JUSTDOLIT: a single tool to analyse all texts

Ethics

1 Values & processes

One of the aspects that the analytical tool we use throughout this website does not intuitively cover is the question of good and evil. This is a fundamental question for human beings, and thus discussion of it merits a module. The questions this module addresses are something like

  • what does morality applied to literary texts consist of?
  • in which way does morality relate to any of the four dimensions?
  • how is the moral world represented in literary texts?

I would like to start with the third question, for answering it leads to distinguishing between two ways in which moral issues appear in texts. Texts can present moral issues as

  • values
  • processes

Texts, like human beings, participate of, indeed constitute, areas of moral action. Much that happens in our everyday life, and thus much that happens in texts, is moral or immoral, to a lesser or greater degree. Now one can focus on the process that leads to a moral or immoral action, situation, or value (I will use 'value' for the sake of brevity), or one can just present the value itself as moral or immoral, usually via juxtaposition of the moral and the immoral.

If it is the value itself that is presented (and I dare say most texts opt for this strategy), that value will usually incorporate the typical association of nature as feeling, individuality and freedom. The immoral value will stand in opposition to that compound. At least from a Modern perspective. Of course, older texts may well present other values as positive, and we will do well to inquire into the conditions that made such values important for a society, before we bring our own pre-judgements into the analysis.

In any case, these values are amenable to analysis along the lines suggested by the model used in this website. The following examples, originally designed for modules 2.1 and 2.4, also serve as exemplifications of stated values presented as moral and immoral:

Freedom as a stated value

Kant and Orwell

1984

Nature as a stated value

From George Orwell's 1984

Immorality in the presentation of gander and ethnicity

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

 

However, if the text focusses on the process that leads to the value, other criteria become important. What follows is an attempt (long but necessary, I think) to describe these criteria.

2 Nature-as-it-is & -as-it-should-be

Contemporary nature is the Here and Now: To understand moral issues in terms of process, we have to start by distinguishing between different kinds of nature. In contemporary Western society, nature is most often taken to mean 'that which is', the 'Here and Now'. The good news of such an understanding of nature is that it protects us against oppression from law and authority. The bad news is that such a nature presupposes a gulf between nature and society. Human beings, however, are both natural and social beings, and at one and the same time.

Two types of nature: To ensure the link between nature and society, classical thought distinguished between two types of nature: Nature-as-it-is and Nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos. The ‘telos’ is the direction of growing nature to develop correctly. Nowadays we look at teleological nature (for that’s what “human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos” or direction means) with suspicion, although not for scientific reasons. From the seventeenth century onwards, such a notion of nature was slowly discarded not because it was proved wrong, but because teleological self-direction proved dangerous for a scientific progress that needed nature to die, to lose its status as an other with a direction of its own (Jonas 1973: 54-55; Spaemann 1994: 42, 44).

3 Problematic and necessary: teleology

Instincts and the perfection of open programs: It is customary to refer to examples of the seed-turning-into-tree-type to point to the notion of a correct development of teleological nature. Human beings, however, do not develop 'correctly' the way seeds become trees. After all, most instincts are open programs which can develop in different direction. And yet, it may well be that some directions may be more ‘correct’ than others. Every kitten has a hunting instinct to develop, but wild kittens will develop it to greater perfection than domestic kittens (Midgley 1996: 53-54).

How far the kitten example applies to human beings is a moot point: after all, in human socialisation, reason and the will have to play their part to develop instinct. Compare a one-year-old and a four-year-old’s way of dealing with its hunger in front of a set table. The one-year-old is more like nature-as-it-is, and the result is devastating for cutlery, walls and the clothes of people around the child. A four-year-old will still be satisfying its basic natural drive, hunger, yet do so in a much more civilised manner. It has learned, used what little reason it has (and probably some coercion from its parents) to improve (just ask his parents whether he has improved or not).

The problem of teleology: But teleology becomes problematic the moment one tries to apply the theory to social reality. The problems are minor when you decide on what a civilised manner of eating is, or whether it is necessary to wear a tie in certain social gatherings. They become, however, much more complex, sometimes threatening, but also interesting, when applied to other situations and cases, like sexual preferences or religious education. The social enforcement of teleology through legislation remains, in any case, a moot point: even an eminently conservative thinker like Robert Spaemann says that much teleological thinking cannot be enforced on us, at least from a legislative point of view, as it would imply the surrender of the Modern concept of subjectivity (Spaemann 1994: 74).

The paradox of teleology: A paradox thus opens up in the notion of teleology: it does undoubtedly exist but cannot be generalised and extended to everybody. This difficulty of judgment should not, however, obscure the fact that teleological nature is an important element to look for, in nature, human motivation, and no less so in fiction. If pontificating about it may often feel like sitting on a cactus, not thinking about it looks like letting go of a raft in the middle of the ocean.

Why teleology does not equal socialisation: We are usually suspicious of teleology because we identify it with socialisation and see it as a move away from basic instinct. This is not altogether true.

  • We like to think that instincts and feelings are altogether basic and natural, universally shared by every person in the world. however, in humans, instincts and feelings cannot but manifest themselves in social environments by social beings. Human nature cannot but be socialised, human nature is culture-specific.
  • There are many situations in which, after having left nature and reflected on it, we may actually decide it is suitable to return to it: imagine sitting in your armchair and relaxing after a hard day’s work, suddenly feeling guilty because the kitchen’s a mess and you should clean it, and then letting it all go to hell and sitting down again because you really are tired.
  • Human beings become highly socialized in the course of their lives. That socialization can sediment to the extent of becoming a second nature. If socialization has gone wrong anywhere, it may be necessary to go into reverse and de-socialise, naturalise back again. The maxim holds that

    Without reasons to the contrary a drive remains a sufficient reason for action. Inherent to every action, says Aristotle, is a orexis, to which reason is added after the fact. (Spaemann 2001: 144, my translation)

    What should remain clear is that such a return is a conscious decision, something we are accountable for, at the very least to our own selves. Naturalisation in the direction of nature-as-it-is may itself be highly teleological.

4 Ethics, good and evil

Teleology and ethics: The distinction nature-as-it-is vs nature-as-it-should-be is not easy. One reason why teleology is important is that without it, with only nature-as-it-is to guide our judgement, it is very difficult, maybe impossible, to arrive at really ethical (in the sense of good and evil) evaluations of actions and of texts. In fact, many texts just do not provide much of a possibility for ethics. There is, for example, little real ethics in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: the baddies are too bad, the goodies too good, and Harry Potter is good because he is nature-as-it-is. From an ethical perspective, Harry's problem - it is the problem of many other texts - is: how can you really be good if what you are is nature?

Feeling and sacrifice: Harry does not have to decide against his inclination. On the other hand, nature-as-it-should-be often demands from me that I decide against my inclination, that I make some kind of sacrifice in the short run to ensure something I deem good in the longer run. The problem about this is how I can make sure that the decision I take, and which goes against my feeling, is correct. This is not the place to provide an answer, although often sacrifice touches a deeply sensitive fibre in us. We can see that even in many contemporary Hollywood films – I am thinking of action-packed superhero movies like the X-Men trilogy, Spiderman, or Batman Begins, but also of Clint Eastwood’s much more interesting anti-hero movie Unforgiven, - all movies in which the main character refrains from sex with whoever, thus denying his body, for moral reasons: a promise, a wife, the security of his girlfriend, etc.

Many texts, in the way they articulate St. Augustine's dimensions and Riemann's fears and yearnings, try to provide an answer to the problem of ethics. It is important for you to bear in mind that that answer is deeply related to the question of sacrifice and feeling. I dare say that, in a way, an ethically successful text has to provide a balance between feeling and sacrifice, one must somehow refer you to the other: the sacrifice is necessary, but there has to be a motivation for that sacrifice achored in our nature. For an example of a text which provides what I consider a successful attempt at being ethical, click on the picture below.

waterland

Ethics in Graham Swift's Waterland

work cited (and referred to):

Jonas, Hans. Organismus und Freiheit: Ansätze zu einer philosophischen Biologie. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1973.

Midgley, Mary. Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature. London: Routledge, 1996.

Spaemann, Robert. Philosophische Essays. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1994.

___. Grenzen: zur ethischen Dimension des Handelns. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2001.

acknowledgement of sources for pictures:

 

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daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann