Cool Heads Prevail

I had coffee with my friend Lloyd the other day and among other things we discussed Goethe’s Faust. We have discussed that book many times over the years as it is one of Lloyd’s favorites — he read it in German, which he taught at the university. I read it in English, and I have taught the first part a number of times in my honors classes: it is also one of my favorite books of all times.  Lloyd is convinced that Faust loved Gretchen while I am convinced he is incapable of love — in the modern parlance he is incapable of “commitment.” He is a narcissist. But we struggled to figure out the second part, which has baffled critics over the years. Goethe spent his entire life writing that book and I daresay he never figured out the second part, either! I do not think Faust is a thoroughly evil man (though Lloyd disagrees with me here as well). He attempts to improve his world and throughout he manages to exhibit a fairly lively conscience; in the first part of the poem Mephistopheles has to drag him away from Gretchen’s prison cell just prior to her execution. He feels terrible about what he has done to her — as well he should.

Mephistopheles, on the other hand, is without feelings: he has no conscience at all. He is the cold intellectual that Goethe holds up for our examination as a paradigm of the thoroughly evil person. He is without compassion and fellow-feeling. He simply calculates and acts accordingly. I find the same insight in Dostoevsky: the man who lacks compassion and fellow-feeling, who has no conscience is not a man you want to approach. Dostoevsky knew several of that type while he was a political prisoner in Siberia and he knew whereof he spoke. Shakespeare tells us that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” but then Hamlet says that “being a coward” means “doing the right thing.” It leads us away from those actions that would ultimately destroy us. Dostoevsky’s character in Crime and Punishment commits a dreadful crime and in the end he can’t live with his conscience.

But what does this have to do with us? Plenty! In the recent past we have witnessed a country run by men who seem to be lacking in compassion and fellow-feeling. Hannah Arendt describes at great length the psychology of Adolf Eichmann who was a man determined to get the Jews to the gas chambers on time. He was a bureaucrat who worried only about the efficiency of the killing machine. He never lost a moment’s sleep over the thought that he was sending men, women, and children to a grisly death. And the men who commanded him and followed his orders were evil in this same way: they were cold and calculating. Joseph Stalin was cast in the same mold. And history has shown us others of that type — even in the bosom of the Catholic Church, in the form of Torquemada who sent “infidels” to a screaming death in the auto-da-fes in Spain.

And if we are willing to look closer to home we might see these types sitting in a comfortable room somewhere in Washington, D.C. (or North Dakota) ordering drones into crowded city centers in Pakistan to target al-Qaeda leaders. They remain aloof because they don’t actually see the faces of those people thousands of miles away and they brush aside the uncomfortable facts that a mere 2 % of the reported 4500 targets are actually militant leaders and that 881 of those people were almost certainly innocent civilians, 176 of them children. (One suspects that these numbers are on the low side.) By remaining aloof and apart I imagine that those who direct the drones can sleep well at night, because their conscience never enters the picture: they are not killing people, they are killing the “enemy”  — while seeming to play a video game.

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6 thoughts on “Cool Heads Prevail

  1. As bad as the drone attacks are, with their increasing attacks on non-specific targets, in country’s not declared as are enemies, and killing more civilians than ever, the worse case is how our definitions of “enemies” are expanding, to include people gathering in otherwise innocent groups, and citizens of other countries. It’s not a stretch to see the definition beginning to include protestors to our policies and our government, here on our own soil.

    The attacks go against every law of war. The definition of the targets exceed any claim we may have once had to being a world leader or taking the moral high ground.

    • I agree and am also concerned about the expanding use of the term “enemy.” Who decides who the enemy are? Key issue here!

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  2. You and I have discussed the nuances of standard moral arguments for many years, Hugh. Still not sure we have many answers. I am increasingly convinced argumentation is not the key to understanding morality. Moral behavior (or its lack) seems to be more of a matter of the heart/emotions (or lack thereof). I am still mulling through the “bell curve” vision I have of human morality. “Fellow felling” seems to have been distributed throughout humanity on a bell curve: a few sociopaths, incapable of fellow feeling on one end, and an equally small number of those blessed (or ;cursed, depending on one’s perspective) with an almost uncanny ability to always do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. Your son and the wonderful story you tell of his “illegitimate treat” serves as an anecdote for this type of individual. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle; some desire and ability to respond correctly to the needs of our fellow humans, but lacking the mechanism (or something) to ensure we respond in what we think of as “morally” in a more consistent and timely manner. The solution, as I see it, lies not in moral training, which depends upon argumentation, but on a change within the human heart.

    • Thanks for the comment. Doesn’t Aristotle tell us that “moral training” starts when the child is very young and is a matter of character? It takes instruction, but there may also be an innate propensity toward good or evil (in the genes, perhaps).

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      • Yes, Aristotle does suggest that moral training is possible, must begin at an early age and must be done to the point where moral behavior becomes habituated. Just because Aristotle says it does not necessarily make it true.

  3. Aristotle was true then and true still. Back to the song from “South Pacific,” “You have to be carefully taught” to be a racist. The converse is true. You have to be carefully taught to treat others the way you want to be treated. Good post. BTG

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