Saturday, July 07, 2018

Moral philosophy of the Aztecs (just ignore the human sacrifice bits)

I'm not entirely sure whether there is much to be gained from the study of a human sacrificing society's moral philosophy, but this intermittently interesting article at Aeon indicates that Aztec moral reasoning wasn't all that far from your ancient Greek ideas.   Take this:
At its core, Aztec virtue ethics has three main elements. One is a conception of the good life as the ‘rooted’ or worthwhile life. Second is the idea of right action as the mean or middle way. Third and final is the belief that virtue is a quality that’s fostered socially.
 The difference with Greek virtue ethics is said to be this: 
While Plato and Aristotle were concerned with character-centred virtue ethics, the Aztec approach is perhaps better described as socially-centred virtue ethics. If the Aztecs were right, then ‘Western’ philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence.

This distinction bears on an important question: just how bad are good people allowed to be? Must good people be moral saints, or can ordinary folk be good if we have the right kind of support? This matters for fallible creatures, like me, who try to be good but often run into problems. Yet it also matters for questions of inclusivity. If being good requires exceptional traits, such as practical intelligence, then many people would be excluded – such as those with cognitive disabilities. That does not seem right. One of the advantages of the Aztec view, then, is that it avoids this outcome by casting virtue as a cooperative, rather than an individual, endeavour.
The article goes on about moderation as being important, and the "aptness" of behaviour, which sounds fairly practical and sensible, except when taken too far (my bold):
Our actions are virtuous, then, when they are aptly expressed. This aptness of expression turns on the circumstances (eg, how formally we should dress), our social position (eg, male or female, commoner or noble), our social role (eg, warrior or physician), and whether we are performing a rite of a specific sort. A memorable example of this last kind concerns drunkenness. Public drunkenness was severely punished in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire; for nobles, the penalty was death. But the elderly at a wedding were not only permitted, but expected to become drunk.
Anyhow, it's interesting how he doesn't address the elephant (being a still beating, ripped out human heart in this case) in the room.


TimT said...

Mind you, seeing 'Gunpowder' recently reminded me that it wasn't so very long ago at all in the west that people were very publicly tortured and disemboweled in public. Which raises the question how, exactly, is it different from human sacrifice?

And after reading a bit of Graves' The White Goddess recently (assuming that Graves is right), the levels of human sacrifice in old pagan societies were truly mindboggling. So was it really only a blip of history, a fortunate accident, that saw old European societies let go of the idea of human sacrifice even while Aztec societies carried on with it merrily? (And what did we all start it for anyway?)

TimT said...

Just read the article. He kind of ignores the key western concept of original sin.

Steve said...

On your first point - deadly violence in the course of torturing or execution for crimes is (no matter how gruesome) at least the subject of quite a different justification from human sacrifice to keep a supernatural entity happy. (And I am sure I have suggested here before that the public's stomach for seeing humans butchered might be related to public butchery of all kinds. If you're used to seeing cows, sheep and other mammals bleeding profusely and turned into a carcass every day in an open area near the market, I'm guessing that it desensitises people somewhat to seeing a human body treated in similar way.)

I did think while I was posting about the Aztecs that you could argue that, if your belief is genuinely and sincerely held that human sacrifice is just part of the way the universe has to operate, then is it rightly called immoral? Or is it better to call it just "cruelly mistaken?"