In today's Washington Post, Michael Gerson becomes the first person ever--literally, the first human being in the entire history of mankind, from cave to caravan to Chrysler Building, from cuneiform to cursive, from swerve of shore to bend of bay--to make the entirely novel, unique, unprecedented, never-before-seen-or-heard, revolutionary, expeditionary, transmigratory, antidisestablismentary argument that in the absence of god there can be no morality.
Oy vey is mir. I know the joy of becoming a sinecured columnist is the freedom to phone in any old nonsense, and I don't begrudge any man his right to make a good living on 2500 words a week or less. If I could weasel my way into that business, let me tell you, gentle readers, you'd see a lot more chin-stroking about how to get responsibly out of Iraq, a lot more tuned-down phraseology (think: "dependence on foreign oil"; think: "how to strike a balance between security and liberty"). It is every American's inalienable right to make money in whatever scam presents itself best to his abilities.
Nonetheless. Quality may be a debased quality these days, especially in entertorializing, but I can't yet believe that Fred Hiatt and the gang don't suffer some vestigial embarrassment at finding their paper polluted with the kind of writing that would get the very last actual heterosexual in the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church kicked out of the seminary. For thousands of years, the exact nature and origin of our moral sentiments has been food for philosophy, and curiously enough, even in socities without explicit written warning from Yahweh that murder is wrong, murder is frowned upon. Or consider an opposite case. In the Western tradition, suicide is a moral nadir--a mortal sin, in the Catholic tradition--that might very well condemn a soul to eternal damnation and torture. In Japan, it's totally cool, fellas; it can be a rational, in fact honorable, decision: dignified, reasonable, acceptable, and without moral taint. Consider likewise that in our own western antiquity, classical civilization existed under a pantheon of explicitly amoral deities, upon whom any petty human notion of right and wrong exerted no influence, carried no weight, held no argument, and mostly found itself the butt of cruel, godly jokes as Zeus and the gang went right on warring and raping and carrying on with their loud music high and late into the night. Consider the oldest question in the God-is-Just, monotheistic tradition: Why, if god is good and just, does he cause suffering? I seem to recall a book on that very subject.
Moral sentiments have many fathers. There are the biological imperatives of a social organism. There are the necessities of cooperation for physical and social survival. There's the reciprocity inherent in mutual self-interest. There are many millennia of cultural norms, inherited ideas, socialized prejudices, taught stigmas. Many, many, many writers and thinkers have treated these subjects elaborately, thoroughly, at great length, with with, humor, delicacy, audacity, genius, madness, and brilliance. Yet with all the resources of research at his fingertips, and an army of editorial interns yearning for a wink and a nod, he was unable to locate a single one. From Democritus to Dawkins, from Aristotle to Adam Smith to Arnold Schwarzenegger, history's great moral philosophers have nothing germane to offer. Our Gerson finds not a soul to gainsay his second-rate claims.