Distance and Moral Imagination

On my brother's recommendation, I got "Lord of War" via Netflix and watched it this evening. It's a powerful film, highly recommended. (It's about gun-running, although I'm not going to talk about that at all, at least not directly.)

There's something nice about movies--and books, too--in that they aid the moral imagination.

I'm not talking about documentaries or news or non-fiction generally. Yes, one can read about all the horrific goings-on the world over, but there's something about a good novel or film that puts you in the midst of things.

"Lord of War," among other things, is about the lies we tell ourselves to get through life. Even those of us who think that we act nobly, who make a concerted effort to take the moral highground, will find, if we care to look, that we inadvertently aid those very things we most oppose.

Through our inactions, our mundane everyday activities, we contribute to untold suffering the world over. And it's amazing how adept human beings are at rationalization. How easy it is to live with oneself!

I tell my students that no human being thinks of themselves as evil. There's a way in which Socrates is right that no one knowingly chooses the bad. Usually, we just make our choices, and if we find ourselves pressed with unpleasant consequences, we then reflect and find that our decision was justified, somehow. I mean, it must be! Our intentions are always good, aren't they?

But what else is there to do? What happens if no justification is satisfying? What then? Suicide is itself an action that requires significant justification. Leaving life because the world is too difficult for you--well, we could call it cowardly, or senseless, perhaps honest, but if nothing else I find it distasteful.

Distance. Distance from oneself and from others is a necessity in the modern world. There are too many people to care about. Most of human life prior to great civilizations is believed to have been spent in groups of no more than a few hundred. That may sound like a lot, but it's about how many acquaintances a person can have and still keep track of.

In small, close-knit communities, it's easy to keep track of others. The ability to detect cheaters is one of the means that enabled human beings to develop a conscience. In terms of survival and reproduction, those who can get away with being unscrupulous are the fittest (they have the most success passing on their genes).

However, if we live in cooperative communities, it is to our advantage to find those who game the system and ostracize them. At that point, having a reputation for being trustworthy, responsible, and kind is to your advantage. One of the easiest ways to acquire such a reputation is to actually be those things. And thus, moral sensibilities can be adaptive.

But today we live in a world with too many people to keep track of. The vast majority of people that you encounter in a day, if you live in a major metropolitan area, are people you will never get to know and will quite possibly never encounter again.

Thus, there is less of an impetus to be good. If you establish a bad reputation, there are always new people and new places elsewhere--you may not even have to leave home. And because rationalization is so easy, what's the point of getting upset if you dick a few people over? There are always opportunities to start fresh in a new place.

This is all obvious, there's no need to belabor the point. People do awful, terrible things to each other all the time. Some do it for a living. It's so easy to hurt someone, kill someone, if you don't know him or her. This is why wake-up calls like films and literature are so essential. They make it easier to empathize with people in different places and situations.

Unfortunately, too much empathy can be paralyzing. Here I sit, typing away, muddled with Weltschmerz, feeling utterly impotent to do something about it.

This is when I throw up my arms and proclaim that humanity is doomed. This is when I think about how much better we'd all be if we were more like bonobos and less like chimpanzees, and how great it would be if we could just redesign the human genome to make us exactly that.

Ideas are a great escape from responsibility. And they occasionally do make a difference, sometimes even for the better. More often than not they're probably just self-gratification.

But, enough. Now is the time for forgetting. The myths must be reinstated and I must "go on with my life." This painful sympathy is counterproductive. Back to distance, to rationalization, to the illusion that I'm doing my small part to make the world a better place.

At least it's a lie one can live with.


anotherpanacea said...

Tepper's book makes this same point about bonobos, only with an emphasis on misogyny. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0553573985/sr=8-1/qid=1141395047/ref=pd_bbs_1/102-3971284-0970537?%5Fencoding=UTF8

Going to a new place isn't all bad. As I recall from heading to PSU, there's a certain joy at meeting new people and recreating yourself in the image of a professional philosopher. It's not always a matter of ducking a shady past: sometimes, entering new communities can be about hope for a bright future....

specter_of_spinoza said...

No, absolutely, I think that's right.

All I'm saying is that it's so much easier to hurt other people and get away with it in today's world.

It may not be the case that human beings are fundamentally selfish, but it seems to me that our society moves us in this direction.

Relationships with others are often even seen as liabilities. The libertarian practically regards any kinds of obligations to other as lesser forms of slavery.

I mean, when you live in an economic system that assumes self-interest (in a narrow sense), it shouldn't be surprising if it produces more selfish individuals.

Steven said...

I really find it hard to fault the economic system. It is a political failure that we live in this world and not a better one. I mean, it's not simply capitalism, it's the demos. We tell the mob, "be selfish and barbarous", how do we think they are going to react? Do you think you can really talk them out of it? Not in addressing them as a mob, anyway. That's why I put my time in education, I can sit them down 25 at a time and try to guide them so they can develop themselves some more. Perhaps it's a Sisyphean task, but I don't see any other way to fight that really involves me actually doing something productive, and I ain't going out without a fight.

specter_of_spinoza said...

Speaking of bonobos, check out this article (h/t Shake's Sis) on the natural history of war and peace.

Apparently, primates' behavior is much more "cultural" than we'd normally think. This strikes a blow against the genetic determinism that underlies some of my fears about humankind.

It's really amazing how much primates are like us. I mean, chimps and bonobos, if some scientists are right, should probably be in the genus homo.

As a taste of the article, I just love this description of bonobo sexuality:

"Bonobo sex is the prurient highlight of primatology conferences, and leads parents to shield their children's eyes when watching nature films. Bonobos have sex in every conceivable position and some seemingly inconceivable ones, in pairs and groups, between genders and within genders, to greet each other and to resolve conflicts, to work off steam after a predator scare, to celebrate finding food or to cajole its sharing, or just because. As the sound bite has it, chimps are from Mars and bonobos are from Venus."

anotherpanacea said...

This is the problem with materialism, right? Economy in the last instance? What if, as Heidegger puts it, the problem isn't self-interest and efficiency, but rather the archive, the standing-reserve, efficiency for efficiency's sake? As Heidegger tells it, this isn't a matter of the things we say, but rather a kink in the way language shelters us: a problem in the way we dwell in the world. If so, then we can't point to capitalism or to technological developments; we have to point to the phenomenological realm, the historicized appearance of things, such that our fellows appear to us as means rather than ends, for instance, or our families feel optional rather than fundamental. At this level it's not about blaming the leaders or the demos, but about investigating and overturning the genealogies of appearances and relations. It's a matter for speculative philosophy, not for some kind of practice that will always be subsumed under the the modes of appearing that predominate.