Total Depravity

In a deleted chapter of Dostoevsky’s Demons he describes a visit between Nicolai Stavrogin and Tikhon, a holy man. Pevear and Volokhonsky include it as an appendix to their  700 page translation of that remarkable novel. In that missing chapter Nicolai hands to Tikhon a 30 page epistle, a confession, he wrote to help him clarify in his own mind the sort of person he is and the kinds of things that give him pleasure. He is a sensualist, as Dostoevsky would describe him, a man dedicated to getting as much pleasure as he can, perverse pleasure, from his own suffering and the suffering of those around him. He is, in a word, a masochist and a sadist — a man with a dark soul. In his confession he recounts a series of truly disturbing incidents he brought about when he was at the height of his search for pleasure.

At the time he was renting three separate apartments to which he brought various partners for sex and whatever else might delight him. At one of those places his apartment faced onto the landlady’s apartment and he spent a good deal of time watching what was going on in her rooms and became strangely attracted to the lady’s fourteen year old daughter, Matryosha. The landlady beat the girl on a regular basis, frequently for no reason whatever and often with Nicolai watching. And she seemed to enjoy the fact that Nicolai was watching as she did so. At one point Nicolai lost his penknife and mentioned it to the landlady who immediately reasoned that her daughter must have stolen it as the three of them were the only ones home at the time. She took a switch and was determined to beat the poor girl when Nicolai spotted the knife on his bed. He pocketed the knife and said nothing and then watched as the woman beat the girl until welts appeared and the girl whimpered pathetically. He then smiled, locked his door and went elsewhere, throwing his knife away as he went. Nicolai later seduced the girl after which she hanged herself.

Now, for whatever reason, Dostoevsky chose not to include this chapter in the final version of the book. Like many such stories it is quite possible it came from an incident related in the papers that the novelist read daily and from which he took many of the episodes in his numerous novels. In any event, whether this incident is pure fiction or is based on actual events I would argue that what Nicolai did was wrong. I would be judgmental, if you will, and I would hasten to condemn his actions and those of anyone else who repeated such actions or others even somewhat similar. What the man did was cruel and sadistic, depraved. He was wrong.

I think I could provide reasons, if required, for making this judgment, reasons involving the inflicting of pain on innocent persons, the rape of a young girl, the violation of the ethical principles of honesty and respect for persons. In any event, I don’t regard my judgment as simply my personal opinion. It’s not just a gut-reaction, though there is that. In ethics, moreover, there are many such situations in which a moral judgment seems to be sound and capable of defense. In that regard, ethical judgments are not altogether different from the judgments we make about ordinary things and events every day. They can be supported and verified by means of persuasive arguments and the eliciting of known facts or accepted truths about the world.  We make a mistake when we lump all ethical judgments together and dismiss them as mere opinions or ask “who’s to say?”

The same reasoning applies in the case of judgments about ethical values such as generosity and compassion, courage, and honesty. We judge these things to be good just as we would judge the actions of Nicolai to be wrong (to put it mildly). Values are present in our world, as I have noted many (too many?) times. And so also are the opposite, dis-values, if you will, as exhibited in the chapter that Dostoevsky wisely chose to erase from his novel. They surround the events and objects that are part of our shared world and they provide the grounds for making judgments about those events or objects, judgments that can be well-reasoned or wrong-headed. We can never be certain, but we certainly can, and we do, make ethical judgments.

In sum, though at times times strong feelings may be involved, the notion that ethics is based on the subject’s feelings and opinions alone is simplistic and ignores the fact that many such judgments are based on factual information and ethical principles that we all take for granted and which make civilization possible. If there were no such principles we would be in a state of nature in which, as Thomas Hobbes would have it, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This would be a world, I imagine, in which no one would bother to notice, much less comment upon, the sorts of things people like Nicolai Stavrogin choose to do to himself or to others. Is it possible that this is what we are coming to? I sometimes wonder.

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Religion and Morality

It has always struck me as odd that those of a liberal political persuasion are frequently, if not always, averse to any talk about religion or morality — especially religion. I suspect it has something to do with the historical record of religions, especially Christianity, in which the Church, as the embodiment of the religion, has shown itself to be intolerant and authoritarian, not to mention responsible for thousands of deaths. The Church decides what is right and wrong and it has been throughout its history intolerant of those who would dispute its absolute authority on such matters as good and evil.

Dostoevsky had problems with this role the Church has played and pilloried it in his remarkable book The Brothers Karamazov. He was himself a deeply religious man but he was also distrustful and suspicious of the Church and insisted that its claim to absolute authority on matters of ethics has threatened, if not removed altogether, the freedom that makes human beings human. In any event, I share his distrust of the Church as an institution and would follow him in insisting that religion be separated from the institution in which it finds itself housed, to wit, the Church. The two are not the same, by any means. Christ preached love; the Church, historically preaches intolerance — as do so many of its followers.

And this brings us to the point I raised at the outset: why so many intellectuals have rejected the Church as well as the religion they often confound with the institution that houses it. I suspect it is all about tolerance, or the lack of same. As I have noted in past blogs, we hear again and again (and again) that we must not be “judgmental,” which is to say, we need to be more open-minded and tolerant of other ways of living and believing. But the notion of tolerance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we should tolerate other points of view — not blindly, not always accepting, but after thinking our way through them, listening and questioning, but tolerant none the less. On the other hand we should not tolerate, say, views that promote violence, hatred, and fear. In a word, we need to be circumspect but not refuse to make judgments (be “judgmental”), acknowledging that we must remain open to the possibility that we do not have all the answers and that those very answers may come from the most unexpected sources — even from others whose opinions are diametrically opposed to our own.

There are certain things we come across in our lives that simply should not be tolerated. The insistence that we not be “judgmental” is simplistic nonsense  — because it ignores those very actions that we not only should not but must not tolerate, namely those actions that lead to the violations of another’s personhood or violate the universal principle of fairness that transcends all ethical systems. And these sorts of actions are precisely those that religions preach against. The tendency to turn away from religion and morality toward a relativism that would insist that all actions are somehow good simply because they are practiced by someone is wrong-headed, as I have noted in the past, because it makes impossible the judgment that some practices are quite simply wrong. Words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil” are not frightening. It is possible that in talking about these things we might become intolerant when we should remain open to other points of view. But that is a mistake and something we should avoid at all costs; it is not, however, a necessary concomitant of searching for answers to complex moral issues. We should not be afraid to talk about those things that we and others do that are simply not right. If I see a young woman being attacked on a dark night I should not tolerate such an action; I should instead intercede in her behalf. Intolerance may at times involve intervention, but it need not do so. The determination not to be intolerant or not to interfere with the actions of others should not blind us to the fact that we, as humans, should never fear the making of judgments and, at times, recall that intervention may be necessary. Good judgment is the key.

In any event, it is not religion and morality that we should be wary of, but the reluctance to acknowledge that at times it makes perfect sense to be intolerant. And it always makes good sense to exercise judgment; it’s what leads to informed action rather than impulsive behavior.

Don’t Be Judgmental!

So often these days we hear that we mustn’t be “judgmental.” This is an admonition that we not make moral judgments about people. Moral judgments seem to scare the bejesus out of us. After all, who are we to say someone is evil until we have walked a mile in his shoes? Or something. In any event, it is a strange attitude since so many of those who say this are indeed judgmental — perfectly willing to condemn the killing of whales, the destruction of the rain forest, the price-gouging by large corporations, and the exploitation of the employed by those who refuse to pay them a living wage, the total ineptitude of the current president. We are, none of us, entirely nonjudgmental, though our condemnations are more accurately described as “pronouncements” rather than judgments, since there is so little thought behind them.

In an article not long ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education philosophy professor Robert Simon noted the unwillingness of his students to condemn the Nazis for the extermination of millions of Jews. One student commented: “Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong?”  Simon reports that his students make similar comments with regard to such things as apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Who’s to say??  I had nearly the same type of response in an ethics class years ago when discussing Adolph Hitler, the epitome of evil. One student raised his hand and suggested that if we were Nazis we would think Hitler was a hero. So who are we to say? The answer I always give to this question is that we are all “to say.” The fact that skin-heads would revere Hitler is beside the point. The question is whether they could ground their judgment in arguments and evidence that would stand up to criticism and the answer is a resounding “no!” That is, anyone with a brain and the determination to use it can make sound  moral judgments. It is not easy, but it is not absurd or a waste of time. Hitler either was or he was not evil. We can’t have it both ways. And the fact that Hitler’s rationale for the “final solution” was based on faulty genetic and biological premises makes any argument defending him absurd on its face, regardless of how we feel about what he did.

Hannah Arendt noted many years ago that if the Germans in the 1930s had been a bit more judgmental than Hitler would never have risen to power. It is the faculty  of judgment that sets humans apart — if we can set them apart any longer. It is judgment that leads to the condemnation of the actions of folks like Hitler, Stalin, and Donald Trump. And many of those who condemn people like Trump are among the vanguard of those who insist that we should not be judgmental. They condemn Trump for being vulgar while at the same time looking the other way when Bill Clinton engages in “indiscretions” with Monica Lewinsky. We are none of us entirely consistent.

And there’s the rub. The rampant relativism which people like Gertrude Himmelfarb spent so many pages for so many years identifying and attacking is an obvious fact. But if we probe a bit, however, we see that this relativism is only a symptom of something that goes much deeper: the refusal to make judgments of any kind, the inability, or unwillingness, to use our minds and seek consistency — the first rule in critical thinking. The insistence that we must avoid making moral judgments is really an insistence that we not make any judgments whatever. Moral judgments are no different from any other judgments, really. They are an attempt to approach the truth and find positions that put us on a surer footing than mere speculation and hunches, to move beyond mere feelings and the making of mindless moral pronouncements.

There’s no question whatever that we all are “judgmental,” all of us. We condemn the actions of others right and left no matter how tolerant we claim to be. But the condemnations are, as hinted above, not the result of judgment: they are the result of feelings. We have gut feelings that eliminating the rain forest, killing whales, experimenting with animals to develop better perfumes, telling “dirty” jokes in public, are all wrong. But we don’t ground those feelings in reasonable arguments. Rather than take the time to think about these things and try to determine WHY we think they are wrong, we simply shrug our shoulders and ask “who’s to say??” It’s easier. It saves us a good deal of time and effort. But it also allows for the ascendency in politics of men who lie, spread hatred, are vulgar, and totally self-seeking. A moment of serious reflection would force us to conclude that such men should not be given the reins of power.

So, it’s not so much that we find around us a “rampant relativism,” which we do. Let’s be honest! It’s because this relativism is the result of a lack of judgment that we should not insist we be less judgmental, but that we be more judgmental. We need to stop and think. And in order to do that well we require patience and training. It’s not going to happen if we don’t demand it of our schools and of ourselves. As Arnold Toynbee said many years ago, “Thinking is as hard for a human to do as walking in its hind feet is for a monkey.” And we do as little of it as we can until we are forced by circumstances. The problem is by that time it may be too late.

Executing Sorcerers

The headline reads:” Saudi Arabia executes woman for sorcery.” My stomach turns, but I try to think my way through it. In this day and age when we are told not to be “judgmental,” especially when we live in a different culture, who are we to say that this is wrong? It’s just something they do over there. We are not in a position to judge. Hog Wash! This is nonsense! The execution of a woman in her 60s for sorcery, anywhere in the world in this day and age, is simply wrong. And I am saying this knowing I live in a different culture where we like to think we have evolved a bit morally and would never do such a thing since we ourselves stopped burning and hanging witches. I would add that my judgment is not determined by cultural perspective. Affected, yes, determined, no. It’s simply a matter of applying a couple of straightforward principles that are common to ethics and religion alike.

I would certainly not claim that everything we do in our culture is preferable to what is done in Saudi Arabia — or anywhere else. I am not ethnocentric, not given to crowing about my culture’s superiority as a culture. Indeed, the notion of “cultural superiority” makes no sense whatever. Heaven knows, we do things in this culture that make me blanch, as it probably does people reading about it in other cultures — such as torturing prisoners to get information from them or incarcerating suspected terrorists without a trial. We have much to account for and cannot as a culture claim moral superiority to any other culture, per se. But there are things done in other cultures, as well as our own, that deserve condemnation. And that’s another matter entirely.

That is to say, cross-cultural value judgments are never out or order. Anyone with a brain, who can collect the facts and weigh the evidence can make a judgment about what is done in this culture or anywhere else on earth. We know that Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with no written criminal code and that this is the second such execution in recent months. Ignoring due process, not to mention the execution itself, is wrong because it violates fairness and respect for persons, not to mention the tolerance that we think sets enlightened humans apart. It’s not clear what the sorcery involved in this case amounted to, because the Saudi newspapers have not been forthcoming; but from what I have read, it did not involve harm to any other person. The woman was said to have “tricked people into thinking she could treat illnesses.” Apparently she could not, even though she charged as much as $800.00 a session.

This comes under the heading of “a fool is born every minute,” or “buyer beware.” It suggests that the woman herself was a bit daft, and she should perhaps have been stopped, and put away in the Saudi Home For The Bewildered, but execution for what appears to be a petty “crime,” is a moral outrage.

In this case being “judgmental” is perfectly sensible, and even called for. It does not mean “forcing” our way of thinking on someone else. It does not involve initiating our own witch hunt, or a call to arms in order to invade the country and bring the enemy to their knees. It is a sign of human compassion and a concern for what is acceptable moral behavior — in any culture. In general, the Saudis treat women abominably and that is deplorable. For the most part that is their business and none of ours. But when they decapitate a woman for a trivial offense, they have crossed the line and deserve the condemnation of all other thinking persons. It’s all about judgment, which is the burden we bear as thinking human beings who share the planet.