Arnold Kling  

Moral Philosophy

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Will Wilkinson and Jesse Prinz. Highly recommended. You could easily spend four years at an Ivy League college and not have a class as interesting as this one.

Prinz works through the view that moral values are highly culturally determined. One fascinating tidbit concerns early Christianity. Christian sexual morality made it more difficult for people to ensure that they had heirs. At first, you would think that this would have adverse survival consequences for the survival of the society. But think about the survival consequences for the Church, which gets to inherit the money from the people who die heirless.

In my view, the dialog builds to a crescendo at the end, so listen to the whole thing.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Lance writes:

Granted, I haven't listened to Prinz's justification that sexual morality emphasized by the Early Church made it harder for persons to have heirs, but one would think it would be the opposite.

If you follow a personal code that the only permissible reason to have intercourse is to procreate, and it must be done within the bounds of marriage, it seems more likely you'll have linear descendents more often than not. Whilst, the person who does not practice monogamy, may have descendents all across the map with no legal claim to their 'father's' estate.

It would seem to me that the bachelor life would leave no heirs. As opposed to the life of monogamy, while decreasing your biological heirs perhaps, you certainly have a higher chance of increasing the number of people with claims to your estate upon death.

Stan Greer writes:

My understanding is that the sociologist Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, has pretty amply documented the fact that Christianity spread so quickly in ancient Rome not primarily because of conversions, but because Christians had far more children (and thus far more heirs) than did pagans.

Do the "brilliant" Will Wilkinson and his cohort address and call into question Stark's findings, or just ignore them? Hmmm. I suspect I know the answer, but I'll let someone who's actually watched the video tell me.

Will Wilkinson writes:

Hi Stan,

What's your beef? I read Stark's book on the rise of Christianity a long time ago, and I think I remember his making a few demographic points having to do with xtian bans on abortion and infanticide, which gave them a leg up on the pagans. But if I remember correctly, it is almost entirely a story of the viral nature of xtianity, which spread primarily through the conversion of individuals connected through social networks. So I'm pretty confident that you're flat wrong, and that Stark provides a theory that explains how Chritianity managed to spread at a pace much faster than is possible than through parent-to-child transmission alone. I cannot be ignoring a finding that was not found. Perhaps you can show me that I am wrong about Stark. Or maybe you could apologize.

Tom VanAntwerp writes:

When they discuss the problem of heirs, I believe they are talking about it from the perspective of people who actually had an estate worth bequeathing. By prohibiting divorce and adoption, a wealthy Christian man who married an infertile woman or whose children all died young was left with no heirs and his property defaulted to the Church.

In early Christianity, I can't see this being a problem, since there can't have been many fabulously wealthy members. It is only later that this would lead to the mass transfer of wealth to the Church upon death. Also, one must consider that Christian moral precepts developed over time and were likely different in the beginning, perhaps in ways profound enough to make this a non-issue early on. In pre-Christian Rome, divorce was as easy as saying "I divorce you," and anyone could adopt essentially anyone, so their heir problem was only a big deal if you kept marrying infertile wives or your heirs (born or adopted) kept dying before you did. (And this did happen.)

manuelg writes:

Lance, Stan Greer:

One issue is that the early Christian churches were not monolithic.

The early Christian mystics had tremendous influence, early on. These were the Gnostics or others who took Paul's intensity and asexual lifestyle as the expression of their worship.

This branch of the church was elitist. Over history, their numbers diminished to almost nothing.

Lance writes:

Are there any figures, or perhaps just a single story, of an heirless estate being donated to the church? Now, I'm aware of estates with legal heirs that have neverteheless been donated to the early church.

Prinz's point is interesting, but that's all I see it as. I am not sure if it has been validated by history to any significant degree, especially the accumulation of wealth by various forms of Christianity has come through sometimes forced tithes and other forms of coercion.

manuelg writes:

@lance

> Are there any figures, or perhaps just a single story, of an heirless estate being donated to the church?

In the absence of heirs, the church would not wait until death to take the whole of the estate, and the person would spend the rest of their life under the care of the church.

This is how unmarried males provide massive financial support to the modern Jehovah's Witnesses church, even doing menial work.

Jason Malloy writes:

My problem with the interview is that Will says Prinz converted him from the dominant nativist cog sci paradigm (as associated with Jonathan Haidt), but nowhere in their discussion do they actually deal with the kinds of evidence associated with that paradigm.

Prinz gets the final word that there are no general cross-cultural moral principles, and that in-group morality is circular reasoning. That's highly dubious, and this is where the research should have actually been discussed. Moral rules and distinctions are spontaneously realized by small children (e.g. the difference between moral violations such as stealing from your sister from social conventions like putting your feet on the table). Findings such as "moral dumbfounding" show regularities behind human moral decisions that are both surprising and mysterious to the people that make those decisions.

Perhaps his book actually gets down in the mud with the nativists but you don't get this in the interview, even though Will ostensibly tries devil's advocate.

Les writes:

It seems to me that no-one has yet made the critical point that descriptive ethics or morality deals with observed practices of various peoples. Descriptive ethics or morality is ethical relativism and multicultural in nature.

On the other hand, normative ethics or morality is one invariant system that is neither ethical relativism nor multicultural in nature. Examples are the Ten Commandments or Kant's Categorical Imperative.

This critical distinction addresses several posted comments.

Stan Greer writes:

Will Wilkinson, you shouldn't rely on your memory.

I don't have a copy of The Rise of Christianity handy, but a quick Internet search turns up for me the review in American Historical Review by Elizabeth Clark of Duke University.

Whatever AHR's flaws, I doubt Wilkinson wants to accuse the reviewer of fundamentally misunderstanding the book.

She writes that, among the key reasons Stark offers for the rise of Christianity, he cites "Christians' ability to survive epidemics in higher proportions" because they cared for one another better than pagans, and "Christianity's proscriptions of infanticide and abortion, which prompted an increased female population and higher birth rates than obtained among 'pagans'" (scare quotes the reviewer's, I think, not Stark's).

Even if Wilkinson wishes to contend that conversions were more important than higher birthrates for the spread of Christianity, the point made by Prinz is still obviously wrong, because it's predicated on the assumption Christians actually had lower birth rates.

My beef, Will Wilkinson, is that you and Prinz didn't know what you were talking about on this particular matter. And I still have that beef.

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