We’re still living by Iron Age ethics

Sunday, February 4th, 2018

We may be living in the 21st century, Razib Khan says, but we’re still living by Iron Age ethics:

Something happened in the centuries around 500 BCE all around the world. Great religions and philosophies arose. The Indian religious traditions, the Chinese philosophical-political ones, and the roots of what we can recognize as Judaism. In Greece, the precursors of many modern philosophical streams emerged formally, along with a variety of political systems.

The next few centuries saw some more innovation. Rabbinical Judaism transformed a ritualistic tribal religion into an ethical one, and Christianity universalized Jewish religious thought, as well as infusing it with Greek systematic concepts. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese thought continued to evolve, often due to interactions each other (it is hard to imagine certain later developments in Confucianism without the Buddhist stimulus). Finally, in the 7th century, Islam emerges as the last great world religion.

It has long puzzled me why all the great institutional faiths arose in about 1,000 years. And then not much since then (numerically Sikhs are marginal, while the fracturing of Christianity in the 16th still left the daughter sects recognizable and possibly reconcilable).

I think here perhaps an analogy to our technological conundrum applies. One reason we don’t have jetpacks and flying cars is that the limitations of physics make it difficult. Some things may be physically possible, but the engineering costs are prohibitive. The several waves of life-transforming technological revolutions between 1750 and 1950 slowly started to ebb in the past generations. Why? It turns out that going from horse and human power, to fossil fuels, and nuclear power, were huge transitions in terms of gains in power. There may not be much to do at this point (fusion is perhaps the major exception).

Similarly, the reason that modern people can get a lot out of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Confucius’ Analects, and the Bible, is that the ethical low-hanging fruit was picked. Recently there have been advances in domains such as the abolition of slavery, so it isn’t as if no progress has been made. But if you read about the Bronze Age world, you see one where human sacrifice is still routinely practiced, as opposed to being an aberration. The distance between 0 AD and 1000 BC is arguably greater ethically than between 0 AD and 2000 AD.

Living in large complex societies with social stratification posed challenges. A religion such as Christianity was not a coincidence, something of its broad outlines may have been inevitable. Universal, portable, ethical, and infused with transcendence and coherency. Similarly, god-kings seem to have universally transformed themselves into the human who binds heaven to earth in some fashion.

The second wave of social-ethical transformation occurred in the early modern period, starting in Europe. My own opinion is that economic growth triggered by innovation and gains in productivity unleashed constraints which had dampened further transformations in the domain of ethics. But the new developments ultimately were simply extensions and modifications on the earlier “source code” (e.g., whereas for nearly two thousand years Christianity had had to make peace with the existence of slavery, in the 19th century anti-slavery activists began marshaling Christian language against the institution).


  1. Ross says:

    Maybe a wave of technology obviated some advances in ethics, sure.

    … but we’re in an age now a la K. Kelly and Harari (inter alia) where our advancing technology is going to demand new ethics.

    I don’t mean the Three Laws of Robotics.

    I mean something having to do with free will (or not) identity (or not) Soul/consciousness permanence and distribution, et cetera. I’m not sure we can put the old wine in new bottles.

    It’s going to be an interesting millennium.

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