Tag Archives: Yeats

The Best and the Worst: A Wish for the New Year

Love does not say “I ought to love”—it loves. Pity does not say “It is right to feel pity”—it pities. Justice does not say, “I am bound to be just”—it acts justly. George Eliot

There are eight to ten movies that Jeanne and I watch religiously during the Christmas season, from the obvious (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “White Christmas”) to a few that are not as well-known. We ended our annual Christmas movie-watching binge on Christmas Eve this year with one of the lesser known films, the 2006 French film “Joyeux Noel.” Joyeux NoelOne of my favorites, this film is a fictionalized account of the 1914 Christmas Truce that spontaneously occurred in numerous places along the battlefield trenches throughout France during the first Christmas season of World War I. The movie is strangely both feel-good and devastatingly sad. The soldiers from both the German and the Allied sides are portrayed as humane and patriotic, willing to share in spontaneous brotherhood and solidarity for twelve hours or so, all the time knowing (as the viewer also knows) that carnage will return within hours and continue for another five hellish years. William Butler Yeats described it well: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.the second coming

I am not the first person during the past weeks and months to think of the next two lines from Yeats’ “The Second Coming” when considering current events: The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. From departmental drama to presidential politics to immigration crises to the war on terrorism, these lines capture the essence of the world we live in. During this holiday season, the closing lines of Yeats’ masterpiece are especially haunting: And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? What is this world that we have created? And what hope is there, as we move to yet another year, to stem the blood-dimmed tide and begin to do something different?

With a few notable exceptions, the public sphere these days is crammed to overflowing with people who embody Yeats’ observation. Those who have boundless passion and energy, grabbing all the headlines and air space regularly display the worst aspects of what humans can be—intolerant, judgmental, pompous, self-centered, ambitious for all the wrong reasons—while evidence of what is best about us seldom rises to our attention. my life in middlemarchI read in Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch the other day a line from a George Eliot essay that could have been written yesterday about many of our public figures. In a withering critique of Dr. John Cumming, a well-known nineteenth-century Scottish Evangelical preacher, Eliot comments on his ability “to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morality with a high reputation for sanctity.” Our current political landscape is populated with such people; as Eliot writes elsewhere, “one’s ambition is always in the inverse proportion of one’s knowledge.” And this is not forced on us—if pollsters are correct, this is precisely the sort of person that many of us are attracted to.

The obvious solution for this would be to find a way to spark the conviction of the “best” so that better people will seek the highest offices in the land. This is a problem that has challenged philosophers and others since Plato’s Republic—how is one to ensure that the best people are in charge of things (Plato essentially said they should be forced to do so)? My own thinking is that the “best” do not necessarily lack conviction as Yeats suggests; instead, the “best” are those whose conviction leads them to live the sort of life described by middlemarchGeorge Eliot beautifully in the final sentence of Middlemarch:

The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Goodness does not enter the world on grand stages with fanfare and media coverage. Rather, the best people are those who live lives of excellence and virtue with conviction, seeking no reward or notoriety. How is such conviction cultivated?

Many argue that religious faith is the most likely, perhaps the only, source of moral excellence and conviction. There is strong evidence linking faith and moral excellence, but we are all aware of just how much damage and violence is done in the name of religious purity and conviction in our nation and world. In his recent book sacksNot in God’s Name, Jonathan Sacks, until recently the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, reflects on the connection between faith and moral conviction:

Abraham himself sought to be a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That idea, ignored for many of the intervening centuries, remains the simplest definition of Abrahamic faith. It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world. The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry . . . To invoke God to justify violence against the innocent is not an act of sanctity but of sacrilege.

It is perhaps time for persons of all faiths to seek common sources of moral conviction, shared simply by being human.

George Eliot consciously intended her novels to be an inspiration for human excellence, but she spent most of her adult life as an agnostic, having left the Anglicanism of her youth behind in her early twenties. She found the wellspring of moral excellence and conviction in obvious, but often overlooked places—good and badour shared humanity and our capacity to empathize with others. Her answer to the perennial question “Why be moral?” is as direct as it is simple:

I am just and honest, not because I expect to live in another world, but because, having felt the pain of injustice and dishonesty towards myself, I have a fellow-feeling with other people, who would suffer the same pain if I were unjust or dishonest towards them. It is a pang to me to witness the suffering of fellow-beings, and I feel their suffering the more acutely because they are mortal—because their lives are so short, I would have them, if possible, filled with happiness and not misery.

This is not a call to debate, legislation, philosophical hair-splitting, or theological distinctions. It is a simple call to action. As the prophet Micah wrote so many centuries ago, “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” These are action verbs. We are called to do more than talk.

In keeping with Rabbi Sacks’ call, my New Year’s resolution is to find new ways to be a blessing in the part of the world that is in front of me on a daily basis. Perhaps if enough of us shared that resolution, our collective conviction might introduce some positive change into a world that badly needs it. It’s worth a try.

Fact or Opinion?

So moral relativism makes us more corrupt, but it also keeps us open-minded; moral objectivism keeps us on the straight and narrow, but it also breeds intolerance. Is one of these outcomes clearly better than the other? Daniel Engber, Slate.com

SignpostsDo moral absolutes exist? Is human engagement with moral principles more like a treasure hunt, where we search for something that is already there but perhaps deeply hidden, or are moral principles something that we creatively construct from various pieces of our experience and the world around us? These questions are the stock and trade of ethics professors and moral philosophers (I ask and use them all the time), so it is not surprising that an essay from a few weeks ago on the opinion pages of The New York Times entitled “Why our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts,” an essay that has generated a flurry of activity online since its publication, was written by a philosophy professor.

McBrayer: Why Do Our Children Think There Are No Moral Facts?

McBrayerIn this essay Justin McBrayer, an associate professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, places the blame for the rampant moral relativism he finds in his undergraduate students not on godless post-modern academia, nor does he accuse parents of not doing their jobs. Instead, he blames it on common core standards in primary education, according to which facts and opinions are to be sharply distinguished as follows:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

Noting that his second-grade son is being taught that every claim is either a fact or an opinion with no hybrid outliers (the philosopher in him bristled at these simplistic categories), then finding out that the youngsters are being taught that any claim with a normative term in it such as ought, must, or should is an opinion and not a fact, McBrayer had an AHA! moment. cultural relativismSo this is why my college students are relativists, he thought. “The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, there are no moral truths.”

McBrayer goes on to advocate in the final paragraph of his essay for the more nuanced position that “Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work is thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct.” But many of McBrayer’s critical respondents didn’t read that far. What several of the responses to his op-ed picked up on, instead, is his apparent claim that the moral relativism of his college students is not only ubiquitous but is to blame for other obvious problems on campus–“It should not be a surprise that there is rampant cheating on college campuses: If we’ve taught our students for 12 years that there is no fact of the matter as to whether cheating is wrong, we can’t very well blame them for doing so later on.”

In an essay on Slate.com,

Engber: The Kids Are All Right

engberDaniel Engber’s response to McBrayer’s argument is rather direct: “It’s total crap. There’s no evidence that college students are any less morally resolute today than they were in years past . . . There’s no evidence that moral relativism . . . causes ‘rampant cheating,’ or indeed any other substantial harm. In fact–in fact–most of the evidence point the other way.” Accusing McBrayer of relying on “the philosopher’s favorite tools, anecdote and intuition” (that one hurt), Engber notes an almost entire lack of empirical evidence in McBrayer’s essay other than evidence that the good professor and his colleagues have been comparing anecdotes and intuitions over a beer or two. But, as Engber is quick to point out, there is empirical evidence about all of this–and most of it is contrary to McBrayer’s thesis.

Various studies have shown that people go through stages of development when it comes to their moral beliefs, and the most likely time in life for people to be skeptical about moral absolutes is during the very years that they are in college. NelsonChristopher Nelson, the president of my undergraduate alma mater St. John’s College–a place where I spent four happy years in the middles 1970s engaged in endless relativistic conversations–noted in Huffington Post last week that “Dire warnings about the corrupting influence of moral relativism among college students were as alarming when I was in college some half a century ago as they are today.”

Nelson: Are We Teaching Millenials to Be Immoral?

But studies also show that most of us get over our relativistic stage—“it seems that college graduates maintain at least some moral convictions.”

Relying on my standard philosopher’s tools of anecdote and intuition, I find this debate in the public square about whether moral facts exist both misdirected and unsatisfying. I do not share McBrayer’s fears about rampant relativism, but neither do I find evidence that most of us naturally move to believing in a few moral principles as we get older to be particularly encouraging. What are those principles? Dont be a jerkDo we simply fall into the comfortable and non-reflective position of adopting a few basic rules about getting along with each other (Be nice, Don’t be a jerk, Work hard), call them moral principles and call it a day? I think human beings are naturally wired to both need and demand more than this.

I suspect that my friends and colleagues, if asked to choose, would describe me as more in the relativist than the absolutist camp when it comes to moral facts. I’m fine with that, since I believe that the dangers of unwarranted certainty far outweigh the pitfalls of relativism. A person can be certain about the truth of anything, including some pretty odious and diabolical beliefs. Using Engber’s term, moral objectivism keeps us on the “straight and narrow”—but to where? The question is not “Are there moral facts?” but rather is “On the assumption that there are moral facts, what are they?” Which tips my hand in this debate—I want to have my cake and eat it too. I believe in the existence of moral absolutes, but also believe that they are far more difficult to identify than most of us imagine. The lifelong search for moral clarity and certainty will often look and feel like relativism. republicThe temptation is very strong to stop along the way and declare one’s current beliefs as moral absolutes—but this temptation must be resisted.

In my “Philosophy of the Human Person” class this semester, we are studying Plato’s Republic—my choice for the greatest single work of philosophy in the Western tradition—from cover to cover. Plato was a dedicated absolutist both in moral philosophy and his conception of knowledge in general, but his focus more often than not is on the process of pursuing truth and clarity, not the conclusion of that process. yeatsYeats famously wrote in “The Second Coming” that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The lifelong journey toward moral truth can become passionate but unwarranted conviction if one believes too early that one knows everything one needs to know, and it settles into the mediocrity of “whatever” if one despairs of the restless search ever having a conclusion. Although I do not share McBrayer’s fear of relativism, the concluding challenge of his essay is one of the best contributions a philosopher can make to this discussion: “Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work is thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct.” And, I might add, never assuming that we have finally gotten it right.