Ethical Systems, Religion, and (more) Genealogies

In Mel Brooks’ Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs, the plot begins because the female protagonist (a princess) refuses to marry a prince.  Her father, apologetically trying to encourage her to marry the man he realizes is unbearable, says that she has no real choice because the would-be spouse is “the last prince left in the galaxy.”  Being a prince seems to be pretty important.  As we find out later, being a prince means having a recognizable genealogy backed up by a religious authority.  In the case of the man the princess eventually marries, Lone Star, the religious authority is The Schwartz, a system which spoofs the vaguely Hindo-Buddhist religion of “The Force” in Star Wars.  Obviously, I bring this up because Spaceballs and Star Wars are common and respectable tropes which impress anyone who hears of them, but I also mention it because Thomas Huxley does something similar when he carefully compares his ethical system predicated on Darwinism to religions of the world and philosophies in the Ancient Western tradition.  In his explanations of evil, and how it falls on the “good” person and the “bad” alike, he utilizes a comparative religious study to philosophically confirm Darwin .

“Greek and Semite and Indian,” Huxley writes, “are agreed upon this subject.”  This Genealogy of religions which Huxley believes are all commentary or observations on natural phenomena, posits systematized fortune as a key factor in a being’s success and survival.  The comparison is clean, clear, broad, deep, and more importantly, widely available to the literate British public.  It is both calculated and less  threatening to compare a evolutionary ethics to non-Christian religions.   Huxley is sympathetic with the Stoics, the Hindus, and the Semites, but the ultimate religious example for Huxley is Buddhism in his evolutionary comparison.  I believe the reasoning behind this comparison of an evolutionary ethics which eventually supports already-established ethical norms is indebted to two factors in Buddhism.  One, because there is no creator in Buddhist understanding, and two, because there is no objective reality, there is only the Mara, or illusion, of existence.  If everything is an illusion, interestingly, empiricism gets free reign to explain all the false laws of the world, because there is no original truth or creator.

I find it fascinating that an agnostic like Huxley is not only forced, but seems to enjoy making religious comparisons between previous (stoics and ancient Judaism) and existing (Hinduism, Buddhism) ethical systems which require no omnipotent god.   The comparison not only establishes a genealogy of systematized chance akin to evolution, the contrast also suggests that there are different ways of thinking of ethics, ways which are not only currently operating without devolving into anarchy, but ways which left a massive mark on existing Christian tradition (the Semites and the Stoics).  The genealogy of ethics that Huxley undertakes, in other words, not only makes a workable system which damns Dr. Moreau as much as the Christian paradigm would (if not more), it also undermines Christianity’s still-existing authority as the only valid moral system and makes space in the marketplace for an ethics of evolution.

What I ultimately take away from Huxley is a question; If Science and Evolutionary theory can provide their own ethics, then are proponents of this ethical system (such as Huxley) suggesting that outside ethical systems are unnecessary, except in a comparative use?  I will say, “no,” but only because Huxley cherishes the old systems even as he finds fault with them.  I’m not so sure his example can be generalized, however.

Michael Alijewicz

~ by michaelalijewicz on February 5, 2009.

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