Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Liberty Bell

I recently went to Philadelphia and had the opportunity to visit the Liberty Bell Center. This is a well designed center which tells a lot about the Liberty Bell, its history and its influence over the years. The famous imperative inscribed on it is, “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof (Leviticus 25:10). The name the “Liberty Bell” was given to the bell only in the 1830's by groups protesting slavery. Subsequently it was used as a symbol for the women's suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. It is likely that no artifact in history was more used as a symbol for liberty.

Just is front of the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center is the site of the President's House when the early United States Congress met in Philadelphia. That area was used for displays on the history of the house that includes documentation of the three slaves that George Washington had there. Perhaps liberty was proclaimed throughout the land. Our early countrymen actually fought to achieve liberty from arbitrary British rule. However, we as country did not actually deliver liberty to “all the inhabitants” of the land.

Was there enough evidence back in that time that slavery was irrational? There were plenty of people who had been slaves who were living outside of slavery. With the option to become educated and pursue more productive enterprises those people delivered substantially more productive effort to the whole of the American economy. My guess is that difference was sufficiently great as to be easily visible even with the substantially lower effort allocated to economic statistics at that time.

Should we always argue for or against ethical positions based on the a rational analysis of the consequences? After all, isn't the institution of slavery so disgusting that abolition of made sense even without any supporting evidence? The answer is no, because there were an equally large number of people who felt a similar sense of disgust with the notion of the abolition of slavery. They loved the “free” services and the quality of life that they derived from slavery. The irrational aspects of slavery are not visible until you have rational analysis of the system as a whole.

The rather profound statement on the Liberty Bell came from Leviticus. Could it be that this indicated that this chapter of the Bible had rational thinking that we could live by? Leviticus 25:3-4, “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” In addition you are not supposed to harvest anything that just happens to grow without any effort on the part of the farmers.

There is an obvious problem with this Biblical command, it does not give people anything to eat in the seventh year. Leviticus 25:20-21, “And if you say, 'What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop? I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, so that it will bring forth fruit for three years.” The Bible does not say what to do if God fails to deliver on this “blessing.”

In Israel there are farmers who in the seventh year put out tables on their farms and imported dirt on those tables to grow vegetable. Of course, they also have to hire foreign labor to do the work. Even with these extreme efforts to comply with Biblical commands, this is not good enough for the ultra Orthodox. The sale of vegetables from such farms is down substantially from the sixth year.

The famous quote inscribed on the Liberty Bell refers to what happens after seven of these seven year cycles on the fiftieth year, “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines.” So instead of any liberty to pursue a proper food supply these passages are mandating a two year sequence where farmers cannot get food from their land.

It is quite astonishing that we have a slogan on the Liberty Bell that has been a great inspiration to many and it comes from a preposterous set of Biblical commands that has enslaved people in ignorance and that ignorance continues into our modern times.


mkb said...

Don, Am I reading your argument correctly that you believe the two options for determining ethics are economic rationality or majority beliefs? If so, I disagree.

In lots of cases, whether it be arguments for slavery or prohibitions on same sex marriage, I think it may be difficult to determine what is the rational course of action based on economic analysis. If you read Thaddeus Russell's A Renegade History of the United States, arguments from statistics don't always come out the way one would imagine (I'm not saying that Russell's arguments are correct, but they do suggest evaluating reality using economic tools is a very tricky thing). Moreover, the fact that slavery continues to exist suggests that it may be economically rational in some places at some times. Nonetheless, it is never ethically defensible.

Similarly, I believe that majority vote is a very bad way of deciding on ethics, particularly deciding which treatment of a minority group is ethical.

One of the reasons that theists cling to their texts is because they know that neither economic rationality nor majority view is a good way to determine ehtics. It is difficult to find another way. However, I believe that it is the responsibility of Humanists to demonstrate that ethical decisions can be made without relying on authority, popularity or (exclusively on) economic rationality. As an Ethical Culturist, I would say that slavery and prohibitions on same sex marriage both fail the test of bringing out the best in others and are thus unethical whether or not they are rational.

Don Wharton said...

@mkb(Mary), Thank you for your thoughtful comments. They have implications for how we approach both government and ethics.

The distinction that I wished to draw was between using subjective experience or science as the mechanism for determining the ethical good. You abstracted the subjective side under the term “majority view.” I fully agree that this is a bankrupt mechanism for determining the ethical good. However, you do realize that the distillation of ethical good that we put into our society's laws in fact is based on representative democracy which is widely premised on using majority views.

Obviously we agree that democracy is a deeply flawed system. However, it does have the virtue of allowing most people to participate in the process of governance. Any alternative to democracy should include some of the virtues of democracy.

You argue that science is also flawed and I agree that science is somewhat problematic. Sciences such as economics and sociology deal with such massive complexity that the tools that we use to understand that complexity must of necessity be less than a full description of that which is studied. Beyond that there are armies of polemicists that wish to selectively use the science for self-interested descriptions of facts. However, I would argue that science is still the only avenue to verify any factual understanding of the reality that we experience.

You argue that ethically we should be “bringing out the best in others.” My reply is that you have no mechanism to determine “the best” other than through the methods of science. If you put yourself back in the time of slavery you would find many people who would argue that the best interest of slaves is determined by the thoughtful attention of the slave holder. He or she would argue that the slave has limited capability to determine the best use of his or her labor and the wisdom of the slave owner was required to make this judgment for society. Obviously this is absurd given current knowledge. The most efficient mechanism to show the absurdity is to use science to show how and why the facts are not as asserted by those making such arguments.