No reasonable person would dispute that a just state or its laws must rest on moral foundations. Never mind the circularity of the claim (since the term “just” is already a moral term and therefore highly suggestive of the argued-for connection). What is of greater interest is the derivative character of our laws from morals, complicated as it is by the element of historicity. The recent controversy surrounding the release of the torture memos is a case in point.
“Let it rest,” is everyone’s advice, especially since the laws as to what constitutes torture are in the process of being revised. If “enhanced interrogation techniques” (such as waterboarding, for instance) were considered benign under Bush’s regressive policies and his interpretation of the law and therefore “not torture,” that will surely change under Obama. Until, that is, we’ll have another occupant in the White House, and then another, at which time things will get back to “normal,” or they will not, depending of course on the whim of the president’s legal advisers and the president himself.
And so the argument goes, making it seem thus that the whole thing turned on definitions, and that definitions could always be defined and re-defined almost at will. What was once considered enlightened may revert some day to being thought of as shallow and stupid. The wisdom of the ages may yield to another perception that it was a folly. Nothing is fixed and nothing should remain so, because we humans have the power over definitions. It is so because we say it is so. True masters of the world in every sense of the word, because it’s a world of our own making! Gods should be envious.
I beg to differ. Our powers are greatly exaggerated and yes, we do operate under constraints – moral constraints, first and foremost. The history of humanity supports this contention. I’m yet to be swayed by the notion of historical progress, but progress it has been – a painstaking one and snail-paced, to be sure, but progress nonetheless.
The Other Boleyn Girl comes to mind. It’s a heckuva movie if you’re keen on comparing our present with our historical past. The past in this instance is the tail end of the Tudor era, the reign of Henry VIII; and the treatment of women, not just those of peasant stock but of noblewomen also, defies imagination. From childhood, they were groomed as assets — to advance the family’s interests and ambitions. The girls had no say in the matter but to do their family’s bidding, none whatever.
Such is the story of Ann Boleyn and “the other Boleyn girl,” Mary, Ann’s younger sister. The first ended up with her head chopped off, the second in exile – thanks to their loving family, which introduced both girls to Henry’s court for his sole use and pleasure, to serve as concubines once it became apparent that Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s lawful wife, was about to fall into disfavor.
Where am I going with this?
First, let’s just say that we’ll never go back to “the good old days” when women were so mistreated. Our history is replete with pendulum swings, with significant shifts forward only to experience a reversal — two steps forward, then one step back. But it is also true that the voice of reaction will take you back only so far, and no further. Parts of our past are irretrievable.
Why? Simply because the gains we’ve made have trickled down to the popular consciousness, precluding any possibility of radical backsliding. This is true of any area of human relations where gross injustices were once prevalent throughout our inglorious past only to be rectified, in light of heightened consciousness, in times since, including the present, . We simply can’t turn our blind eye anymore on practices we now regard as abhorrent : slavery, exploitation of women, discrimination against gays, African-Americans and the handicapped, unfair labor practices and sexual discrimination in the workplace, glass ceilings and all such; any practice, in fact, which only a while ago was considered the norm, but which now seems to violate our common sensibilities and consciousness Too much time has elapsed ever to revert to our old barbaric selves and the barbaric views which were part and parcel of them. Once we acquire a third eye, it’s impossible to shed it. If that is not an argument for progress, I don’t know what is.