Saturday, November 9, 2019

Moral Fundamentals Part 1

     It has become ever more frequent an experience for me to start on an essay, get a few hundred words into it, and back away, muttering to myself that “I’ve said that before.” And, after some shuffling through my archives (which are quite voluminous after twenty-plus years of this lunacy), I usually find the piece that was knocking at the back of my memory, demanding to be acknowledged. Often, after I’ve read it, I discard the “new” essay I’d been writing and cast about for some topic I haven’t yet addressed. But on occasion I realize that what I wanted to prattle about remains true and important. Indeed, it might have grown in importance since I first wrote about it.

     I’ve just had exactly that experience. I’d imagine the title of this piece is an adequate indicator of the subject I have in mind. And so I present what follows: the first part of a five-essay series on evil, which first appeared at Eternity Road on September 20, 2010.

The Nature Of Evil Part 1: Beginning At The End

     Possibly the most provocative thing one can say in this age of Man is that there exists an absolute standard of any sort, independent of the preferences, perceptions, and aspirations of any particular observer.

     The gospel of our era is relativism in all things: cultural, moral, logical, even scientific. Claims of absolute truth are sneered aside as conclusively refuted without trial. Feminist author Sandra Harding referred to Isaac Newton's three laws of mechanics as "Newton's Rape Manual," nor is there any reason to believe she was being facetious. Physicist Alan Sokal revealed the extent to which relativists will descend with a facetious article our cultural glitterati took quite literally.

     So those of us who, with Samuel Johnson, kick a stone and proclaim "I refute it thus" are in a distinct minority. In consequence, a debate that requires that one's interlocutor accept the existence of evil, a concept relativists categorically reject, is problematic from the start.

     Which doesn't mean there's no such thing as evil.


     Regard well the following: a snippet of dialogue from a recent, great novel. Ryan Schell, an undercover operative in an anti-terrorism organization, is exchanging blows with Allison Garvin. Miss Garvin is a Marxist-Stalinist who managed to become a deputy chief of staff to the president and has been found complicit in the planning of a terrorist mass murder. She has just informed Ryan that her group can make use of Islamists as agents because "Islamic violence is a response to the decay of the bourgeois West," which her people can exploit to "get history moving again in accordance with the science of socialism."

     “Your certainty is impressive," Ryan said. "It allows you to justify your faith in mass murder."
"It's not murder," she said, "when the violence is justified by the revolution. The bourgeois regime being attacked is criminal and inhuman and all who are obedient to it are complicit in its interminable violence. In acts of revolutionary violence against the enemy anyone complicit with the enemy who is killed is guilty of the crime of the enemy. It is not murder."
     “So riding a subway train to work," Ryan said, "is a criminal act punishable by death?"
     “When seen in its true historical context, it certainly is," she said confidently.
     “Everyone on the subway is equally guilty," Ryan suggested.
     “No, not if you go person by person, a maid or janitor is not carrying the same level of guilt as a stockbroker or corporate executive, but revolutionary violence sweeps with an inclusive broom. The statement it makes is bold and absolute and is a warning to all...."
     “And what do you believe in, soldier boy? Gawd?"
     “In the individual and his liberty," Ryan said, rising to the bait."
     “Oh dear, an American. You people are so charming, so quaint," she said, "always the perpetual football players running onto the field to the roar of the crowd and the bouncing breasts of the cheerleaders."
     “You’re an American, aren't you, Ms. Garvin?" he asked.
     "Ah, no," she said. "I stopped thinking of myself as that, as an American when I was a teenager. That's what we call 'the normal maturation process' these days, soldier boy. Sorry you missed it."
     “So you're not an American," Ryan said. "What are you?"
     “I’m a citizen of the world," she said.
     “That’s a big concept," Ryan said.
     “It’s basic," she said. "You must have missed it while you were attending your ROTC meetings."
     “I guess I did," Ryan said. "That would explain why I'm still just an American with a silly belief in freedom."
     Garvin laughed.
     “Freedom? You think this America is free? You've got ninety percent of the people glued to their couches gazing like zombies into their televisions and eating non-stop. And then they jump off their couches for five minutes of history when a couple of tall buildings are knocked down in New York. That's the America I see. That's the America the revolution sees. This freedom thing you believe in, soldier boy, is a fairy tale, just like Gawd. History is unfolding right before your eyes and you're running in the opposite direction after the fairies of freedom and the goblins of terrorism. You should run in the direction of revolutionary violence, all of you should, get out in front of it, get off this America thing, because it is dead, a thing of the past. America no longer exists. You just haven't realized it. None of you have....
     “What you people refuse to understand," Garvin said, jumping into the silence that had fallen over the room, "is that this freedom of yours is no more than pitiful self-indulgence at the expense of others. What the revolution does is take the anger and frustration of those who hunger for justice in the world and shape that into purposeful violence. You try to deny that by calling it 'senseless violence' and "mass murder,' but I'm looking at your faces now and I can see those old defenses and the lies that support them draining out of you. You all look like children who have just been told that there is no Santa Claus, and you had really known that all along. You just needed an adult to make it official for you. Well, here I am, kids, giving it to you straight, what you already knew."

     [From Corpse In Armor, Copyright © 2010 by Martin McPhillips. Used by permission.]

     I dare anyone to come up with a proclamation more absolute than Allison Garvin's statement above -- and I dare anyone to come within arm's length of me and state that her notions are not evil. Yet there are many people who, rather than concede that Garvin's tirade is a defense of absolute evil, would attempt to justify her allegiances and intentions as "valid from her perspective," or some such. I've exchanged fire with a few myself -- and not always just in words.


     For reasons that would require a large history to delineate, Americans have been led away from the understanding of absolute truth. We've been treated to elaborate, amphigorical explanations of why "the cat sat on the mat" should not be taken as a statement of unchallengeable fact, even if we can see Kitty sitting on the damned thing with our own eyes. Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and the rest of their tribe literally made careers out of the campaign to destroy even the possibility that language, our vehicle for thought and for interaction with one another, can express truth. But without a trustworthy, serviceable conception of truth, there can be no knowledge, including knowledge of Man's nature. Since the understanding of Man's nature is the key to reasoning about right and wrong, without truth we can make no approach to moral and ethical standards.

     Without truth, evil becomes not merely undefined, but undefinable.

     Yet we are required by our consciences and the densely woven texture of our society to make moral choices every day. Only a hermit in the midst of a vast desert, never approached by any other human being, could avoid such choices. If we must do so without standards of absolute right and wrong, absolute good and evil, by which to evaluate our choices, what chance have we? How likely is it that our society will continue and flourish?

     It's my intention in this series to explore evil all the way from its metaphysical roots to its manifestations in daily life. But this essay will begin at the end, with the depiction of what must follow if evil is permitted to take root in soil stripped of absolute truth and the standards of right and wrong truth makes possible:

     The door to the building opened and the General came in. He was by himself and he looked as if he had been watching the whole thing. I noticed that he was carrying a nine millimeter in his hand, hanging at his side, and I thought he was going to threaten Garvin with it, possibly because he'd found a problem with her statements about Beers and Spencer.
     His mouth was tight, and he shot only a quick glance Ryan's way, not looking at the rest of us. He walked straight to Garvin and she looked up at him.
     “You," she said, with shock in her eyes.
     “Yes, me," the General said. "let me shape some purposeful violence for you."
     He raised his nine millimeter about three feet from Garvin's head and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered above her left eye and exploded out the back of her head.

     [From Corpse In Armor.]

     The essay above is only a beginning, a “teaser,” if you will, for the wider subject of moral fundamentals. It is impossible to believe anything, or to reason about anything, without fundamental premises. Commonly, we maintain such premises in an unconscious state: i.e., without ever addressing them critically. We may acquire them early in life: “at our mothers’ knee,” as the old saying runs. The most important thing about them is our absolute reliance on them.

     As with any other subject, a discourse on the subject of morals and ethics – henceforward I’ll simply write “morals,” to save wear and tear on my fingers – proceeds from the premise that reasoning about them is possible. But it’s only possible if there are bedrock premises we can agree are beyond question. The elucidation of those premises has become so urgent as to be required for the continuation of a coherent human society. Yet today more effort is put to obscuring those premises, arguing in effect that a rational discussion of morals is impossible and pointless, than ever before in history.

     Over the centuries many others, some with doctorates in philosophy, have addressed the subject. Mostly they’ve spread confusion and discord. This cannot be permitted to continue.

     Please don’t think I’ve set myself above the many learned and articulate men who’ve addressed this subject. I know my littleness. Still, I feel a compulsion, in part due to some recent events, one of which I’ll now relate: A longtime reader recently asked me for my estimate of what percentage of us achieve God’s purpose for us. I replied in the affirmative, but with a caveat:

     I believe that every one of us achieves God's purpose for him. However, a great many of us don't do so consciously or willingly. We have to be cornered into it!

     It’s possible we’re not intended to know what purpose God has assigned us. I’ve never been sure of mine. I’ve been groping toward it for many years. This new journey is just one more stab in the dark.

     And yes, you guessed it: More anon.


Cliffdweller said...
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I fear the day that the General's actions wrt Garvin is coming. En masse, and far sooner than any of us expect.

Tracy Coyle said...

First premise (of mine) on the nature of 'truth':

The nature of the Universe is the expression of the Creator. Therefore, fundamental 'truth' is based in it's nature. As man is a creature of nature, so therefore must be the fundamental truth of human nature in that Expression.

And evil is the counter to that truth. It violates the principle. It expresses itself as the anti-thesis of truth.

I agree with you without agreeing with the author of purpose! And I know my purpose: catalyst.

Margaret Ball said...

You've pointed out one of the many reasons I like your own novels; you tackle interesting moral and ethical dilemmas in a creative way. I may write lightweight fluff myself, but I enjoy watching a skilled writer who's willing to delve deeper.

ligneus said...

Speaking of Derrida and co, do you know Roger Scruton's book, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands? Great book.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Thank you, Margaret. It's always seemed to me that if SF and fantasy are good for anything much, they're uniquely suited to exactly that: exploring moral and ethical challenges, especially our unexamined notions about them.

For me it started with Heinlein, who was always willing to "go there," regardless of the difficulties. I'd imagine quite a lot of writers would say the same. Oh, and apropos of nothing, I love your books. I don't consider them "fluff."