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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The moralist in spite of himself

Dr. Eco comes to Chesterton:

Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion. You can see this in the positivist scientists of the 19th century.

They insisted that they were describing the universe in rigorously materialistic terms - yet at night they attended seances and tried to summon up the spirits of the dead. Even today, I frequently meet scientists who, outside their own narrow discipline, are superstitious - to such an extent that it sometimes seems to me that to be a rigorous unbeliever today, you have to be a philosopher. Or perhaps a priest....

G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: "When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything." Whoever said it - he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.

Eco, a non-Christian but a great humanist in the best sense of the term, herein expresses the essence of Voltaire's point regarding the fundamental necessity of religion. Human beings are not capable of maintaining a spiritual vaccuum and they will fill that void with faith in something. In some cases, they will fill it with something harmless, in others, something silly, in still others, something actively evil.

I see Eco's article as tangentially related to yesterday's discussion, which demonstrated again how decent atheists and agnostics raised in a Christian culture parasitically and irrationally latch onto the greater part of the morality they reject as a whole, causing them to react in horror as their fellow disbelievers not privy or more resistant to such moral indoctrination behave rationally in the manner exhorted by Nietzsche and accepted with sardonic resignation by the existentialists.

The essential point that continues to evade most of these decent disbelievers is that regardless of the ethical structure he erects to rationalize his subscription to traditional morals imposed on his consciousness by society, he has no logic beyond simple utilitarianism to offer anyone else. His definition of good and evil - assuming he even accepts such things - is his alone. He can say to the rapist "what you do is evil", but he has no effective response when the certainly rapist says to him "what I do is good, because I define good as that which pleases me" or " A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength" nor does he have a legitimate grounds for preventing or punishing the rapist.

Even the ethical arguments based on utilitarianism can fail here. In a demographically declining West, the rapist can quite reasonably argue that he is committing an act for the good of society, even for the good of humanity, in forcing himself on a woman who intends to remain childless. Indeed, an honest devotee of "the greater good" would have to at least consider supporting a policy of forcibly impregnating the most intelligent women, accompanied, of course, with a revivial of the historical eugenicism aimed at sterilizing the least intelligent.

This is, of course, abhorrent to the Christian morality, which Nietzsche rightly viewed as a defender of the weak. But on what grounds does a utilitarian object?

There is no dearth of philosophical systems of ethics, and they are all useless because they make no logical claim on those who do not voluntarily accept it. This is why the atheist, the agnostic and the pagan so readily resort to force as a substitute for ethics, because their arguments are toothless. To be fair, one must admit there is no shortage of Christians who do the same in their confusion of government-mandated legality with Biblically-mandated morality.

Eco quotes another lapsed Catholic, Joyce: ""What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" I would add: what profits it an individual to forsake a morality which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical, incoherent and inapplicable to others?

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