Hedonism

At the very end of her brilliant novel Romola — to which I have referred previously — George Eliot shares the following insight:

“There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world that no man can be great — he can hardly keep himself from wickedness — unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards and gets strength to endure what is hard and painfiul.”

There is much food for thought here (as there is in all of Eliot’s novels) and I do wonder in this age in which pleasure sits on a throne  worshipped by so many of us how much we have lost by ignoring those things that once were thought to build character, those things that give us “strength to endure what is hard and painful.”

Eliot was writing toward the end of the nineteenth century when capitalism and the industrial revolution that gave it birth were making it possible for all men and women to pursue those things that made life easier — or at the very least to dream about such things as real possibilities in the not-so-distant future. Surely, humans have always sought pleasure. Some would argue that we all do all the time (more about that later). But there were times when a great many people worried about things that pleasure cannot assure us, such things as what used to be called “the good life,” or the pursuit of “virtue.”

Eliot sees human life as a struggle between pleasure, on the one hand, and our duties to one another, on the other hand. I wrote about this previously because I do think it is true, though I doubted at the time (as I do now) that very many of us worry much about our duties to other humans and to the world at large. In any event, it is worth pondering why it is that we have simply bought into the notion that what we want is invariably what we need, that the purpose of a human life is to pursue pleasure. As the bumper-sticker says: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Indeed, it is all about toys for so many of us. And this at a time when there are “so many things wrong and difficult in the world.”

Those who insist that all human motivation is about pleasure and talk about duty is bogus are referred to as “hedonists.” And there is considerable evidence that we all do, to a degree, pursue pleasure, and seek at all costs to avoid pain. But I do wonder if that’s the end of things when it comes to the question human motivation.

Of all the things I have thought about over the years, the question of what is is that motivates each of us has caused me the most difficulty. To be sure, most of our motivation can be seen to be an attempt to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But what about the starving mother clutching her starving and crying baby who finds a crust of bread and gives it to her baby rather than eat it herself? Is she motivated by pleasure, or is it more accurate to say that giving her baby the bread gives her pleasure but it was not the reason why she gave the bread to the baby? She gave the bread because it was her maternal duty to do so — and probably because of what we are told is the maternal “instinct.” But the motivation is not about pleasure or the reduction of pain. It is more complicated than that: it is about doing the right thing, even if little thought is involved in the decision.

There are other examples one might point to that raise the question of whether the hedonist is correct in her thinking. But we need only read novels by great writers such as George Eliot — who are in many cases great psychologists — to make us think again. As I say, human motivation is terribly complicated. How many of us know why we do what we do most of the time, much less all of the time? But, in then end, I conclude that possible to do a thing because it is the right thing to do — even if it causes us pain to do it.

I think Eliot is on to something.

Revisiting Duty

I was brought to philosophy by means of Immanuel Kant’s ethical philosophy which I first encountered as an undergraduate many years ago.  I was drawn to Kant’s ethical position, I think, because he saw clearly that the heart and soul of ethics is the struggle between duty and desire, the obligations we have to ourself and others as opposed to the pleasure that we naturally prefer. I have had this struggle myself many times over the years.

Later on I found myself drawn to the novels of George Eliot and the reason, I think, is because she, too, saw the importance to human life of the struggle between the urge to find pleasure and the duties we all have as human beings. Kant was convinced that this duty stems from the fact that we are all persons and as such are “ends in ourselves” and never a “means to an  end.” That is, we ought to recognize the obligations we have to ourselves and others as persons and not use others for our own purposes. This thought is the basis for any meaningful discussion of human rights — another area of keen interest for Kant and also for George Eliot.

But in all of Eliot’s major novels we find the central characters wrestling between the sense of duty and the powerful urges of pleasure that motivate us so much of the time — some would say always, that even when we do what we ought to do (that is, do our duty) we do so because it gives us pleasure. I respectfully disagree.

Be that as it may, Kant and Eliot both saw the struggle between duty and pleasure as the major battle that determines what sort of person we are to become and what sort of life we will lead. Both thinkers come down in the end on the side of duty. Nowhere is this more evident than in Eliot’s seldom read but brilliant historical novel Romola — set in fifteenth century Florence and involving many of the major players we connect with that city at that time in Western history. It is a time following immediately upon the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici and the struggle within the city to maintain the stability he had brought to a volatile city at the height of the Renaissance.

In any event, the novel centers around the lives of Romola, a beautiful young woman, and Tito Melelma, a chancer (as the Brits would say) who wins her heart only to break it in the end. Tito, you see, is a man who discovers gradually that his only motivation is pleasure. Initially he struggles with his conscience that demands that he use the jewels his adopted father has given him in trust in order to ransom him from captivity at the hands of the Turks. But in the end he realizes that he doesn’t really want to give up the jewels and the respect and favor they have brought him in Florence; he engages in the most remarkable rationalization I have ever encountered  in order to persuade himself that he really has no duty whatsoever to his adopted father — who saved him from poverty and despair and carefully raised and nurtured him into a scholarly and disarming young man whose brilliance and charming smile easily won over those around him. And this included Romola, as it happens.

Eliot spends en entire chapter describing the remarkable process of rationalization during which Tito persuades himself that he has no duty whatever to his father. In the process he persuades himself that the jewels his father has entrusted to him are really his and there is no reason whatever to think that he must give them up in order to save the life of an elderly man who is nearing the end of his life while Tito its just beginning his own. Indeed, Tito reasons, his father may not even be alive. Why spend the best years of his young in what may well be a pointless endeavor?

In the process of rationalization — during which he (like the rest of us) persuades himself of the strength of reasons that support his desires rather than those reasons that might lead him to do his duty in opposition to those desires — Tito’s conscience dies and he becomes desensitized to the pain and suffering of others while immersed in the river of pleasure he is convinced gives his life meaning.

“. . .but could any philosophy prove to him that he was bound to care for another’s suffering more than for his own?”

A novel such as this will not appeal to many of us today because so few of us would see any reason not to side with Tito who fears only those things that might rob him of pleasure. Can we even begin to understand why there might be a struggle going on within his soul? We tend to think little about the duties we all have to ourselves and to others out of a preoccupation with the here and now and the satisfaction of those desires that tend to motivate us most strongly while the nagging voice of conscience is silenced in the process.

I speak in generalities, of course. And there are those who prove the rule, exceptional people who would side with Kant and with Eliot in insisting that we are persons with obligations that define us. But we might do well to ask ourselves how many of us would agree with Tito that “the end of life is to extract the utmost sum of pleasure”? I do wonder.

Uncivilized??

After reading Lionel Trilling’s excellent essay insisting that Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park oughtn’t to be dismissed as her weakest novel I was inspired to visit the novel again. I must admit I had thought, along with many another critic, that of all her novels this was indeed the poorest. With Austen, of course, even her weakest  novel would be gradations above the novels of so many others, but still, it simply didn’t seem to rank up there with Pride and Prejudice. Trilling shows that Austen herself started writing Mansfield Park almost before the ink was dry on the pages of her greatest novel when she thought it could have been even better — an urge that lead her to start writing what she regarded as a more balanced novel.

Whether one agrees with Trilling or not, and the argument can get a bit hairsplitting at times, a tempest in a teapot if you will, Austen points us in a direction we seem to have too long ignored. In her novels, all of them, we are forced to admit that manners are what makes the person. Character and good manners go hand-in-hand and cannot be separated from one another. Ortega y Gasset reminded us in the 1930s that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” and Norbert Elias, in his study of The Civilizing Process insists that civilization is nothing more and nothing less that the awareness of others and the “consideration of what others might think.” In a word, the civilizing process involves “restraint and the regulation of elementary urges.” The notion that others matter, that we have obligations to others is the common thread in what we loosely call “good manners” — as it is in all of Austen’s novels.

When a man opens a door for an elderly person, or gives up his seat on a crowded bus; when a neighbor turns down the radio or television out of consideration for others who might be disturbed; when one avoids saying what one thinks because it might hurt the feelings of the listener; when a speaker refuses to interrupt another speaker; in all these cases, we see self-restraint at work along with the “regulation of elementary urges” — good manners. Edmund Burke saw them as the stuff of morality.

Franny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is the embodiment of good manners, the civilized person. She has been torn away from her poor family at the age of nine to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt one hundred miles away. She suffers separation anxiety in the extreme because of the sudden change and her one link to mental stability is the care and concert of her young cousin Edmund who, alone among all the other “upper crust” people she nows lives with, cares about her and shows compassion and concern for her suffering.  In the eyes of her new family, except for Edmund, she resides somewhere between the servants and themselves. One of her aunts relegates her to an attic room and tells the servants not to light the fire.

As Fanny grows older and her love for Edmund deepens and her sensitivity of others around her increases — including her three other cousins and her aunts and uncle — she becomes an attractive and fascinating woman. Indeed, a “gentleman” of considerable fortune by the name of Henry Crawford sets out to make Fanny fall in love with him, purely out of boredom, only to fall helplessly in love with her himself. He makes her an offer of marriage, an offer Fanny repulses — to the distress of her relatives. She sees him as the embodiment of all that is wrong with those around her, an “uncivilized” man; she sees

“. . .a want of delicacy and regard for others. . . .a gross want of feeling and humanity where his own pleasure was concerned — And, also, has always known no principle to supply as a duty what the heart was deficient in.”

In fact, the pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed Henry Crawford is the embodiment, along with his sister Mary, of what Trilling calls “the modern type, the person who cultivates the style of sensitivity, virtue, and intelligence.” In other words, in Trilling’s view Mansfield Park is about pretense, personality in the place of character, the tendency so many have to pretend they are something they are not for lack of sound moral principles to form a solid core of self. Fanny and her cousin Edmund are, among all the characters in the novel, the only two who are genuine and honest, the only truly civilized people among a host of others who either pretend to be so or who are past caring.

And this is where  a novel written in 1816 can be seen to be a commentary on our own age and culture, an age and culture in which the self and its pleasures have become the center of concern for the greater part of humanity and the Other has been lost in that preoccupation with self that sees good manners as archaic and somehow irrelevant — and who view honesty as not an obligation we have to ourselves and others but simply a matter of letting it all “hang out.” All of which places us in the category of those who in one way or another revealed themselves to Fanny Price as people who are locked within themselves, showing a lack of principles “to supply as a duty what the heart is deficient in.”

Grantchester

My wife and I have been watching the excellent BBC series “Grantchester” which just completed its latest season with the usual cliff-hanger. The series is extremely well done and focuses on a young Anglican vicar in Cambridgeshire back in the late 1950s who befriends a policeman and helps him solve crimes. Old hat, perhaps, but the intricate personal stories of the two men are what hold the series together.

It turns out that the Vicar, Sidney, is in love with Amanda, a woman he has known most of his life and whom he would have married except for his strained financial situation and the fact that the woman’s father would have none of it. He forces her to marry a wealthy man whom she doesn’t love and together they have a child. But she is also in love with Sidney and as the series progresses it is clear that the two of them will be drawn closer and closer together.

Throughout the series, focusing on the relationship between these two people, the struggle is the ancient one between “want and will.” Sidney is a man of the cloth and in the 50s when these events are supposed to have taken place he cannot marry a divorced woman. Thus, even if  Amanda leaves her husband who is cold and remote Sidney would have to leave the Church in order to marry her. And what is he to do? He is well-loved and much relied upon by those in the Church, including his housekeeper and the young Curate (who happens to be gay, another taboo of the times and a fascinating story in its own right).

Sidney begins to lose his faith in the Church and to have serious doubts about his abilities to carry out his duties as head of the small Church. He finally decides to resign and move to London with Amanda and her daughter. The move is planned and he has written his letter of resignation when he begins to realize that his duty is to those people who depend so much upon him in the small village and especially within the Church itself. He chooses duty over love, though it hurts him to the core.

On the face of it, this is pure melodrama, and the crimes that Sidney helps his detective friend, Geordie, solve seem almost incidental. But it is so well done, and we become so involved in Sidney’s life and in the lives of those around him, that we are drawn in as if it were quicksand. And in the end, it forces us to an awareness of how different was the age in which these events took place — just over a half-century past. There were social and churchly taboos that have been largely removed in the interim. But also missing is the sense that each of us, especially the spiritual leaders among us, have duties that take precedence over the desires of the heart. Ours is an age in which what we call “honesty” demands that we not only know what we want, but we pursue it with all the vigor at our command. Duty has become a notion that grows fainter with each passing day. It will soon become a word very few will be able to understand — a word in a foreign language.

The series was fascinating to me especially because of the very battle I recount here, the battle between what Sidney wants so dearly and what he knows to be his duty. It is a battle that is the core of Immanuel Kant’s ethical system which has played so important a part in my philosophical development — and a struggle I have written about in previous blog posts. Kant thought the very center of all ethical decision-making was this very struggle between what we want and what we ought to do. Ethics is about trying to be clear about what it is we should do and then somehow finding the courage to do the right thing.  But, as I say, this struggle is now only the topic for a television series about an age gone by and about the struggles of a man who must seem a total stranger to so many in the audience, so many who have no idea what it means to struggle to do the right thing because they are busy doing “their own thing.”

Eliot’s Lessons In Morality

In her first major novel, The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot created a situation between Maggie Tulliver and Stephen Guest that brings to the fore the conflict between love and duty — a strangely Victorian struggle that might be alien to most of us in the twenty-first century. For Eliot, it is the struggle within the heart of a young woman between her love of a man (Stephen Guest), including the financial security marriage to Stephen would bring, and her duty to those who love her and whom she loves in return – her cousin Lucy Deane (who is engaged to Stephen) and Philip Makem, who would like to be Maggie’s lover. After arranging to take Maggie on a boat ride down the Floss, Stephen allows the boat to drift past their destination and eventually draws Maggie’s attention to the fact that they are destined, in his view, to be together. Though the event seems to have been accidental, it is, of course, what he wants and has perhaps even allowed; it is what Maggie wants but fears. Stephen puts his case forcefully:

 “See, Maggie, how everything has come without our seeking – in spite of all our efforts. We never thought of being alone together again: it has all been done by others.  . . . . It is the only right thing, dearest: it is the only way of escaping from the wretched entanglement. Everything has concurred to point it out to us. We have contrived nothing, we have thought of nothing ourselves.”

Maggie is torn and engages in a dialogue with Stephen that progresses for several hours and many pages,. Stephen equates “the only right thing” with what he and Maggie most dearly want. Maggie, on the other hand sees things differently: “I will not begin any future, even with you. . . with a deliberate consent to what ought not to have been. What I told you [previously] I feel now: I would rather have died than fall into this temptation. It would have been better if we had parted for ever then. But we must part now.”
Note that even at this point, because of the time spent alone with this engaged man, Maggie’s reputation in those Victorian days, will have been ruined – as was Mary Ann Evan’s reputation when she ran off with the married George Lewes. That is of no concern to Maggie – though as things play out, it becomes a burden with tragic consequences. Instead, she experiences the pangs of an active conscience:

 “I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . .  Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”

We are told these days that guilt is a terrible thing, a burden we ought never be forced to bear and Maggie’s speech may seem like the most blatant romantic nonsense to the modern ear that knows without doubt that “love conquers all.” Yet, in Eliot’s mind the guilty conscience is what leads people like Maggie toward the right course of action, her duty to others to whom she is bound by ties of friendship and love —  despite the fact that it is directly opposed to what she so dearly wants.  Indeed, throughout her writings, Eliot is consistent in attacking those who, like so many of us today, regard “what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves” as the highest good. In Eliot’s world doing the right thing is sometimes terribly difficult and frequently directly opposite to what “is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves.” But always giving in to what we want to do is often a sign of weak character and lack of moral fiber, ignoring “whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.” One abandons principles and duty to others at great risk. Strange lessons from bygone days.

Making Distinctions

One of the ways philosophers attempt to clarify issues and get a handle on how to work their way out of confusion is to make key distinctions. For example, I have made a number of them in recent blogs and they do help to clarify the problem at issue. In this day when we tend to gloss over distinctions and use words carelessly it makes sense to pause and try to “show the fly the way out of the milk bottle'” as Wittgenstein said some years back.

For example, we need to distinguish between what a person would do in a moral crisis and what he or she should do. Kant focused exclusively on the latter problem and has been often criticized for being too “formalistic.” But we need to be clear in a particular case what is the moral principle involved and often when we focus on that issue alone, it is fairly easy to see what should be done. Kant thought we should focus on the motive behind our actions, and act in accordance with duty. Others have argued that we should focus attention on the consequences of our actions. Whichever it is, we need to attend to the question of what ought to be done . Once that has been determined, then we need to ask the entirely different question: now, what would I do in  this situation?  I stressed this distinction recently in a blog examining Israel’s decision not to induct Khaled Abdul Wahab into the Yad Vashem commemorating the “righteous” who saved Jews during the Hitler regime. I wondered then whether I would do what Wahad did, knowing that what he did was the right thing. He did what he should do, based on clear ethical principles, but I wonder whether I would do what I should in the circumstances, whether I would have the courage to do the right thing. The questions must be kept separate, though even philosophers often seem to confound them.

Another distinction is that between “explanation,” “justification,” and “rationalization.” These are often confounded, as when we ask how to “rationalize” a moral decision. The process of rationalization is simply giving reasons, usually for a conclusion we have already reached. Period. Justification, which is often confused with rationalization, means the giving of sound moral principles and pertinent facts to support moral conclusions. Explanation, finally, means the giving of reasons  that help us to understand what happened — whether or not we can justify it morally. We might be able to explain why so many people capitulated to the Nazi regime, but we cannot justify it.

A third distinction that needs to be made is that between “need” and “want.” We often run these terms together as we claim we need to maintain our current standard of living, for example, when we really mean we simply want to maintain it. College faculty make this mistake often as they consistently refuse to admit that students don’t know what they need to study in order to become well educated persons, they simply know what they want. The faculty are in a much better position to know what the students need, though they are reluctant to take that responsibility.

Along those lines, we should distinguish carefully between education and information. We often hear it said that Jones should be “educated” about how to use tools. We need to educate Jones about sex or brushing his teeth. We mean Jones should be informed.  An educated person is well informed, but the reverse is not the case. Education means knowing what to do with information, being able to assimilate and bring it to bear on problems that require solutions. That is, it means thinking, not just knowing. As Robert Hutchins said some time ago, education is what is left after we have forgotten everything we learned in school.

In the end, making distinctions helps us to achieve conceptual clarity and work our way out of moral and intellectual confusion — often, but not always. But it is a good place to start, as Socrates knew so well. Critics will say it is getting “picky” over words, but the words we use are central in expressing our thoughts. And the more fragile our grasp is on the words we use, the more likely we are to run aground.