David Kordahl

Ethics Degree Zero

In Internet, Politics, Religion on 2010/12/24 at 6:47 am

Today, I’d like to try an experiment: I would like to write a blog. I call it an ‘experiment’ because in some sense, I haven’t tried it before; everything posted on the Internet under my name probably falls better under the category of ‘essay’ than ‘blog’—essays modified by hyperlinks, sure…but still. There are some real differences between the two genres. To me, the major distinction b/t ‘essay’ and ‘blog’ is that in an essay, the author tries to articulate his piece and be done with it, while a blog is more of a call-and-response medium that encourages reader participation via comments. A secondary feature of some blogs is that the major topic under discussion is usually an Internet Happening, be it a NYT online feature, newly discovered celebrity indiscretion, viral video, whatever. So while the essay is allowed to be the mad egomaniac’s solipsistic wet-dream (readers be damned!), the blog is by its nature a more participatory genre, where the writer is at most the chairperson of a topical committee—a committee whose leader can change at any time following the intro-discussion of the post itself [1].

This piece is a blog in the sense that I’m writing about something that genuinely confuses me (signifying that I’d like the input of wise readers in the Comments), and it’s furthermore a blog in the sense that the thing that I’m confused about was spurred by an Internet Happening (signifying nothing). Though admittedly, it doesn’t look good for the potential blogginess of this entry that we’re two paragraphs in and the main topic hasn’t yet been broached. (Brevity and to-the-point-ness are sufficient conditions for blogginess, but not necessary [logically speaking].)

The Internet Happening was the publication of a certain Moral Essay hosted by 3quarksdaily, which is probably my favorite article aggregator to date. If you clicked on the link, noticed that the topic was not really appropriate for the Holiday Season, and want no more of it, then (in the joint spirit of Christmas and the Blog), I provide now the first reader-friendly interactive option: leave a comment to the effect of “WTF is ethical cannibalism u weird sicko, Merry Christmas lol.” Then close the window and be on your way. On the other hand, if you’re still here and want to rap about Armin Meiwes, then be my guest. I would like to state before starting any discussion that this story is one of the most repellent I’ve ever heard, and that I almost wish I had never heard it, enlightening though it is as a case study in human monstrosity. The tale is by now quite infamous: after putting out an Internet advertisement for a victim, Meiwes killed, butchered, and ate one willing participant, Bernd Brandes. What the Moral Essay argues, disturbingly enough at least to wake me from my own dogmatic slumbers, is that the actions of this ‘Rotenburg Cannibal’ live up to all the plausibly defined strictures of Liberal Humanism, and that Meiwes thus should not be guilty of any crime.

I understand that the essay was designed to be provocative (what with that charming photo and all), but after reading some articles on the issue I feel like ceding to my gut. This is Just Fucking Wrong. Not only in its conception, but also in the details. Like in this article, it’s the nauseatingly familiar stuff that gets to me. The way that after cutting Brandes’s penis off, frying it, and feeding it to his dog, Meiwes read a Star Trek novel. The way that before stabbing Brandes’s neck, Meiwes tenderly kissed it [2].

My problem with the Essay is that I’m having a difficult time pinpointing exactly what to disagree with in it. I know that I could manufacture arguments contra Meiwes and that I could believe them, but I also realize that this would be backfill to fit my emotional response, not something that flows organically from underlying tenets. At the same time, I acknowledge that following strictly logical paths has led otherwise kind and reasonable people (I’m looking at you, Peter Singer) to atrocious conclusions (in Singer’s case, to accepting literal infanticide). I’d even go so far as to say that strictly logical thinking leads to real stupidity, in certain cases. (How else can one explain the antinatalist movement, which posits that the pain of birth and living makes it unethical to bring a child into the world?) What the Meiwes case does for me is to force a possibly drastic re-evaluation of my current ‘live-and-let-live’ approach to morals.

Originally, I was hoping to write a self-congratulating fluff piece on the ontological status of moral judgments [3], but what I’m left with instead is a blog. A frankly confused and inconclusive fragment that I’d like some input on, please. What think’st thou?

(Here’s the Wikipedia Ethics entry, if it helps. I don’t think it does.)

[1] That’s right, confused readers: a new year is coming, and I’m making a small attempt to be ever-so-slightly less of a mad egomaniac, this time around. Up.

[2] This detail particular aspect of the case, however, became a controversial one during the trial. Killing and eating one’s current lover raises questions concerning the causes of consent, even if the one to be eaten ostensibly gave permission. Up.

[3] I know that might sound like a straight-up joke, but I actually came up with an example from life and everything. IYI, this was supposed to be a little byte on the subject of that although I know rats cause untold human harm (as documented in this fascinating PBS documentary, which I took careful notes on), I can justify my love of my pet rats by recourse to what morals, in fact, are. Given that I have absolutely no formal background in this subject whatever, it’s probably good that I didn’t write about it (the age-old high school discussion of ethics vs. morals being exactly the sort of thing that I tend to flub). Though given that the Internet is the one place where it’s Amateur Hour every hour, it might not have been that bad, either. Up.

  1. I like mad egomaniac essayist Dave, even if sometimes the results seem to cover the topic well enough that I’m not sure what to add via comments section. In the third paragraph, you’ve perhaps hit on an interesting internet conversational model – participation via non-participation. If every webpage would add a similar statement, then perhaps we could call the discussion of all topics truly global.

    But anyway, Tauriq Moosa’s essay – I think there is plenty to object to in his logic and conclusions, even if his essay is lengthy enough that its possible any point I address has been covered in some other part of the voluminous whole. For example, when he states:

    “The moral obligation is especially true if the person is the only breadwinner within the family. Barring this – and other examples, like being a parent or the only doctor in a village – I can see little reason for most opposition to other people’s yearning for and carrying out of suicide.”

    I think it’s difficult to quantify what a person’s contribution or expected contribution is to society. Who’s to say the village doctor, overall, has more obligation to his peers than the village priest or, say, electrical engineer? The examples he uses are also awkward and/or ironic, given that they affirm the value of social roles that lengthen and perpetuate human life.

    I think the more objectionable parts to the case of Armin Meiwes is not the cannibalism itself, on which Moosa focuses his essay. There are times and places where you could argue quite persuasively that cannibalism is acceptable. Hell, (obvious jokes about the Eucharist restrained) even the Catholic Church eventually stopped condemning the survivors of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (I think, haven’t found an official citation). Like you suggested but didn’t quite run with, the most objectionable part of Meiwes’ actions is the ritual. Meiwes may have been upfront about his intentions, but there was something I feel and think quite unethical in the way sexuality (and by extension, associated powerful emotions) entered into the event. By the standards or contemporary liberal thought, its tough to argue that it wasn’t an abusive relationship with unfortunate power dynamics.

    So, the case of Meiwes and Moosa’s essay don’t necessarily destroy my more or less socially (to be clear, not economical) libertarian outlook.

  2. Matt Voigts’s concluding sentence brought some thoughts: “By the standards or contemporary liberal thought, its tough to argue that it wasn’t an abusive relationship with unfortunate power dynamics.”

    Such a statement inevitably brings out the Nietzschean in me. That is, of course Miewes’s situation involved a power dynamic! To call it “unfortunate” is in and of itself a moral power dynamic.

    Put bluntly, power determines morality and not much more. If folks like Miewes were the majority, I’d guess that his case wouldn’t be a significant moral issue. But as is, Miewes finds himself as an aberrant fellow and the majority consensus as established in and out of court is definitively against him. The liberal humanist’s attempt to appeal to a universal, rational standard is indeed destined to fail *on its own grounds.* It may succeed on other Nietzschean grounds, however.

    Miewes’s condemnation will be determined by whoever can get the most people to align with his or her own argument for or against Miewes. We may deem this process “democracy,” “rational debate,” or anything similar–but is it really anything besides a power struggle? Is it any different than nineteenth century American politicians using argument to recruit soldiers to a certain side to win a certain civil war?

    I’m not saying this is *bad* (as a proper Nietzschean would). I’m simply describing the process that undergirds moral debate. Power plays a (or the) role in moral debate.

  3. Matt and Kenyon,

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses. I wish I could figure out a way to display these prominently under the blog, since you both pose intriguing answers to the question posed–certainly better explanations than anything contained within the post itself. If I go with Kenyon’s answer, however, then I have approx. the same hedged nihilism that I find scary, even if it’s hardly avoidable.

    P.S. I went on Facebook tonight to see if Mr. Gradert now goes by Kenyon or Kenny, and I found that he’d pulled out of that junket. Then, being creepy like that, I found a post he’d made at this group blog. @Gradert: is that still where you’re writing?

  4. Ha! Most friends call me Kenny, but I’ll probably start writing as Kenyon upon entering graduate school (God-willing) next year. I’ve indeed opted out of facebook. Partially for DeLillo-ish fears of its white noise tendencies. Mainly because I was wasting time on it that could be spent reading or writing.

    The Veil Away was a group blog begun a year or so ago by a brilliant friend of mine, Robert Minto. Follow him at http://www.antimoderate.com for a nice balance of social philosophy and literature. The group blog has since petered out. I wouldn’t wait on any new posts there. Wouldn’t be surprised if Robert shut it down soon.

    In regards to the Nietzschean dissatisfaction, I fully concur. There is something deeply unsatisfying about Nietzsche, but he hits the nail on the head as well, imho.

    Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s geneology of morality need not lead to nihistic morality. Continue to make moral arguments against Miewes! Convince people! I’d just concur with Nietzsche that your moral argumentation isn’t so much a purely rationalistic endeavor as it is a power play on the complex fabric of humanity–appealing to emotion, tradition, reason, science, religion, and more. Don’t imagine this “power play” as a negative, despotic tyranny over others. Rather, I’d say it bears more in common with the classical roots of “democracy”–we cannot forget the role that “kratos”–power–plays in coming to a democratic consensus.

    This is just the way people are. To call it good or bad would go against Nietzsche. One is welcome to go against the nasty Prussian, of course, but I think he’s spot on. He’s not prescribing a certain type of morality, but is a precursor to the postmodern turn in limiting himself to nothing but description. That’s why he gives a geneological view of morality–explanatory and descriptive, not argumentative and prescriptive.

  5. Ha! Most friends call me Kenny, but I’ll probably begin writing as Kenyon upon entering grad school next year (God willing).

    I did indeed rid myself of facebook. Partially for DeLillo-ish death fear of white noise. Mostly because the devilish thing stole time that could be used for writing or reading.

    The Veil Away was started a couple years ago by a brilliant fellow Dordt student, Robert Minto–check out his own blog theantimoderate.com for excellent commentary on literature and social philosophy. TVA petered out a while ago. I wouldn’t wait on new posts from there. Wouldn’t be surprised if Robert shut her down soon.

    Concerning your dissatisfaction with Nietzsche, I sympathize fully. There is something deeply unsatisfying about the mouthy Prussian. But what he says is, I think, spot on–if one can remember a vital part of Nietzsche’s thought. That is, though Neitzsche may seem prescriptive (e.g. his exhortations to become the ubermensch), his genealogical view of morality, to the contrary, is utterly descriptive.

    If one bears this in mind, Nietzsche need not lead to nihilistic morality. Argue against Miewes! Convince people of your opinions against him! Nietzsche doesn’t discredit this, but simply describes the process underneath of it as a power dynamic. He gets back to the classical roots of democracy, emphasizing the “kratos” (power) necessary for coming to a majority consensus.

    So if you’re looking for an argument that fundamentally is universally and rationally valid (the standards of liberal humanism), you’ll be dissatisfied.

    Put more bluntly, I think Nietzsche’s critique simply gets away from the prescriptive morality of the moderns and is a precursor to the postmodern turn towards the purely descriptive. In addition, I think Nietzsche’s critique does justice to complex humanity. One doesn’t make moral arguments on purely rational grounds (a la modern philosophical tendencies of the liberal humanist), but acknowledges the fundamental power dynamic that appeals to emotion, tradition, science, religion, all of the above.

    Not bad. Just how it is, imho.

  6. As you say, Nietzsche’s account of the “Geneology of Morals” (which is the limit of my knowledge/involvement with him, having intended during college to read more of him but never putting aside the time to do so) is mainly a descriptive account. The thing that bothered me when I read that–a few years ago, now, keep in mind–was that his account purports to be somehow historical, but deigns to give absolutely no evidence. What he’s accomplished is an ‘interpretatation’ that’s kind of interesting, but it might be more convincing were it argued empirically, with concretely documented evidence of how moral shame at power entered the Judeo-Christian vocab as a power-play on the part of the disenfrancised. Otherwise it’s merely an idea…which, w/o corroborating evidence, are pretty cheap.

    (Of course, a zillion academics have probably done just this, and if I’d wade through that lit, maybe I could jump the bandwagon with you.)

    However, I think there are some general problems with ‘power’ readings of the world that aren’t very well acknowledged in some cirles. E.g., when people say things like, Oh, man, politics plays a role in science, in religion, in philosophy…it’s all power dynamics!–this has one statement that’s obviously true followed by a statement just doesn’t follow. It sounds more bad-ass somehow to posit a general-field-theory of the the world via power gradients (not that I can blame you of this, though I have heard such things, not far from me…), but I think this is pretty intellectually lazy; it turns a pertinent consideration into a huge non sequiter. There are both rational considerations and power considerations in any social interaction, including moral judgements. As I have sloganeered before: The reason the world’s so hard to understand is that it comes all at once.

    …BTW & gracias for the links.

    • This will be my last reply, as I’m leaving for Chicago after my radio shift ends.

      First, I wouldn’t construe “politics in science” to be a dirty phrase. Nietzsche’s critique is more fundamental and much less negative than the popular American view of mere politics. Nietzsche’s work on power is not so much an attempt at grand badassery as it is a more refined critique of the theoretical presuppositions of the moderns.

      Secondly, you are terribly modern in your philosophy! What with your demand for “concretely documented evidence” and empirical validation 🙂 I know having a problem with this sounds absurd, but bear with me.

      Though I’m glad scientists as yourself seek things like empirical validity in the realm of physics and such, I think it becomes messier when arguing more theoretical matters like morality. And maybe this applies even in the realm of physics! (Thinking of my own very basic reading on 20th century developments in quantum physics and Einstein’s work with relativity. Or see a recent New Yorker article on the mysterious “decline effect” that’s bothering some scientists: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer)

      The postmodern critique of modernism has only strengthened since Nietzsche. This critique also aims at the modern’s clean idea of empirical validity (as old as Hume) and “concretely documented evidence.”

      Especially in the realm of theory, how does one go about documenting empirical “evidence?” What is the empirical validity of Lacan’s theory of the gaze? What about concrete evidence for the worth of a Kierkegaardian existential leap of faith? Et cetera.

      Much more, even the adjective of “empirical” has undergone philosophical scrutiny since the epistemological work of Kant and Husserl.

      But this is becoming tangential to the original discussion. A reevaluation of one’s morality? Never a bad thing. But morality is a messy thing and a theoretical thing. Especially within contemporary continental philosophy, theory has taken a greater turn away from scientifically minded folks. Lyotard’s proclaimation of “incredulity towards metanarratives” was largely aimed at the desire for a universal, rational (or even, scientific) explanation of the world.

      I understand this may sound like another humanities major’s pathetic attempt to be bad-ass, but I truly do think these developments in theory have a great degree of validity and even a great deal of applicability to everyday life. The continental turn may seem faddish at times, but it has persisted and grown (if not exploded) since Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and (I’d argue) even before them with Husserl and Kant. It deserves attention, especially from scientist.

      Enjoy a blessed New Years Eve! I’m off for the Windy City.

      • I disagree with just about everything in your last post, though it clarifies to me what are your particular intellectual allegiances. As these topics are interesting and I’ve had a lot of conversations concerning such things, maybe I’ll write something on this subject soon.

        Enjoy Chicago!

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