One More Time

I shall once again refer to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey because it raises a fascinating question, one that so many of us have forgotten to think about. I refer to the problem of human freedom and responsibility. Rather than accepting blame for our many mistakes we have become used to making excuses, prodded on by the social sciences (or the “pseudo-sciences,” as a friend of mine would have it) that insist we are the product of social causes, environment, education  (or lack of education), economic pressures, the “character pattern imposed by society” (as Trilling puts it). This leaves us no room whatever for human freedom and when freedom disappears so also does moral responsibility. We buy into this tripe because it is an easy way out. After all, if there is no responsibility for human beings then since I am a human being I bear no responsibility whatever for anything I may happen to do — including taking the life of another, or inciting others to do the same. How very comforting!

Trilling raises this question toward the end of his novel when a small group of friends is gathered around following the death of a young girl who was slapped by her father and died because she had a weak heart about which he knew nothing. The question is whether the man deserved to be published. The liberal view, the view of the social scientist, the view shared by the majority of the small group, is ready to make excuses for the man, though the most vehement member of the group wanted to have nothing more to do with the man, despite the fact that he could not have known his daughter would die from his slap. In a word, she didn’t hold the man responsible yet she can’t forgive him. These are human beings after all, albeit fictional ones, and they are as full of contradictions as are the rest of us.

In any event, Trilling insists that this woman, despite her strictly deterministic viewpoint, cannot forgive the man. Moreover, he has the former leader of the group, Gifford Maxim, the former card-carrying member of the Communist Party who has found God and left the Party at considerable risk to his own life, reply to the notion that there cannot be any responsibility — or forgiveness. Maxim makes a series of points to counteract the view of the social scientist who would blame “society” rather than individuals:

“I can personally forgive [the father of the little girl] because I believe God can forgive him. You see, I think his will is a bad one, but not much worse, not altogether different in kind, from other wills. And so you [who cannot condemn the man because you blame society] and I stand opposed. For you — no responsibility for the individual, but no forgiveness. For me — ultimate, absolute responsibility for the individual, but mercy. Absolute responsibility is the only way that men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things. . . .”

Now whether or not we buy into the religious aspects of this point, it is worth pondering. It is so because the notion of human responsibility can be rescued only if we insist upon the fact of  human freedom — if we reject the notion that we are products of society, simply. We might be forced to admit that society, broadly speaking, plays a role in the formation of who we are. Doubtless it does. But to insist, as so many in the social-sciences do, that we are totally the product of our social conditioning — poor potty training, angry baby-sitters, or a third grade teacher who hated us — a claim that cannot be proven, is to leave no room for responsibility whatever. As Maxim points out, there can be no forgiveness because everything is pre-determined.

But the point that strikes me as the salient one in this discussion is near the end of Maxim’s comment above, when he notes that “Absolute responsibility is the only way men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things.” This, of course, is the heart and soul of Kantian ethics as it is of the Christian ethic, and it is a point that cannot be denied without reducing, as Maxim says, human beings to things. In the end human freedom can be rescued from the snares of the social scientist by virtue of our own felt-experience; the fact that no logical proof has ever been devised to prove that we are not free; and even Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which shows that activity on the sub-atomic level is in principle unpredictable. Accordingly, human beings can be held responsible. And they can be forgiven, or condemned as the case may be — depending on the degree of their culpability.



Other Cultures

I have been rereading Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness and came across the following description which made me think. It comes early in the story about a middle-aged man, Oki Toshio, who has been sitting by the window reflecting on his first love from whom he separated 20 years since:

“He looked out of the small French window of his study. At the base of the hill behind the house a high mound of earth, dug out during the war in making an air raid shelter, was already hidden by weeds so modest one barely noticed them. Among the weeds bloomed a mass of flowers the color of lapis lazuli. The flowers too were extremely small, but they were a bright, strong blue. Except for the sweet daphne, these flowers bloomed earlier than any in their garden. And they stayed in bloom a long time. Whatever they were, they could hardly be familiar harbingers of spring, but they were so close to the window that he often thought he would like to take one in his hand and study it. He had never yet gone to pick one, but that only seemed to increase his love for these tiny lapis-blue flowers.”

This passage, like so many in this novel, reflect the main theme of beauty and sadness. The description of the beautiful flowers almost hides the reference to the air-raid shelter that harkens back to the Second World War and makes the reader recall the terrible effects of the fire bombings that destroyed an estimated 40% of the population of the 64 major cities in Japan toward the end of the war, coupled by the dropping of the Atom Bombs that killed another 129,000 men, women, and children. The end of the war was followed by a seven year allied occupation by 300,000 men that brought about the Westernization of Japan, with its sports, music, movies, clothing, fast-food restaurants, and love of money. The older Japanese, like Kawabata himself, struggled with the loss of pride coupled with transmogrification of their culture from the old ways to the faster, more frenetic new ways. His novels are filled with references to this struggle within himself and in the hearts of his countrymen.

But what struck me powerfully was the fact that we can read passages like this in a novel written by  a man in another culture and “relate” to it, because we share a common humanity. We have lost  sight of this fact in our preoccupation with  the differences in cultures stressed by anthropologists and social scientists like Margaret Mead who started the movement toward cultural relativism that lead us, wrongly I insist, to the conclusion that we are not in a position to judge what folks do in other cultures. From the undeniable truth that we can never fully understand what people in other cultures feel and think we draw the unwarranted conclusion that we can not sympathize with them at all. But this flies in the face of the human sympathy that the moral sense theorists in the eighteenth century brought to our attention that allows each of us to sympathize with other human beings, all other human beings. In stressing difference we have lost sight of our fundamental similarities.

We can read passages like that above, read poetry, hear the music, watch their dances, view their art, and we can feel many of the same things those people feel — not all, but many to be sure. We are not all that different. And, as a result, when we read about Suttee in India, or the stoning of adulteresses in the Middle East, or clitoridectomies forced upon young women in Africa, or the denial of fundamental rights to women around the world, we can judge these things to be wrong because we do know better. Values are relative to cultures to a point, but that point is reached when a violation of fundamental human rights are in question. We know this because we feel it deeply and because our reasoning capacity tells us that if it were us we would not stand for it.

In a word, there its such a thing as “human nature” and it is something we share with the world at large and which, even though many of those in power and those who posses great wealth seem to have denied, defines all of us as human. But why is this discussion significant? Or even of interest? I can do no better than end with a quote by one of the finest minds I have ever encountered, Hannah Arendt, who tells this in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“If the idea of humanity, of which the most conclusive symbol is the common origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then nothing is more plausible than a theory according to which brown, yellow, or black races are descended from some other species of apes than the white race, and all together they are predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth.”