Sunday, February 22, 2009

Things We Take For Granted: Morality

Congratulations to Linnea Sinclair for winning a P.E.A.R.L. award for Shades of Dark!

Margaret's gritty post about Infanticide was like a starter cannon for my thoughts on what we think of as normal and moral, and what shocks us.

I raced off to one of my favorite non-fiction tomes: SEX IN HISTORY by Reay Tannahill.

There's a wonderful quote in the front matter:

i suppose the human race
is doing the best it can
but hells bells thats
only an explanation
its not an excuse

Archy says

[Quoted as published.]


The cover art is provocative. I'm not sure if the dark-winged goddess's crotch is the cynosure of all the kneeling dudes' eyes --with lines of sight depicted-- or if she is simultaneously blessing six worshippers with accurately directed, individual golden streams of enlightenment.

In the section of the book on "The Second Oldest Profession" (p79) the Greek historian, Herodotus is quoted as observing of the temple prostitutes:

"Every woman who is a native of the country ... must once in her life go and sit in the temple and there give herself to a strange man.... She is not allowed to go home until a man has..." thrown his silver in her lap

Imagine living in that world!
In fact, elements of my own worldbuilding were inspired by this (the "Virgins' Balls at the Imperial Palace) although the custom was only for the benefit and enjoyment of the royal Tiger Princes.

My spymaster, Madam Tarra's courier courtesans were inspired by Austrian Prince Metternich's use of prostitutes as intelligence gatherers.


Later, there is a very frank and amusing transcript of a letter from a material girl of the Athenian hetairai. A courtesan named Philumena reportedly wrote to a lover:
"Why do you boher writing long letters? I want fifty gold pieces, not letters. If you love me, pay up; if you love your money more, then don't bother me..."

Chapter Four (p84) is a vivid and amusing reminder that some ancient Greeks and ancient Japanese societies apparently took male homosexuality and pederasty for granted.

And then, there's socially acceptable killing.

Recently, I read an interview with Marc Hauser, author of "Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right And Wrong."

A trolley is coming down a track and it's going to run over and kill five people if it continues. A person standing next to the track can flip a switch and turn the trolley onto a side track where it will only kill one person (instead of five).

Is it right to divert the trolley?

A nurse approaches an ER doctor. "Doctor, we've got five patients in critical care; each needs an organ to survive." (Different organs.) "A healthy person has just walked in... we can (kill him and) take his organs and save the five..."

Is it right to kill the one?

Apparently, most people cannot explain why their answers are different. Yet, the problem is basically similar. The life of one person who would not otherwise be killed is weighed against the lives of five others who are doomed to die unless there is an intervention.

I think I could take a stab at explaining, but that would take the fun out of the puzzle. I'd love to know what you think, though.

Do we learn our morals? Or are we born with a basic moral code? Almost every culture has some kind of "An eye for an eye..."/"Do as you would be done by" code of conduct.

I wouldn't stop there. I believe that quite a few animals have it as well.

Which brings me to "sacred cows" also known as political correctness.

One of the things I love about our genre is that we alien romancers can explore politically incorrect ideas without being uncomfortably offensive.

We are like the "allowed fools" of the European courts of the Dark Ages. Idiots and space aliens have immunity from the reprisals that good citizens face if they want to say something blasphemous, seditious, or iconoclastic.

For example:

Tigron Empire. 58th gestate in the reign of Djerrold Vulcan V
Fictitious op ed piece.

I've not yet heard anyone blame affirmative action for the bad decisions made by banks, personal-shuttle companies, brokerage houses, insurance companies, and so forth.

No reasonable, responsible, nice Tigron person would try to blame minorities for the current crisis. That would be like kicking the underdog.

And yet, over the last twenty gestates, Alderboran law and peer pressure has obliged interstellar companies to promote a token number of people whose best qualification for their job may have been their gender, their sexual orientation, their ethnic origins, or some other persuasion.

Not in every case. Of course.

Thus, there is a question. Is the best candidate in the job? Was that hermaphrodite Klargon teenager chosen to be the Babyliger-5 branch bank manager because his/her education and experience qualified him/her to make sensible loans to responsible customers? Wouldn't a sober, fifty-standard-year-old Mumblari who'd worked his way up through the ranks have been a safer hand at the tiller?

Does the Klargon teenager secretly suspect that he/she needs to make daring and heroic business decisions to prove to all and sundry that his/her promotion wasn't affirmative action?

Same goes for the color-blind Beancounter who got to overrule the designers and engineers of a top of the line, zero-gravity toilet system for the way station in the Kuyper Belt.

Rowena Cherry
Space Snark


  1. Hmmm, don't forget the Spartans where it was against the law to abstain from sex.

    The quandry as to the trolley car and the hospital patient.
    Both are tough.

    I have to say...and it may sounds cruel. But the five...are stupid enough to stand on a trolly track in the first place. There's a chance not all will die. But they are stupid. I say shout and warn them. The innocent guy? why should he pay for someone else's stupidity?

    The Doctor? That's playing god when you take a life and justifying it would be saving others.
    I'm not sure if it is Night Secrets or Night Fall by Cherry Adiar, but she touches base on the killing for body parts and it was disgusting. Not as abhorrent as the fact that it really DOES go on. That is even worse.
    So No. If they can't find a recent cadavor with a donor card,they have no right whatsoever to snuff out the life of an innocent.

    In fact I find that situation more... disgusting than the other...because the MD would have demeaned life to a bunch of body parts. Somewhere along the line, it will be about the money and production and not the Hippocratic Oath, which he violated from the very moment he entertained the idea of killing the innocent health man.

    That's my opinion...and I also think the Morality has a lot of gray area. It shouldn't but we're human and we are full of it.

    Oh..and as for Sci-Fi being a way to address politically hot topics? The original Star Trek was AWESOME at doing that.

    I"m going to copy/past this your FB comment too...just because dialogue about things like this prevent it from being swept under the rug because it makes people uncomfortable. With the questions and with their own answers...

  2. Michele,
    Thank you for your comment. The trolley car example... well, we'd all like to find a third way... but it reminded me of the Grace Jones scene in A View To A Kill.

    I really enjoyed Grace Jones's acting, and her singing. I'm sorry we don't see and hear more of her!

    STAR TREK was and is amazing. And, have you seen Heather's clips of Captain Kirk doing a sleazy dramatization of "It Was A Very Good Year"?


    I don't think Bill Shatner should have done that. Not in Kirk-like clothing, anyway, even if he is a brilliant actor.

    (Not that I am saying he is...)

  3. And I just started thinking about my Tuesday post and came up with a thing on morality (and a dash of ethics) and how society is changing because-because-because!!!

    You guys must be psychic or something. But this should be an interesting week on AlienRomances!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  4. Jacqueline,

    I think several of us are psychic on one level or another! This happens too often to be a coincidence.

    Then again, "Moral Hazard" is a hot topic everywhere, especially since Rick Santelli's rant.

    Well, on-blog discussions between us are really cool, especially since we don't all agree on all things, so I'm really looking forward to your blog on Tuesday!

  5. C. S. Lewis in THE ABOLITION OF MAN makes an excellent case that the moral law is essentially the same worldwide and cross-culturally. There are many variations in details, of course, but every known society has standards of sexual behavior, values of altruism and fairness, etc. The differences fall into areas such as fine-tuning whom we're obligated to be altruistic toward, who the allowed and forbidden sexual partners are, etc. A radically "different" moral system (Lewis' example is one in which a person would be commended for being openly proud of cheating and abusing everybody who treated him kindly) simply doesn't exist in our species. The one example I've heard of, where there's no ethical system and everybody behaves with unbridled selfishness and cruelty, even between spouses and from parents to children, is the exception that "proves" (i.e., "tests") the rule. It's a small remnant of a tribal culture, the name of which I can't remember now; the oldest people in the group remember a time when kindness and moral behavior existed among them, before desperate conditions caused the fabric of their moral code to disintegrate. Somebody here probably remembers the name of that tribe.