Tag Archives: morality

The Impact of Moral Prohibition

People have a tendency to define morality strictly by altruistic terms, focusing on empathy and compassion in regard to the moral relationships we share with others.  But, to me, this is a very myopic view on moral values, which ignores the fact that human beings do not seek to simply elevate particular positive attributes we consider to be moral, we also seek to shape the moral compass of others to align with our own image of what is to be deemed good and bad.  The implementation of prohibition and imposition are inseparable from our species’ moral practices.  It is not enough for us to hold to a particular moral standard, others must recognize the superiority of our personal values, too, and thereafter adopt it as their own standard, or face some degree of punishment (either in this life, or an ascribed next one).  Morals built around human sexuality are the clearest example of the prohibitory nature of human values.

Take, for example, homosexuality.  It would be one of the gravest of understatements to say that, historically, we heterosexuals care about the sexual practices of gay individuals (we are apparently absolutely obsessed with it!).  Even though, technically, it has no binding affect on us, we have convinced ourselves through various moral inferences that somehow the sexuality of gay men and women is of the utmost priority to maintaining our own sexual “purity.”  Why?  Because it conflicts with the moral standard we have accepted, and, therefore, it is seen as a challenge to our values.  Many self-appointed moralists will shriek for hours on end about the perversity of homosexuality, and the need to “cleanse” it out of human consciousness, lest we want to witness every moral framework of society crumble before our very eyes.  Employing roundabout arguments that hold no real practical application to morality:

“Homosexuality is clearly immoral.”

“Why?”

“Because human sexual anatomy has clearly made opposite genders sexually compatible for the sake of reproduction.  To do otherwise would be unnatural.”

“Even if we concede to the first part, how does that make homosexuality unnatural and/or immoral.”

“Well, if the point of sex is to reproduce, sexual relation that negates this will lead to less reproduction among the species, making it unnatural; thus, it poses a survival risk to humanity, which makes it immoral.

“Homosexual relations are not novel, but extend back to antiquity, and across the animal kingdom (including other members of our Great Ape family), and it has caused no detriment to human survival.  In addition, on a planet that houses now 7 billion members of the human species, the greater threat to human health is increased overpopulation, not underpopulation.  Furthermore, by your standard of what is unnatural and immoral, the fact that I wear glasses to correct my naturally weak eyesight is not natural, either.  Would you, therefore, conclude that wearing glasses is immoral, because it is also unnatural?”

“No, because wearing glasses has no adverse affect on human survival.”

“Sure it does.  If my myopia is genetic, then my children can inherit the adverse trait, contributing to its spread into the greater human population.  One could argue that good eyesight can be quite salient to the survival of humanity.  Thus, for us near-sighted individuals to procreate, and pass on our poor vision, is a negation of something that is vital to human survival; hence, by your logic, it is immoral.  Not only that, but the fact that we wear glasses is itself immoral, since it is ‘unnatural’ to begin with.”

“Having poor vision is hardly crippling anymore in today’s age, and wearing glasses is not immoral since you did not choose to be near-sighted.”

“Worrying about human procreation is also redundant in a world inhabited by 7 billion people.  And by what measure did gay people choose to be gay, and how does this relate to morality?”

“You can choose who you have sex with.”

“But you can’t choose who you’re attracted to.”

“No.”

“And is there not a direct line between who you’re attracted to and who you want to have sex with?”

“Yes.”

“So, how is being gay a choice?”

“Look, I’m not saying that being attracted to someone of the same sex is itself immoral, just that to engage in homosexual relations is not a natural expression of human sexuality.”

“My disagreement with you on the natural vs unnatural part is irrelevant in this discussion, since my greater issue lies with how you arrive at the conclusion that having gay sex is immoral.”

“It is simply my belief that it is so.”

“How does your personal belief and preference translate to a universal moral framework?”

“Well, I didn’t say it was universal.”

“But you didn’t qualify it as subjective, either.  Meaning that you see your moral values as the ideal standard for others to follow.”

“Yes, I think ideally people shouldn’t be having sex with the same gender.  You obviously disagree.”

“Again, my disagreement is irrelevant.  I’m question the part in which you are trying to overextend your personal preferences to human morality.  I would even go further to say that even if homosexuality did somehow cause some adverse affects on our current social conduct, you still have not demonstrated that it is by definition immoral, rather than simply undesirable to the current societal structure we happen to reside in.”

“Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

“I don’t agree with that.”

If such arguments seem lackluster, it’s because they are.  I deliberately chose to discuss the morality of homosexuality because it is (at least, here in the American South) the primary example of how people tend to blur the distinction between what they might consider to be personally displeasing and what is morally wrong.  For the sake of complete disclosure, the above scenario is one I know too well, since it was only a few years back that I was (much to my present shame) openly engaging in circular reasoning similar to the hypothetical person above [though my former homophobic stance didn’t rest on morality, as much as my idiotic cultural indoctrination that heterosexuality was the more normal mode of sexual expression, maintained through the stubborn fervor of adolescent arrogance]; realizing my error in thinking was only hard for as long as I bothered to construct faulty premises to support a prejudiced conclusion.  Once this was pointed out to me, I had no choice but to tuck my tail between my legs and admit that my stance rested on nothing more but my acceptance of the mores of my cultural upbringing, and since I had in childhood never bothered to accept the prevalent values of my surroundings, it was downright baseless to continue upholding this one.

Much of what we deem moral is determined by both internal preferences, and external influences.  It is also within our nature, as humans, to consider our personal moral preferences alone as insufficient standards on which to judge the actions of others, thus we are forced to create a greater authority for the origin of our moral values than ourselves, because we must convince others of the superiority in our way of thinking.  In that, we profess not to be arbitrarily determining what is right and wrong, good and evil, but are merely vassals of a higher virtue that deep down everyone innately recognizes.  Until, of course, we change our minds about something, then our new stance totally becomes the new higher virtue that everyone recognizes (no matter if it completely contradicts the innate virtue we were previously sure was the moral standard).  We can’t just empathize through altruistic gestures, we must also prohibit that which is dangerous to our moral framework.  Otherwise, how is it to reign supreme?

Oscar Wilde’s Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Threat of Art

To mention the word controversial in the same sentence with Oscar Wilde is to be repetitive.  And the Irish writer’s The Picture of Dorian Gray–his only published novel–is nothing less but a testament to the man’s gift for astute social observation and spectacular prose.  If you have not read the work, I would advise you to do so immediately, as it stands as a superb contribution to the ranks of both romantic and gothic literature.

Upon its initial publication in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was instantly denounced by critics for its espousal of homoerotic and hedonistic indulgences.  So much so that Oscar Wilde saw it necessary to add a Preface to the original text as a defense of his work.  But the short Preface should not be seen as just a rebuttal to Wilde’s critics, instead it reads as a promulgation of art as a whole, and a denunciation of the cynic whose mindset is too narrow to grasp the fact that even though great (as well as bad) works of art are on display for the public, the true power lies in its strength to move the individual’s heart and mind.

Wilde begins the Preface by stating, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim,” adding, “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault.”  Here, Wilde is addressing the specific critics of his novel, noting that it is not he, the writer–the artist–who is to blame for the offense taking by the audience of his work.  For, any perverse imagery that is elicited by the sensitive reader is a demonstration of the perversity of the reader’s own mind, and not necessarily that of the author or his prose.  Wilde’s further scoff against the fault of being corrupt without being charming is clearly an allusion to his title character Dorian Gray, who through all of his moral corruption at least manages to remain charming (and beautiful) to the world, something that his real life critics–who see fit to designate themselves as his moral superiors–don’t manage to do, in Wilde’s eyes.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.  Books are well written, or badly written.  That is all.”  It must have been telling for Wilde how all the critiques being leveled against his novel only focus on what are perceived to be obscenities within the text, and never the text itself.  If a book is rubbish than let it be shown how it fails to meet the value of worthwhile literature, and we can move on to better things.  But to deride a novel because it presents a topic a person does not wish to be discussed, or raises issues the public would rather be kept out of sight, is to reveal more about one’s own flimsy convictions than that of the author’s.  Or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “No art is ever morbid.  The artist can express everything.”  Any moral foundation that is distraught in the process couldn’t have been too sturdy to begin with.

“All art is at once surface and symbol.  Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.  Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.  It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”  We are the arbitrators of the mediums we choose to entertain ourselves with, thus when we feel repulsed by a piece of art, it is our responsibility to step away from it in bad taste–not to dictate to others about the need to stifle the offensive material.  If I shout out a cry of fear that something will corrupt society, you can rest assured that what you’re hearing is nothing more but a deep-seated panic that something will corrupt me.  But if a person is already at this stage, then he is already completely corrupted by the source of his worry.  He has already embraced the splendor of the art’s power, drawn into it to the point of drowning within it, and is now paddling anxiously to get back to the safe shore–away from the sea of unknown euphoria.

“We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.  The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.  All art is quite useless.”  Unlike other disciplines, art holds no immediate pragmatic worth to the structural progress of human societies.  Buildings are not art for the sake of being art, they have an intended use.  Same goes for nonfiction books, whose goal is to inform, and not necessarily inspire the reader’s imagination.  Wilde was right that art, created solely for the sake of being admired and revered, is objectively useless.  Because its use resides within the subjective mind of those who care to indulge within its beauty.  And for those who don’t, any harm perceived is only made viable by the internal recesses of one’s own depraved mind.  That is the real threat of art.

Bibliography

Wilde, Oscar.  The Portrait of Dorian Gray.  “The Preface,” Barnes & Nobel Classics (New York: 2003), pages 1-2.

Putin Ordered A Political Murder…In Other News

A UK judge has concluded that Vladimir Putin is most likely implicated in the 2006 fatal poisoning of former KGB officer, and outspoken critic of the Kremlin, Alexander Litvinenko.  This is not news to anyone who’s been following the fate of Putin’s critics.  The man has undoubtedly orchestrated the death of many individuals who pose him even the slightest bit of political danger, and will undoubtedly continue to do so, primarily because there are no consequences to his crimes.  Political leaders in his own country will not depose him, and heads of state in other countries will do little more than gently scold him for his excesses, while continue to engage him as a legitimate, respectable political figure in the world scene.

So, what now?  Put simply, nothing.  Putin could not care less what one judge, or even a hundred judges, in the United Kingdom say.  And western leaders are more concerned about keeping the variables in the global political scene as predictable as possible than risk removing even a single demagogue, as long as they have a manageable working relationship with him.

The fact remains that Vladimir Putin, sitting President of the Russian Federation, is a murderer.  An authoritarian thug, with a cold disregard for rule of international law regarding even the most basic of human rights.  And the individuals we look to, which we have sanctioned to hold positions as our representatives to enforce the international laws we abide by, will not move a muscle to bring an obvious criminal to face the justice he deserves.  Because it would not be a politically “savvy” move.  Because it would introduce undue strain and unknown variables into the global scene.  Because it would create a power vacuum in a fragile state.  (My, my…how impolite of all these pesky activists to bother human rights groups and organizations about taking action against individuals violating human rights, I mean, it’s not like it’s their job or anything, right?  No, no, no.  Human rights organizations, international courts and law, all those exist to preserve the balance of power, not safeguard against its abuses.)

This story brings me to a some things that have been on my mind for some time.  Such as:  Is there any reason for the United Nations to exist?  What about Interpol?  What about International Court Tribunals?  Believe me, I am not being facetious when I ask these questions.  Is there any justifiable reason for these entities to exist when their focus is myopic to the point of being astigmatic?  What good is a human rights organizational willing to sellout, and outright subjugate the very notion of the principles of human rights and justice it was established to protect?  If these are just buildings in which thugs and murderers–and their accommodators–verbally masturbate about their self-importance to mask their powerless irrelevance in the face of opposing any actual threats to world peace and human rights, can we then drop the facade already, and call a useless spade a spade?

Goethe’s Prometheus and the Heretical Legacy of the Enlightenment

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stands as a unique figure in modern intellectual thought.  A polymath in the true sense of the word, it is difficult to ascribe to him one conclusive description without leaving out an array of equally apt titles.  His was an artist, a poet, a politician, an amateur scientist, and (by proxy of the collective legacy of all of the above) a philosopher.  Equally remarkable is the man’s place in history as a thinker heralded by both the materialist strands of the Enlightenment tradition, and the counter-Enlightenment Romantics of the 19th Century.  By all accounts, the fact that Goethe personally embodied the various opposing ideals of his times probably went a long way in fostering such a bemusing repute amongst his admirers.

He was (by 18th Century standards) a religious heretic, meandering between pantheism, Abrahamic estoricism, and a great deal of what would now be called classic humanism.  Yet, although his spiritual beliefs were heterodox, his politically leanings rested largely within the  conservative tradition, always viewing the revolutionary efforts of his days with a high degree of suspicion, and a consistent aloofness.  Regardless of where the man’s personal leanings stood on an issue, it is undeniable that Goethe’s widespread appeal to such varying audiences stems from his foresight in capturing the mood of the era he was living in for the sake of aesthetic posterity, and the intellectual benefit of the generations molded by the developments of said era.

As mentioned, Goethe himself held to rather undefinable religious positions throughout his active life.  Nevertheless, he had no difficulty in identifying the ideological struggle between traditional religious structure and the emergence of various heretical ideals that have come to symbolize the Enlightenment for many modern observers.  Published in 1789 (just as the Bastille was about to fall in France), “Prometheus” stands as a poetic allegory to the spiritual transition/tension sweeping through religious and politically revolutionary circles throughout Europe.

Conspicuously composed as a diatribe by the rebellious deity Prometheus against an uncharacteristically impotent Zeus (i.e. God), the work begins by declaring the sky Creator’s feebleness in comparison to the earth-dwelling Prometheus.

Now you must leave alone
My Earth for Me,
And my hut, which you did not build,
And my hearth,
The glowing whereof
You envy me.

The divergence from Greek mythology here is of no small significance.  Goethe’s Prometheus is not the tortured deity of antiquity, but a stand-in for the Enlightened spirit of mankind.  During this era the intellectual and technological advances were often seen as either moving away from Divine interpretations, or standing in outright opposition to religious orthodoxy (though it should be noted that many of the figures of the time did draw on their firm religious convictions as inspiration for their work, albeit usually more from a spiritually individualistic, rather than a strictly traditionalist perspective).  Like Enlightened man, Prometheus reclaims the title of Creator away from Zeus (“Now you must leave alone My Earth for Me”–note the capitalization of Me, apropos to the Western custom of using He when referencing the Almighty), and affirms his position as the keeper of his house (“my hut, which you did not build…”).  Furthermore, he accuses the God of envy against the dominance he–Prometheus (i.e. mankind)–has secured for himself on Earth, in direct contrast to the traditional Abrahamic position that man is granted dominion on Earth by God.

I know of nothing poorer
Under the sun, than you, you Gods!
Your majesty
Is barely nourished
By sacrificial offerings
And prayerful exhalations,
And should starve
Were children and beggars not
Fools full of Hope.

Goethe is illustrating the popular sentiment amongst the irreligious sects of his days, comparing the growing turn away from the Divine as a starvation of the gods, except for “children and beggars” still foolish enough to turn to prayer in time of need.  The allusion here is twofold; firstly, it draws on the growing Enlightenment critique that supernatural matters are too childish and superstitious for those with intellectual depth to concern themselves with.  Secondly, it implies how Gods, exhibiting a constant demand for worship and sacrifice from on above, are therefore the more dependent entities in comparison to Prometheus (i.e. man), since their relevance rests on recognition from the earth-dwelling mortals.

Should I honour you? Why?
Have you softened the sufferings,
Ever, of the burdened?
Have you stilled the tears,
Ever, of the anguished?
Was I not forged as a Man
By almighty Time
And eternal Fate,
My masters and thine?

The misotheistic aspersions at the start of the quote are a rhetorical framing of the fatalistic powerlessness endemic to existence; in which the concept of omnipotence is rendered incoherent, as gods and men are left equally susceptible to the entropy of time and fate (referred to as masters of both the Divine and the mortal).  However, despite the recognition of cosmic fatalism, the tone of Goethe’s poem elicits a staunch resolve to stand high in defiance to the harsh realities of life:

Do you somehow imagine
That I should hate Life,
Flee to the desert,
Because not every
Flowering dream should bloom?

With these lines, the prose is drawing on the mindset that harsh reality is preferable to wishful thinking, and that one’s life is better spent creating order out of the inevitable destitute amongst us.  This is a reflection of the optimism that surrounded the mood of the Enlightenment, where the leading belief among prominent thinkers was how man had reached the time to cast off the restrictive practices of old, that he can revere himself through investigation of the natural world, and use his knowledge to create a better world in life, rather than praying for one to come hereafter (whether or not in hindsight the terrors of the later French Revolution serve as a testament against this Enlightenment era notion is another matter altogether).

Prometheus finishes his monologue by affirming the greater spirit of man, to not deny his greater and (one would presume) earthly faculties, but above all else to not look towards the heavens on which to bestow one’s reverence.  In short, it proclaims man as the heir to the counter-Divine legacy of Prometheus:

Here I sit, I form humans
After my own image;
A race, to be like me,
To sorrow, to weep,
To enjoy and delight itself,
And to heed you not at all –
Like me!

It ought to be remembered that Goethe is simply putting into prose a dramatized sentiment that captures one facet of the era he lived in, and it would be a mistake to conflate the poet’s personal convictions with those found throughout “Prometheus.”  The Enlightenment was a time of great progress in human understanding, but it also stood as a transitional phase where revolutionary ideals threatened to collide (and, indeed, did collide) with traditional austerity.  Goethe’s role as both a participant, detractor, and historian of the era survives as an invaluable transcription of an intellectual tradition all of us in the modern world have inherited (for better or worse).

 

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as Allegory to the Terrors of the French Revolution

Although it came to serve as a hallmark for the advent of the Gothic literary genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein cannot be separated from its origins in the Romantic tradition.  The Romantic movement in literature (circa 1800-1840) was a reaction to the perceived mechanical, stoic approach to viewing the natural world through the logic of Enlightenment rationalism.  The aim of the Romantics was to introduce the value of the emotional experience in human expression, especially in its relation towards physical reality.  Arguably, it’s historical infusion in English literature can be traced directly to the artistic response to the Reign of Terror (1793-94) which arose out of–and in many ways defined the popular image of–the French Revolution.

The poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth, which exalts the aesthetic beauty of nature over its rudimentary empirical observations, set the tone for much of the later Romantics who followed.  Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband, was another key figure in the Romantic movement, who heralded the naturalistic worldview, without making reference to the lifeless trappings of cold rationalism.  This is the environment Shelley was surrounded by as she penned her novel in 1818.  Despite often being overlooked as a mere accomplice to Percy’s more provocative work and demeanor, it was Shelley who expressed most poignantly the Romantic horror towards the Revolutionary elements that sparked the literary appeal for a greater appreciation for the aesthetics.

In the novel, Dr. Victor Frankenstein is a passionate man, enamored by the creative possibilities offered by scientific thought and rigor:

None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science.  In other studies you go so far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is food for discovery and wonder (Chapter 4, page 49).

He is the quintessential child of the Enlightenment, not content with merely contributing to the understanding of life, but seeking to challenge the conventions that have traditionally constituted the definition of life itself:

Whence, I asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?  It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered as a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice and carelessness did not restrain our inquiries (page 50).

In this pursuit he labors, and theorizes, and experiments, until his desire for reanimating life in the lifeless is actualized.  The philosophical origins of the French Revolution followed a similar intellectual path.  The Enlightenment writings of Voltaire, Diderot, Paine, and Locke (among numerous others), too, sought to instill the spark of life in a lifeless body; the lifeless body being the decaying corpse of the common populace, whose dire condition was sustained through the traditional conventions that maintained its own authority by reducing the worth of the powerless to little more than a living death.  Like the feverish thrill of excitement that accompanied Dr. Frankenstein’s climactic success in creating life, the uprising of the lower caste of society against the social order that governed them–most vividly symbolized by the popular storming of the Bastille in 1789–served as a reinvigorated yelp of life echoing the labors of the minds that planted the seeds of its ascent; or, as articulated in Dr. Frankenstein, “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter” (page 51).

Within the context of Shelley’s narrative, Dr. Frankenstein isn’t a malicious figure.  Indeed, he is a rather sympathetic character, whose intellectual feats and desire to push the frontiers of knowledge are quite admirable; even benign.  However, the man allows his zeal to take control of his reason, causing him to lose track of the reality he is bringing about before him:

But this discovery was so great and overwhelming that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the results (page 51).

The excitement of the event blinded the young scientist from contemplating either the means by which he was arriving at his desired results, or the possible consequences that these results would bring to fruition.  Thus, upon reaching the final hour of his work, Dr. Frankenstein at last stood back to observe and reflect on his creation, only to gasp in horror at what he had brought about into the world:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavored to form?  His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful.  Beautiful!  Great God! / I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. / I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart (Chapter 5, page 56).

Unable to deal with the reality of his creation, Dr. Frankenstein abandons it in disgust and fear.  Forcing the creature to venture into the world without order or guidance to nurture his maturity.

One can imagine the philosophical architects of the French Revolution having a similar reaction to the Reign of Terror that arose out of the hopeful revolt in 1789.  The events that disposed of the royal ruling order of France were instigated by the widespread uprising of the exploited masses against the forces that sought to keep them in chains.  It was seen as the will of the people at long last triumphing over the tyranny of their rulers.  Oppression and persecution at the hands of the monarchy was at an end, and the calendar could be set back to Year One, to symbolize the dawning of a hopeful new era of liberty and justice.

Unfortunately, the hope for change proved short-lived, as the concept of liberty and justice, rather than being put to practice, became mere cult devotions in the new regime, which swiftly began to denounce all who failed to properly adhere to the new revolutionary system as heretics to both.  Therefore, like Frankenstein’s creature, the Revolutionary model was arguably created with the most virtues of intentions, assembling together the most intellectually viable parts and ideals available.  Yet, outside of the containment of philosophical musings, where hypothetical entities and situations obey the whim of the ponderer, this idealistic goal turned into a nightmare.  Or, more astutely, once “rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (page 57).

Frankenstein’s creation begins life innocently, but the grotesque circumstances of his existence fuel within him an unyielding destitute and hate.  At first, he wants to uphold the greater aspects of the human spirit (and contribute to it positively, if possible), but his abandonment by his creator, and the scorn leveled at him for his monstrous appearance, causes him to become evermore vengeful and destructive:  “Shall I not then hate them who abhor me?  I will keep no terms with my enemies.  I am miserable and they shall share my wretchedness” (Chapter 10, page 96).  His creation came about through the feverish frenzy of a strained mind, and his continued presence, incapable of assimilating with his greater surroundings, must therefore be justified by virtue of force and, if need be, destruction.   Particularly towards the person that gave him life and subsequently wishes to deprive him of it.

Similarly, the Revolutionaries who spearheaded the rise of the new order, and had zealously advocated the use of terror as an instrument against all possible dissenters, began to see their creation turn against them, as even the most powerful of them were duly marched to the blade of the guillotine.  Signifying how, in the end, the Terror ultimately managed to subdue even its own makers, who failed (or refused) to restrain it when they still held the power to do so.  This shift in control between creator and creation is a sentiment best captured when Frankenstein is confronted by his creature’s haunting words against him, “Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you.  You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” (Chapter 20, page 160).

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley gives a body to the monstrous history that spurred the Romantic literary tradition she was an immutable figure in.  However, in doing so, she also diverting from the standard premise promoted by her Romantic counterparts, by emphasizing on the fact that while man’s creative nature and passions can bring about unspeakably valuable works of creation and wonder, allowed to go unrestrained, this same nature can bring about monstrous consequences; for both the innocent and guilty alike.  No matter how well-intentioned the initial motivations may be.

Bibliography

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein; Or The Modern Prometheus, (Signet Classics:  New York), 1818.  1983 reprint.

The Value of Tradition

There is a story of a 16 year old girl, who sat down by the kitchen counter and observed her mother prepare lunch for the family.  The meal is meatloaf, with rice and mashed potatoes on the side, something the girl had seen her mother prepare a hundred times in the past.  And like always, prior to putting the meatloaf in the oven, the mother cuts off roughly one-third from one end of the dish, and then proceeds to bake it, while throwing the cutoff chunk of meat into the trash.  To the girl, this always seemed strangely wasteful.  What’s the point of cutting off one end of the meatloaf?  Does it enhance the taste somehow?  Is it easier, faster to bake when you only have two-thirds worth of a dish?  Finally, she asked the mother for an explanation to this mystery.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the mother, “it’s the way my mother always made it.  I just figured she must have had a good reason.  She has been cooking much longer than I have.”

Unsatisfied with such a non-answer, the girl set out towards her grandmother’s house the next day to get to the bottom of this whole castrating meatloaf ritual.

After arriving at her grandmother’s house, the girl posed the same question she asked her mother:  What’s the reason for cutting off one-third of the meatloaf before baking it?

“Well, I guess you can say it’s somewhat of a family tradition,” said the grandmother, “cooking tradition, that is.  All I really know is that it’s the way my mother always did it.  And I assume the same goes for her mother, my grandmother.”

Fortunately, for the inquisitive 16 year old (with no apparent social life), the 96 year old great-grandmother was still alive, and within reaching distance–the mystery of Meatloafgate could still be solved.  So, she biked down a few miles to great-grandma’s, to once again ask the same question a third time:  What’s the deal with our family’s meatloaf cutting tradition?

“Tradition?” repeated the great-grandmother bemused, “Ha!  I’ll show you your tradition.  Gimme a sec.”  She lifted herself, balancing on her hickory cane, and wobbled to her tiny kitchen.  She looked through a couple of cabinets, before exclaiming a resound, “Aha, here’s your tradition, right here!”  Then she brought forward to the girl, a tiny baking tray, big enough to hold only two-thirds of a meatloaf dish.

The mystery was over, and from that moment on, so was the family tradition.

In the past, I have used this story a number of times to illustrate the mistaken value we might unknowingly be attributing to the various traditions we hold dear in our lives.  Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that traditions are nothing more but arbitrary customs that individuals are indoctrinated into by the community, stating, “How the tradition originated is indifferent; in any case it was without any regard for good and evil or any immanent categorical imperative, but above all in order to preserve the community, a people” (Human, All-Too-Human, section 96).  It is certainly true that many, if not most, people perform and take part in social customs for reasons that might elude them, other than a vague, “it’s just what we’ve always done.”

A good example would be the institution of marriage.  The exact origin of when, and why, marriage began as a common practice is unknown, leaving us mostly with various myths and legends of ancient cultures.  However, despite this murky genealogy, the notion that marriage is a sacred act is still a common sentiment in the general public.  In America, divorce is as prevalent as marriage, but no one ever says that divorce is a sacred act (even though, the origin of divorce is probably as ancient as the origin of marriage).  We take it as a given that getting married is a tradition that we, as a healthy society, ought to value.  Thus, because we are taught to value marriage as an important aspect of our cultural tradition, we see no reason to develop a rationality for its exists.  And the ones we have come up with are bound to spiral into circular reasoning and tautologies (it’s a valued tradition, because we traditionally value it).  For instance, take the following exchange:

“Marriage is a sacred tradition, because it enjoys a long history within civilized society.”

“But so did slavery.”

“But marriage serves a social function for the community, it has utility.”

“So did slavery.”

“Yeah, o.k., but marriage is a legal union entered into voluntary by consenting partners.”

“Historically, there actually have been legally binding forms of slavery, entered into by consenting parties, usually to pay off a dept or loan.”

“But now you’re talking about the exception, not the rule.”

“So are you.  Much of the history of marriage has seen the tradition as a form of coercion, in which one partner’s consent was neither needed nor sought to make the act legally binding.”

“We can’t just start throwing traditions out the window, we would lose our cultural integrity.”

“But we have done away with, or at least stopped socially valuing, a large number of traditions in the past (slavery, segregation, male/female gender roles), and often for the sake of cultural progression.”

“Your playing semantics with me.”

“I can’t help it.  Scrutinizing ideas and ideals may very well be part of my cultural tradition.”

Now, before anyone misinterprets what I’m trying to say, this post is not in any way about equating marriage to slavery, or a call for the dissolution of marriages.  What I am doing is asking why we feel the need to attribute value to traditions, for no other reason than that it is considered a tradition?  Why is it so hard for us to say that, yes, much of what we deem to be part of our cultural tradition is arbitrary, and in the scope of history, will probably prove to be provisional to our particular social era.  Does this undermine the value of our traditions?  I don’t know.  If we had a time machine, and were able to discover the exact origins of all of our traditional customs, would we still bother performing those whose history we now knew to differ from our original conception of them?  Again, I don’t know.

Perhaps, it would be best for us to simply start reevaluating out customs now.  Defend them as if they are on trial, awaiting due judgment.  After all, if the traditions we hold dear are as valuable as we perceive them, no amount of self-scrutiny and rational argument should be strong enough to even cause a dent.

A Word on Assisted Suicide

The desire to both alleviate suffering and protect life are two ethical principles upon which much of modern society shapes its moral values around.  However, there are several situations that present a clear conflict between the desire to alleviate suffering and the desire to protect life.  The debate over assisted dying is probably the most difficult of these (from a moral standpoint) because it involves a person whose suffering is so great that she or he wishes to just end her/his life as a final recourse to the pain, often even if there exists the possibility that medical attention can either save or prolong her/his life.  The ethical dilemma of whether such a person’s wishes should be respected, or whether the ability to save a life at all costs ought to take precedents is not a simple issue to resolve through purely philosophical musings.

Just about everyone can image a scenario in which an individual’s physical pain is so great that it would seem downright cruel to force her/him to continue to be tormented just to appease our collectively idealized standard over the sanctity of life.  Certainly one could make the case that even a painful life is better than no life at all, but the caveat that cannot be ignored is the question of by what right any one of us can demand for a person to continue to live in agony to preserve our ideals about the greater value of life.

“What if the person’s pain is causing them to speak from hysteria and fear?  What if they would have changed their mind about wanting to die?”  What if is a line of reasoning that though interesting is destined to remain unresolved by virtue of its phrasing.  Case and point, what if the person ends up living only a few months longer, all in agonizing pain, only to die anyway?  You could have spared them these final moments of unspeakable pain, but didn’t.  Does that seem more morally sound than letting them die?

A conflict does arise of whether anyone else’s opinion besides the suffering individual’s should be considered (such as family members not willing to let their loved one die at any cost if it can be avoided).  This is the part of the assisted suicide debate where it becomes difficult to insist on a clear course of action.  It’s redundant to state how almost no one wants to see someone they love suffer.   Now add on the caveat of not just having a loved one die, but to actually assist in the process.  I recognize that this is undoubtedly too great a burden for many to go through, seeing as how I, too, would no doubt be torn to my core if such a decision faced me.  However, I still have to maintain that, as heartbreaking as it is to consider the torment that someone will suffer at losing a loved one, I still don’t see how the alternative is any better (i.e. how much the individual her/himself is currently physically suffering, and how s/he must continue to do so partly because I cannot take the mental anguish or moral burden of assisting in her/his death).

Being a person who does feel a great deal of empathy for his fellow man, I see the many moral difficulties that arise from the debate over assisted dying from both sides of the argument.  I also understand that many such cases will have different circumstances that call for different considerations.  But I simply cannot bring myself to insist that a suffering person (whether their pain has a physical or psychological source) must continue to exist in torment in order to appease any personal moral hangups I have on the topic.  And I find it hard to see an intellectual means to get around this problem without descending into gross oversimplifications on a very sensitive issue.