A Double Shadow, Part II: Ethics

Having laid the groundwork on A Double Shadow, I want to discuss why I think it’s worth reading and why I think it deals with issues that are significant, especially in today’s cultural milieu.

I’ve mentioned before that any conceivable ethical system must, at some level, make certain postulates or assume certain moral axioms.  The analogy to mathematics is deliberate.  In math, especially in geometry, there are certain basic definitions that are not considered to be definable—they simple “are”.  One either understands them (for the purposes of mathematics) or one doesn’t.  A “line”, for example, though we think we know by common sense what it is, is one such thing.  Mathematically, one could say it is “an infinite locus of points extending infinitely through one dimension and having no endpoints”; but no one but a mathematician would understand this.  Even the terms in the definition can’t be “defined”.  “Infinite” means “not finite”, and is thus defined not in terms of what it is, but what it’s not.  A “point” is not a dot you make on paper, but a “unique geographical location having no dimensions”.  And so on.  Thus, you couldn’t even see, let alone draw, a true point, line, plane, etc.

Likewise, basic postulates simply are.  You can’t prove that opposite interior angles along the transversal cutting parallel lines are equal—they just are.  Likewise with the postulate that for a given line and point not on that line, in a plane, exactly one line passes through the point that is parallel to the given line.  It’s easy to “see” that it’s true, but there’s no proof for it.

The same, in a less precise but analogous sense, is true of ethics.  For anything I say is “wrong”, it will ultimately come down to something I view as self-evident or at least as not susceptible of proof.  For example:

A:  You shouldn’t take that pen.

B:  Why not?

A:  It doesn’t belong to you—it’s the bank’s pen.

B:  But they send it with the money carrier—it’s cheap, and they don’t expect to get all of them back.

A:  But that’s stealing.

B:  No it’s not.

A:  But it is.

B:  So what if it is?

A:  Stealing is wrong.

B:  Why?

A:  Taking things from others without their permission is morally wrong.

B:  Why?

A:  Because taking from people things they might need or have use for is wrong.

B:  Why?

A:  Because if they need it and it’s taken from them, it will cause suffering.  [Here is A’s axiom:  causing suffering for no reason is wrong.  Everything previous to this statement hangs on this postulate.]

B:  I don’t care—for me it’s “Look out for number one.”  [Here A’s axiom is acknowledged but rejected.  Thus, A will try again.]

A:  Would you want people to steal from you[This is an informal statement of Kant’s Categorical Imperative.  Once again, this is an axiom that is assumed—essentially out of the clear blue—without need for proof.  This axiom is arguably more fundamental than the previous, since it purports to say why it’s wrong to cause others unnecessary suffering.]

B:  If they’re strong enough and clever enough and can get away with it, and I’m too weak or dumb to stop them, then that’s fine with me.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

Whether it’s really logical or coherent for B to make this final statement (and some would argue that it’s not), the point is that unless B accepts one or both of A’s axioms, there is no possible agreement between them on the morality of taking the pen (or presumably bigger items as well).  Or, to put it another way, B may agree with the Categorical Imperative, but he applies it very differently than A does, to the extent of making it practically a different axiom.

I’m not saying, by the way, that this is the course such a conversation (which many of us may have actually had) would actually take.  What I’m trying to show is that underlying any specific moral question (is it right to keep the bank’s pen?) is, if one pursues it far enough, some principle which is assumed or postulated without the need or even possibility of proof (e.g. the Categorical Imperative).  People may disagree on less fundamental aspects of a moral debate—for example, in the above there might be agreement as to the wrongness of stealing without agreement as to whether taking the bank’s cheap pen is, in fact, theft.  However, any moral argument ultimately rests on moral postulates or axioms; and people holding different axioms will be unable to agree in principle.  In short, disagreement on whether taking the pen is theft is relatively superficial, whereas disagreement on whether theft is wrong, as long as you get away with it, is profound.

In the real world, of course, there are additional constraints that generally cause us to agree on a fair amount of things.  Resources are limited, and we all need at least some, so we are all inclined to agree that theft is bad (the issue of bank pens aside!).  Death is permanent, so we are all agreed that killing is a bad thing (self defense, etc. aside for the moment).  In case after case, the universe in which we live is a tough place.  Actions have consequences which are irreversible, limits hedge us in everywhere, and the conditions necessary for our lives seem often to be more the exception than the rule.  Thus we are more or less constrained to a certain amount of ethical agreement whether we like to or not.

This brings us back, after the above excursus, to the novel A Double Shadow.  The future world postulated in this novel is one in which actions no longer have consequences; or at least, none that can’t be avoided, changed, erased, or fixed.  Thus, while moral axioms or postulates are still possible, they are now totally arbitrary.  Why say, “Thou shalt not kill,” when the one who is so killed can be easily and instantly brought back to life by a bystander?  Such an event happens in the novel, in fact.  Why is stealing wrong if the person so robbed  can instantly conjure exact replicas of the stolen items, or even dematerialize and return them to himself before the robber even gets home with the loot?  Why forbid any form of sexuality when any and all consequences can be avoided, erased, fixed?  How, in short, can any kind of “must” or “ought”, any kind of ethics or morality, exist in such a milieu?  The answer that the novel gives, and the one that I think is correct in such a context, is that it can’t.

At this point, the obvious question is, “So what?”  We do not live in a world such as that described by the novel; if such a world is possible, it is centuries or millennia in the future; and I’m inclined to believe that such absolute control of the cosmos will never, in fact, be possible.  Thus we can question the whole importance of considering such a world and the importance of the novel that describes it.  I do not think such a world is or will be possible, as I’ve said; but I do think the book and this view it puts forth are important to consider, especially in light of today’s postmodernist, pluralistic, relativistic world.  I will discuss this in greater detail in the next post.

Posted on 14/08/2011, in book reviews, books, ethics, philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: