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Richard Sansom


What is the moral high ground? The newly announced policy of the United States is to wield our great economic and military power in the service of moral administration of the world. It is reminiscent of the "Manifest Destiny" policy of the nineteenth century America, and is bolstered in its justification by the dastardly attacks on our nation on September 11, 2001. Our president claims that: "We are the good guys," which reflects the black and white demarcation of good and bad that was the stock of so many westerns we have seen since movies were invented. The line has been drawn between "good" and "evil," and it is a line of our making -- not that of the world -- and we are but less than five percent of the world’s population. There is a tallest tree in the forest; a deepest point in the oceans; then should there not be a most moral nation, representing a standard of morality that is best for all? The reason there cannot be such a best morality is the same reason as there cannot be a most beautiful painting, or piece of music or most perfect building, because morality, unlike the measurable heights of trees, is a human concept that is rooted in a plethora of historic, cultural, religious, philosophical and scientific facts surrounding our human condition. Critics of this position claim that it is relativism -- that chimera of floating, changing and diverse trends and morays among peoples, that some see as contrary to what is clearly a best moral direction for humanity. That best direction is supposedly the result of what has seemingly served this nation well for over two hundred years, in terms of providing freedom, equality, justice and opportunity to all in a land wherein the substrate of these institutionalized conditions is seen to be Christian theology.

We, here in the United States, seem to have a visceral acceptance that it was, and is, our general faith in a Christian God, that not only laid the foundation for our great country, but remains the guiding force for the continuation of that greatness, and by extension to other nations, can likewise provide for the potentials of other nations to join us in our success. Not only is the hubris of such a position glaring, the position is based on a completely false premise -- that it was the Christian God who made our nation great.

The cart is before the horse. Our nation is economically and militarily great not because of the guidance of the Christian God, but the Christian God is preeminent because of our material greatness. (i. e. good things come from God, and bad things from people!) We would never stoop so low as to acclaim that it was greed, ambition and the yearning for freedom from autocratic regimes that produced our nation, or that the intelligence of a few men, who looked to the philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume and other eighteenth century Europeans, had the insight to frame a highly effective constitution and rule of law. We seem to trust that it was the Christian God who was the guiding force for James Madison and Tomas Jefferson, et al, when the evidence clearly indicates that it was no such thing. Our constitution is not fundamentally a religious document -- it is a social management document. Its precepts are born out of logically thinking through what is most likely to aid the just management of a society, especially one that is founded, at least partially, on the need to escape one kind of social order and make another that does not suffer the same ills.

It may be a natural human inclination to seek a transcendent foundation for order and what seems right. Our constitution says: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that we were endowed by our creator......" One can take "our creator" in many very different ways, and I believe it quite telling that the framers did not say: "endowed by God," since they had the foresight see that the nation was, and would become more so, a pluralistic society of many different religions and beliefs. The selection of "God" as innocent as that might have seemed at the time, would have put too specific a stamp on what "creator" might mean. (The word God does not appear in the constitution.) But does the constitution and our over two hundred years of development as a nation that is founded on that document, exist as the paragon for moral behavior for all the world? I have claimed that the constitution is a compilation of rules for a society by the structuring of a governing organization. It is first and foremost that structure and grew out of the conditions and needs of the times as seen by a handful of thoughtful and, I believe, wise and prescient men. Are we to claim that our rules, our structure of government fits all societies and cultures around the world? We claim that humans inalienably have the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and yet we do not claim that "liberty" means anarchy, or that "happiness" includes the perverse joy felt by a vicious sadist, nor do we claim to incorrectly deny humans "life" when we impose the death penalty or send men and women to die in wars. Thus, it is clear that that phrase is indeed relative -- relative to what we believe the words to mean within the context of our own society and our own time in history.

The president is very prone to a kind of Cartesian view of morality -- a black and white, good versus evil view that has no shades of gray. He speaks as if "evil" is a sort of tangible blanket of immorality that can be seen clearly by the eyes of the morally enlightened, and he is the one to decide exactl decide exactl

Richard E. Sansom