We are sure that there are "universal" values that have always been respected by "decent people," or that what has changed is a result of "progress." We consider slavery universally reviled, even as it is still practiced in some parts of the world. We abhor torture, even as we teach other countries (our neighbors to the south, for example) to do it. We are quite sure we long ago gained the pinnacle of civilization, and yet children did not begin to be valued as "little adults" until after the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the "middle class." Child labor laws were tacitly upheld by Teddy Roosevelt (he refused to meet with "Mother Jones" when she lead a "Children's Crusade" march to his summer home in upstate New York when he was President). It was later into the 20th century than most of us think before child labor was outlawed. When Jesus said "you must become like a child" to enter the basiliea tou theou, most NT scholars today agree that meant become as worthless as a child in 1st century Palestine, not innocent as a lamb in 19th century Britain (and then only if you were white and aristocratic).
But surely on more "serious" issues, such as death and torture, there has been agreement throughout time, or at least throughout Western culture?
... the modern liberal’s revulsion toward torture is unusual. As Nietzsche and Foucault remind us, through most of human history there was no taboo on torture in military and juridical contexts, and so no need to repress the infantile sadism that nature has be-queathed us. Indeed, Judith Shklar notes a remarkable fact, namely that cruelty did not seem to figure in classical moral thought as an important vice: "[O]ne looks in vain for a Platonic dialogue on cruelty. Aristotle discusses only pathological bestiality, not cruelty. Cruelty is not one of the seven deadly sins . . . . The many manifestations of cupidity seem, to Saint Augustine, more important than cruelty." It is only in relatively modern times, Shklar thinks, that we have come to "put cruelty first"—that is, regard it as the most vicious of all vices. She thinks that Montaigne and Montesquieu, both of them proto-liberals, were the first political philosophers to think this way; and, more generally, she holds that "hating cruelty, and putting it first [among vices], remain a powerful part of the liberal consciousness." Shklar also observes that putting cruelty first, as liberals do, incurs genuine moral costs: "It makes political action difficult beyond endurance, may cloud our judgment, and may reduce us to a debilitating misanthropy . . . ."David Luban (pdf file) makes a compelling argument. His argument, in a nutshell, is this: "I am arguing that torture is a microcosm, raised to the highest level of intensity, of the tyrannical political relationships that liberalism hates the most." The arguments against it, he points out, are based on five "illiberal" motives: cruelty; victor's pleasure ("The predominant setting for torture has always been military victory. The victor captures the enemy and tortures him."); terror ("a practice that exists to make it easier to subdue and tyrannize people is fundamentally hostile to liberals’ political philosophy."); punishment ("Foucault argues that the abolition of punitive torture had little to do with increased humanitarianism. Instead, it had to do with a change in the distribution of crime in Western Europe. As the West grew more prosperous, property crimes eclipsed crimes of passion as a social problem. This led to calls for a milder but more certain system of punishments. The trouble with torture is that when the punishment is so awful, the temptation to mercy becomes too great. Imprisonment, out of sight and out of mind, replaced the public spectacle of torment."); and for extracting confessions.
Luband's thesis is to undermine the "ticking time bomb" scenario (which he does quite well), so we will leave him there and turn our attention to death. How do you see death? Your answer depends not on your humanity, but on your culture. For example:
Historian Philippe Ariès reminds us that death was a part of life. Medieval and early modern romances, chronicles and memoirs speak with one voice: when death knocked, the door was opened and the visitor was welcomed in remarkably similar ways.This is where it gets interesting, of course. Is human nature really a constant across time? If so, in what? Our fear of death? That's another "explanation" for religion by the non-religious. But apparently the people of the "Middle Ages," a time dominated by the Church and death, were afraid of neither. "Memento mori" may have been the medieval equivalent of "Have a Nice Day," not a grim reminder of doom and despair. Death was certainly not a boon companion; but that which you can do nothing about, you soon learn to live with. It may be another irony of the law of unintended consequences that our ability to further and further postpone death has made us even more afraid of it than our ancestors. In some ways, surely, we are better off. But in some ways....
Organization was essential. The dying person was responsible for the proper execution of his final exit. The doctor's principal task was not to delay death, but to guarantee that it was welcomed properly. And, indeed, the doctor wasn't alone. Family and friends gathered for the ceremony and the doctor was simply a face in the crowd. One and all understood their roles and the lesson that was imparted: they, too, would eventually be called.
The intimate relationship between life and death unfolded in unexpected places. The medieval and early modern cemetery was no less public place than the deathbed. For centuries, the activities we associate with the marketplace commonly took place in cemeteries, amongst the tombs and charnel houses. Merchants and scribes, musicians and dancers, jugglers and actors and, gamblers and the like sought to make a living in the company of the dead. When Hamlet clowns about with Yorick's skull, he's exceptional only in the fluency of his language.
I used to live no more than 50 feet from a graveyard. Most visitors to my house considered that "creepy" if not "morbid." Graveyards used to surround churches, which were the center of social life in a community. Now even hospitals are out of the way places we only enter as patients or as family members. Graveyards are as far from sight as possible, and funeral homes handle burials because we don't want our worship spaces "tainted" with the memories of our loved one's last repose (I actually had many church members tell me this, as a reason not to hold a funeral at the church, and, indeed, most of the funeral services I have done have been in funeral homes).
We are terrified of death. When death knocks, we flee. Robert Redford, in his one appearance on "The Twilight Zone," actually played Death knocking on an old woman's door. She spends the episode desperately rejecting his entreaties, until she finally realizes he is not an enemy. She finally yields to the inevitable. Per this historian, our ancestors could not even have imagined such a tale.
And we can still do little more about death than our ancestors could. We despise torture because, as Luban points out, it violates our sense of individual sovereignty, an idea that is fundamental to our identity as human beings. Is fear of death as innate as abhorrence of torture? Perhaps not. Notice the connection between these two, a connection lost and sought to be regained today: community.
The liberal emphasis on cruelty focusses on the treatment of the individual, the 'sovereign' whom we have all learned to honor thanks to Romanticism. Cruelty is wrong because it involves inflicting intentional pain by an individual on an individual. Cruelty is what we accuse God of, when we suffer. Ivan Ilyich's burning question as he dies is not, "why death?", but, "why me?" What have I done to deserve such suffering? Job never accuses God of cruelty; nor do his friends, or even his wife. And yet we do. Are these things right? or wrong?
Is it possible to elevate cruelty to too great a vice? Don't we abhor torture because it is cruel? And yet we don't blink at cruelty imposed on 'others.' Cruelty is the worst of vices, but it is narrowly confined: it is what is done intentionally. Death in war is unintentional. Suffering in US captivity is "unsanctioned" or the fault of a "few bad apples." We blame the individual, never the system, and so the cruelty of poverty passes us by, the cruelty of hunger and homelessness escapes us. We don't blame the victims of Katrina when they are on their rooftops, but when they are in another city, we begin to wonder when they are going to take care of themselves. The cruelty of the circumstances, of the artificial constructs of cities and economies and societies, is never to blame. It is always the person, and since systems cannot intend to harm, only people, well, there really is nothing cruel about it.
Death is never systematic, either, except when it is. Death from warfare, from pestilence, from poverty, doesn't disturb us. We hear of 200 dead in Iraq this week and, like the body counts from Vietnam, we don't throw up in our morning coffee, we reach for the cinnamon rolls. And yet when it is our turn to die, or for a loved one to die....
Death is harsh, of course. It is painful, it is sad, it is cruel. But is that because it is the nature of death to be so, or because of the nature of our understanding, our cultural response to death? What if we greeted it as our ancestors did? What if we welcomed it as a part of life? How could we do that, except in community?
The horror of death for Ivan Ilyich is that death is for him alone. Only at the very end, literally in extremis, when he screams for three days without ceasing, but is unaware of his screaming, only then does he reconcile with his family, if only in his own heart, and only then does he welcome the inevitability of death. Indeed, at that point death is gone, it is, in the words of John Donne, "no more." Death itself dies. Why? Because he is not alone.
Cruelty is cruel because it marks us as alone, as separate, as wholly apart. Cruelty is the worst vice because it is inflicted personally upon each of us, personally. But what if who we are were less important than who we are among? What if who we are were less important than who we were with? What if what we shared mattered more than what we have done, acquired, accomplished, made? What if it were more about each other, and less about each one of us? From where we are now, without "going back" (as if we could), would we be closer to removing death's sting? Would we get closer to abolishing torture and cruelty?
Or are we doomed to always struggle for power, always argue over who has the right to be in control?