“To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered.”— Voltaire
“One of the chief misfortunes of honest people is that they are cowardly.”— Voltaire
The Renaissance revolutionized science. The stage for this glorious social movement was of course set earlier, having its roots in many achievements, a signal one perhaps being in William of Ockham’s argument that the scientific realm should be set free from religious constraints, that scientists should be free to follow logic and evidence where they lead. This key idea led to The Renaissance and the modern world we know today.
But in fact, not all science was set free: the so-called “hard vs. soft science” distinction arguably exists to protect religion from those Earthly spheres it deems essential to political control, especially the science of ethics. Thus we have the ultimate expression of this dogma in the so-called “is-ought gap”, which in effect, preserves a domain for religion that reason allegedly cannot touch.
“Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst; every other species of tyranny is limited to the world we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave, and seeks to pursue us into eternity.”— Thomas Paine
”I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.”— Thomas Paine
As with earlier dogmas the Catholic Church reluctantly relinquished, those who dared question religion’s authority in the ethical realm were punished during and after The Renaissance. Whereas before Ockham, Galileo was imprisoned for challenging the Ptolemaic dogma, in The Enlightenment, we see Thomas Paine imprisoned for challenging Christian dogma. How many opinions were suppressed because their potential authors dared not speak? It is no wonder that the problem of a rational ethics was not solved by the geniuses of The Enlightenment – to do so would to invite imprisonment or worse.
It was during these periods that our arguably depraved social habits of unreasoning politeness and decorum evolved. For example, it is considered unwise or impolite to argue about politics and religion in most contexts, even though these subjects are of extreme importance to mankind; it is considered beyond the pale to point an accusatory rhetorical finger at those responsible for the heinous things we see in the political sphere, even though identifying the source of a problem is one of the first steps required in order to solve it. Religion is of course not solely to blame here, there are plenty of irrational secular dogmas causing social harm as well – but these are just exploiting the illusory breach religion has created, and maintains, between reason and ethics.
It is important to understand that Enlightenment social habits evolved in an era when speaking out would bring certain ruin. Enlightenment thinkers didn’t have freedom of speech; they were the heroes who paved the way for the freedoms we now enjoy. But just as humanity could not transition to The Enlightenment without at least some thinkers losing past habits and challenging their status quo, we cannot move on to the next age of humanity without losing the depraved habit of biting one’s tongue in the face of evil. Enlightenment thinkers had an excuse – they had to fight for freedom of expression before they could exercise it. What is your excuse?
Contrary to the dogmas of politeness mongers, the more outrageously barbaric the aims of discourse, the more politeness will be demanded within it, for to clearly identify the truth that an aim is barbaric is to be rude, and to refrain from stating this truth is to let the barbaric falsehood run amok. So beware the charlatan who shies you away from moral evaluation on the grounds that it is per se uncivil.
“Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”— John Stuart Mill
It is certainly true that there is a time and place for everything, and it can be difficult and error-prone to walk the line between courage and foolishness. Even in the most ideal of worlds, it would not be appropriate to speak your mind in all contexts. But what counts as “appropriate” should be defined by reason – not by the status quo.
Whether it be male genital mutilation or The War on Drugs or any of the endless stream of other modern evils, it is easy to see that the status quo is, on average, quite insane, and that the insanity extends even to highly-educated professionals. This insanity, this festering institutional rot, will not end while most consider it rude and inappropriate to call these things out for what they are – unmitigated evil. The ruination of innocent people will not cease while those who support these things, whether in speech or at the ballot box or on the floor of Congress, are treated as if all opinions deserve equal respect.
We all make mistakes. We all were once young, and usually, foolish. We are all limited in how far our thinking can take us from the status quo to better ideals. Consider the tragic words of these two mothers (from the previously linked article):
“My tiny son and I sobbed our hearts out. After everything I’d worked for, carrying and nurturing Joseph in the womb, having him at home against no small odds, keeping him by my side constantly since birth, nursing him whenever he needed closeness and nourishment – the circumcision was a horrible violation of all I felt we had shared. I cried for days afterward.”
“I’m finding myself obsessing more and more about it. It’s absolutely horrible. I didn’t know how horrific it was going to be. It was the most gruesome thing I have ever done in my life. I told the doctor as soon as he was done, if I had a gun, I would have killed him. I swear I would be in jail today if I did have a gun.”
These infants and mothers deserve total sympathy. What helps mothers like these avoid their tragic mistake? Certainly not neutrality. On the contrary, they would have been helped immensely by boldly proclaiming the truth: unless consensual or medically necessary, circumcision is an utterly barbaric evil. Being namby-pamby and polite about evil is what so tragically harmed both mother and child – politeness-mongering is the enabler of evil, leading to more and more victims.
Unlike these mothers, there are those who don’t deserve sympathy: those who energetically or authoritatively spread evil, whether they be the useful idiots who know not what they do or the truly evil who do. And yes, they should be free to speak their minds – freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. But so too should you be free: to condemn them for furthering evil in this world. Until good people have the courage to speak out against evil, it will never end. And what will redeem those who choose to spread evil if not others forcefully telling them that they must stop?
“Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.”— Virgil
I can’t walk the line for you between courage and foolishness, cowardice and wisdom. I can’t tell you when, in your situation, it makes sense to speak up. I can suggest guidelines – such as that you probably ought to at least speak out clearly with friends and family. I will only say that self-styled defenders of human rights who attack those who dare to speak their minds on the many ways our modern institutions are victimizing people, are a disgrace. It would be better that they say nothing at all on the subject of liberty, than to pretend to be heirs of Classical Liberalism. They are not true heirs, they are frauds and thieves – thieves because their attacks are an attempt to steal what they have no right to – the moral high ground. Do not let them take it.
See Bertrand Russell’s magnificent History of Western Philosophy.
See my book REASON and LIBERTY for why reason can indeed be applied in the ethical realm.