It is a curious paradox that the meaning of life is often found in the meaning of death. Presumably a man's death takes place when he suffers irreversible loss of those characteristics essential to his personhood, so that in determining when such a loss occurs, one is also determining what properties are regarded as essential to constitute a person's life. Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych2 vividly depicts such a paradox through the dramatic unfolding of the moral reappraisal of Ivan Ilych3's life in his dying stages. Ilych as the vernacular has it found himself in dying, discovering what existentialists term authenticity upon careful reflection on the meaning of death. Despite what appeared to be an agonizing, painful dying process4, replete with pathetic self-pity on the part of his hypocritical loved ones5 and professional insensitivity on the part of his attending physicians6, Ilych had dominion over death at the end. "'Let the pain be. And death ... where is it?' He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. `Where is it? What death?' There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light. ‘So that's what it is!' he suddenly exclaimed aloud. 'What joy!' [pp. 155-56]"I suspect readers of Raymond Moody's Life After Life will locate some interesting comparisons between Moody's clinical account of "near-death experiences7" and the subsequent confrontation with a "Being of Light," and Ilych's "in place of death there was light." Such a comparison and many more doubtlessly invite themselves (compare but Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's psychiatric analysis of the various stages of dying with Tolstoy's narration of Ilych's dying process), but I do not wish to pursue here a parapsychological or psychiatric analysis of Ilych's death.Instead, if I am not mistaken, both Tolstoy and Ilych (that is, the Ilych in the last two hours of his drawn-out dying period) were much too sanguine about the human condition and the prospects for attaining moral integrity in this life. In short, I believe the Tolstoyan lesson to be drawn from Ilych's dying is not a realistic expectation, although it is devoutly to be wished. "At that very moment Ivan Ilych8 fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified" (p. 155).Tolstoy seems to be suggesting that a man is dead not just when he suffers irreversible loss of neocortical activity, or when he satisfies the 1968 Harvard Medical School criteria for brain death9 — but most importantly a person is dead when stripped of his autonomy regardless of how operative his cerebral functions. While there is clearly a normative element in any proposed definition of death, the normative component of Tolstoy's suggestion is all-pervasive. Remindful of Chisholm's earlier discussion of coming-into-being and passing-away, Tolstoy seems to be saying that a person may have ceased long before a human being does — even if that same human being is physiologically well-functioning.Tolstoy appears to be maintaining then that questions about whether a man has a soul or not, or whether a man is dead or not, are not simply empirical inquiries but rather questions about the kind of life he is living. Offering a somewhat secularized version of Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart, death is viewed as alienation from virtue; immortality as union with various conduct. There are obviously theological analogues to Tolstoy's account of death as in the Pauline words that "to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace." I choose to quote Paul because I do not wish to side with those philosophical theologians (e.g., D. Z. Phillips, Ilham Dilman) who maintain that belief in immortality when associated with belief in some form of postmortem existence rests on a mistake, that eternity involves no form of postmortem bodily resurrection but only a pre-mortem life of commitment to moral and religious ideals. What is overlooked in such accounts is that granted an eschatology (i.e., Paul also offered the caveat that if Christ is not risen, then we are of all men most miserable) without such a moral and spiritual orientation would surely be blind, but so too would the latter be empty without the former. Nicholas Berdyaev writes:
His mental sufferings were due to the fact that that night, as he looked at Gerasim's sleepy, good-natured face with its prominent cheek-bones, the question suddenly occurred to him: "What if my whole life has really been wrong?"
It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death1.
Eternal and immortal life may be objectified and naturalized, and then it is spoken of as life in the world beyond. It appears as a natural realm of being though different from ours. Man enters it after death. But eternal and immortal life regarded from within and not objectified is essentially different in quality from the natural and even the supernatural existence. It is a spiritual life, in which eternity is attained while still in time.... The unfolding of spirituality, the affirmation of the eternal in life and participation in a different order of being mean transcendence of death and victory over it10.
Yet Berdyaev admonishes those who would offer only a moral, non-metaphysical religious account (the spiritual, non-objectified view) of immortality that "man is both mortal and immortal, he belongs both to the death-dealing time and to eternity, he is both a spiritual and a natural being. Death is a terrible tragedy, and death is conquered by death through Resurrection. It is conquered not by natural but by supernatural forces11." A man is dead for Tolstoy, I suggest, when he either chooses to renounce his integrity and the complex set of moral practices and beliefs associated with and constitutive of that integrity, or when he has his integrity violated against his wishes. Given such a state of affairs we say "the man has lost his soul"—even though in the descriptive and more properly metaphysical sense his soul (in corporeal substance, discarnate personality, etc.) may be quite intact.There are obviously some difficulties attached to such a normative definition of death, the most obvious being the host of slippery-slope pitfalls contained therein. However, any justified fears about such thin-edge-of-the-wedge arguments seem more forceful with regard to currently formulated biological definitions of death than to Tolstoy's highly normative definition. That is, current biological accounts of death all speak of irreversible cessation of either new cortical activity or spontaneous brain function, etc., and consequently add 11 note of finality to their practical ramifications. But Tolstoy's account remains more tentative inasmuch as the man who loses his autonomy may not have suffered an irreversible loss, as but witness Ilych's moral conversion.My intent in this paper is to explore why I believe, given Tolstoy's proposed analysis of death, that it would be unrealistic for most persons to expect to attain moral integrity (except for death-bed moral conversions where any cause for optimism is quickly relinquished by recalling Aristotle's caveat that one swallow does not make a spring, and I take it Tolstoy considers it merely fortuitous that Ilych was in that situation), so that in some sense pace Ilych death has dominion over us.
Section IIJ. L. Austin writes: "In philosophy it is can in particular that we seem so often to uncover, just when we had thought some problem settled, grinning residually up at us like the frog at the bottom of the beer mug12." There is a widely accepted deontic principle in philosophical circles to the effect that "ought implies can." That is, if it is appropriate to say of someone that he ought to do a particular act X, or ought not to perform a particular action Y, then surely in making such third-person judgments it must be the case that the person in question presented with such diverse moral demands can do or can refrain from doing the particular actions elicited. Contrapositively, it is held that if a person cannot do what is morally required, or cannot refrain from doing what is morally forbidden, then it is appropriate to say that it is not the case that he ought to do that which is required, or it is not the case that he ought not to do that which is morally forbidden. In short, inability to perform a moral action or refrain from performing an immoral action removes a person from the ethical sphere.For example, we normally claim we have an obligation to be honest, considerate, charitable, temperate, etc. in short, an obligation to be virtuous, to develop the requisite traits of character for leading a distinctly human lifestyle. On the negative side of the coin, we maintain that we ought not to be unjust toward our neighbors, ought not to punish the innocent, ought not to be dishonest—in short, that we have an obligation to avoid the development of a vicious character. It seems fair to say that our ordinary concepts of responsibility, and the consequential ascriptions of praise and blame rest on this fundamental deontic principle. To be sure, ought implies can as a significant deontic principle must utilize a sense of cannot confined to mere logical possibility. Obviously, it is (logically) possible for a person to do anything that does not violate a law of logic, so that the can of logical possibility is not here the appropriate meaning. Nor is the can of physical possibility necessarily the most important sense, although it is usually thought to be. I suggest the interesting can here operative is what I term the "can of expectability." This can of expect-ability governs those situations in which traditional morality or the moral law expect it to be the case that a person will perform a specific action given the absence of any logico-physical incapacity to do the required action or refrain from the forbidden action. It needs to be pointed out that I am not going to question this basic deontic principle on the grounds that some form of psycho-physical determinism is true. Indeed, my thesis suggests that the principle is questionable even postulating the truth of some version of metaphysical libertarianism13. The principle that ought implies can is questionable not only because there may be cases where I cannot do X, yet ought to do X (e.g., I am not excused from providing for my ailing mother which I promised my father on his deathbed to do, just because I am now bankrupt, having gambled away all my inheritance) but also because there may be cases where I cannot do X (i.e., in the can of expectability sense only), yet it may still be true to say that it is false that I ought to do X. The latter case—if the can of expectability is recognized and included in the fundamental deontic principle—does not make the principle false but only questionable in the sense that it renders morality far too onerous an enterprise to expect most people to engage in.
Let me attempt to illustrate this new and interesting sense of can by the following question asked by, say, a fifteen-year-old-boy to his mother, namely: (1) "Can I go out and play basketball with the guys?" The question lends itself to at least three diverse interpretations.
(1a) Is it logically possible for me to play basketball while at the same time baby-sitting for my younger brother in the playground adjacent to the basketball court?
(1b) Do you think I am capable of performing on a competitive level with my friends at basketball?
(1c) Is it consistent with commonly accepted practice to play basketball with the guys? This question might be asked by someone who is inquisitive about what society expects with regard to recreational pursuits in time of dire economic recession (i.e., perhaps the boy's father is unemployed). Or, he might be inquiring whether the Parks Department allows basketball playing in the public playground after 6:00 P.M.
It is this last question (1c) which deals with the can of expectability. Now, shifting to a situation involving moral choice, suppose one asks: (2) "Can I perform the morally required action X?" Again this question lends itself to at least three diverse interpretations.
(2a) Is it logically possible for me to do X14?
(2b) Do I have the requisite character or physical ability to do X?
(2c) Is it consistent with commonly accepted practice to do X?
Again, it is this last question (2c) which deals with the can of expectability, and which I believe provides the most interesting use of can in our deontic principle. As Austin reminds us, "can" is a very protean word.
Section IIIThe upshot of this use and recognition of the can of expectability is that our time-honored deontic maxim, if carried through to its logical conclusion, under this interpretation of can suggests the infelicitous thesis that most people cannot be expected to be moral in the high-blown Platonic sense Tolstoy's analysis favors. Indeed, I would maintain the even more skeptical thesis that no person could be expected to be moral if it were not for the sociological fact that some people find themselves as a result of fate or fame or fortune to be so situated in life that they can be expected to be moral. In somewhat Marxist terms, morality is distinctly bourgeois and not for the likes of us ordinary folk who suffer the deprivation of fate, fame, and fortune.To comment now on the defeasibility clause dealing with the fated, the famous, and/or the fortunate: My basic point is that ought implies can is a perfectly true but rather uninteresting and insignificant claim when dealing with the fated, the famous, and/or the fortunate. For the truly fated, moral conduct is just the done thing, and in the absence of any conditions governing contra-causal freedom not really a subject for consequential ascriptions of praise and responsibility. I agree with Chisholm when he writes: "The author had said of Cato, ‘He was good because he could not be otherwise,' and Reid observes: `This saying, if understood literally and strictly, is not the praise of Cato, but of his constitution which was no more the work of Cato than his existence15.' "With regard to the famous, I am here thinking not only of generally recognized important public figures (like Ivan Ilych)16, but of people who are in quieter ways able because of great wealth, power, or accomplishment to exert considerable influence on the mores of society. They can be moral (and unfortunately often are not) in the interesting sense of the can of expectability because they are beyond the reach of society's punitive grasp.The fortunate are those moral agents who are so blessed by assorted contingent factors (and who need not be fated or famous) that they can be moral, even insouciantly so, and society's powerful sanctions are ineffective or inoperative against them. Legally, the fortunate may be protected by seniority-status, contract, etc., or pragmatically they may be judged instrumentally valuable to society and hence tolerable in their (moral) behavior. Or like Gyges, they may just be lucky. Ivan Ilych17 could be placed in either of the last two categories for"on the whole his life ran its course as he believed life should do: easily, pleasantly and decorously18." Whereas philosophers have traditionally raised the questions "Why should I be moral?" or "What is the morally appropriate act to do in this situation?" and proposed various solutions to such questions, I am suggesting that such queries have neglected the more fundamental question whether most people can be moral. My thesis is that some persons can be expected to be moral but it would be unreasonable to demand this of everyone or more importantly for most people to demand this of themselves. The situations I envision are cases where an agent can (logically and physically) choose the morally appropriate action-patterns, can (logically and physically) select the morally appropriate means to such ends (and indeed would do so in the best of all possible worlds), but cannot be reasonably expected to do so basically because society (or a subclass of it) will not tolerate the performance of such action-patterns and will take severe retaliative steps against violators of its wishes and expectations—even if society's official position is in favor of such lip-service to moral demands. As D. Z. Phillips has wisely remarked: "Deceit depends to a large extent on a pre-established stock of goodwill19." 12It might be suggested that because a person cannot do X in the can of expectability sense, he is justified in not doing X. On the other hand, there are some cases where I cannot do X in the sense that I cannot be expected to do X, and yet it still seems true to say that I ought to do X. This latter view suggests that our fundamental deontic maxim is false. Nonetheless, deontological considerations notwithstanding, I would suggest that such a person has a possible excuse for not doing X so that it may be permissible for him not to do X. If so, then this raises doubts about traditional accounts that if X ought to be done, it is not permissible not to do X. That is, if I cannot do X in the can of expectability sense only, that is I cannot be expected to do X, then in some such cases it is false that I ought to do X, so that doing X becomes supererogatory on a possibly heroic scale. The fundamental deontic principle is still true, but Tolstoy's somewhat Platonic ethic suffers a setback.
To illustrate this thesis I will cite some fairly general cases from the fields of education, business, politics, and religion. I have no specific cases in mind in my illustrations, although I have no doubt that such examples cited below are fairly standard in practice.Case One: Educational institutions in their public relations output like to impress the public with their recognition of a person's basic constitutional guarantees—particularly, freedom of speech. In fact, all too often such is not the case. For example: non-tenured faculty may have certain basic constitutional rights, and certain moral scruples, but they soon learn (except for the fated, famous, or fortunate few) that the actual exercise of these rights and moral demands (specifically on a matter not shared by their senior colleagues) is occasionally frowned upon. Of course, they can do the morally required action in such a frowned-upon situation, but then their job or career is imperiled. It is an unfortunate fact that the American Association of University Professors documents over a thousand complaints yearly on the part of non-tenured faculty claiming infringement of their basic right to academic freedom, but rarely, if ever, are there reports of alleged cases of discrimination toward the tenured—and yet few question the obvious disparity. Nathan Glazer recently wrote: "It is a devastating fact that no faculty has ever moved against a fellow faculty member to take away tenure, for any reason. Even the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association have a better record than that20"! Here again, the high cost of moral conduct turns morality into supererogatory performance.Case Two: In the business world an employee may fully know that his company's product is defective and/or overpriced, yet such a person is unable to protest his reasoned conclusion for fear of job loss and resultant professional damage. As occasional media coverage has noted, employees who question the business ethics of certain real estate companies with regard to land fraud often find their protestations a direct ticket to the grave. We should bear in mind here the Orwellian admonition against double-think or Newspeak. It is a mistake to think that the expression "professional misconduct" is synonymous with "unethical conduct." Indeed, often the morally appropriate mode of conduct is exactly the performance of the so-called unprofessional deed. (What the Pentagon termed unprofessional conduct was to Daniel Ellsberg a conscientious action.) But of course few want ever to appear unprofessional, so morality takes a holiday.Case Three: When one turns to the political realm, it is more than obvious that similar considerations apply. In serving the needs of one's constituency, corn-promise and expediency are the orders of the day. Pragmatic considerate which are often non-moral and occasionally immoral become the determining norms for tolerable conduct. Skepticism about politics is so pervasive that I need not, in Kierkegaard's words, pursue the matter, "by reason of the loud tones to with which actual events speak to the same effect21."Case Four: In religious life, there are often clashes of authority. The religious man may want to serve God, but the dogma of a particular religious sect or advice of a superior may demand obedience to a particular precept which adjudged wrong by such a man. Too often, the religious man is forced to choose the culture over God. Indeed, for many religious believers the rituals, practices, tenets, and institutional sanctions of a particular religion become paramount, and not that transcendent force to which all religion is but a particular human response. Recall the wise counsel of Russell: "I can respect the men who argue that religion is true and therefore ought to be believed, but I can feel only found reprobation for those who say that religion ought to be believed because it is useful, and that to ask whether it is true is a waste of time22."
Section IVIn an extremely insightful essay, "What Violence Is," Newton Garver23 points out that we too often tend (mistakenly) to identify violent acts as any action directed against the status quo, and overlook the fact that violence can be performed in defense of the status quo as well.Garver suggests that what is essential to (immoral) violent conduct is not so much the idea of physical force directed against the innocent but rather the notion of violation which robs a person of his autonomy and dignity. Most social commentators would agree that we have an abundance of violence in the former sense in our world today, but not in the latter sense. If I am not mistaken, however, it is the cruel ambiance of violence as violation of personal autonomy that is suffocating our society and in return rendering moral conduct beyond the reach of most of us.I am mindful that this is a strongly stated thesis. I shall not, perhaps to the reader's disappointment, support empirically such a generalization with a wealth of sociological data. Indeed, I suspect such statistical data would be hard to come by, much as they are in cases of sociological inquiry into the occurrences of suicide, child molestation, etc. Nonetheless, despite my reliance here on philosophical intuition, I intend my thesis—that violence as violation of personal autonomy is permeating our present age—to be an empirical claim.Garver draws a distinction between four types of (immoral) violence: (1) overt personal violence (e.g., muggings, rapes); (2) covert personal violence (e.g., violating the autonomy of innocent persons); (3) overt institutionalized violence (e.g., wars, political repression, industrial lay-offs); (4) covert institutionalized violence (e.g., sexism, racism).Garver focuses his analyses on the neglected areas of (2) and (4), and indeed the range of the can of expectability primarily surfaces within these less-marked-off ranges. I want to say that the violence exhibited in (2) and (4) can often cause a man who is able to do X (even where X is what is morally required) to choose not to do X, so that in some sense to fight the good fight (by doing X), to buck either the covert personal or covert institutionalized form of violence being perpetrated (as a result of doing X), would involve supererogatory conduct. In short, apart from the fated, the famous, and the fortunate, a person in some sense cannot be expected to do X, and therefore it may be false that he ought to do X.To be sure, our agent abstains. He does not decide that he ought not to do X. Ironically enough, he abstains with full knowledge that it is not that difficult to become herd-like. This is the great irony but also the great tragedy, because the pressures of covert institutionalized and covert personal violence make our present age an epoch of lethargic amorality. Kierkegaard writes: "For it is not so great a trick to win the crowd. All that is needed is some talent, a certain dose of falsehood, and a little acquaintance with human passions. But no witness for the truth ... dare become engaged with the crowd24."Suppose we pursue this alleged depiction of our present age by turning to a case of covert personal violence. Consider a person who is a candidate for tenure in a university department. Ex hypothesi, our candidate has satisfied all the objective norms governing the conferral of tenure (i.e., he has a proven record of scholarship; strong evaluations of his teaching ability; and marked contributions to the university and the professional community at large). Suppose further that among the tenured members of the department deciding on his candidacy few have any expertise in his field, and some for personal reasons decide to inveigh against the candidate25. The vendetta is begun. One member reads a paper written by the candidate and accuses him of misinterpreting an important academician in the paper, and urges his tenured colleagues to reject this candidate's tenure application. The candidate knows he never wrote such a paper (and even if he had, could one not dispute a standard interpretation of a particular author?), but he is powerless. It is well to recall here that no candidate is officially represented at tenure meetings. Another member claims he was labeled a homosexual by the candidate in a private conversation; the candidate learns of the allegation, disavows such an outrageous allegation, but to no avail. The candidate even apologizes for the obvious misunderstanding but again to no avail. Kierkegaard writes: "Alas, often enough such an unfortunate person, in addition to his heavy, innocent suffering must bear the severe judgment of the arrogant, the busy, and the stupid, who are indeed able to irritate and hurt him, but who can never understand him26." The reader might here insist that this is obviously a straw-man case; logically conceivable perhaps for those with a somewhat paranoid imagination, but far too desert-islandish to illustrate the moral ills, if any, of our present age. I think not. Walter Kaufmann insightfully writes:
This is not the place to document timidity, conformity, intolerance, and the lack of high standards of honesty in academia.... But consider meetings of committees, academic departments.... A considerable amount of courage is required to raise objections or suggest alternatives that others plainly do not want to hear, and it is extraordinary how often that which is not gladly heard remains unspoken. Some professors, of course, are luminous examples of integrity.... But they pay the usual price27.
Here we have a case of what Garver would call the "Freudian-rebuff." Garver writes:
This type of Freudian rebuff has the effect of what John Henry Newman called "poisoning the wells." It gives its victim no ground to stand on. If he tries to advance facts and statistics, they are discounted and his involvement is attributed to Freudian factors. If he attempts to prove himself free of the aberration in question, his very protest is used as evidence against him. To structure a situation against a person in such a manner does violence to him by depriving him of his dignity; no matter what he does there is no way at all, so long as he accepts the problem in the terms in which it is presented, for him to make a response that will allow him to emerge with honor28.
Indeed, no matter what the candidate does to defend himself against such fabricated allegations only serves further to brand him as a trouble-maker. (One is reminded here of Ivan Ilych29's thought upon witnessing the artificial mannerisms of Praskovya Fedorovna and the doctor attending their dying patient: "He felt that he was so surrounded and involved in a mesh of falsity that it was hard to unravel anything" [pp. 142-43].) If the tenured faculty members would only recall some basic logic, they would realize that their charges are vacuous, because unfalsifiable. Everything counts against the candidate; nothing for him. The insidious violence of such an imaginable case can well lessen the exaggerated rhetoric of Kierkegaard's otherwise sagacious admonition to decent men that "even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were all to get together in a crowd—a crowd to which any sort of decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd—untruth would at once be in evidence30."With regard to covert institutionalized violence, I would recount a case where the local municipal housing authority was trying to remove a destitute man from a building slated to be demolished. The old man was homesteading in the publicly condemned building and delaying its razing. No public official, including representatives of the media covering the story, could understand why the old man would live in such squalor when he could be placed by the housing authority into a new development for the aged. The reason the old man tried to resist his eviction was not based on any love for squalor or filth. He was neither deranged nor a misanthrope. He was, however, not fated, fortunate, or famous. What led the man to choose to remain in the condemned building was a housing authority ordinance that prohibited a person from maintaining pets in the newly constructed apartment complex for the aged, and the old man in question clung to life in his present dwelling with his two best friends—a dog and a cat. The bureaucrats could not understand the man and had him forcefully evicted from the condemned dwelling. His pets were placed in the local animal shelter, where the dog died a few days later of a broken heart and the cat was "put to sleep." The old man was placed under observation in the local state hospital, where he was declared sane, and then released to take up domicile in the new housing project. He did not fight the system; he did not get rid of his pets; he simply resigned himself to the situation.The reader who correctly perceives my sympathies to be with the old man and consequently accuses me of maudlin romanticism is in my judgment a speciesist31. I believe that we have in both these cases I have outlined violence of great proportion which in Garver's words is "as real, and as wicked, as the thief with a knife32."24 What is more, I do not think these two cited cases to be isolated phenomena, for the sword of covert personal and covert institutionalized violence is farther reaching than it is normally perceived to be. If I am not mistaken, its cruel steel permeates our present age.
Section VIn short, I am suggesting that a cynical but realistic attitude is in order toward moral practice which results in a despairing attitude toward Tolstoy's true morality which sadly enough requires supererogatory performance for most of us.It might be said that morality is not a "constitutionally iffy" affair, but I am afraid it is just that, unless of course one is a member of that exclusive club which comprises the fated, the famous, and/or the fortunate few. And since the majority of us (like Gerasim) do not belong to this exclusive club, therein lies the difficulty of advocating moral integrity when one cannot expect moral conduct in return. I would quickly add that introduction of the can of expectability does not excuse cowardice, for the coward is an agent who could be expected to do the required act, but chooses not to do it.It needs to be noted that the difficulties of moral choice I have outlined in sections II, III, and IV did not involve any moral dilemmas. One's moral choice was always quite evident. However, the consequences of acting on that choice would prove disastrous for the agent. It might be argued that the truly conscientious person will do the moral deed in question and find recourse in that supposedly blissful state of virtue providing its own reward. This strikes me as a thin shelter unless a transcendental foundation for such a haven is invoked and defended—namely, that God has reserved a reward for the truly virtuous. In short, I am inclined to think that the virtuous life not only ought to but does in fact constitute a good for the virtuous man. No doubt, it will be suggested that my view reduces morality to expediency. But this puts the cart before the horse. Surely, it is societies' policies that have made morality demand supererogation, and in not having morality serve humanity have made virtuous conduct often too high a price to be paid.Stewart Sutherland relates a case of overt institutional violence involving the Austrian peasant Franz Jaggerstatter who was beheaded by the Nazis for refusal to pay taxes or be conscripted into the German Army. Jaggerstatter knew the likely effects of his action—misery for his family and loved ones, and the political ineffectiveness of his defiance—yet he could not compromise his integrity. As Kierkegaard writes, "in eternity, conscience is the only voice." Sutherland rightly applauds all of this, and suggests in typical neo-Wittgensteinian fashion that Jaggerstatter attained immortality by his act of defiance—even if there be no God: "... what a man does may transcend the limitations of finite existence: it may reflect or show one of the ways in which men may have independence of the vicissitudes of spatio-temporal existence, one of the ways in which they may escape the fear that some contingency may trivialise or wholly remove the significance which they give to, or find in, the disparate parts of their experience33." Sutherland's description of Jaggerstatter's plight suggests that those who are influenced by the can of expectability must make all their moral decisions in light of their perceived vulnerability, with the result that they have "no ultimate independence of the limitations of finitude." I agree. That is why they are dead in Tolstoy's highly normative sense. But it strikes me as a mistake to conclude from this (as Sutherland does) that: "... what is of fundamental significance in his [Jaggerstatter's] life and what gives fundamental significance to his life is something which cannot be rendered trivial, pointless, by what can befall him. In that sense his life does give expression, or show, ‘something eternal in man, ... able to exist and be grasped within every change34.' "26I greatly admire men like Jaggerstatter. Sutherland, however, views him as only doing his duty, much like Kierkegaard, who says: "In the eternal order, if the circumstances are difficult the obligation to speak is doubled35." Pace Sutherland, the action of Jaggerstatter is reasonably regarded as supererogatory. Whereas Sutherland sees Jaggerstatter attaining immortality in the ethical by not "suffering trivialisation" at the "vicissitudes and contingencies of spatiotemporal existence36," such immortality seems but a token prize unless (to quote a neglected passage from Kierkegaard) : "There is still a place in the next world where there is no more evasion than there is shade in the scorching desert37." My point is a Kantian one: without the hope of post-mortem survival38, Jaggerstatter's extraordinary heroism is rendered meaningless.It would be incorrect to think that I am espousing moral relativism in this paper of either a cultural or conceptual variety. On the contrary, I believe in the objectivity of morals, only I am afraid that given our current societal policies the conduct required by morality is for most people a matter of supererogation. I would genuinely hope that the less fated, less famous, and less fortunate among us not have their personal autonomy so violated that they become organization men who, as Kierkegaard said, find it too dangerous to be themselves, "far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd." That at least is my hope, but it is not a very realistic expectation.Most people, I suspect, will become functionaries who will continue through life much like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych39 did as "capable, cheerful, good natured, and sociable—though strict in the fulfillment of what [they] considered to be [their] duty; and [they] considered [their] duty to be what was so considered by those in authority" (p. 105) .I hope, however, that that rare moment may arise (only sooner) when like Ivan Ilych40 (on his deathbed) each person may ask if his heteronomous life (if applicable) had not been a mistake.
It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely, that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family and all his social and official interests might all have been false. He tried to defend all these things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend41 [p. 152].
It may be true, as Tolstoy's normative portrayal of Ilych implies, that Ilych lived dying and died living, but for most of us, if there be no God, our lot in all likelihood will be to live dying and eventually to die.Kierkegaard writes: "To live in the unconditional, inhaling only the unconditional, is impossible to man; he perishes, like the fish forced to live in the air. But on the other hand, without relating himself to the unconditional, man cannot in the deepest sense be said to ‘live42'."
Annotated printout filed.
Footnote 1: Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (New York: New American Library, 1960), pp. 152, 148.
Footnote 4: "He slept less and less. He was given opium and hypodermic injections of morphine, but this did not relieve him. The dull depression he experienced in a somnolent condition ... became as distressing as the pain itself or even more so" (p. 135).
Footnote 5: "Praskovya Fedorovna came in self-satisfied but yet with a rather guilty air. She sat down and asked how he was, but, as he saw, only for the sake of asking and not in order to learn about it.... Their daughter came in in full evening dress, her fresh young flesh exposed (making a show of that very flesh which in his own case caused so much suffering), strong, healthy, evidently in love, and impatient with illness, suffering, and death, because they interfered with her happiness" (p. 144).
Footnote 6: "Ivan Ilych knows quite well and definitely that all this is nonsense and pure deception, but when the doctor, getting down on his knee, leans over him, putting his ear first higher then lower, and performs various gymnastic movements over him with a significant expression on his face, Ivan Ilych submits to it all as he used to submit to the speeches of the lawyers, though he knew very well that they were all lying and why they were lying" (pp. 141-42).
Footnote 10: Nicholas Berdyaev, "Death and Immortality" in Philosophy of Religion, edd. George L. Abernethy et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 572-73.
Footnote 11: Ibid., p. 570.
Footnote 12: "Ifs and Cans" in New Readings in Philosophical Analysis, edd. H. Feigl et al. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1972), p. 641.
Footnote 13: 8. I am inclined to think, however, that metaphysical libertarianism is false. Perhaps my major difficulty with metaphysical libertarianism (often called agency-theory) centers on the "primitive causal relationship" of an agent's putting forth of an effort or causally contributing to a certain effect. Indeed Roderick Chisholm (the principal defender of agency-theory today) once expressed skepticism on this very point: "For it seems impossible to conceive what the relation is that ... holds between the ‘will,' ‘self,' ‘mover,' or ‘active-power' on the one hand, and the bodily events this power is supposed to control, on the other-the relation between the `activities' of the self and the events described by physics" ("Responsibility and Avoidability" in Determinism and Freedom in the Age of Modern Science, ed. S. Hook [New York: Collier, 1961], p. 159). To be sure, if metaphysical libertarianism is correct, it must be true that (a) the agent brings about X as opposed to X's simply happening to him, and (b) the agent could have done something other than X. That is, human actions must be genuinely "substitutable" so as to avoid being either random accidents or inevitable effects of causal ancestors. Given the theory of non-occurrent causation, the agent causes some cerebral event (libertarians speak of a "primitive causal relation") which in turn by occurrent causation makes X happen. However, this view seems to conflict with requirement (a), for if there is no change within the agent, nothing distinguishes his doing X from X's happening to him. That is, agency-theory seems consistent with indeterministic accounts. In short, just as there are uncaused microscopic events, such as the emission of alpha particles and gamma rays by radioactive material, so too on the macro-level there are capricious happenings, in this case, actions. Maintaining an analogy with quantum mechanics, it seems a physicist could be such that he inevitably "predicts" the orbital movement of electrons within an atom, not on the basis of any statistical laws of probability, but simply by clairvoyance. Just as our physicist does not causally explain such random movements, so too the libertarian's agent does not causally explain the action X in question. One wonders what is added to the assertion that X happened when it is asserted that an agent caused X to happen? No doubt the libertarian could here respond that there is an analogous problem with respect to occurrent causation, namely, what is the difference between asserting that an event Y caused the event Z, and asserting that the event Y happened and then the event Z happened? Of course, the difference in this case, it is often pointed out, is a matter of counterfactual support. Indeed; but if the analogy is tight, then this suggests that if the libertarian's agent were acting under a similar set of circumstances at another time, X would again happen. But this implies a (at least soft) deterministic framework and violates condition (b).
Consequently, the agency-theorist seems faced with one of two horns of a dilemma: to violate requirement (a) or requirement (b), which is to accept either indeterminism or determinism, which in turn is to render the agency theory in the words of C. D. Broad "self-evidently impossible."
Footnote 14: That is, I may be so infelicitously situated geographically that there is a rape going on 100 ft. south of me, and a mugging taking place 100 ft. north of me. I know of both events. I could break up one but not both, and yet both actions seem equally demanding and obligatory.
Footnote 15: Roderick M. Chisholm, "Freedom and Action" in Freedom and Determinism, ed. K. Lehrer (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 14.
Footnote 18: Tolstoy, p. 117. Compare Tolstoy's penetrating satiric description of Ilych's father who was a Privy Councillor and "superfluous member of various superfluous institutions"; "... an official who after serving in various ministries and departments in Petersburg had made the sort of career which brings men to positions from which by reason of their long service they cannot be dismissed, though they are obviously unfit to hold any responsible position, and for whom therefore posts are specially created, which though fictitious carry salaries ... that are not fictitious, and in receipt of which they live on to a great age" (p. 104).
Footnote 19: "Does it Pay to be Good?" in Ethics, edd. J. Thomson and G. Dworkin (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), p. 264. On societal double standards, Tolstoy writes: "It all came under the heading of the French saying: 'Il faut que jeunesse se passe.' It was all done with clean hands, in clean linen, with French phrases, and above all among people of the best society and consequently with the approval of people of rank" (p. 106).
Footnote 20: "The Torment of Tenure" in The Idea of a Modern University, edd. S. Hook et al. (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1974), p. 250.
Footnote 21: The Point of View for My Work as an Author (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 120.
Footnote 22: Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), p. 197.
Footnote 23: 16. In Moral Problems, ed. James Rachels (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 242-49.
Footnote 24: "'The Individual': Two ‘Notes' Concerning my Work as an Author" (n. 14), p. 115. Followers of current best-seller lists may have noticed the popularity of books that serve as "do it yourself" manuals on the acquisition of power and the manipulation of other persons. Cf. Tolstoy, p. 107.
Footnote 25: "But the autonomous human being who chooses to make his own decisions instead of bowing to authority or going along with the crowd alienates his fellow men without ever having thought of doing that.... alienation is the price of sensitivity, self-consciousness, and autonomy." Walter Kaufmann, Without Guilt and Justice (New York: Peter Wyden, 1973), p. 157. Cf. "... one can admire from a distance some of those who have lived freer lives, while one detests nonconformists near at hand. Socrates was a great man-as long as more than twenty centuries lie between him and us. At that safe distance one can even speak well of the prophets" (p.212).
Footnote 26: Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), pp. 124-25.
Footnote 27: "Without Guilt and Justice" (n. 14), pp. 194-95.
Footnote 28: Garver, p. 247. Cf. Kierkegaard: "... for how could it be possible for an individual to make a stand against the crowd which possesses the power! And he could not wish to get the crowd on his side for the sake of ensuring that his view would prevail, the crowd, ethico-religiously regarded, being the untruth—that would be mocking himself" ("’The Individual'," p. 119).
Footnote 30: Ibid., p. 110.
Footnote 31: Cf. Peter Singer's defense of the rights of animals in "Animal Liberation," The New York Review of Books, 20 (April 5, 1973), 17-21.
Footnote 32: Garver, p. 249.
Footnote 33: "What Happens After Death?" Scottish Journal of Theology, 22 (1969), 415.
Footnote 34: Ibid., p. 416.
Footnote 35: Purity of Heart, p. 213.
Footnote 36: Cf. "Immortality cannot be a final alteration that crept in, so to speak, at the moment of death as the final stage. On the contrary, it is a changelessness that is not altered by the passage of the years" (ibid., p. 35).
Footnote 37: Ibid., p. 197; see also p. 190.
Footnote 41: Cf. the words of Pablo Ibbieta in Sartre's The Wall: "My life was in front of me, shut, closed, like a box and yet everything inside of it was unfinished.... I had spent my time counterfeiting eternity." In Existentialism, ed. W. Kaufmann (New York: New American Library, 1975), p. 292.
Footnote 42: Kierkegaard, "The Point of View" (n. 14), p. 158. See also Purity of Heart, p. 190: "And in eternity, you will not be asked inquisitively and professionally, as though by a newspaper reporter, whether there were many that had the same — wrong opinion. You will be asked only whether you have held it, whether you have spoiled your soul by joining in this frivolous and thoughtless judging, because the others, because the many judged thoughtlessly. You will be asked only whether you may not have ruined the best within you by joining the crowd in its defiance, thinking that you were many and therefore you had the prerogative, because you were many, that is, because you were many who were wrong. In eternity it will be asked whether you may not have damaged a good thing, in order that you also might judge with them that did not know how to judge, but who possessed the crowd's strength, which in the temporal sense is significant but to which eternity is wholly indifferent."
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)