Monday, May 24, 2010

Detachment, Tolerance, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts

Yes, part of the title of this post is borrowed from Donald Barthelme.  I recall reading his work with some fondness, and could do with reading him again now.  He had, at least, a sense of humor, and made use of it in experiencing and relating the absurd.

Recently, feeling mischevious, I brought up for discussion by some philosophically inclined persons certain actions I thought were entirely absurd and disgusting and inquired whether they were "bad."  I believed that I wouldn't be taken seriously, and that, in the unlikely event I was, any response would be unequivocally to the effect that they were indeed bad, and even disgusting.  I was wrong.

There were those who felt no ethical issue was presented.  There were those who inquired why certain people may find such actions wrong or disgusting.  There were those who came up with some reasons why, and those who questioned whether those were good reasons.  A few admitted to disgust, but did not necessarily feel that disgust to be justified. 

Of course it is unsurprising that philosophers, or those non-philosophers who philosophize, may take a detached attitude towards certain conduct when debating its character.  For good or ill (I think for ill) philosophers have spent much time and effort on questions which are utterly unrelated to how we live our lives (e.g., Do I exist?  Do other people exist?  Does my computer exist?).  Why be shocked when they devote time and effort to considering conduct which most everyone would deplore?

It can be maintained that such debates may be useful in the sense that they serve to clarify what it is that we find deplorable.  Well and good.  But I wonder whether there may be more involved.

What do we achieve when we give serious consideration to whether we should or should not murder, or torture or rape (for example)?  When someone claims that such conduct cannot be condemned, or even that such conduct may evoke a kind of beauty, just what is being sought by such a person, what is the intent?  To shock?  That seems a very adolescent desire, though.  What if we're dealing with someone who is ostensibly, at least, an adult? 

Presumably, the person making such claims would object to being tortured or killed, or seeing his loved ones being tortured or killed, unless he/she is extremely odd (and certainly there are such people, but one hopes not many of them are philosophers).  If that is the case, though, why would they argue that such conduct cannot be said to be "wrong"?

I think there are those who have come to believe that it is somehow unsophisticated, or unwise, or improper to acknowledge that certain conduct is deplorable--especially conduct that "ordinary people" would find deplorable.  They would likely act as if such conduct is deplorable if ever confronted with it outside of a discussion, but have come to think that intellectually they shouldn't find it deplorable.

Perhaps it's the same condition or impulse which leads certain of us to claim we can't know whether the world or people we deal with unthinkingly from moment to moment are real.  There is something very curious involved when we insist on doubting or appearing to doubt what we don't doubt in any meaningful way, and I wonder what that is.

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