Archive for category morality
Every time I’ve gotten on Facebook over the past few days I’ve read people’s reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Most of these statements regarding OBL’s death haven’t been about the man himself, the life he lived, or the way he died; they’ve mostly been reactions to others’ celebration of his death. Most of these reactions have been negative; they object to the celebration of the death of a fellow human being, no matter how vile he may have been. Here’s an especially good one I read just before writing this:
“I am sure [Osama Bin Laden] celebrated all of the deaths of his enemies… I thought that was why he was the bad guy, though?”
I feel the sentiment too. There’s something in me that writhes about when I see others, or myself, smiling or laughing or cheering about the fact that there’s one more bullet-riddled, lifeless body in the world.
But I think the sentiment that being glad at, or even celebrating, the death of another human being is wrong – isn’t always right. I think that the feeling that it’s always wrong to be glad someone has died or been killed is based on the beautiful, but false, belief that no one lives in such a way that their death is a victory for good. People do live this way, and Osama Bin Laden was one of them. I don’t think that you should ignore that part of yourself that cringes when you see someone smiling over his death, but I do think you should consider exactly what you should be cringing over. I don’t think that you should cringe over his death, per se. I think you should feel saddened and grieved not that a man was killed, but rather that a man – a fellow human – lived in such a way that he put his other fellow humans in such a painful predicament, where they were forced to either willfully live with the danger that, at any moment, innocence and beauty could be snuffed out by this man, or willfully eliminate the threat to innocents by taking another’s life. In this way, by living the life he did, Osama Bin Laden victimized humanity on multiple levels. He played an active, conscious role in taking the lives of thousands of people – thousands of boyfriends and girlfriends, children, fiancees, parents, siblings and friends. He helped traumatize thousands of other lives forever. And he promised to do this as long as he lived. He thereby placed the world of innocents between the horns of a dilemma: live in fear and danger, or eliminate a life. And in this instance, the second option is the moral one. Weighing the value of the lives of thousands of innocents against the value of a moral monster who threatens those lives makes the right choice clear. To not do everything possible to preserve the lives of innocents in this case would have been wrong. Bin Laden forced other humans into the position where, in order to do the right thing, they had to kill someone. That’s not their fault. It’s his.
But why should we be happy he’s dead? Sure, killing him wasn’t the wrong thing to do, you might say, but is celebrating another’s death, no matter how evil they are, ever right? Isn’t celebrating the death of another human sadistic and cruel? I think it is, normally. But I don’t think it’s always sadistic, cruel, or mean-spirited to celebrate another’s death. Consider the following scenarios.
The Roman Emperor, Nero, was a sadistic tyrant. Stories illustrating his cruelty abound. He, according to some accounts, used to light the city of Rome at night by hanging Christians, alive, by their limbs throughout the city and setting them on fire. Perhaps those stories are true, perhaps not. It doesn’t really matter. There certainly could have been such a ruler. And there certainly have been sick, terrifying tyrants. Perhaps Nero did light the city with live, screaming humans. Perhaps he taxed people so severely that many starved to death while he sat on a mountain of money. And perhaps he skinned alive all who dared to look in his face. Imagine this is how Nero was. All his subjects would live in constant fear of his next whimsical bout of sadism. They would struggle under the financial burdens he placed on them. Many would watch their children starve to death under his unjust rule.
Now imagine, having ruled in this way, Nero suddenly dies, and his throne passes to another – a just and kind man. He was stabbed to death by a guard; or perhaps he died of a sudden stroke, or bone cancer, and with his death so dies his tyrannical rule. How would you, a pitiful, starving subject of his, living in constant fear of torture or taxation, feel? You’d rejoice! The tyrant is dead! You’d take the money you have, knowing it will no longer go to the Monster King, and prepare a feast for your family! And would you be evil for it? For laughing and dancing and crying for joy with your husband or wife? Of course not! This man’s death is not a tragedy; it’s a blessing to the world, for it has made us safer; it has removed from our lives injustice, terror, pain, death, and hatred. That is a cause for celebration. If we mourn at all it should come last, and we should not mourn over the man’s death, but over his life. We should be sorry not that he died, but that he lived in the way he did.
This is how we should feel about Osama Bin Laden’s death. We didn’t all live in the same terror that those under my (probably fictitious) Nero did. But many of our fellow humans did. Many have lived for ten years with the suffering and loss he helped inflict on them, and a hatred for the man who chose to hurt them so badly. His death has given some sense of closure and real justice to their pain. There are people today who, had Bin Laden been allowed to live out his natural life, would have surely died at his hands. They don’t know who they are, but there are such people. And we should be glad that they won’t die in this unjust way now. We should, also, be glad for all the people who have lived with a constant, phobic anxiety at the fact that Bin Laden is out there, trying to find some way to drop another plane on their city. They can rest a bit easier, I think, knowing that that monster isn’t out there now.
So, I think that celebration is absolutely appropriate, if it is done with the right facts in mind. We should be happy that the world is a bit safer, that there’s one less monster out there, and that there are likely lives that would have ended unjustly, but have now been saved. That is worth celebrating. But most who celebrate don’t do so with these facts in mind. They celebrate the death of Bin Laden as a victory for the ‘home team’. It’s ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and we just scored a touchdown. This sort of stupid, machismo, fanboy exuberance is shameful and totally out of place. It embodies, albiet to a much smaller degree, the very same divisive, inhumane prejudices that make real atrocities, such as terrorism, possible in the first place. It ought to be snuffed out too. But, that said, I think that you, the reader, should feel entitled to a real sense of satisfaction at the fact that, in the death of a monster, the world has been bettered.
My girlfriend was running the other day. And daydreaming. So she fell and scraped up her elbow and hands. She bragged to me that she didn’t cry, but, to a twenty-five year old male, that doesn’t strike me as too impressive. As I’ve heard over the past few days how painful her scrapes are, I’ve reflected on just why women seem to be such wimps about physical pain. Here’s my probably false, but fairly plausible evolutionary explanation.
There is a biological basis for women’s wimpery. The part of their brains that process emotions are more intimately connected to the parts of their brains that process physical pain. This keeps them from being able to psychologically “distance” themselves from their pain – from putting it out of their minds in the way men commonly do. The reason for this neurological fact about women provides them with an evolutionary advantage: empathy. One’s ability to empathize with the needs and feelings of others is often fostered by reflecting on one’s own feelings. The more pain you feel then, the more likely you are to reflect on it, and the more you reflect on it, the more you understand what it’s like when you see others in similar discomforts, and so the more likely you are to care when you see their pain. This might at first seem like an evolutionary disadvantage, but it’s not. While empathizing may lead you to put yourself in a hazardous situation – say, to help save the life of another – it is also quite helpful in the evolutionary game of pass-on-the-genes. Here’s why. Imagine a cro-magnon mother who has no empathy for others. She would certainly be self-sufficient, and wouldn’t find herself in those hazardous situations that empathy might lead into. But she won’t be very good at passing on her genes. This is because, in order for your genes to make their way successfully into future generations, you have to mate, and your children have to live. A lack of empathy would hinder both – especially the second. If you can’t empathize, you won’t be very caring, as I said. If you’re not very caring though, you’ll probably make a poor mother, especially if you live in a hostile environment where infant mortality is high. The unsympathetic cro-magnon mother has a much higher chance of losing her child to malnutrition, mishandling, or general neglect because she just doesn’t care enough. If her child dies, so do her genes. In this way, females with more empathic brain structures are selected for by evolution. Which leaves us, after thousands of generations, with the empathic brain structures that make girls such wimps.
But I’m sure that’s all bs.
“What attracts men to evil acts is not the evil in them, but the good that is there, seen under a false aspect and with a distorted perspective. The good seen from that angle is only the bait in a trap. When you reach out to take it, the trap is sprung and you are left with disgust, boredom – and hatred. Sinners are people who hate everything, because their world is necessarily full of betrayal, full of illusion, full of deception. And the greatest sinners are the most boring people in the world, because they are also the most bored, and the ones who find life most tedious. When they try to cover the tedium of life with noise, excitement, and violence – the inevitable fruits of a life devoted to the love of values that do not exist – they become something more than boring, they are the scourges of the world…” – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
Merton’s right. He’s really just echoing Augustine, who first noticed (to my knowledge) what I remember concluding one day in my dad’s dented, smoke-stained red truck as we headed toward another night of tense quiet – that badness is just the absence of goodness. It sounds much more profound, much more like a discovery, when Augustine said it (which shows that poetic skill is often all that separates children from great philosophers).
The revelation does mean something though. It’s worth some consideration, for we all, from time to time, more often than we like to think, and more often than we realize, find ourselves clenching our teeth after the trap snaps shut on us, leaving us empty-handed, or with hands full of filth after some ill attempt at getting a bit of happiness through wickedness, or meanness, or selfishness. And this sick feeling of disappointment and disgust with ourselves is just that contrast between the good we sough and the filth we procured in the seeking. It’s the realization of this contrast that gives rise to our own self-revulsion, our guilt, and it leaves us with just a few options to go on with: we can put our clothes back on, resolved not to compromise again, not to fudge the boundaries and do the bad thing, holding to our conviction that this was not the right way, or we can choose to continue as we have, numbing our sense of shame and nausea little by little with each repeated infraction. If we are heady enough, we might even call this enlightenment – emancipation from the puritanical values thrust upon us from some dark age, which still inflict us with the pins and needles of some long-amputated appendage still trying to wake.
This second path is possible. We’ve taken it already in a thousand ways, numbing our horror with joking, with art, with tightened jowls, and we can continue, continue on forever until we are as hollow and pleasantly numb as we long to be when we are committing evil, because this is just the desire of the person in the act – that their soul would quell its disgust, or at least quiet its cries of revulsion so that we may continue toward pleasure – a real good – via some dark and destructive route. This amounts to nothing more than a ceasing of reflection. This numbing, this deadening, is not the deadening of the soul that apprehends the moral character of our acts, but is rather the deadening of the mind that sees, quietly, without thesis or elaboration at times, the destruction ahead.
Let’s not go that way. – What then? Merton does not admit here that the wicked could ever escape their boredom, but in the way mentioned above they can. He is simply to hopeful that people either won’t or can’t stop reflecting. But we have. And this is the road to evil. Without our own evaluation of our acts, with the possibility in mind that we might ruin ourselves or others, we will be totally unchained, completely animal.
This is why it’s worth reading, learning, philosophizing. Not because you might win Jeopardy, or score well on whatever ill-conceived standardized test you’ll have to take to do something even more tedious and itself devoid of value. We learn so that we might have categories, instances, examples, and estimates with which to reflect on our own lives. If we don’t have this, we will live as stupidly and ungladly as tyrants.
I just finished watching an incredibly difficult documentary. It’s called Awful Normal, and it follows two young women as they gather courage and confront the man who molested them when they were little children. My chest is still tight.
All in all, their effort was a very successful one I think, but throughout it struck me just how differently this whole thing would have played out in a different time, or in a somewhat different society. That doesn’t come to my mind because I’m interested in abstractions about culture or whatever, but because throughout their quest to find closure and rest from something that happened twenty years ago, I often found my instincts conflicting with what the felt like they needed to end their pain.
The thing that struck me most continually was the difference in what they were striving for – psychological closure, and what I wanted to see happen – justice. These are pretty distinct things, though it seems that most people only want the second because it will give them the first, and I think that’s where I sit, and I have a hard time having the first without the second. Not so for these girls. What they needed was just to see him own it, and hear him say he was sorry, and they could move on. I don’t know if it has something to do with my maleness, or some barbaric gene in my DNA, but the whole movie long, it rarely occurred to me that he needed to own up. Rather, I would have brief fantasies of mutilating him in some horrible way, or just killing him.
It makes me think of Benito Mussolini. When it became apparent to the citizens of Italy that he had screwed his whole country over, they tried him, executed him, dragged his naked body through the streets, and left it hanging in a public square until the stench was unbearable. This seems sort of barbaric to most of us, but I wonder if sometimes the gruesome way is the only way out.
That’s probably a tired sort of instinct. Everyone moans that serial killers get to die peaceful deaths in injection chambers, while their victims die in much more terrible ways. It is interesting though that our catharsis about something as terrible as child molestation can come from the monster’s mere admission. It says something about us that the “solution” (though, of course, there’s no such thing) to our pain is so asymmetrical to its cause. Maybe that shows that we’re becoming a more loving, gracious society. I doubt it though. Our motivation for grace and forgiveness is mostly self-centered now. We’re told to forgive so that we can be free – which is, of course, a pretty morally worthless sort of act; like giving food to the homeless just to earn frequent-flyer miles.
I think, rather, this drastic asymmetry signals that we’re becoming a society with a pervasive lack of interest in justice. The fact that we can get over child molestation to any serious degree by just hearing the culprit confess carries some immediate psychological benefits for the victims, but it completely neglects the need for justice to be served, and if a society is comprised of such individuals it seems like it will have the effect of making serious wrong-doing seem more and more like the trivial trespasses that children make, which somehow are miraculously dissolved by apology. That, to me, sounds like a pretty dangerous mindset for a society to adopt.