Saturday, 13 April 2013

“Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead”, or, Is it allowed to speak ill of the dead?

Margaret Thatcher is dead, and while conservative MPs celebrate her life time achievements and the state is preparing for a bombastic funeral, others celebrate her death and would be only too glad to dance on her grave: Ding dong, the witch (or bitch) is dead. Those who admire and praise her, both as a great leader and a human being, have expressed outrage and disgust at those public demonstrations of joy, which are "disgraceful", "despicable" and "totally morally wrong". But are they really? Why exactly? Because Thatcher was such a good person that she doesn't deserve people celebrating her death, or because it is generally wrong to rejoice in anybody's death, whoever they may be and whatever they may have done?

Those who celebrate her death obviously believe that Margaret Thatcher was a bad person and are therefore glad that's she's dead. There's certainly an element of schadenfreude here: serves her right to be dead, good riddance to bad rubbish, and so on and so forth, and perhaps also protest against the welfare cuts imposed by the present government, which is seen as just another expression of help-the-rich-and-let-the-poor-fend-for-themselves “Thatcherism”. But there is of course also resentment (or even hatred) of her as a person, as someone who is thought to be directly responsible for plunging many people into permanent unemployment and destitution.
But what drives those who express outrage at the celebrations? Is it their belief a) that this particular person, Margaret Thatcher, should not be disrespected in that way because she deserves respect (in which case one may very well disagree with their judgement of Thatcher's worthiness of being respected, and then celebrate without moral impropriety), or b) that, as the rhetoric suggests, nobody's death should be celebrated because it is generally bad to speak ill of the dead. In that case it seems that it would be equally wrong to celebrate the death of, say, Adolf Hitler, as it would to celebrate the death of, say, Mother Teresa. In other words, it would be death itself that changed the status of a person in such a way that it is no longer appropriate to hate them, as if once a person has passed this threshold, all they've ever done is forgotten and forgiven. Good or bad, it no longer makes any difference: the dead are all worthy of respect. Yet if we assume, as I think we must, that it can be appropriate to hate and despise someone when they are still alive, then it is not entirely clear why that same person should not be despised and hated when they are dead. What exactly is it that death changes?

But then again, it doesn’t seem to be the case that celebrating the death of a person is generally thought to be “distasteful”. In fact, the English have been celebrating the death of a rather hapless and by all accounts not particularly evil person for more than four centuries now. Every year, on November 5th, they celebrate the violent death of Guy Fawkes who was involved in a conspiracy to kill King James I. and to restore a Catholic monarchy. They even burn his effigy and obviously think it’s great fun to do that. Is that, too, “distasteful”? I actually think it is, and much more than celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher who has certainly destroyed more lives than Guy Fawkes. Or let’s take a perhaps less controversial example: suppose Adolf Hitler had not shot himself, but had somehow managed to escape to South America where he had lived peacefully for another thirty odd years before he finally succumbed to a heart attack at the ripe age of 86. As the news of his death spread, Jewish communities all over the world would erupt into spontaneous jubilation, so happy are they that finally the person who did so much harm to so many people is dead. Would we in that case also say that the celebrations were “inappropriate” and “morally wrong”? Because one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead?
Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I am not putting Margaret Thatcher in the same category as Adolf Hitler. My point is rather that we do not really seem to endorse the general principle that one should not speak ill of the dead, or celebrate their demise. Sometimes it may be quite appropriate and entirely legitimate. But then the real issue with the celebrations over Thatcher’s death is not whether one should or should not speak ill of the dead, but instead whether or not Margaret Thatcher deserves to be hated and despised, or rather praised and admired for her actions. The debate is not really about the dead and whether they (by virtue of being dead) deserve respect, but rather about Thatcher and whether she deserves respect. It is also about how we should remember and evaluate the events of that crucial period in modern British history that have made this country what it is today and that were influenced so profoundly by Thatcher’s values, will, and determination. What is happening at the moment with this debate is that a battle is being fought about the kind of past that we are going to have, not just how we will remember the past, but what the past is actually going to be for us. Will Thatcher for later generations have been a hero or a villain, will she have saved or ruined the country? Whatever she really was, it clearly suits the Tories to cast her as Britain’s saviour, not least because they, too, want to be perceived in that way. If they succeed in creating a past in which Thatcher was the hero, then they are more likely to be remembered as heroes themselves.    

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Better is the Enemy of the Good

According to Voltaire, an ‘Italian sage’ once claimed that ‘the better is the enemy of the good.’ This is often misunderstood as a call for constant improvement. It is taken to mean that nothing is so good that it cannot be improved upon, that the good is only just good enough and in the face of the better not good at all. However, this is not what Voltaire had in mind. Although he acknowledges that there is room for improvement with respect to the goodness of our hearts, our talents and our knowledge, he advises caution: let us not pursue pipe dreams, he says, for happy is he ‘who stays at his place and guards what he has got’. By guarding what we have got we show our appreciation and our gratitude for what has been given to us. The worth of what has been given to us is here acknowledged as an absolute value, that is, a value that allows for no comparison. It is not good merely in the absence of something better or in comparison with what is worse. Rather, it is good in itself, absolutely. The better is the enemy of the good in the sense that by constantly comparing the good with the ‘better’, the good changes its appearance and re-emerges as the ‘worse’. When we focus on the better that we might achieve, we tend to forget what is good about what we have. It is an act of conceptual devaluation. Optimism regarding the future has as its flipside pessimism regarding the present. This pessimism may or may not be justified. It all depends on whether we set our hopes on the future because the present actually is found deficient, or we judge it deficient merely because we envisage a (largely imaginary) future that is (in some unspecified sense) better. The latter is more common, and a sure recipe for misery.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Do Angels Have Genitals? A Curious Proof of God’s Existence

The odd question whether angels have genitals, which already occupied the minds of countless scholastic theologians, was raised again by the great Jewish-German philosopher Hans Jonas in an article that was published in 1990 in the journal Scheidewege (which, I’m proud to say, I have been co-editing for more than a decade now). The article is called “Vergangenheit und Wahrheit” (Past and Truth) and has, as far as I know, yet to be translated into English. I’ve stumbled across this article because I have been asked to write a paper on Hans Jonas for a collection on “New Contintental Perspectives on Medicine and Society”, edited by Darian Meacham, and although that particular article is perhaps not very relevant in this context, I couldn’t help being fascinated by the argument that Jonas presents here: a new and actually quite original and convincing proof (as far as such proofs go) of the existence of God.

When Jonas asks whether angels have genitals he is of course not looking for an answer. Rather, he uses the question to make a point, namely that it doesn’t make any sense to argue about the properties of something that doesn’t exist. It is neither true to say that angels have genitals, nor is it false. Nor would it be quite correct to say that neither do angels have genitals nor do they not have them. They do not belong to a class of things to which the laws of logic do not apply. Instead, they are not things at all; they are literally nothing, so that it doesn’t even make sense to ask the question whether or not they have genitals.
However, among the things that do not exist, are also all past events. What is past, no longer exists. It may have existed once, but now it does not exist. Yet we tend to assume that statements about past events are true or false, even though we may never be able to ascertain which statements are true and which false. Did Napoleon blow his nose on that fateful day when he lost the battle of Waterloo? Did he think of his former wife Josephine who had died the year before? Did he try to figure out whether angels have genitals? Even though nothing has been recorded that would answer those questions, it nonetheless seems that there must be an answer, that either he did those things, or he did not do them. But if the past does not exist, if it, or at least that particular part of the past, is completely and utterly gone, unrecorded and not remembered by anyone, then do we not have to conclude that the question whether or not Napoleon thought of Josephine during the battle of Waterloo is just as meaningless as the question whether angels have genitals? And meaningless not because we could never know whether the answer someone gave was true or false, but rather because there is no fact in relation to which an answer could be true or false. Napoleon, being past and gone and hence a non-existent entity, did not think about Josephine, nor did he not think about her. Napoleon does not exist, and non-existent entities do not think.

Too weird a thought? Try to look at it from this angle: we are used to say that past events cannot change. They are fixed, always stay what they were. Either Napoleon did think about Josephine or he did not, and if he did, he will always have thought about her on that particular day, and if he did not, he will never have thought about her that day. But if the past does not exist, how can it be fixed? How can it be unchangeable? In order to be unchangeable, it seems, the past must in some way still exist. It must be there to have properties. But where, or how exactly, is it? Let us imagine an Orwellian government that is powerful and determined enough to destroy all the traces of the real past, that changed all the history books, all documents that tell us about what really happened, and thus invented a new past, which would then, for us and for everyone and for all practical purposes and for all that anyone will ever know, be the past. Or would it? Yet if there is no trace of the real past left, in what way is it the real past?
Jonas suggests that in order to make sense of our belief that past events are real, so that statements about the past have a truth value (i.e., are either true or false), we must assume that there is something that preserves the past in the present, and that means the whole past, every single detail of it. So what we need is a kind of cosmic memory in which nothing ever gets forgotten. But a memory cannot exist on its own, but only as part or aspect of a subject who remembers. And that subject is God.

Jonas is of course quite aware that these reflections do not amount to a full-blown proof. It’s just an idea, a probably feeble attempt to make sense of it all, but I personally find it strangely persuasive. Let us again use our imagination. This time let’s imagine the world in a few billion years, shortly after the earth has been absorbed by the sun. Nothing is left of life on earth. Nobody that remembers any of it. No traces of anything that happened before this event anywhere. The situation is exactly like it would be if there never had been any life on earth, no humanity, no you or me. Nothing any of us has ever done or is ever going to do will have made a difference. Yet if at some stage in the future the world is exactly like it would be if we had never existed, so that there is no difference between a world in which we existed and a world in which we didn’t, then in what way have we existed at that time? If there is no difference between those two worlds, then there is no difference between our having existed and our not having existed.
It seems to me that this conundrum also has ethical implications. If it is all going to be the same in the end, then in the long run it doesn’t make any difference what we do. So why bother? Why try to do the right thing? Do we not, in order to think that what we do matters, have to believe that somehow, in some form, what we do lives on, not just for a while, but forever? That there is some kind of cosmic memory that remembers, and will always remember, what we did, and for which it does make a difference?

Friday, 5 April 2013

Jim and the Indians

I spent the last ten days reading and marking a large number of essays for a course I’m teaching on the „philosophy of morality“. One of the available essay questions, which many students selected, was “Should Jim kill the Indian?” The question of course refers to a thought experiment that the British philosopher Bernard Williams used forty years ago in his critique of Utilitarianism (in: JJC Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, 1973) to illustrate the morally dubious consequences that Utilitarianism would have us accept. In case you don’t know it or have forgotten the details, here’s the situation as Williams describes it:

“Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are a row of twenty Indians, most terrified, a few defiant, in front of them several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and, after a good deal of questioning of Jim which establishes that he got there by accident while on a botanical expedition, explains that the Indians are a random group of the inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protestors of the advantages of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the Indians himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion, the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, then there is no special occasion, and Pedro here will do what he was about to do when Jim arrived, and kill them all. Jim, with some desperate recollection of schoolboy fiction, wonders whether if he got hold of a gun, he could hold the captain, Pedro and the rest of the soldiers to threat, but it is quite clear from the set-up that nothing of the sort is going to work: any attempt at that sort of thing will mean that all the Indians will be killed, and himself. The men against the wall, and the other villagers understand the situation, and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?”
The vast majority of my students had no qualms accepting the obvious utilitarian answer, namely that Jim should clearly kill one Indian to save the rest. It’s simple maths that led them to that conclusion: one dead is better than twenty dead (especially if the one is among the twenty). Most students interpreted Jim’s case as a mere variant of Foot’s and Thomson’s trolley problems, where you have to decide whether it is justified to kill somebody (who would survive if you didn’t intervene) to save the lives of (more than one) others (who would die if you didn’t intervene). These cases are usually used to discuss the question whether killing is really worse than letting die, and if yes, why. The default position for Utilitarians is of course that we are just as responsible and culpable for what we let happen as for what we do ourselves. Not saving somebody is just as bad as killing somebody, and not saving two or more is worse. It follows that not killing somebody if that is the only way to save two or more is wrong.

Now, although I don’t think that ethics can and should be reduced to mathematics, I’m willing to accept or concede that, if all things are equal, our moral responsibility extends not only to what we do, but also to what we allow to happen. But Jim’s case is in one crucial respect very different from the usual kill-or-let-die situations, and I’m a bit puzzled that very few of my students noticed this and that none of them seems to have realised the significance of that difference. What I’m talking about is the fact that, in contrast to the trolley problems discussed by Foot and Thomson, Williams’s scenario involves another agent, or rather two, namely “the captain” and “Pedro”. This means that if Jim refuses to kill one of the Indians, the others will not just die, but rather they may, or may not, be killed by somebody else. If they are killed, then this does not happen because Jim has not killed anyone, but because the captain gives the order to kill them, and Pedro executes the order. Nothing that Jim could do or not do, would cause or compel the captain to give the order, nor Pedro to execute it. It’s entirely up to them to decide whether the captured Indians live or die. If Jim does what they ask him to do, they could still kill the rest of the Indians. Conversely, if Jim refuses, they may still decide to let everyone go. The only real power that Jim has in this situation is the power that is given to him by the captain: to either kill one of the Indians or not to kill one of the Indians. Or more precisely, he has been granted the power to kill someone, but he does not have the power to save anyone (because neither his killing someone nor his not killing anyone prevents any of the Indians from being killed). This means that he would be responsible and culpable for killing one of the Indians, but he would not be responsible and culpable for the death of the Indians if he refused to kill anyone and they were subsequently killed by Pedro.

The situation in which Jim finds himself is not really one in which he has to decide whether it is better to kill one person than to let more than one person die. The situation is rather one in which somebody asks him to do what they tell him to do (namely commit a terrible crime: that of killing an innocent person) or else they will do something very nasty, namely murder lots of people, including that one. Imagine somebody came to you and told you that you had to rape and kill your little sister and that if you didn’t they would explode a bomb in the crowded city centre which is sure to maim and kill several people. Would you do it? Would you say that it’s clearly “the most moral action”, as one of my students said about Jim’s killing of the Indian? Of course you may argue that in that case you have to decide between your sister and people unknown to you. From a utilitarian perspective that should, of course, make no difference, but let’s say that we do agree that personal ties are important and should have some weight. But what if the person threatening you told you that if you didn’t rape and kill your little sister, he would first kill you (or your mother) and then rape and kill your sister himself? In that case it seems that if you raped and killed your little sister you would at least save your own life (or that of your mother), whereas if you refused, then she would be raped and killed anyway, and in addition you or your mother would die too. So that’s an easy choice then, isn’t it? Clearly raping and killing your little sister is “the most moral action” here because it is better for there to be only one person killed rather than two. Except of course that it isn’t. It would just mean that you become complicit in the crime. You would allow somebody else to turn you into a rapist and murderer. The only right thing to do here is to refuse, to not take part in an evil deed.
Let’s look again at Jim’s situation. Jim is asked to kill one of the Indians. He is being told that the others will be free to go if he complies. So he picks one of them - let's call him Joe – and he kills him. Now what would happen if he refused? Most likely Pedro would kill all of the Indians, including Joe. We can assume that killing the Indians is morally wrong. They are innocent people. Their killing is an act of state terrorism. It’s the worst kind of crime. When Pedro finally kills Joe, then he does something that is deeply reprehensible. It is clearly morally wrong. It is an act of evil. But if killing Joe is an act of evil when Pedro does it, why then should it suddenly be morally right, even laudable, when Jim does it? Killing Joe is an evil act, and it remains an evil act no matter who does the killing. Therefore Jim should not kill the Indian.
I wonder why my students don’t see it that way, and it worries me.