We are living in a time of moral chaos. And we’re also living in a time of deepening moral chaos.
There’s nothing new about this. It’s been that way all my life. It didn’t start with my generation. I was born into a world that was already deep in moral chaos.
As evidence all I need do is cite the First and Second World Wars, which took place in the thirty years before I was born. In WW1, millions of young men fought continuously against each other for over four years, and millions of them died. And then, after a brief ‘half time’, they went and did it all over again in WW2. It left all of Europe completely bankrupted. What were they fighting for? Who knows? And most of them didn’t know either. Most of them were drafted into one army or other, shown how to use a rifle, and sent off to fight and die. That such a thing could happen at all is evidence that Europe was already morally bankrupt well before 1914, when the first shots in WW1 were fired. WW1 and WW2 were the consequences of a moral bankruptcy that pre-dated both of them. For it’s from out of a moral vacuum that anyone will assert their right, not with reason and argument but instead with bullets. War grows out of moral vacuums in which people find themselves unable to make their case with words and reason, and can only do so with violence. When I can’t stop you doing something by using an appeal to reason or principle or custom or precedent, I will stop you doing it with my fists.
In fact, since humans have always been fighting wars, one might say that human civilisation has always been morally bankrupt – morally vacuous – from the outset. There have of course been numerous prophets and teachers throughout that long history, some of whom have left religions which survive to this day, but essentially it’s the man with the biggest stick who is always in charge, and it’s he who decides what’s right and wrong, even if (like the late General Suleimani of Iran) he shows token deference to a nominal spiritual leader (like Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei). And if there are ever prolonged periods of peace and prosperity, there’ll always be a man with a big stick overseeing it. And periods of moral chaos ensue when the man with the big stick loses control, and rival warlords fight to gain control. The prosperous Pax Romana only lasted as long as the Roman legions which protected it.
We’re living these days (in the West at least) in the American Imperium. It’s America that holds the biggest stick right now. And a week or so back it used one of its big sticks to dispatch the man holding Iran’s big stick. For that’s what international relations essentially boil down to: a lot of people waving big sticks at each other, and occasionally hitting each other with them. And it’s always been that way. It was the same way back in the Stone Age. And when any dispute gets intensive enough, the big sticks come out, and the matter is resolved by brute force. It’s standard procedure.
If Europe was already morally bankrupt in 1914, and ready to relinquish its role as Keeper of the World’s Big Stick, the two principal rivals to become the new keepers were very arguably morally pure, because they were both new countries. America is a new country. It’s only been around for a few hundred years. And the Soviet Union was also a new country, one that had re-invented itself. Great hopes were placed in these new countries, as Europe declined and decayed. Both of them laid claim to a moral high ground. One of them – the Soviet Union – is gone now (too many gulags cost it the moral high ground). But the other is now so deeply internally divided (almost in a state of civil war) that it is doubtful whether it will survive much longer. For, as ever, the internal disagreements can’t be expressed in words or reason, and the two sides will just have to fight it out. For America is as morally vacuous as both Europe and the Soviet Union ever were. And it’s morally vacuous because America is the offspring of Europe, and most of its citizens are of European origin, and have European (or rather Christian) values.
It’ll remain like this until us humans finally manage to figure out what’s right from what’s wrong. And that’s something we’ve never managed to do. And it’s not something we look like managing to do any time soon. We are devoid of any sort of moral rationality. What some people think is right (e.g. smoking bans) is what other people think is wrong, and neither side can demonstrate their correctness with irrefutable logic. So, as ever, we can only resolve our moral differences by fighting it out on the battlefield. And that’s why we have all these big sticks. For in the end they are the only way we’ve got to resolve our disputes. And it’s why, instead of developing new moral arguments, we develop new weapons. It’s much easier to construct howitzers than it is to construct convincing arguments. It’s much easier to win the argument with a punch in the face than it is to peacefully persuade an adversary some other way.
But our weapons are now so powerful that they threaten our very existence, and so have become unusable. We can’t afford a global nuclear holocaust. And perhaps when it becomes impossible to enforce at gunpoint any one point of view, it will become imperative as never before to at last develop a moral rationality with which to resolve our disputes.