"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, May 25, 2007

Oy! Oy! Oy! Oy! Oy!

I should post this at Fr. Jake's place, where it won't go unnoticed; but a comments block is no place for what I have to say in response to this:

Usually it is the progressives who are blamed for often being too quick in taking the consequentialist approach to most ethical questions; the greatest good for the greatest number is the right thing to do. The problem with this approach is that it can create victims. Sometimes, that cannot be avoided, when faced with difficult moral decisions. Apparently, the "centrists," or at least one of them, are now choosing to use this ethical approach to justify bigotry.
Sorry, but the simple, short, and direct response is: utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number) is NEVER the correct response to an ethical question, especially when faced with "difficult moral decisions." Let me give you an example from a play I was just teaching: Shakespeare's "Othello."

In the course of teaching that play I realized something about the characters of Desdemona, Othello, and Iago. Desdemona and Othello have much in common, despite the seeming differences which Iago, from the beginning of the play, sets out to exploit. Iago assures Roderigo in the very first scene of the play that the newly-minted marriage between the Moor and the "supersubtle Venetian," as he calls her, will not last. Desdemona, he tells Roderigo, will soon tire of her exotic warrior and his tales of world travel and courageous fighting, and realize that, as a sophisticate of Venetian society she has little in common with the military commander who rose through the ranks to his position of power. And Othello will all too soon realize he has no understanding of the ways of Venetian society Desdemona takes for granted.

Iago, in other words, can't see Othello and Desdemona being other than he is: a worldly materialist grounded only in his self-interests and self-aggrandizement. Before he begins to discourse on Othello and Desdemona, Iago tells Roderigo how he despises those men who do their duty to others and end up worn out and discarded. The men who "have some soul," as Iago puts it, are those who show their duties outwardly, but privately take care of themselves and so, when they are cashiered, have lined their coats (again, Iago's metaphor) so they are taken care of when retirement is forced upon them. If you hear echoes of the parable of the unjust steward and the lesson "Make friends on earth so that when the end comes, they will welcome you into the eternal homes," I don't think that's an accident. Iago also tells Rodgerigo, in a clear reversal of the famous "I am that I am" from the burning bush: "I am not what I am." But that's another analysis for another time.

Iago is wrong about the love between Desdemona and Othello, because what Iago actually preys on is not Othello's easy boredom with Desdemona, but Othello's transcendent sense of right and wrong: his morality, in other words. Emilia, Iago's wife, might as well be speaking for her husband when, at the end of Act IV, just before Othello enters that same bed-chamber to murder his wife for what he thinks are her thousand infidelities, she and her mistress discuss the possibility of cuckoldry:

Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?

The world's a huge thing: it is a great price.
For a small vice.

In troth, I think thou wouldst not.

In troth, I think I should; and undo't when I had
done. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a
joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for
gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty
exhibition; but for the whole world,--why, who would
not make her husband a cuckold to make him a
monarch? I should venture purgatory for't.

Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong
For the whole world.

Why the wrong is but a wrong i' the world: and
having the world for your labour, tis a wrong in your
own world, and you might quickly make it right.

I do not think there is any such woman.

Yes, a dozen; and as many to the vantage as would
store the world they played for.
But I do think it is their husbands' faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
There it is: the eye for an eye, the tooth for a tooth. If men wrong us, argues Emilia, we have every right to balance the scales by wronging them. Two wrongs don't make a right, but the first excuses the second, if only that rude justice be done. This is not morality, but ethics: the pursuit of that which assures happiness for the pursuer. And it is, as Iago is as well, resolutely horizontal: that is, it remains on one plane, flat; there is no transcendence in it at all, nothing that rises above the material level of a zero-sum game where if you make me lose something, I regain only by taking something from you.

And it is precisely in the issue of transcendence that morality departs from ethics, and the two are distinguished.

Othello to some degree, Desdemona to a far greater degree, understand the importance of morality over ethics. As Desdemona says to Iago:

Unkindness may do much;
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love.
She stays true to this resolve. Even as Othello smothers her, she accepts her fate; so much so that when she revives long enough to speak to Emilia, she tries to deny her death is either suicide or murder by her husband. In her morality she is linked to Othello: they both understand that it is the transcendence of morality which makes it true. That morality, of course, also blinds them to the evil of Iago, but it preserves their souls and makes Othello a tragic, and not just a pathetic, figure.

What torments Othello and causes Desdemona, even on her death bed, to refuse to blame Othellos for her death, is something that transcends the material universe Iago is bound to, and utilitarianism affirms. As Othello says to Iaqo, speaking of Cassio but actually speaking of himself:

They that mean virtuously, and yet do so,
The devil their virtue tempts, and they tempt heaven.
Iago, of course, never means virtuously, and so the devil never tempts his virtue, for he has none. As he says shortly after Othello's words, speaking of Desdemona but actually speaking of himself:

Her honour is an essence that's not seen;
They have it very oft that have it not:
Here is the crux of the play, in fact: honor is what we give others, just as we give them our trust. But both are earned from their actions, and may be, as Iago proves, entirely undeserved. Still, without them, how would we function? And yet honor and trust that remain rooted only in the horizontal plane of the material, are worthless, whether they are spent on Iago or given to Desdemona. Only when they are transcenden, are they truly valuable. As Emilia tells Desdemona, virtue is a thing of the world; gain the world, and you can redefine virtue. But Othello and Desdemona understand that in gaining the world, you will lose your own soul. And no redefinition of virtue will win that back for you.

So, is there a point where "unavoidable victims must be created for the greater good"? It depends, of course, on what you consider the "greater good." Iago unashamedly sets himself up as the only valid recipient of the "greater good," but he does so by assuring himself that everyone else thinks the same, and those who don't have no soul. Desdemona and Othello know better; and it is the violation of that transcendent morality (or his perception of it, relying too much on the lies of Iago) which drives Othello to his madness. He is not even concerned with the world's view of him. When Lodovico comes from Venice to relieve him of command and allow him to leave Cassio behind, Othello is not assuaged by the apparent assurance that whatever cuckoldry may have happened, the cause will soon be far from his spouse; instead, he takes it as one more sign of preferment, one more indication that in a fallen world the moral man must stand for the right despite the consequences. When Othello kills Desdemona he does not, like Iago, resort to further murders in order to hide his crime; instead, he confesses it, even in the face of Desdemona's death-bed denial of his crime.

The first sacrifice of morality must always be the moral agent herself. A morality which asks a sacrifice of the other greater than that asked of the moral agent is no morality at all; it is, at best, a cruel ethic. The problem with utilitarianism as an ethic, in a nutshell, is that it is a materialist ethic. The greatest good is always defined as a horizontal good, and that is always an unalterably a zero-sum game unless the greatest good is defined as something transcendent rather than merely imminent. So long as the greater good is confined to the horizon the latter, there must always be "unavoidable victims...created for the greater good." That may yet be ethical; but it is never moral.

None of which is to condemn Fr. Jake nor the point he has to make in his post about the ABC's failure to invite Bishop Gene Robinson to Lambeth (it is a serious slight, indeed, IMHO, and not one to be excused because the good Bishop is seen by some to be a divisive figure. No less so, frankly, and for no better reason, than our Presiding Bishop. Yet the reason for not inviting one, while inviting the other, is surely a distinction without a difference, since many in the Anglican Communion still object to women priests, as well.). What the Archbishop of Canterbury is faced with is the dilemma of the institution: like nations, can the institution itself afford to be moral? Can it ask sacrifices of its constituents that they would not ask of themselves? If it does not, it is not transcendent of the individuals which comprise it. But if it does, is it transcendent? Or tyrannical? If the church as an institution is not moral, what good is it? But if it is not cognizant of the material, what virtue does it have? Desdemona recognizes that virtue is a thing of the world, and in the world. Emilia sees it only as a thing of the world. Desdemona also sees, however, that it must be transcendent, as well as immanent: or it is no virtue at all, it is, as Iago says, merely "a fig!" And if that's all it is well, then, the church, and we, have a problem indeed.


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