Social Beliefs and Personal Values

church_tortureI often make the case that torture in the middle ages was a moral act. Given what people believed about the afterlife, torture wasn’t just morally neccesary or acceptable, in certain situations it was downright deserving of approbation:

“The penal law sought to save [the accused’s] soul. For this reason, a convictd person who confessed could be given absolution and could also be ministererd to by a priest at his execution….What was physical suffering, if its infliction could save the evildoer’s soul?”

“…the torture was not without danger for the torturers. Socerers, witches and heretics of both sexes had opened themselves to Satan and the proceedings were therefore a direct battle wit the devil himself.”

(Wolfgang Schild)

Given the beliefs of the people involved, the actions of torture can be interpreted as morally right. However, we’d now say that their cultural beliefs were wrong. My question is, to what extent is an individual morally wrong if they were to engage in torture without themselves explicitly sharing the cultural beliefs (in God, Satan, etc…)? In other words, to what extent are beliefs “our own”, and to what extent do we not get to choose what is true in our own time?

This can be turned towards any number of moral questions relevant in today’s world, but the one that bothers me is the pig-ff-02consumption of meat as a food product. It is a cultural truth in our society that eating meat, raising meat in factory farms, is right. I don’t get to decide that – this would be like trying to decide that “God exists” isn’t a social truth in the middle ages. But, what if I think this social value is wrong? Just like, what if I am a medieval humanist, I don’t believe in the transcendental struggle of good and evil – so to me torture seems repulsive! But to what extent would it really “seem” repulsive, or “be” repulsive to me? To what extent can I take on beliefs that are contrary to social truths, that are only true “for me”? If this “extent” is limited – this would seem to limit my obligation to act on their basis.

Of course I’m cheating here. By showing a disgusting picture from a factory farm, I’m not actually displaying the socially true image of respectable meat consumption. Not only vegetarians find disfigured animals gross. The actual socially-acceptable representation (truth) of meat eating is enacted in Old Macdonald’s farm. We all know this is a false representation of 20th century farming, but this does not prevent it from being the “societal truth” that justifies the factories. TAT_Old_Macdonald_Farm

We know a “truth” to be false, and yet it still functions. Zizek calls this “Ideology” – when you know something is an illusion and you still act as if its true. Of course we know what Zizek thinks about vegetarians. Leonard Cohen calls this “Everybody Knows”.The question then, is to what extent is it possible, and to what extent is it helpful, to actually “oppose” these illusions. Simple opposition (wearing signs, protesting, writing incendiary pamphlets) is a liberal value, but produces stifling opposition. People who take a moral side on an argument, the other side of which is bolstered by a social truth are often not argued with, but are as anti-American or Israeli, as making an intolerant and faddish “personal choice” or just dismissed as terrorists (you can find your own example of that).

Hegel made the case in “Phenomenology of Spirit” that every action can be considered as either moral or immoral by switching perspective:

“Just as every action is capable of being looked at from the point of view of conformity to duty, so too can it be considered from the point of view of the particularity [of the doer]; for, qua action, it is the actuality of the individual.”

“No action can escape such judgement, for duty for duty’s sake, this pure purpose, is an unreality; it becomes reality in the deed of an individuality, and the action is thereby charged with the aspect of particularity.” (404)

This logic seems to be the one that replaces moral discourse when an individual opposes a social truth – the individual’s construal of his own duty is immediately interpreted as selfishness.

It may be hubris to believe that through whit and persistence one can personally avoid this kind of dismissal. The only value that seems appropriate to a world in which values are both “our own decisions” and yet still social-truths, is to circulate values, to move from one to the other. “Standing on principle” is not longer that when principle is re-interpreted as selfishness.


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