In this quotation from Unseen Academicals – about sports, ugh – my favourite Discworld character, Havelock Vetinari, explains his first encounter with evil and what that meant to him in terms of moral engagement.
The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork: Lord Vetinari
The Patrician took a sip of his beer. “I have told this to few people, gentlemen, and I suspect I never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.”
The two wizards exchanged a glance. Vetinari was staring into the depths of his beer mug and they were glad that they did not know what he saw in there.
I recently watched a documentary on Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who kidnapped, drugged, and raped his daughter for 24 years; forcing her to be his sex-slave and mother to incestuous grandchildren. What more evidence is required for us to postulate the non-existence of a loving, caring god? Certainly, the systematic extermination of nearly an entire race of people was not enough; the brutality of the world throwing up destruction – whether through volcanoes or hurricanes – does not dint the happy glaze in the faithful’s eyes; and now, a woman raped by her father and kept in his dungeon for a quarter of a century, does not appear to slow faith, either.
Ideally, I would like to stop there and say: The jig is up. There is no man behind the curtain. Praying is the still-frame of an audience slow-clapping for the arrival of their beloved stage performer. Yet this performance has ended, there is no one watching out for you. We are here to look after ourselves and, by definition, each other. Leaving it up to god to catch your babies, let your favourite football team win, get you that hot date, earn your promotion, get you through this terrible ordeal, cure your son’s incurable disease, stop your wife’s neverending pain as cancer destroys her from the inside, take grandma up into heaven, forgive the wrongs of murderers and pimps and drug-lords, proclaim what’s right or wrong, is not a viable alternative to facing this stupid, bigoted, terrible world we live in. This is not a place of happiness. It is a place filled with suffering, with stupidity, with bigotry, which, after our toil and struggle, ends finally in death. Continue reading →
I am, I think, late in handing in my thesis proposal. Anyway, I am in the middle of preparing it. The most wonderful thing was finding my opening quotation, from the great James Rachels.
The great man himself. Click to visit his website where you can get three of his wonderful books for free, including the one referenced here.
It is appropriate on a personal level, since the late Professor Rachels ‘got me’ into applied ethics. The quotation encapsulates much of, if not most of, my research for my thesis. I will be unpacking it for several hundred pages, but also developing an answer I think deserves more attention: rational pessimism. What that means I will have to fully flesh out; needless to say, I am drawing from Schopenhauer, Harris, Mill and Kant to formulate some kind of synthesis that can be applied in practical ethical dilemmas, especially when it comes to medical ethics. We’ll see how that goes.
Here is the wonderful quotation. (References at the end)
Although it may seem a surprising thing to say, the Western tradition places too much value on human life. There are times when the protection of human life has no point, and the Western tradition has had difficulty acknowledging this. The noble ideal of ‘protecting human life’ is invoked even when the life involved does its subject no good and even when it is not wanted. Babies that are hopelessly deformed, and will never mature into children, may nevertheless be kept alive at great cost. Euthanasia for persons dying horrible diseases is illegal. St Augustine called respect for animal life ‘the height of superstition’; in these cases, it is respect for human life that seems to have degenerated into superstition.
– James Rachels, The End of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 24.