Violence and identity

“I wouldn’t have it any other way”

The Wild Bunch is a 1969 film directed by Sam Peckinpah (written by Peckinpah and Walon Green) [1]. Nominally a Western, it tells the story of a gang of aging outlaws in the days leading up to their last gun battle.

After a failed payroll robbery, in which more innocents are killed than combatants, five surviving outlaws make their way into Mexico, broke and dispirited. The lead outlaw, Pike Bishop, remarks to his colleague Dutch that he wants to make one last big haul and then “back off.” “Back off to what?” Dutch asks, for which there is no answer. Finally Dutch reminds Bishop “they’ll be waiting for us,” and Bishop, the eternal adventurer, replies “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

In Mexico, the Bunch, including the two Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector, and Sykes, an old man who rides with them, visit the home town of their youngest member, Angel, which has recently suffered a visit by Federal troops under General Mapache, during which anti-Huerta rebel sympathizers were rooted out and murdered. The Bunch forms an odd bond with the townsfolk, but they’re outlaws and they’re broke. Eventually they make a deal with Mapache (who is advised by Germans, eager to see Mexico allied with them in the impending war in Europe) to rob a US arms train across the border. This robbery is successful, and they return to Mexico with the stolen arms (including a machine gun) pursued, however, by a group of bounty hunters led by Deke Thorton, a former outlaw that Bishop once abandoned during a police raid on a bordello. Later ,the bounty hunters will wound Sykes, whom the Bunch will abandon to his fate.

Along the trail, Angel, a rebel sympathizer himself, has some Indian friends carry away a case of guns and another of ammunition. Angel, however, has been betrayed by the mother of a young woman he killed in a fit of anger for having run off to join Mapache’s camp followers. The outlaws complete their deal with Mapache, but surrender Angel over to Mapache.  Deciding to let Mapache deal with the bounty hunters, they return to the Army headquarters in the ruins of an old winery. However, their betrayal of Angel haunts them. After a brief period of whoring and drinking, they decide to confront Mapache and demand the return of their colleague. Mapache cuts Angel’s throat, and without hesitation Pike and Dutch shoot him down. At this point, the Bunch probably could take hostages and back off, but to what? Instead they throw themselves gleefully into a gun battle with some 200 Federales, and by taking control of the machine gun do quite a bit of damage. Eventually, however, the inevitable happens, and they end up dead, Pike shot by a young boy with a rifle.

As the surviving Federales limp out from the Army HQ, Thorton shows up. From there, he sends the bounty hunters home with the outlaws’ bodies, but remains to mourn the loss of his former friends. Sykes rides up with the rebel Indians who have saved him, and suggests Thorton join them. “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” Laughing in the face of fate, they ride off to join the revolution.

The thematic power of the film hinges on two apposite recognitions. The first is that the outlaws are bad men. They rob, they cheat, they lie, they kill without compunction. They seem to hold nothing sacred and have no respect for any ethical code.

The second recognition is that this judgment is not entirely complete or correct. They have a sense of humor and an undeniable intelligence. They are able to sympathize with the oppressed villagers in Mexico. They have a sense of being bound together, and this is what leads them to their final gun battle.

The Bunch have lived largely wretched lives. As professional outlaws, they are dedicated to acquiring wealth by criminal means, but throughout the film, it is clear that wealth offered only two things for them: prostitutes and liquor. Although Pike was once in love and thinking of settling down, and (the asexual) Dutch speaks wistfully of buying a small ranch, they are just as committed to the outlaw lifestyle as the unrepentant Gorches; they just would rather believe otherwise.

This is because they are committed to a life of violence, to the thrills of dangerous heists, of chases across the landscape of the Southwest, and of gun fights. They rob largely to support that lifestyle, not the other way around.

The finale of the film has two major points of decision, the first determining the second. The first is when Pike, dressing after sex with a prostitute, sits on the bed finishing off a bottle of tequila.  That’s his life; and with the wealth gotten from the Mapache deal, he could continue it indefinitely. In the next room, the Gorch brothers, also drunk, argue with another prostitute over the price of her services. That’s their life, too. Meanwhile, Angel is getting tortured to death for being an outlaw with a conscience. Pike slams the empty bottle to the floor, and the march into battle begins.

The second point of decision has already been remarked on.  The moment after shooting Mapache, when they might have escaped, the Bunch choose to fight instead. Why do they do it? It’s not for the money, the drinking or the prostitutes.  Is it for revenge?  No, it’s because they live for the violence, and they do so as a team, and they have reached the moment at which they can live it to its logical conclusion.

Peckinpah remarked that, for that moment to carry any weight, the outlaws needed to be humanized to the extent that the audience could sympathize with them. He was, I think largely successful. But the film has been controversial, not only because of its portrayal of violence, but because in the climactic battle Peckinpah pushes our sympathies for the Bunch beyond mere recognition of their humanity.  They become heroic, larger than life, almost epic figures, challenging fate itself, in order to realize themselves, like Achilles on the field before Troy. And oddly, while not really acting heroically, they become heroes nonetheless, remembered by the revolutionaries who benefit from their sacrifice.

As a side remark, let’s note that Peckinpah was raised in a conservative Calvinist, Presbyterian household. But, like Herman Melville a century before, he was a Calvinist who could not believe in God.  In such a universe, some are damned, but no one is saved. We only realize our destiny by not having any. The Bunch destroy any future for themselves and thus, paradoxically, achieve their destiny. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

A Soldier’s Story

The Wild Bunch is set in the last months of the Huerte dictatorship (Spring of 1914), a phase of the series of rebellions, coups d’état, and civil wars known collectively as the Mexican Revolution. [2] Officially, this revolution began with the fall of the Diaz regime and ended with the success of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but rebellions and bloodshed had already permeated the Diaz regime and continued a few years after the PRI came to power. In the official period of the revolution, casualties numbered approximately 1,000,000. When one discovers that the Federal Army only had about 200,000 men at any time, and that rebel armies counted their soldiers in the hundreds, one realizes that the majority of these casualties had to be non-combatants. Not surprisingly; the Federal Army, and some of the rebels, pursued a policy (advocated by our current US president) of family reprisal – once a rebel or a terrorist is identified, but cannot be captured or killed, his family is wiped out instead. Whole villages were massacred. Dozens of bodies would be tossed into a ditch and left to rot.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve nothing against thought-experiments that raise ethical questions, only those that limit the possible answers unjustifiably. So let us now imagine ourselves in the mind of a young Federal soldier, whose commandant has ordered him to shoot a family composed of a grandmother, a sister, a brother – the latter having atrophied legs due to polio – and the sister’s six-year-old daughter. The relevant question here is not whether or not he will do this. He will. The question is why.

This is a kind of question that rarely, if ever, appears in ethical philosophy in the Analytic tradition. It is, however, taken quite seriously in Continental philosophy. There’s a good, if uncomfortable, reason for this. Continental thinkers write in a Europe that survived the devastation of World War II and live among both the survivors of the Holocaust and the perpetrators of it. Analytic philosophers decided not to bother raising too many questions concerning Nazism or the Holocaust. Indeed, in the US, the general academic approach to events in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s has been that they constituted an aberration. Thus, even in studies of social psychology, the Nazi participants in the Holocaust are treated as examples of some sort of abnormality or test cases in extremities of assumed psychological, social, or moral norms.  This is utter nonsense. If it was true, then such slaughters would have been confined to Europe. And yet, very similar things went on in the Pacific Theater: during the Japanese invasion of China, the number of causalities is estimated as being into the tens of millions.

There were a million casualties resulting from the Turkish mass killing of the Armenians, long before the Holocaust.  There were several million victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, decades after the Holocaust.  Far from being some pscyho-social aberration, human beings  have a facility for organized cruelty and mass slaughter.

At any rate, assuming that our young Mexican soldier is not suffering from some abnormal psychology, what normative thoughts might be going through his mind as he is about to pull the trigger on the family lined up before him?

For the sake of argument, we’ll allow that he has moral intuitions, however he got them, that tell him that killing innocent people is simply wrong. But some process of thought leads him to judge otherwise; to act despite his intuition. Note that we are not engaging in psychology here and need not reflect on motivations beyond the ethical explanations he gives for his own behavior.

While not a complete listing, here are some probable thoughts he might be able to relay to us in such an explanation:

For the good of the country I joined the Army, and must obey the orders of my commanding officer.

I would be broke without the Army, and they pay me to obey such orders.

These people are Yaqui Indians, and as such are sub-human, so strictures against killing innocents do not apply.

I enjoy killing, and the current insurrection gives me a chance to do so legally.

So far, all that is explained is why the soldier either thinks personal circumstances impel him to commit the massacre or believes doing so is allowable within the context. But here are some judgments that make the matter a bit more complicated:

This is the family of a rebel, who must be taught a lesson.

Anyone contemplating rebellion must be shown where it will lead.

This family could become rebels later on. They must be stopped before that can happen.

All enemies of General Huerta/ the State/ Mexico (etc.) must be killed.

Must, must, must. One of the ethical problems of violence is that there exist a great many reasons for it, within certain circumstances, although precisely which circumstances differ considerably from culture to culture, social group to social group, and generation to generation. In fact, there has never been a politically developed society for which this has not been the case. Most obviously, we find discussions among Christians and the inheritors of Christian culture, concerning what would constitute a “just war” (which translates into “jihad” in Islamic cultures). But we need not get into the specifics of that. All states, regardless of religion, hold to two basic principles concerning the use of violence in the interests of the State: First, obviously, the right to maintain the State against external opposition; but also, secondly, the right of the State to use lethal force against perceived internal threats to the peace and stability of the community. We would like to believe that our liberal heritage has reduced our eliminated adherence to the latter principle, but we are lying to ourselves. Capital punishment is legal in the United States, and 31 states still employ it. The basic theory underlying it is quite clear: Forget revenge or protection of the community or questions of the convicted person’s responsibility – the State reserves the right to end a life deemed too troublesome to continue.

But any conception of necessary violence seriously complicates ethical consideration of violence per se. Because such conceptions are found in every culture and permeate every society – by way of teaching, the arts, laws, political debates, propaganda during wartime, etc. – it is likely that each of us has, somewhere in the back of our minds, some idea, some species of reasoning, some set of acceptable responses, cued to the notion that some circumstance somewhere, at some time, justify the use of force, even lethal force. Indeed, even committed pacifists have to undertake a great deal of soul-searching and study to recognize these reasons and uproot them, but they are unlikely ever to get them all.

Many more simply will never bother to make the effort. They are either persuaded by the arguments for necessary force, or they have been so indoctrinated into such an idea that they simply take it for granted.

Because there are several and diverse conceptions and principles of necessary violence floating around in different cultures, one can expect that this indoctrination occurs to various degrees and by various means. One problem this creates is that regardless of its origin, a given conception or principle can be extended by any given individual. So today I might believe violence is only necessary when someone attempts to rape my spouse, but tomorrow I might think it necessary if someone looks at my spouse the wrong way.

The wide variance in possible indoctrination also means a wide variety in the way such a principle can be recognized or articulated. This is especially problematic given differences in education among those of differing social classes. So among some, the indoctrination occurs largely through friends and families, and may be articulated only in the crude assertion of right – “I just had to beat her!” “I couldn’t let him disrespect me!” – while those who go through schools may express this indoctrination through well thought-out, one might say philosophical, reasoning: “Of a just war, Aquinas says…” or “Nietzsche remarks of the Ubermensch…” and so on. But we need to avoid letting such expressions, either crude or sophisticated, distract us from what is really going on here. The idea that some violence is necessary has become part of the thought process of the individual. Consequently, when the relevant presumed – and prepared-for – circumstances arise, not only will violence be enacted, but the perpetrator will have no sense of transgression in doing so. As far as he is concerned, he is not doing anything wrong, even should the violent act appear to contradict some other moral interdiction. The necessary violence has become a moral intuition and overrides other concerns. “I shouldn’t kill an innocent, but in this case, I must.”

Again, this is not psychology. After more than a century of pacifist rhetoric and institutionalized efforts to find non-violent means of “conflict resolution,” we want to say that we can take this soldier and “cure” of his violent instincts.  But, what general wants us to do that? What prosecutor, seeking the death penalty, wishes that of a juror?

The rhetoric of pacifism and the institutionalization of reasoning for non-violence is a good thing, don’t misunderstand me. But don’t let it lead us to misunderstand ourselves. There is nothing psychologically aberrant in the reasoning that leads people to justify violence, and in all societies such reasoning is inevitable. It’s part of our cultural identity.  Strangely enough, it actually strengthens our social ties, as yet another deep point of agreement between us.

Being Violent

I’m certain that, given the present intellectual climate, some readers will insist that what we have been discussing is psychology; that Evolutionary Psychology or genetics can explain this; that neuroscience can pin-point the exact location in the brain for it; that some form of psychiatry can cure us. All of which may be true (assuming that our current culture holds values closer to “the truth” than other cultures, which I doubt), but is nonetheless irrelevant. It should be clear that I’m trying to engage in a form of social ontology or what might be called historically-contingent ontology. And ethics really begins in ontology, as Aristotle understood.  We are social animals, not simply by some ethnological observation, but in the very core of our being. We just have a difficult time getting along with each other.

It’s possible to change. Beating other people up is just another way to bang our own heads against the wall; this can be recognized, and changed, so the situation isn’t hopeless. As a Buddhist, I accept the violence of my nature, but have certain means of reducing it, limiting it, and letting it go. There are other paths to that. But they can only be followed by individuals. And only individuals can effect change in their communities.

This means we have to accept the possibility that human ontology is not an a-temporal absolute, and I know there is a long bias against that, but if we are stuck with what we have always been, we are doomed.

Nonetheless, the struggle to change a society takes many years, even generations, and it is never complete. Humans are an indefinitely diverse species, with a remarkable capacity to find excuses for the most execrable and self-destructive behavior. There may come a time that humans no longer have or seek justifications for killing each other; but historically, the only universal claim we can make about violence is that we are violent by virtue of being human, and because we live in human society.

Notes

  1. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065214/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_Revolution

Reprinted from:https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/11/violence-and-identity/

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The dead end of moral relativism

I confess that I would find it very difficult to go to the families of the victims in Orlando, and explain that ethical prohibitions against murder are simply a question of taste; that their suffering is a matter of complete indifference, philosophically; and that the deaths of their loved ones are of little importance because these were somehow predestined by random physical acts at the Big Bang; or because, being gay, they weren’t expected to pass on their genes.

If evolution has gotten us to that point – it wasn’t worth it.

There are certainly those suggesting such a perspective – by logical implication and extension – that there is no ‘wrong’ to it. Don’t we even have those proudly declaiming that they are happy making no judgment concerning Hitler?

Come on – let’s get real. Ethics is not about theory (and certainly not about meta-theory), it’s about behavior – those behaviors we enact, and those of others we live with.

I find the denial of ethics to be inhumane, arrogant, and egotistical. It’s really a way of saying, ‘ethical standards do not apply to me (or only when I want them to).’

The squirrelly, weaseled language defending such a vacuous, self-centered, anti-social antipathy toward all the social bindings that make living human difficult, painful, and sometimes joyous is *at best* evidence of a lack of tact and rhetorical skill; at worst… well, something far worse.

How can people who claim that ethics is entirely a matter of feelings, be so insensitive to the feelings of others, so as not to recognize that our discussions of ethics, both in the Academy and in the wider community, are part of the process that brings people together, that forms the community, that generates our laws and our sense of decency.

I should note that conventionalism, ala Hume and Darwin, is in itself an ethic (not a meta-ethic) that the Logical Positivists relied on in their effort to curtail discussion of ethics in philosophy. This is almost never discussed as such in philosophy, because its faults are plain: projected out from a given society, it spirals down the rabbit hole of relativism. (‘We don’t like murder of girl infants in Europe; but if they practice that in the backwoods of China, who are we to say it’s wrong?’) Consequently it is usually defended as a consequentialism. But consequentialism, just as such, is fundamentally simplistic, and blurs into psychological anxieties involving such issues as peer pressure and legal sanction. Someone who’s gay can still be fired for this some states. The self-loathing bisexual in Orlando, no longer able to tolerate the multiple threats to his own sense of identity, produced a consequence he apparently hoped would meet approval from at least one group of self-serving religious fanatics – and he accomplished this consequence. He wanted to die doing that – and he did.

Ethics must be complex, complicated, sociologically rich and psychologically layered, in addressing human needs, fears, hopes, because it is about maintaining a stable society with as little potential for harming others as possible.

We all behave according to ‘oughts;’ whether derived from utility, or religion, or deontologically; virtue, or convention or consequence. The question is *how we share these with others*. Because when we don’t, the only ‘oughts’ an individual may comply with are psychological drives, some of which lead to destruction or self-destruction.

Again, this iss the logical implication of what is said, extended into the practicalities of real life – and not empty and undisciplined ‘theorizing.’

Ideas have consequences. We live with them. That is why study, sharing, caution and care, are so important.

I didn’t lose anybody in Orlando. But I did on 9/11/01. Gesticulations about ‘utilizations’ for maximum ‘good/bad’ in some empty theory insult me in times like this.

I don’t care to discuss such matters with those who even won’t pass judgment on Hitler; half the family of my first girlfriend (whose memory I still cherish) was wiped out in Dachau.

Such people keep saying its all about emotions, likes and dislikes; but they don’t care about any of this, any of the real feelings of the people they address – even on their own terms, why the hell should we care about them?

I’m sorry; I won’t talk to any of them about such matters anymore – they don’t have anything to say that I would find interesting in any way. If I found myself on a bus with them, I would get off and hitch-hike. Then maybe I’d get a ride from someone with something interesting to say about politics and ethics. It might not be ‘philosophical,’ in the professional sense (and certainly not ‘theoretical’) – but at least it would be the meat and potatoes of real people talking about real things.

The moral relativists should explain how their positions properly ground condemnation of the Orlando murders. All of them, really. Or let them keep their disgusting egoism to themselves, because I won’t be paying attention anymore… .


Note added next day:

I’ve realized that I need to clarify to what or whom I am referring to as “moral relativists” –  especially since I am to some extent a relativist of a kind, in that I think weighing the differing behaviors of peoples from different cultures must always be undertaken carefully and with charitable tolerance for behaviors that may be useful and conducive to greater well-being within the given culture.  No, what I am referring to here are those who gleefully proclaim their independence from ethics all together, who would even argue that we should have no discussion of ethics, particularly in philosophy or politics.  This makes no sense at all. We do not have any guidance of behavior that is somehow free of the necessity for public articulation or public argument; and as long as this is the case, there must also be a corresponding philosophic discussion of the general principles of such articulation and argument.  And the inevitable response to this seems to be, that we don’t need any guidance of behavior at all, and this is clearly false, for reasons I suggested above.  We will have such guidance; the question is whether it will be reasonable and social, or whether it will be egocentric or psychologically driven.  I believe the former is more conducive to the possibility of stability and greater flourishing.  The latter creates monsters and generates violence.  And we just don’t need that anymore- we ought not to have it anymore – we cannot survive together like that anymore.

The world as will or metaphor

In the “World as Will and Idea,” Arthur Schopenhauer unleashes the Will. That is, he elaborates a narrative and analysis of what the universe must look like if we set aside rationalist and moralistic preconditions for our understanding of it, and simply let it be what it is and do what it does. But it turns out this ‘doing’ is its being’ – that is, the universe is nothing at all but the actions and events that happen in it. It thus can be conceived as the movement itself, and among living beings, motivation itself, which then can be referred to as “Will” – the compelling force underlying all action. But is this really the case? Or are we witnessing an intended mythic ‘AS IF,’ a thought experiment carried to its furthest extent?

Schopenhauer is the first Western thinker to understand Eastern philosophies of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the first to think they had insights to offer the West. Will, and our possible responses to it, is the chief of these.

It should be noted that prior to Schopenhauer, Will has a special two-fold function in German philosophy. It is the articulation of the deepest motivation of all human action – desire – and the instrument of action that needs rational clarification and training for moral purposes. This leads to an odd formula we first find in Kant, that the Will, in order to be free (without which moral responsibility cannot be assumed), must be constrained by rationally derived moral principles (the foundation of de-ontological ethics). The Will is thus trapped in its freedom.

Schopenhauer is basically saying that this formula is metaphysically ungrounded. It assumes, for instance, that morals can be determined prior to any action, which makes no sense, since we are engaged in action long before we think through the morality of it. Since action precedes thought, it follows that Will functions without constraint – rationality thus is always in service of the Will, not the other way around. However, in yet another paradox, we can through reason quiet the Will and observe its cause and effects without engagement. As Heidegger (who didn’t like Schopenhauer, but who was led to much the same conclusions in his post-War thought), we can learn to ‘will not to will.’ (In Buddhism this leads to the Eightfold Path, and meditations directed toward release from the self.)

The reason we might want to do this is that if we see individual beings as mere incidence of the ontological imperative of Will, then these individuals are basically thrust around as puppets, causing themselves all kinds of suffering while deluding them into believing that they are actually doing something. (This is a fundamental principle of certain Hindu sects and of traditional Buddhism – desire itself creates the sense of ‘self’ which then believes ‘I am satisfying my own desires,’ when it’s only desire satisfying itself.)

For Schopenhauer, this indicates that Will itself can be conceived as a metaphysical agency, but only as a blind force – it originates as the tendency toward motion and the coming together and dissolution that are the recurrent processes of the universe, and finally realizes itself in living entities capable of consciously enacting its imperatives. One can see it in this way: There is a tendency of atoms to come together in molecules, and then to break away to join with other atoms in differing combinations. But of course they have no sense of this. Once life comes to be, we effectively have molecules seeking other molecules by sense, intentionally to achieve union, breaking up other molecules intentionally to destroy and consume. (This ‘intentionality’ is not the will of the organism, but of Will per se.) Schopenhauer sees the the metaphysical Will as a motivating principle rather than a conscious entity. It is to some extent the principle of causation itself as an active force, rather than mechanism dependent on inertial changes.

One of the problems with “World as Will and Idea” is that it’s not at all clear how much of this Schopenhauer holds to be literally true, and how much he is working as a trope – a model in competition with the agent-‘Consciousness’ of the “Phenomenology of Spirit” by Hegel (whom he absolutely hated). Schopenhauer’s favored predecessors were Hume and Kant; and his other writings are very clear and precise, yet he allows himself considerable flourish in “Will and Idea.” The benefit of such an extended trope is that it re-configures the frame through which we interpret experience. What happens has no design to it, no purpose; it is simply the causative forces of the universe enacting their inevitable processes; and this is true of lived experience as much as what we observe in the sciences.

Generally then, “World as Will and Idea” is best used as an epistemological tool. We actually don’t need to assume that there is any such entity or force as the metaphysical Will external to us, but rather adopt t as metaphor to guide how we interpret our experience, and as caution against assuming that all that we know through reason can be trusted as detached and unmotivated. The Will is always at work, even in the driest bits of data and any uses we might make of them.

—–

This was written as reply to a post by Makagutu at: https://maasaiboys.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/my-philosopher-friends/

I should admit that I have not read Schopenhauer for quite some time, so my discussion is certainly open to correction.

The fundamental injustice of religious reasoning

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54–56

So goes the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma, that is supposed to convince us that, the gospels of the New Testament being allowed as trustworthy reports of a historical savant of the late history of ancient Israel, we must decide that the savant is all he claimed, and all the gospels claim him to be.

The one response Lewis could not assume, given his belief, is, simply, ‘I don’t care.’ * The choice he presents is a false dilemma (not a true trilemma, because, as I point out later, one choice is strictly irrelevant); and indeed many of the questions raised in discussions concerning Lewis’ challenge, while having historical-scholarly interest, resolve (or dissolve) in practical application, into questions as to whether we care about god’s existence or not; and I don’t.

Lewis was basically writing for people who wanted to believe, but had their doubts (in an era when belief was getting challenged and shaken by many events of the 20th century); he was trying rhetorically to put them in a position where they needed to make a choice (presupposing they would choose faith, since alternatives would not be fully formed in their minds). As a ploy it is somewhat of a kin to Pascal’s Gambit.**

Nonetheless, in its clearest form, as I previously noted, the challenge presents us with a false dilemma. I remarked that one response might be, ‘I don’t care,’ because I can certainly hold that Jesus was able to remark some ethical truths and that he was something of a loony. These beliefs are not mutually exclusive, ‘loonies’ can be capable of moral insight.

(‘Lunatic’ is a derogatory term, that does no justice to those suffering mental illness. Certainly it’s possible for someone who believes he’s a poached egg – which no one suffering mental illness has ever claimed, as far as I’m aware – to both recite and adhere to the famous Golden Rule of treating others as one’s self. Lewis not only violates empirical knowledge concerning mental illness, he not only violates the right of the mentally ill to be treated with dignity, he thus also violates the morality he claims to presume.)

As far as to whether Jesus is lying, that’s really quite irrelevant, since we only have the asserted quotations of the NT, we have not other means of determining his veracity. But in any case, there is no reason to assume that he is ‘Lord,’ on the basis of this logical challenge, since whether Jesus was a loony or not, or a liar or not, have nothing to do with any claimed divinity for him. He could well be an angel, or some avatar for some other religion’s god; or he could be a brilliant storyteller and moralist, giving his audience just what they needed to hear to reconsider their lives ethically. Or he could have been some sort of brilliant politician; or maybe he was just just someone, like Monty Python’s Brian, who happened to be in the right place at the right time – whether he wanted to be or not. Or maybe, what he had to say is so generalized as to be practically empty, anyway.

Or maybe he didn’t even exist, and the gospels are just so much fiction.

As far as to whether the gospels are themselves lies, records of hallucination, or straight-forward reportage:

There are, I think, two basic approaches to biblical scholarship – one asking, ‘what are the origins of these texts?’ (which may rightfully asked of any literature), and the other asking ‘how do these texts hang together, how do they compose the whole that believers read them as?’ The problem is that in scholarly practice the two questions often overlap, but unfortunately the answer to the second question (which is only meaningful to believers) may simply be that they do not hang together, that we are looking at a quilt, not a tapestry.

Look: concerning any ancient literature, any answer we could possibly give to the questions concerning their veracity, or intent, or the mental stability of their authors, or the rhetorical relation they might have had with their presumed audience – such answers would require compiling as many versions of the narrative as possible, from variant, preferably conflicting sources (since the conflicts will actually weed out certain biases), comparison with non-textual historical records and artifacts, etc., etc. Eventually we say, ‘In their own contemporary context, this is likely what they meant to say to their given audience.’ (By the way, all of this is derived from Schleirmacher – a devout Christian and a brilliant scholar.) But taken beyond the religious view in which such hermeneutics originated, this basically means we are reading such texts the way literary historians read great fiction of past eras, to discover their contemporary context and determine what can be salvaged to apply to literary reading today (or what readers of these texts, literature or not, can use today).

The NT has some problems in this regard; a strong social institution grew up around it and effectively cloistered the texts from critical reading, while at the same time abetting a radical and profound change in the social context in which these texts were first composed. I am not familiar with biblical scholarship per se, but I do know some of the history that tracked through the decomposition of Rome (and its great libraries), led to the canonization of the texts. This history has left us with great lacunae in our efforts to compose a single narrative such that all the loose ends could be tied together. Frankly, I doubt they can be.

This makes asking, ‘how do these texts hang together?’ ultimately resolving into speculations – some well-informed, some mere guesswork, none with enough evidence to be convincing.

—–
* Actually, other than the remarks of this essay, possible responses Lewis would not really have expected, given his context and expected readership, include:

“Jesus was a complete loony, you’re absolutely right, all of his moral dictates are worthless, we should read Hume and Schopenhauer instead.”

“Jesus was indeed the spawn of the devil, and all his moral postulates are intended to confuse us. Read Aristotle or Confucius instead.”

“Jesus was a complete fool, and live your life according to the dictates of capitalism.” (A favored response among many Americans, although they won’t admit to it.)

“Jesus was indeed a prophet, but he was surpassed by the blessed Mohammed.”

“Jesus was mere avatar for the divine Krishna.”

“‘Jesus’ who?”

“Yeah, yeah, Hillel said much the same things a generation before. What a mensch!”

“I don’t think there is evidence this guy even existed.”

“My father, pastor at the Everything Is Lovely If You Submit Church, beat the crap out of me when I was young – so take your ‘Lord’ and shove it!”

Each to his own god (and some of us to none at all).

——
* Pascal’s Gambit:
If you don’t believe in god, and there is a god, you will go to hell.
If you believe in god and there is no god, you’ll have lived a better life anyway.

Complete response: On the other hand, if you don’t believe in god, live a good life, and there is no god, then you will have lived a good life; but if you’ve lived a good life without believing in god, but there is a god, and he is all merciful, as claimed of him, then you will not go to hell.

Note that the “all merciful” component is left out of Pascal’s Gambit. Yet, it is crucial. I remember a priest remarking, “it is my duty to believe in hell; but only a fool would believe there is any soul in it.” Either god is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, or he is really a waste of time. BUT if he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, then do what you can, do as you feel you must, and make your peace with him after death.

And if it is not the case that he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving – then he is not a god worth believing in.

He will forgive my non-belief – or he isn’t worth believing in.

Either he exists, and nothing happens; or he doesn’t exist, and nothing happens.

Or he exists and sends me to hell because he is not all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, in which case he is not worthy of worship, and I would prefer hell to any heaven he offers.

In this life, it doesn’t matter whether he exists or not. If there is any after-life, we’ll deal with that as it comes along.

But this is really what we non-theists have claimed all along.

Ethics, theory, and intuition

Are thoughts good or bad? Do they necessitate ethical (or unethical) behaviors and practices?

Both as a Buddhist and a Pragmatist, I don’t believe we ‘own’ our thoughts at all. Thoughts are generated by electrochemical activity in the brain, responding to previous experiences. There is no reason to claim them as ‘mine,’ any more than I can claim that what I see is somehow generated by my eyes. The sun rises, the sun sets – have I control over seeing this? Thoughts about neighbors, or employment, or politics – is any of this ‘me’?

“Me’ is just an existential convenience; thus any thought ‘me’ entertains is simply that fiction re-investing itself in its own existence.

Problems arise when people think they own their thoughts, and that such ownership requires action. What a waste of time!

There are no ‘good’ thoughts, and none ‘bad.’ There are physiological responses that demand ‘I’ respond to ‘my’ thoughts, and there is recognition that all thought is, on one level or other, simply what passes through a brain too enamored of itself and needing practice to learn otherwise.

(Also, as someone who has written a bit of fiction as a hobby, I should note that good fiction writers need to think unthinkable thoughts, if they are to get to the truth of their characters. Dostoyevsky wrote brilliantly – from the inside – of murders, as did Poe. Neither committed murder, as far as I know. They didn’t have to – they knew their fictions were just that. All our thoughts are fictions, sometimes useful to act upon, sometimes not. It is misguided to believe otherwise.)

Most of our ethical responses do not derive from well-thought out ethical theories, direct reasoning of right and wrong. This might be an ideal, but it is not the human animal as we have known it through history. One can imagine an Aquinas, or a Kant, or a Confucius pondering an ethical choice carefully before deciding on the proper action to take; but most of us rely on what we often call ‘gut-feelings’ – or, more reflectively, our intuitions.

There is a mainstream theory in contemporary philosophy that intuitions just are beliefs – thoughts occurring as linguistic units that we hold to be justified. It should be noted that if this is so, then intuitions can be stated as propositions for analysis; and that as statements they can be used for theory construction; thus intuition and theory would be co-dependent. But this is actually an over-sophistication of common experience.

Most people do not experience intuitions as thoughts, but as feelings. Often these feelings are quite vague and difficult to articulate. I walk into a room filled with strangers, and feel uncomfortable, leaving as quickly and as gracefully as I may. Why? ‘I don’t know, those people were just not my type.’ Can this be stated as a belief? possibly, but how meaningfully? to what end? Can background beliefs be uncovered? Also possibly; but those beliefs are not the intuition, they merely condition it as response.

The conditioning of our intuition by belief, by converse with others, by reading or other interaction with cultural experience (art, the sciences, media), is by no means a trivial matter that we can leisurely cast aside. Our intuitions are not “instincts,” as they are sometimes called, arising from biological necessity. They develop as responses during maturation among elders and peers. They keep us aligned with, connected with, the unstated (but viscerally experienced) feelings of others.

But this conditioning raises important questions; after all, how do we wrestle with ethical responses guided by conditioned intuitions that may be misguided? And what can we do when the conditioning fails, for whatever reason, and we cannot respond properly by intuition?

So I do think there’s a place for ethical theory. Having experienced a highly dysfunctional upbringing, I’m not so keen on trusting to sympathy for assuring ethical responses. There is certainly a pathology to be found among those who do not feel the sympathies that drive much ethical behavior. Unfortunately, in a society as diverse and fragmented as our own, such pathologies are quite wide-spread, even among the brightest. Some suffering this, recognizing their deficiency, may develop or learn appropriate responses through theory, which thus provides a kind of therapy. And there is some value in it as propadeutic, helping condition the feelings that we rely on in our actual behavior. And without a healthy public discussion on ethics, some would be left dependent on indoctrination – or on blind obedience to law. Theory of ethics may have limited value, but thinking about ethics is generally a useful endeavor, as long as one doesn’t obsess on it. And any ethical behavior ought to be reasonably explained, if only post-hoc, in order to provide guidance for future behavior, by further conditioning the intuitions – the feelings – that finally drive all our behaviors.

Nonetheless: I remember I had read about Maimonides as a great ethical thinker; so I was surprised to discover, on reading the passages on ethics in Guide of the Perplexed, fairly common sense instruction to ‘be good,’ ‘act charitably,’ ‘don’t envy others,’ and like calls to heed the instructions of one’s elders. At first I was disappointed; but on reflection I realized that the richest wisdom is often the simplest and most commonplace. Much sound ethical instruction, however phrased, amounts to ‘be good;’ and that’s probably as it should be. Ethics is about what we do together, not esoteric schema that we talk about.

—–

Now, for future discussion, I note that I’ve surfaced a problem without providing resolution, and it’s important, so I’ll repeat it: “how do we wrestle with ethical responses guided by conditioned intuitions that may be misguided?” In other words, what do we do when the society around us – that raises us and guides us, and gives us the bearings by which we navigate our lives – just happens to be wrong?  And how do we do this, how do we change our minds?  It’s a difficult question for any theorist of a social-determinist bent. I have suggested possible answers before (it’s one of the reason I’m a ‘compatibilist’ on the ‘free will/determinist’ debate). But the various conflicts involved – between socialization and individuation, between necessary acceptance of communal norms and equally necessary transgressions, between collective interests, humanistic interests, and social justice – are extraordinarily complex, and attempts to articulate them sometimes feel like trying to catch the wind….

In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty
I want to be in the warm hold of your loving mind

To feel you all around me
And to take your hand along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When sundown pales the sky
I want to hide a while behind your smile
And everywhere I’d look your eyes I’d find

For me to love you now
Would be the sweetest thing, it’s what’d make me sing
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When rain has hung the leaves with tears
I want you near to kill my fears
To help me to leave all my blues behind

For standing in your heart
Is where I want to be and long to be
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

– Donovan Leitch

The problem of ‘the Problem of Evil’

“The problem of evil, in the sense in which I am using this phrase, is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds. It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” -J. L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence.”

J. L. Mackie was a professional philosopher and committed atheist who spent some of his career working arguments out of what is known as the Problem of Evil *. Theologians oft wring their hands over it, and that some atheists (especially so-called New Atheists) use it to confront theists with a challenge not easily or comfortably resolvable in the Christian tradition, from whence it originates. The Problem arises out of a conflict of two Christian beliefs: that god is all-powerful and all-good, and that the material universe (supposedly of god’s creation) is filled with evil – filled with sufferings and temptations, hardships, pain. This is an ancient Christian understanding of evil in the material universe following the Fall from Eden. It is unfortunately completely devoid of identifiable significance; or rather, as floating signifier **, it can be made to have any significance rhetorically useful in a given context. For instance, religious teleology: “You are here to confront the evils of your nature;” “you are here to confront the evils of the threatening natural world;” “the internet could be invented to challenge you with the evils of temptation” – etc., etc.

The trouble is, this is a universe that I don’t see myself living in. There is nothing evil about anybody’s getting cancer, or a sudden down-pour washing away this season’s crops, or a meteor falling on some city. These events are results of natural processes, and we deal with them as best we may, because survival – not ‘salvation’ – requires we must. Asserting there is evil in such events, certainly may rhetorically ramp up religious paranoia among some more superstitious Christians, requiring rhetorical re-assurance of divine mercy from wiser, more liberally minded theologians, priests, etc. The work of logical analysis would be to reveal the incoherence and paradoxes involved such an understanding of evil – and this seems to have been Mackie’s intent.

There’s nothing wrong in that – if one doesn’t mind spending a great deal of effort on a non-existent Problem in order to challenge those who won’t learn from the effort anyway. But is there another way to deal with the issue?  But why deal with it at all.  Why not just say, ‘this makes no sense,’ and be done with it?

I started blogging in an effort to find a place for my own secular Buddhism in the New Atheism movement, but eventually lost interest in New Atheism, although I remain sympathetic to the more thoughtful participants. The benefit of my year as a secular Buddhist New Atheist was that I was able to clarify my own beliefs, with which I am now quite comfortable – but being comfortable, I find the ‘god debate’ somewhat tiresome now.

Philosophically, as to the logic of the god debate, the point of origin for me was George H. Smith’s Atheism: the Case against God, presenting the strictly logical arguments against belief; the end point was Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, which presents the case that the very idea of god is simply incoherent, and cannot survive sustained argumentation. Notably, neither of these texts invoke science or scientific methodology (although Smith does make the demand for some evidence to support beliefs that are historically – and quite obviously – only assertions). The rational basis of theistic belief is fundamentally flawed, much of it spurious, regardless of empirical research or evidence.

But the problem is, none of this matters to ‘true believers’ (so we should hardly be surprised when they discard any empirical evidence to their beliefs). As I discovered reading theist responses to atheist arguments, religious belief is not really a matter of reasoning. Its foundations are first, foremost, and overwhelmingly emotional. It may be a simple, vague, intuition of ‘something out there;’ an undeniable pathology of needing paternal guidance; a profound sense that some spiritual ‘other’ lovingly follows one around, invested in one’s success in life, forgiving any perceived transgression. But whatever it else is, it is emotional yearning, emotional fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, that rational argument can never reach. It is love; and one can no more argue against it than persuade a teen-ager that her idealized first relationship is a tissue of rhetoric and fantasized future happiness (conditioned on her willing loss of virginity, of course).

I confess I tried feeling such love for a long time – but I never did. The year before I adopted what I would call the truth of the non-theistic tradition of Buddhism, I went to a priest for confession (having a history as a Catholic). I spoke admiringly of Thomas Aquinas – upon which the priest shook his head sadly, saying “you love wisdom more than god.” He gave me absolution, but warned that I perilously close to unbelief. He was right, on both counts: I love wisdom; I never really believed in god.

To return to our starting point: My problem here is that I no longer recognize the Christian universe Mackie is attempting to confront; I don’t live there. The ‘radical evil’ that Kant and other philosophers write about is comprehensible once one recognizes that it arises out of unbridled desire – this is completely in keeping with the Buddhist understanding of suffering arising from the ‘self.’ But the Christian notion that ‘evil’ is signifier for horrendous experiences of every kind – human, natural, real, imagined – requires some basis in an amorphic metaphysics is entirely alien to me. While I sympathize Mackie’s project, it really seems to miss the point. The Christians’ worry over the Problem of Evil arises from fear, and their commitment to god arises from loneliness, longing, and hope. This makes the question a matter for psychology, not logic. Fearing the ‘evil’ all around us, or trusting in a loving god’s mercy to save us from this, are clearly drawn from deeper feelings than logic can reach.

For me, the universe is simply what is, just as it is. There is no inherent good or evil to it; there is no ‘wrongness’ or misfortune. The only meaningful sense of ‘evil’ for me lies in the harm we do to ourselves or others. Such is properly addressed by either ethics, psychology, or collectively in politics.

It’s not a matter of choice, but of epistemic conditioning. I try not to let my emotions govern my beliefs – and I don’t believe that they should. We should always try to look at the universe just as it presents itself, and learn to live with that.

——

*See the Stanford Encyclopedia discussion, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/

** I should remark, for readers unfamiliar with the term, that ‘floating signifier’ is a term of art in semiotics for “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified” (David Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, Routledge, 2002 ).

Mackie, J. L. “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955). http://www.ditext.com/mackie/evil.html

Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Nash, 1974.

Nielsen, Kai. Atheism & Philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2005.

 

Rhetoric and real people

As follow-up to my previous post, starting on a tangent: The complete sentence Shakespeare has Cassius speak: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The assumption of writers who argue that we can be free of rhetoric, that rhetoric is some evil manipulation of people (who need to think more rationally), is that most people would not be ‘underlings’ if they were better informed, and rhetoric better controlled. That’s unfortunately untrue.

The two crucial speeches in “Julius Caesar” are by Brutus and Antony. Brutus’ speech is modeled after Cicero, and is an impeccably reasoned appeal to the reasoned identification of the audience with the interests of the Roman city – an abstraction. Antony’s speech is an indirect appeal to the individual citizen’s immediate emotional response (probably modeled on the sermons of Shakespeare’s Reformation England). The ethical backdrop to these speeches is ambiguous (acceptable to Shakespeare’s audience, since Romans were pagans, thus doomed to hell) – Brutus has helped murder a man recognized as a capable governor, because of what he might have become; Antony seems to be revenging a beloved mentor, but has a hidden agenda.

Ethically, both men are in the wrong: Thus their differing speeches need only be judged rhetorically as to their differing success (and Antony’s clearly wins out).

Shakespeare not only had a better grasp of rhetorical practice than most rhetorical theorists, but also of rhetorical theory. The problem surfacing, surely, is that of how the audience sees its own interests, not what is in their best interest, reasonably assessed.

One can’t ‘manipulate’ racists into engaging in racists acts. They are ready and willing to do so. Is racism in their interest? Unfortunately, they think so. So we begin undoing racism by undoing racists beliefs already held. Pretending they are being manipulated seems rather overly charitable.

America invaded Iraq – because the American people wanted to do so. The Bush regime gave them the excuses they needed to feel satisfied in their personal identities as citizens of ‘the world’s only super-power,’ a ‘Christian nation’ sitting as a ‘City on the Hill,’ an ‘exceptional people’ with an ‘manifest destiny.’

Fools do not fly in where angels fear to tread; they walk about daily, going to work, coming home, pretending they have a good idea of how the world works and expected of them.

My mother often said, that we are all born slaves; and once I asked her, if she had been hired to work at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, would she have taken such a position? She said ‘well, it would have been a job; of course.’ Part Jewish, and ‘it would have been a job, of course.’

Before we are the ‘rational animal,’ we are the ‘rationalizing animal.’ Never underestimate that – especially when it comes to the power of rhetoric to persuade.

The Socratic notion, that language and knowledge can be melded together to cut through rhetoric, and thus delegitimate the powerful, seems to me on shaky epistemic and psychological ground – not to mention that there is a sociological problem, namely that the powerful will use any means necessary to maintain power; rhetoric, lies – or military force. We only have such discussions as this because we live in a culture where rhetoric and lies are fairly successful, thus perennially deferring any sense of the powerful that they must slam military force down upon our heads. But we have plenty of examples of cultures where discourse doesn’t really matter, because everyone knows the powerful will use military force.

I’m not saying we need to avoid being critical of the powerful; on the contrary, in a culture where we can do so, I’m suggesting that we need to mount a rhetoric more powerful than the powerful present – persuasion increases our numbers, and there is strength in numbers. But in doing so, we would be in a stronger position the more certain we are of our own motives, so that our rhetoric doesn’t catch us by our tails. Antony’s rhetoric engendered a bloody civil war and led to the establishment of the Roman Empire – regardless of bourgeois scholarly hype, one of the worst political disasters in the West – regardless of its technical and cultural achievements.

That is a level of hell we need not have ever visited again.

Alas! we did; we did….

My caution: give up hope for perfection (‘utopia’ – Latin; translation: ‘no place’); surrender claim to glory and ‘grandeur.’

What do real people (the ‘naked ape,’ as one theorist called us – the animal we really are) really need? If that’s not the question, what is the question? What could possibly be a question anymore important than this?