New Humanist, May/June 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
The Uses of Pessimism
Oxford University Press
The belief that humanity makes moral progress depends upon a willful
ignorance of history and of our selfishness. At any moment the veil of
illusion might be swept away, revealing the bare truth of the human
condition. Human beings are neither as good as the optimists pretend nor as
bad as curmudgeons paint them.
To see and love human beings as they
are, we need a dose of pessimism in our plans and aspirations. Hope without
faith or historical wisdom is dangerous.
Pessimism is needed to
protect the belief in human uniqueness. To dismiss humanity as a plague on
the face of the earth is to undercut our values and wrongly equate us with
animals like rats and worms.
I say we differ from the other animals.
We are rational beings who relate to each other "I" to "I". Freedom,
individuality, accountability and the moral life all result from this. It is
not because we are non-rational that we are subject to illusions and
fallacies but because we are rational.
We make the life of reason
easy for ourselves by ploys and fallacies that feed our false hopes.
One fallacy is that human freedom is a natural gift. We are born to
enjoy it but we lose it through the laws and restrictions of social life.
But the truth is that human freedom is an artifact. Our laws, institutions,
and disciplines enable us to live freely. The belief that we are born free
invites us to discard all knowledge that it is painful to acquire. It leads
to the loss of discipline and culture.
Another fallacy is the zero
sum belief that every benefit for one person is a loss for another. Hence
all goods must be paid for, and the art of society is to pass the cost to
someone else. But social cooperation is not a zero sum game. The art is to
discover how your good is my good too.
Such fallacies lead to false
hopes. Many hopes fizzle out but hope springs eternal. A striking new false
hope is the transhumanism of people like Ray Kurzweil. The transhumanists
believe that we will replace ourselves with immortal cyborgs, who will
emerge from the discarded shell of humanity like the blessed souls from the
grave in the Last Judgement.
The transhumanists don’t worry about
Huxley’s Brave New World. They promise increasing power to vanquish the
long-term enemies of mankind. But why should we work for a future in which
we won’t exist?
We rational beings depend on love and friendship. Our
happiness is one with our concrete freedom, not the abstract freedom of the
utopians. We are rooted in our mortal condition. We solve our problems and
live in peace with our neighbors through compromise and sacrifice. One use
of pessimism is to warn us against destroying our roots. We should be
gloomy. Our happiness depends on it.
New Humanist, May/June 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
By Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press
Terry Eagleton says there really is such a thing as evil. He says liberals
and leftists regard talk of evil as merely a way of describing extreme forms
of moral badness. But I agree that evil exists, in the sense that there are
people and acts that exemplify it. How could anyone deny this?
Eagleton implies that evil is more than a mere egregious degree of badness.
He thinks it matters to say so because the down-playing of evil renders one
impotent to deal with it.
Accordingly he sets off like a pinball
bouncing among a thicket of pingers, from William Golding to St Augustine,
Macbeth to Pseudo-Dionysus, original sin to the Holocaust, Shakespeare to
Freud, Satan to Thomas Mann, Arendt to Aristotle, and so on, to tell us what
evil is. But Eagleton has been too long among the theorists to risk a
Were the Nazis evil? Eagleton says only
Hitler himself was "authentically so". Was the 9/11 attack on the Twin
Towers evil? No, it was wicked but explicable. There is nothing rational
Evil is a non-rational "condition of being". But it is a
kind of non-being too. Evil acts are those that destroy. Freud's death
drive, Schopenhauer's gloom, the despair of the alcoholic, all help to show
that evil is monotonous and banal. So though we do not bump into evil every
day, it is connected to the ordinary.
In his essay "The Concept of
Evil" (Philosophy, 2004), Marcus Singer demonstrates the strength of the
liberal view. Eagleton's literary resources and passing references to the
Holocaust pale in comparison to the examples of horrible behavior Singer
reports to evoke the depth of moral revulsion that makes "evil" the right
Wicked things can be done by people supposing themselves to be
serving a good end. Nazis saw racial hygiene where their opponents saw mass
murder. But even here intention enters. The Nazis saw that to realize their
aim they had to do cruel and destructive things.
People sometimes use
"evil" hyperbolically, as a vent for shocked responses. This points to its
focal use to mark what goes beyond the limits of moral conceivability.
Eagleton's excursions into literary hermeneutics and such theological
absurdities as original sin add nothing to this understanding.
Eagleton is anxious to rewrite theology. God is not to be regarded as
rational. Eagleton: "To ask after God's reasons for allowing evil … is to
imagine him as some kind of rational or moral being, which is the last thing
he is." With one bound, God is free of responsibility for evil even though
"he" is CEO of the company that manufactured its perpetrators.
Eagleton has spent his life inside two mental boxes, Catholicism and
Marxism. Neither are ideologies that loosen their grip easily. The result is
strangulation: the ideology always wins.
Only a Catholic or a
Calvinist would even remember the concept of original sin, let alone bring
it into a discussion of evil. But Eagleton does, and at length. Original sin
is a great idea. Compare: a pharmaceutical company tells us that we are all
born with a disease that requires that we buy their product all our lives
long, and that if we do it will cure us after death.
Encyclopedia defines evil as what ought not to exist, and as the sum of
opposition to the desires and needs of individuals, resulting from the
action of created free will. This, near enough, is Terry Eagleton's view.
AR I like Scruton's
views, even though I disagree with some of them. I dislike Eagleton's views,
even though I agree with some of them. Grayling ... is a liberal.