Miscellany: On ethics, revolution, and viriditas


On ethics, idealism, and revolution:

It is easy to imagine that we could cause harm to others without becoming harmful ourselves, but this is obviously false. Instead, the connection is self-evident and concealed only by our proclivity to think in abstract categories. For this reason, we should always include ourselves in our concept of “the world” or “humanity.” Treating myself as an exception necessarily contradicts the universality of my stated conviction. It reminds me of a statement from one of Kant’s successors, J. G. Fichte:

I necessarily will my beatitude, not as a pleasurable state, but as the state befitting my dignity; not because I desire beatitude, but rather because a rational being deserves it.

We tend to think in terms of “self” and “other” but bona fide ethical philosophy must always challenge this facile dichotomy. Instead, it must always push us to recognize this inherent dignity wherever it is present.

It is important to draw attention to the conditions that are necessary to foster an ethical life and the manner in which the prospects for the latter are compromised whenever these conditions are not present. Clearly, some saintly individuals demonstrate their ability to transcend circumstances that are adverse to an ethical life and manifest it in full grandeur despite all odds, but it is just the improbability of this scenario that confers such excellence upon such figures. You expressed the wish that conditions be established that would allow for everyone to live morally without sacrificing their own welfare and that of their families. Hugo’s example of Jean Valjean’s encounter with the Bishop is supremely effective in illustrating the manner in which a life can be transformed from without by providing positive conditions through an act of charity. Why then should we not strive to our utmost to provide this to everyone? Your compassionate vision reminds me of Christ’s words to his disciples spoken only days before the Crucifixion:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee? or athirst, and gave thee drink? And when saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? And when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me. 

But he continues:

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.

Similarly, in Plato’s parable, he describes the fate of the one who returns to the cave with the intent to liberate his brethren. Unfortunately, it bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Socrates and Jesus alike. People seem to act this way. How do we account for the apparent fact that not everyone seems to wish for freedom or for virtue at all, and will, in fact, often be disposed to violent opposition against someone who appears to offer it to them? The same question can be posed in respect to ourselves as individuals: how do we account for the fact that not all of us seems oriented towards the Good and indeed, often seems determinately opposed to it? I think of my experience of procrastination, for instance, which influences me in spite of my full knowledge that it is a demon and a vice (acedia). Is it really only a question of lacking some external condition? I would be sceptical about this. It seems to be an internal dynamic—an inner jihad. For every Valjean there might be two men who would not be affected by the bishop’s gesture even if the outward conditions were reproduced. Of course, I have no wish to cast judgement or prejudice on anyone: “self-criticism is a full-time job,” as it is said. Nevertheless, I am not entirely convinced by the idealistic vision that is forever popular among revolutionaries. 

Some have suggested that Valjean ought not have become a capitalist but an anarchist because his decision only propagated the conditions of inequality that led to his imprisonment in the first place. While I sympathize with your sentiment on this, I am also weary of revolution in the name of utopia. It has been observed that no one should tear down a fence before he has become quite sure why it was erected. Too often, it seems that revolutionary idealism is quick to cannibalize itself and transform into its opposite. Historical examples abound but the French Revolution remains the iconic illustration of this. The jury is still out on the American one.

On viriditas and seasonality:

I have contemplated flowering plants, like nasturtiums, and I experience a kind of “inflection point” in time over the summer season (I am in Alaska). Up until July, there is a “greening” or lplumping” phase in which the plant is drawing in sap and filling its interior with substance, like a lamp with oil. At this point, the resident sylphs set it alight: the blossom emerges like the flame of a candle and the greenery slowly sacrifices itself into the flowery fire.

On utilitarianism, deontology, and truth as deed:

I think you stumbled on the difficulty in applying each of these ethical theories to a hypothetical situation. You made the utilitarian calculus seem comparatively straightforward, but that’s because (1) you didn’t try to “crunch the numbers,” as it were, and (2) didn’t take into account the uncertainty inherent in evaluating the morality of an action according to consequences that do not exist at the time of evaluation. Suppose, for instance, that a moment after all of the other divers rationalize their departure on the basis of utilitarian calculus, that a rescue boat spontaneously arrives. In this case, everyone’s happiness would have far exceeded that which they could hope to derive from the death of one person and the prospect of guilt that would haunt the survivors.

Deontology solves this inherently speculative element in utilitarianism by prescinding from a consideration of consequences and focusing instead squarely on the motive behind the decision to act as such. The difficulty in this case is not so much one of application as of knowing which deontological framework is “correct,” as you wrote. Is Kant’s categorical imperative closer to the truth than the Ten Commandments? You indicated that this ambiguity was a troublesome experience for you and I understand your frustration. At the same time, it seems increasingly difficult to discern the truth in anything today and I believe our struggle around attempting to reconcile these diverse theories can actually lead us to discover a firm “center of moral gravity” in ourselves. It is just this center that motivates our attempts to arrive at the truth of things in the first instance. Otherwise, we might not be bothered to pose such questions. Gone are the days, I believe, in which truth could be identified with particular facts and propositions. Instead, I think that we must discover a new sort of truth that consists in a process. Truth is a verb and we can try to live, abide, and be “in truth” just like a person can be “in love.” Perhaps you have further thoughts on this.

On the apparent mechanicality of angles:

Encounters with higher beings can invoke a sacred horror. They appear to act according to a sort of fatalism. My sense is that it has something to do with our tendency to conflate “freedom” with “having many choices.” But this cannot be right since having many choices is actually the direct consequence of failing to possess perfect knowledge. Ignorance splits freedom into choices like a prism scatters white light into many colours. Conversely, a being whose knowledge was perfect would not be confronted with many choices, but only one since this being would be able to recognize all other choices as mistakes. In this way, the higher beings take on a “mechanical” or fatalistic cast to our vision.

On responsibility for Jesus’ scapegoating:

Strictly speaking, it was the Jews—the Pharisees and chief priests of the Sanhedrin together with the crowds present in Jerusalem at Jesus’ trial—and not the Romans, who were responsible for Jesus’ scapegoating. Caiaphas was the Chief Priest of the Sanhedrin and it is he, more than anyone, who is responsible for contacting the Romans in an attempt to orchestrate Jesus’ crucifixion. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was very reluctant to be involved in what he saw as an internecine squabble and he tried to “wash his hands” of the whole affair by offering to free one of the criminals to the crowd. Pilate was hoping the crowd would choose to free Jesus but instead they shouted the name of another criminal and so “Barabbas” escaped the crucifixion instead of Jesus. Pilate was thus instrumental in Jesus’ death by ordering it but he was not directly involved in the scapegoat complex that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin had designed. It is an interesting case in which if one party had failed to be complicit in a murder, it could not have occurred in spite of the agitation by the other party. What I mean is that the Sanhedrin would probably not have succeeded in having Jesus killed if either Pilate or the Jews that had gathered to see the trial had maintained moral integrity. If only it would be different today.

It is often forgotten that for the evangelists to proclaim the gospels did not ingratiate them to any established worldly powers or religious traditions. There was nothing “expedient” about it in any traditional sense of that term. Quite on the contrary, to preach the gospel was to risk one’s life for the sake of bearing witness against the lie of scapegoating, as the etymology and connotation of the word “martyr” suggest. Thus, revelatory speech is always subversive to a political order that is founded on its suppression. Girard notes that Caiaphas, chief priest of the Sanhedrin, whose members were responsible for apprehending Jesus on false charges, appears to vindicate Girard’s own theories when the priest exclaims in the famous passage from John 11: “Ye know nothing at all! Ye do not realize that it is expedient that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

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