Imagine That Carthage Had Won
Are our values the product of small accidents of fate?
Imagine that Carthage had won. Imagine that the North African city-state, with its armies of mercenaries and its sacred bands of citizens, with its war galleys and its elephants, with its brilliant commanders such as Hamilcar Barca and his son Hannibal, had beaten the Roman Republic over the course of the Punic Wars in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Imagine that it had established its domination on the Italian peninsula and the entire Mediterranean, building a durable, wide-ranging empire, like Rome did in real life. This empire would have been founded primarily upon commerce, and rooted in Semitic Phoenician culture and religion. And now the Latin tribes of Italy would be but a footnote in history.
Many authors have imagined just that, and written alternative histories — see here and here and here and here. I do not presume to do the same. Alt history is fun, but it is also something of a fool’s errand. Real events are chaotic: a small accident of fate can trigger vastly unpredictable outcomes. In the absence of a parallel universe to verify, we cannot know for sure whether a seemingly logical trend would have happened at all, had the initial conditions been slightly different.
So instead of painting a plausible picture of a world in which Punic seafarers and merchants are at the origin of our civilization, let’s just assume that everything would be about the same, except for one change. But let that be an important change. Something that concerns our deeply cherished values. Something that would make that parallel world feel extremely alien.
Imagine that Carthage had won, and had made everyone today believe that it was a great good, even a thing of beauty, to perform ritual sacrifices of children to Moloch.
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Life under the reign of Moloch
I want to be extra clear that I don’t mean this metaphorically. I am not asking you to imagine a world in which Moloch is an abstract entity representing industrial capitalism or coordination problems. In our imagined alternative world, the devouring of young children is not a literary device, but a reality, involving furnaces in the shape of a bull, built on the altars of every temple and church and mosque. (Imagine — regardless of how plausible it feels — that Christianity and Islam did take over their respective regions, but somehow absorbed the practice of child sacrifice and made it a core part of their rites.)
In this world, a family that does not offer one of its sons or daughters as a holocaust to Moloch is considered to be at best (in liberal times) somewhat deviant, and at worst (in times of religious fervor) heretical. Even in countries that have turned officially secular, child sacrifice remains a common practice as an “important cultural heritage.” There are people whose job it is to man the furnaces and maintain them; there is an entire economic niche built around the sacrifices.
When the leader of a large organization makes a big blunder, it is expected that he offers one of his own children to atone for it. No child is completely safe from the possibility of being ritually consumed by fire until they turn 18. When the scion of a prominent family reaches majority, it is not uncommon to hold a large celebration, in which, of course, one of their younger brothers or sisters is thrown into the furnace to ensure future successes.
You might think that all of this is horrendous, and I agree. But let’s add a twist to our scenario: I want you to imagine that almost everyone in that world, including yourself, thinks that this is Good and Virtuous and Beautiful.
Artists depict dazzling sacrificial rituals in their paintings, in their operas, in their films. Cities erect glorious monuments to Moloch. To a newly married couple, it is customary to wish them a large family from which they shall be able to make multiple sacrificial offerings. Children who are to be sacrificed are treated with the highest honors, and dressed richly before they are brought to the altars for magnificent ceremonies. The elite sacrifices of royals, billionaires, and actors are commonly streamed online, where they draw viewers by the millions.
Conversely, to suggest that someone would interrupt a sacrifice is to insult them. Even worse is to be a past offering who has somehow escaped: such people are pariahs and criminals, the lowest of the low. They are the villains of Disney and Pixar movies, keeping with a long tradition of folk tales about wicked escapees, meant to scare children — and convince them to comply happily, should they be selected to feed the bronze bull-shaped god.
There is, of course, a minority of people who question the practice, and some philosophers who write papers in which they consider a strange, hypothetical world where child sacrifice is banned. In democratic countries these people are tolerated but seen as morally problematic or even disgusting. You, a person who lost a young sister to Moloch, and intends to likewise sacrifice your firstborn, certainly agree with the prevailing opinion.
It is not unheard of for people to lose their jobs for having expressed anti-sacrifice opinions on social media. You think this is somewhat extreme, but also no one forced them to write those tweets, did they?
Considerations on the historical Carthage
If you’re anything like me, you probably failed to perceive the world I have been describing as beautiful. To me the opposite happened — I made myself feel bad even as I was writing it. Widespread child sacrifice feels wrong to me on a visceral level. It is bleak. It is foul.
It also feels unfair to Punic civilization to suggest that its main legacy would have been something this abhorrent. Carthage, a powerful republic with an interesting political system and a sophisticated economy, was surely admirable in many respects. Considering that much of what we know comes from foreigners — Greeks and Romans who wrote about it with various degrees of hostility — it seems especially important to strive for nuance. Just like in the case of Sparta, we have access to almost nothing written by the Carthaginians about the Carthaginians, though the blame here lies not with themselves but with Rome.
So let’s set the record straight. In reality, we don’t actually know for sure whether the Carthaginians did sacrifice their children as part of their religion. We don’t even know if Moloch was actually worshiped in Carthage, or indeed if Moloch was a god at all. The reports by ancient writers don’t all agree with each other, and they may have taken some liberties with the facts in order to paint a disparaging picture.
It’s possible that the question will never be settled. The only new hints we can get come from archeology, and they are subject to contradictory interpretations. Juvenile human skeletal remains have been found in a Punic-era cemetery, but were these children ritually sacrificed? In 2010, that idea was “debunked”; however, by 2014, the evidence in favor of child sacrifice was “overwhelming.” The topic has been controversial among historians for at least a century.
But even if child sacrifice didn’t happen, or happened only to a limited extent, it seems clear that the wealthy republic of Carthage had its own unique, advanced culture. It certainly had different values from Rome and Athens, and yet in greatness it was on par with either. The only reason it feels foreign, mysterious, and degenerate, is that it found itself on the side of the losers.
Allow me to insist on this point: if Carthage had won, or even just survived as a worthy rival to Rome, it would have become one of the great cities of the Western classical canon (or whatever would have existed in its place). Just like we trace our precious ideal of democracy to Ancient Greece, and the foundations of our ethics to Ancient Judea, and the basis of our legal system to Ancient Rome, there would be fundamental aspects of our civilization that originated in Ancient Carthage and that we would cherish. Perhaps that would have been child sacrifice; perhaps something else.
And it’s really hard to accept that! Imagining my society — or myself — with anything but my current values is, by definition, contrary to my values. It is difficult to simultaneously hold as true the two statements that child sacrifice is bad, and that by a small accident of historical fate I could have fully agreed that child sacrifice is awesome.
Moral progress and evolution won’t save us
It may be tempting to defend our present values by claiming that they are, in some sense, inevitable. That they are the necessary outcome of moral progress.
Even if Carthage had spread the meme of child sacrifice far and wide across Africa and Europe (and America, after its experienced seafarers had colonized it), perhaps we would eventually have realized the moral mistake. Maybe new ideas — from Christianity, or Islam, or Renaissance humanism, or Enlightenment rationalism — would have allowed us to fix it. After all, in real life, the Romans had several questionable customs that we did away with. Slavery and violence as sport come to mind.
But moral progress is hardly ever straightforward. Consider meat-eating, a practice not altogether that different from child sacrifice, when you think about it: many people think it will be seen as utterly unacceptable in the future, but that’s far from unanimous today. (And it may never be. I can totally imagine a future in which carnivory has become morally hegemonic again, and the vegan movement of today is seen as a folly.) Slavery was ultimately banned, yes, but only after a lengthy and painful process that involved a lot of political back-and-forth and multiple wars.
Even if we assume that moral progress does happen through the actions of people trying to fix the status quo, there is no guarantee that it will ever ban any given cultural practice. And so it’s not inconceivable that child sacrifice could endure for millennia after the fall of a hypothetical Carthaginian Empire.
What about cultural evolution? If slavery and carnivory have persisted, it might be because they “make sense,” evolutionarily. It’s economically advantageous to subjugate a foreign people and force them to do your labor. We are biologically able to eat other animals, and meat can be, in certain situations, the best available source of calories. So slavery and carnivory are at least understandable, even if we consider them to be morally wrong. But surely child sacrifice is plainly self-defeating? Surely it is, at the very least, a waste of human resources? A family that sacrifices its children will have a harder time passing its memes to the next generation; a society that does will weaken itself in comparison to its neighbors. We would expect such a maladaptive practice to vanish under evolutionary pressure.
That may be true, and that may be why child sacrifice is historically rarer than both adult human sacrifice and animal sacrifice. It may even have contributed to Rome’s final victory over Carthage, though we’ll never know for sure.
Yet again I am not convinced that this teaches us much. After all, child sacrifice did evolve at least a few times. It is documented in pre-Columbian America and the ancient Near East. I assume it made more sense at a time when both birth rates and child mortality were higher than today. It might not have been that maladaptive, if for instance it helped a society enter fewer conflicts.
Besides, parasitic memes can spread even if they are harmful to their hosts. Antinatalist ideas, for example, are self-defeating in that they prevent their own passing to children, in addition to hindering the passing of other values that a person cares about — but antinatalist ideas can still thrive within a culture, as they did among the Shakers. That isn’t sufficient to conclude that antinatalism is right or wrong, either. Evolution explains, but does not justify.
Child sacrifice did not make it past the filters of moral progress and cultural evolution, but it could have. And some of our own values that did pass those filters could be as wrong as child sacrifice seems to be.
On the fortuitousness of values
We are left with the idea that our values feel… almost arbitrary. Fortuitous. A small accident of fate — Hannibal winning a crucial battle, perhaps — could have made us attached to wildly different customs, even ones that feel repugnant to us in this world.
From here to moral relativism, the chasm seems narrow. If some of our values are determined by the random, chaotic development of civilization and culture, is all of ethics also?
This is the question at the heart of moral philosophy, and I won’t try to answer it here. I do suspect that there are actual moral truths, but also a lot of space open for diverse yet equally valid ethical positions on many issues. To me, culture is what happens in that space.
Whenever a specific civilization such as Rome or Carthage (or the modern West, or China) spreads its values, either through conquest or soft power, there is no surefire way to know if those values are objective moral truths or just cultural norms.
Of course, from the inside, it always feels that our own values are correct. Otherwise we would switch to other values. As a result, it’s difficult to properly imagine alternative worlds, for example when trying to predict the future course of our societies. But this is important: it’s almost certain that the values of your current society — no matter how correct they seem at the moment! — will not endure forever. Unless there is some weird lock-in scenario (a hypothetical future technology that stabilizes values to a degree never seen before), there will be a lot of moral progress in the years to come.
At least, it will feel like progress from the point of view of the future people with those values. From the point of view of us, today, it would instinctively feel like moral degeneracy — since their values will be different from ours! Yet if we care about the future, then we need to understand this process. This means that we must simultaneously hold as true the two statements that our values are the best, and that they may not be. Even the ones that feel the most fundamental, like proscriptions against infanticide.
This is, of course, insanely difficult, but we can get better at it by studying cultural diversity. We can notice where fundamental values differ between cultures, and determine when it’s fine and when it’s not. That can be done by comparing the various societies of the current world, as so many civilizations that may or may not clash. Or it can be done by comparing a civilization across time. Alternative history then becomes not only fun speculation, but a productive thought experiment.
Imagine that Carthage had won, and ask yourself: How much of what you care about do you owe to small accidents of fate?
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