I have often heard people say something to the effect of, “Why should I trust what some dead guy from 2,000 years ago has said?”
This is obviously an ad hominem attack. It introduces the irrelevant fact that someone is very, very old and dead. And then it implies that such people are not trustworthy because they are old and dead.
Well, I think it’s poppycock. We should take the message for what it is, whether it is spoken by a famous, respected man or a beggar, a modern man or one who has long since passed away. The message can only be evaluated on its own merits.
So let me propose to you why we should trust 2,000 year old dead people in tuning our moral compass.
First, despite people’s deeply held beliefs about evolution, I do not believe we are fundamentally different than our ancient ancestors. It doesn’t take very much study of history to reveal that their problems are our problems today. We still are cursed with human nature. We still have limited information. We are still bombarded with popular ideas that are plain wrong. We still think we are smarter than everyone else. The first generation that readily admits these things will be the first that might be able to move past those things.
Second, people’s moral compasses change over time. What was perfectly acceptable ten years ago no longer is, and what is accepted today would have been heresy yesterday. The only way to remove this time-dependence factor is to compare our morality with the morality of the ancients and those in between. Certain elements will prove to pass the test of time, a sort of universal moral value that will transcend time or generation. These moral values should be discovered, acknowledged, and accepted.
Third, we exist today partly as a product of the moral behavior of our ancestors. This is sort of like trusting your boss to know best to run the company because he’s done a pretty good job at it so far. I mean, you still have a job, right?
Someone once said that before you change something, you should at least understand why it is that way. If you cannot find a reasonable explanation of why something is the way it is, then that means you don’t understand it and you shouldn’t change it. Granted, some of the things we do are stupid, but honestly, that is more a sign of our incapability of understanding what is good and smart vs. what is bad and stupid.
Finally, I want to explain to you a process we used to do experiments in physics. We would keep everything the same, and change only one thing. By doing this, we can expose what effect that one thing has on the process. If we’ve changed each thing one at a time and still don’t see a change, then we might change two things at once to see if that has an effect.
If you don’t understand, then tradition is a very, very good default. “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” is a good reason to keep doing things the same way. And that’s why you should study the ancient philosophers and default to trust ancient morality. At the very least, understand before change.