Do we do things because they are the moral things to do or do we do them to achieve certain ends? I faced this question in a debate I had with my church’s youth group’s sort of leader. It was of course a peaceful debate—diplomatically ignoring my views eventually—but this question has been living inside me ever since.
I took a Kantian standpoint and argued in favor of the categorical imperative, whereas my opponent said that, the moral thing is to act to earn God’s divine gifts in Heaven. And even though it seemed pretty obvious to me, in the past one week ambiguity has begun to cloud my confidence on this matter.
The heavenly gifts we earn for living a righteous life are quite naturally stimulating and indeed worth living that life for but I thought, that it is not the highest we can get. In my opinion—the one which I had then—acting out completely because of wanting to do the right thing is the most moral way of thinking. Only for the rightness of that action, not for avoiding guilt, or actually finding pleasure in it, or anything of sort.
Using Kant’s reasoning however, would actually mean embracing the opposing view, not mine. Kant actually found God in morals this way. His categorical imperative suggests a certain joy felt over the moral act, properly proportionate to how moral the act was. Although he found a problem in this: say—and this is my example—you commit a crime but you have cleaned up after yourself well enough. Still, a clever detective somehow gets to you and you are persecuted. However, when being tried, you find a way to get away by adding just one more lie, that could clearly undo the validity of any evidence they have against you. Now you are faced wih the dilemma, that either you add just one more lie and get away, or act morally and confess. It is problematic to imagine a situation, where a criminal in the midst of trial starts to think about morality but let’s accept it for the sake of the thought experiment. Now before moving any further, I add another crucial detail: because of the severety of your crime and the local laws, if you testify guilty, you will be executed on the scene without any delay. So now, acting immorally will just get you life, in which you can try to make up for the wrongs you’ve done and do probably some even more moral things, than confessing now. On the contrary, in the present state, the only justifiable action is testifying guilty. But this morality, thinking in earthly matters, is completely vain. It earns you nothing, neither for the community, and though everyone will agree, that at least you did the right thing when you confessed of your crime, you will still be marked as overall immoral, and above these, you will not have a chance to feel any joy over your moral act. Impending death, brought forth only by a moral act, which serves only the abstract morality itself, can take away this kind of joy…
In the case above, according to Kant, the only acceptable choice is the moral one. But without a sort of moral joy felt over it and any service implemented through this, it certainly becomes difficult to find any point in it. On the contrary, no matter the contingencies, such as one’s lack of time for joy, you should still choose the moral decision.
Now this is a place, where Kant found God. After your moral act, you can have joy over it even after you are dead, in case there is life after death. In case there is Heaven, and it is accessible to you—well, anyone can say a prayer a be saved even right before death—this final moral act of yours, will prove to be not in vain and you will have a chance to have that sort of moral joy in the proper proportion.
No, no one has to agree with Kant. I know, I haven’t seen into the depths he has or the depths there are to this question. But—without solidly stating, that this is the right way to think about this question—this is a possible answer, that put some things into new light for me. It’s good to get it off my chest :)
I quite recently watched a Sherlock episode, titled: The Sign of Three. It was, in my sincere opinion, a relief after the surprisingly disappointing season premier—and I haven’t watched the season finale, so please don’t spoil that for me.
In this episode, besides of a number of complicated and smartly intertwined cases being solved by Sherlock, Dr. Watson gets married. Well, marriage is and has now been for a pretty good while a sensitive and controversial subject and no one blog entry could contain the expression of the complete set of my views on this topic, so I’ll just reflect on one thing.
As Sherlock prepares for his awkward and unromantic best man speech, he points out a flaw in the institution of marriage. He says, that a wedding is not a big day, since two adults, who already live in the same household, will merely continue their relationship, without any addition or alternation in regards of form or content, just implementing a brief intermission consisting of a grand celebration and a short vacation.
Sherlock’s argument against marriage is, however, not, that it should be done differently but that it shouldn’t be done at all, having understood the little relevance it has. Of course we discard this argument as a trivial mistake. We feel this way because the essence of marriage and what it constitutes are unuttured but very valuable things.
The essence of marriage is problem #1. Out of all the definitions I’ve heard in my short life, the most easily acceptable and most up-to-date is this: a union between two willing adults, sanctified by the state, promoting romantic values. This is fairly true to popular contemporary views I believe.
On to problem #2: what does marriage constitute? To answer this question, we will now draw consequences about our answer to problem #1. Marriage essentially constitutes a state, in which the participants have their relationship recognized by the state and their pursue of romantic goals is hence justified.
I will now try to contradict my previous statements and conclusions by explaining faults I believe to have identified.
Fault #1: the state’s sanctification is inadequate. I will demonstrate this by one argument but I believe even more exist. My example is this: take a christian couple. They get married and according to their beliefs their marriage was sanctified not solely by the state but also by God. If we define marriage as a thing getting its sanctification by the state we have disrespected and at least the way the given couple sees it, degraded their marriage. On the contrary, it would be problematic to change the definition in their favor because that would be misfit for the people not sharing christian faith.
Fault #2: in case marriage essentially promotes romantic values, such as romantic love, fidelity, companionship and such ones, it must mark the distinction between the state of promotion and the state, where these values were not promoted or not in the same manner. This means, that, for instance, before the marriage you have the liberty to break up the relationship you have, however, after you’re married, you willingly give this up and thus will never have the freedom to get a divorce. Of course this seems extremely orthodox and hard to accept but given the definition above, the state of marriage does not allow you to violate the institution of it.
The list of problems and faults may be too short or inaccurate in contrast with others’ views but I believe it’s quite enough food for thought for now.
Both faults, listed above, originate from how we define the essence of marriage and what we want it to constitute. Now, that I have questioned and denied the modern day thinking about this topic, it may seem, that I agree with Sherlock and see marriage as an irrelevant contingency in life but that’s not the case either. What I personally think about it is, that as long as we don’t have a unanimous definition of marriage, we can’t make court rulings or legislations defining its aims, since no matter how liberal we are, it will always take away the freedom of at least a few. And to give my view on what to make of the current problem, I will say, that marriage is valuable and it should continue to exist, however, to fill it with importance, contemporary thinking about it should indeed be changed.
Peter Jackson’s Desolation of Smaug (2013) had a great impact on me for numerous reasons. When I was introduced to Tolkien’s tale, I was in high school and I found a number of morals of the story, that I could revisit now. This time, however, I have come across a thing in Smaug’s reasoning, that was brand new to me.
When Bilbo and Smaug have their conversation, the dragon speaks scornfully of Thorin’s attempt to reconquer the mountain. He says, that the dwarf if misled, if he believes, that his ancestors’ kingdom can be restored. The dragon also argues, that no one has right to Erebor but him.
We, the sons and daughters of modern democracies, which mostly promote both liberal and communitarian values, automatically think, that of course the Lonely Mountain rightfully belongs to Thorin. He is heir to the throne and the land was taken by force by a—so to speak—tyrant. The dwarf’s reasoning seems legitimate and just. Smaug’s evil and Thorin is virtuous, this is very clear.
But we must bring this conflict to further consideration to understand it in depth. What we actually see is how two philosophies confront each other. Smaug explains this almost explicitly to Bilbo. The dragon argues, that the dwarves have a narrative identity, which gives them ground to make their claims, on the contrary, Smaug says, he has just as much justification. His main argument is probably, that he is stronger, and justice exists only between equal parties but since they are inequal in strength, the more powerful does as he/she sees fit and the weaker obviously can’t resist, ergo must undergo whatever the other decides. Smaug’s second, maybe less conspicuous argument is, that his narrative identity also gives him ground to be ruler of Erebor: he conquered this land—probably by different means but with the same outcome—just as the race of the dwarves once did and now it belongs to him.
This predicament reminds me of the famous Melian Dialogue, which is in Thucydides’ History. In that, the Athenian empire asked the island of Melos to surrender to them and pay tribute but they refused and appealed to Athen’s sense of morals: mercy and the respect of neutrality. It is, of course, not an identical case, but what is very similar: the Athenians argued, that there’s no true moral argument, that could be made in this case. They said: ”For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Smaug reasoned very much like the Athenians did. He thought it foolish to bring up questions about a code of honor or virtue because none of them can be more morally approved, than the other, since every land comes to be ruled by being conquered. The dragon kept arguing, that he has the right to do as he does by possessing the power that he does.
Naturally, Thorin’s claim still seems more justified. Our approval can be traced back to two possible roots, both sufficiently sublime to give us peace about our point of view.
The first possible explanation is, that Thorin aimed to cultivate the land and the neighbor peoples. He wanted to restore a state of prosperity to the benefit of all.
The second possibility is, that Thorin’s allegiance was to the side of good or the side of light, as opposed to Smaug’s, which was to Sauron and the side of darkness. In this case the dwarf king was trying to reach a divine goal: to overcome evil with good.
Of course both explanations have their shortcomings, mostly because of Thorin’s weaknesses, that are often in the nature of morals, but all in all, he is something like a “good guy”.
Smaug’s reasoning in IR and political philosophy in general is called a realist approach. It’s like Machiavelli’s “power is power” way of thinking. I believe our disapproval of the dragon’s line of argument shows our natural tendency to believe in more than just causality. We have a moral code implanted in our souls. We can, of course, fight it in favor of profit or the “greater good” or whatnot but it’s undeniably there. This tendency is a beacon of hope for me. It gives me faith and not just in humanity or a set of ideals, no. It gives me hope, that overall there is good, which transcends our desperate, miserable and depressing world. It gives me hope, that there is God, in whom I can lay my trust.
Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (2007) has been famous for its explicitly violent themes, which are doubtlessly quite spectacular and shocking. The basic story seems like a tragic journey of vengeance and death but, as a matter of fact, it isn’t a more dramatic Count of Monte Cristo, but it’s a unique and interesting piece of art of a different nature.
In the beginning of the story Benjamin Barker a.k.a. Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) returns to London, from where he has been banished for crimes he did not commit and the corrupt judge, namely Turpin (Alan Rickman), who caused all of his troubles, abused his wife - who took arsenic to escape her pain - and became the tutor of Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna (Jane Wisener). Sweeney seeks vengeance, pairs up with Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a widow, together they kill and bake scores of people, finally murdering the judge. In the closing sequence though it turns out, that Sweeney has killed his wife, along with the so many strangers, out of mistake, so he kills Mrs Lovett but he dies, too, because a young boy, Toby (Ed Sanders), who’s very fond of the widow, kills him, as vengeance, also.
There are better plot summaries, I know, but I couldn’t leave it out, in case someone isn’t yet introduced to the movie.
Sweeney’s conduct is a classic vendetta, which he plans to materialize by any means necessary. His self-assigned quest is something, that is hard to categorize as immoral. Well, yes, it’s wrong to kill a man and it is far, far more wrong to kill a great number of men, yet we can’t disregard the information about Turpin’s terrible acts. We can say, that we probably wouldn’t kill like Sweeney did but it’s still hard to say, that his actions are wrongful, since he has the best imaginable motivation. In summary, what he intends to bring down on Turpin and London is understandable and, no matter how much we argue, just.
As the story goes on we get to see a little more of Turpin, who is represented as a heartless, sick person, to say the least. He is seemingly worthy of his overhanging punishment and he just keeps giving us reasons to hate him, and the banner of righteousness to Sweeney.
While Sweeney’s struggling to get a chance to finish his vendetta, he kills many people, whom are baked by Mrs Lovett. This is an extremely provocative notion. As Sweeney is placed on a - disturbing and arguable - moral high ground, there is a seeming moral justification of his killing spree. The purpose this monstrosity serves is nothing else, than - apart from mere practice - cleansing the society of the bourgeois—we’ll return to this.
In the end, however, everything takes a chaotic turn and what has seemed to be logical and moral - though disturbing and hard to agree with - loses its core element: the purity of its motivation. Has it not been for Sweeney’s blindness he could’ve returned to his wife and with probably a lot of difficulties he could’ve redeemed himself from whatever he’s been accused with. He could’ve got back his only child, as well. Sweeney realizes all this and kills Mrs Lovett, who has had key importance in his destruction, but it brings him nothing, apart from a very sudden and ironic death. The reason why it is hard to argue Sweeney’s right to murder all those people is, that he seems to have a natural right to balance out his loss. This is what disappears in the finale: he must face the fact, that he isn’t omniscient, he’s not above nature but inside. All of his killings, his vendetta, basically everything turns out to be unjustified and immoral, and this is what our instincts have been telling us all along the movie. This story tells, how no man can rise above the rest of humanity or any given society, and how important it is to always stride on the path of morality, otherwise we’ll run into great catastrophes, which are all self-inflicted. Lovett’s bakery is a quite unmistakable and disgusting representation of socialism. Although in our society it’s not a question whether socialism is right or wrong, this story, for some reason, still asks it but also gives a fast and clear answer: this mechanism of destruction was the one, which led to the demise of the one, whom Sweeney held the dearest.
In my personal opinion Sweeney Todd’s tragic tale encourages us to watch the future with infinite hope instead of bitterness, no matter how terrible the past is.