not swayed by its principles. As a consequence, many of these individuals discard long-standing institutions and principles of conduct from social graces to marriage itself.

            A reasonable degree of skepticism is a virtue, as is an attempt to inquire into the reasons for a practice or an institution which one does not understand. However, an explicit understanding of a behavior in its entirety is not necessary for accepting that behavior as beneficial or at least preferable to its absence. Just as many mathematical theorems produce accurate results without yet being explicitly proven, so do many rules of moral behavior lead to superior practical consequences – even though their theoretical justifications have not yet been fully fleshed out.

            The 20th-century economist and social theorist Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) originated the idea of a spontaneous or extended order. We see such orders at work in areas from our microbiology to our social and economic institutions. Extended orders are based on series of rules followed by constituent parts of those orders. The parts often do not understand the meaning or significance of these rules, but by following them they produce patterns of behavior and organization that are far more complex than the individual units comprising the extended order.

            The spontaneous order plays a vital role in the realm of morality. Consider that the earliest advances in morality took place long before any kind of systematic philosophical or advanced religious systems emerged to justify them. In his book, The Fatal Conceit, Hayek uses the disappearance of cannibalism as an example. What led to cannibalism’s decline was not an explicit rational/moral decision on the parts of certain peoples to cease being cannibalistic. Rather, the individuals and societies who refrained from cannibalism were by that very fact given a survival advantage over those who did not. While cannibalistic societies either died out, remained extremely limited in scope, or were conquered by their more robust non-cannibal neighbors, the non-cannibals did not experience these problems – at least not to the same degree. Only millennia later was it discovered that eating human meat is extremely physically unhealthy.

            The same selection process in favor of certain moral rules weeded out widespread practices of incest, homosexuality, bestiality, and polygamy in most societies. Each of the cultures where these behaviors were revived experienced a steady and rapid decline shortly afterward. To verify this, we have only to consider historical examples such as Greece in the 5th century B.C., Rome during the latter years of the Republic, and the contemporary Islamic world – which lags behind the West in virtually every economic, social, and personal dimension pertaining to standards of living.

            One of the social institutions greatly favored by this long-operating selection process has been monogamous marriage. Let us for a moment lay aside any of the transcendent or spiritual justifications given for this institution – although these justifications hold sway for many people. Simply by considering its effects in this world, we can firmly conclude that monogamous marriage brings about considerably superior results to its alternatives.

            In the animal world, the competition over mates – especially among males – expends a tremendous amount of energy, resources, and lives. With no defined system of rules and no real way of firmly establishing the winners or losers in this competition, the strife is unending. The winners must zealously guard their mates of choice, and the losers will keep on challenging the winners. Numerous early human societies were probably engaged in this perpetual war as well. But the emergence of marriage solved this problem by creating a definite, widely accepted set of criteria for who is allowed to mate with whom and under what conditions. Furthermore, once a man and woman established a marital bond, they thereby removed themselves from any further competition for mates, thus rendering the latter far less extensive and damaging.

            Monogamous marriage has shown to be superior to polygamy because of the nearly equal proportions of males and females in any given society. If one man were permitted to marry multiple women, this would necessarily deprive other men of chances at marriage. A society where polygamy was widely practiced would also have a large population of angry young men seeking to undermine or overthrow the more established men who managed to get multiple wives. The more powerful polygamous men, on the other hand, would have an incentive to get rid of the cohorts of unmarried young men by sending them off to die in large numbers in wars of conquest. This in part explains the fanatical desire for territorial expansion and subjugation of other peoples that has characterized the Islamic world from its inception.  

            Other “alternatives” to traditional marriage, such as incest and homosexuality, ultimately fail because of the massive physical damage they inflict. Incest results in genetically defective offspring, and the average homosexual lives about thirty years less than the average heterosexual; neither is a sustainable approach for assuring the survival of individuals or societies.

            Nor is the “easy divorce” version of marriage that exists today a superior alternative to the traditional institution. After all, easy divorce means easy revival of the competition for mates and a lack of assurance that married couples have withdrawn themselves from the pool of competitors. In earlier societies, such an allowance would have resulted in widespread violent competition for women among men. In a reasonably prosperous and peaceful society like ours, easy divorce mostly means a massive increase in jealousy, intrigue, and familial instability.      

            Certainly, children raised in an environment where they are not assured that their parents will stay together barring extraordinary circumstances will have neither the material nor the emotional security required to grow into competent, confident adults. Statistics verify that children of divorce are far more likely to experience economic and marital problems of their own. The traditional model of only granting divorce under conditions of genuine abuse or damage works far better at dissolving truly harmful marriages while ensuring that couples with only petty problems actually try to work them out without terminating their relationship.

            The social graces are another area in which traditional morality has been challenged. Many today, for instance, do not see a genuine problem with uttering profanities in public. After all, profanities are just combinations of sounds arbitrarily deemed offensive by the dominant society, and words alone cannot corrupt the listener unless the listener chooses to be corrupted, right? Alas, it is not so simple. While it is true that most reasonable, autonomous adults would not be made less virtuous by hearing somebody else utter a profanity, this is not the case for children and adolescents, who often tend to imitate their elders and cultural role models without understanding the context or limitations of the latter’s actions. While some otherwise decent adults might use the f-word and the s-word as occasional expressions of sheer anger, children in their company will frequently interpret such statements as a glorification of the activities that these words define. Thus, what may be a careless outburst of frustration in the older generation is often interpreted as a license to promiscuity and “bathroom humor” by the younger. Children who are exposed to profanity become profoundly influenced by it; for many, the activities alluded to in profanities come to take the place of useful knowledge and nobler aspirations.

            The extended social order created as a consequence of certain widely accepted rules of behavior is not simple for any given individual to understand. Often the effects of a given moral rule are indirect, far-reaching, and surprising. Yet one thing is certain: a large number of institutions, precepts, and principles of conduct that have evolved over the course of millennia have been shown to dramatically outperform the alternatives. Tampering with practices such as marriage and social restraint will not “liberate” us, but will rather enslave us to the destructive forces that the absence of such institutions brings about.  

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre,  Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, weekly columnist for GrasstopsUSA.com, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. His most recent play is Implied Consent. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

 

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This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here..

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.