Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Ethics of Exploration

This was written in 1981 as part of an submission at St Luke's Exeter regarding religion and the teaching of religion in schools. This section actually only marginally deals with teaching of religion, although it sets out an ethical framework for such teaching to take place. I thought a Sunday would be an appropriate time to revisit it.

There is a bit too much purple prose in the rhetoric in places, but I'm still quite pleased with it. One of my pet hates at the time was those panaceas to life that offered "self-development"  or "increasing self-awareness" that seemed to be wholly centred on the ego, with roots in Nietzsche and some forms of existentialism; it seemed to lack any ethical dimension or social dimension, and while this nascent New Age has developed some forms in which those are present, there is still a good deal of narcissism there that needs to be pruned away. I was also strongly motivated to look at how fundamentalist Christian groups behaved towards outsiders, or those they ranked as outsiders, having seem some experience of that at Exeter.

The Ethics of Exploration

We are poor, not demigods. We have plenty to be sorrowful about, and are not emerging into a golden age. We need a gentle approach, a non-violent spirit, and small is beautiful. We must concern ourselves with justice and see right prevail. And all this, only this, can enable us to become peacemakers. (E.F. Schumacher, "Small is Beautiful")

In a trivial world, life becomes "a hollow scaffolding of imposed anonymous values.. We are constantly afraid (of other men's opinions, of what 'they' will decide for us, of not coming up to the standards of material or psychological success though we ourselves have done nothing to establish or even verify such standards)"(Steiner(1)).

Even work is absorbed into banality by this 'slave morality'. As Nietzsche so poignantly observes, "it keeps everybody in harness and powerfully obstructs the development of reason, of covetousness, of the desire for independence. For it uses up a tremendous amount of nervous energy and takes it away from reflection, breeding, dreaming, worry, love and hatred; it always sets a small goal before one's eyes and permits easy and regular satisfactions" (2) .

Against the boredom of such settled servility, man often revolts, refusing to be tamed: he seeks something more worthwhile than mind bogglingly dull duties which reap petty rewards. The cry of rebellion is heard: "Live dangerously !" (3)

The philosophy of Nietzsche would rant: "Live dangerously! Yes, this is the way to true expression in existence. Not: live outrageously - that is folly and bad sense. But: live dangerously! Do not be afraid to live; do not be afraid to exist; do not be afraid to face the danger in any living that is to be worthwhile living. So I say: live dangerously Live dangerously, that you might live!"

So rants and raves the hysterical screaming of this revolution. It begins by proclaiming the twilight of the idols (4); then, as if that were not enough, it takes a hammer to the idols, being satisfied only when they are in fragments at its feet (5). It finishes by crying "I am a destiny!"(6); triumphantly, heroically, it shouts "Ecce Homo: I am God!" (7), before it perishes in the madness of its own megalomania.

Such an ethic begins innocently enough, with pleas for development of the personality; it ends in a freely expressed megalomania (8) that knows of no bounds, freely doing all manner of unspeakable atrocities, "things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious - such as digging up and mutilating the dead" (Lewis (9)) .

Against the 'slave morality' has been countered a 'master morality' (10); an ethic of domination has replaced an ethic of submission. Yet this is not altogether unexpected, because an ethic of submission always has its roots in an ethic of domination. This is clear if we consider the ethical demands of each ethic: the ethic of submission says "you must obey" while the ethic of domination says "you must conquer". Obviously which demand is heard depends upon whether you stand as one of the dominators or not; it depends on which 'side' you are on.

To see how partition calls into being these ethics, let us consider the segregation and discrimination introduced by asking the question: who is a Christian?

Who is a Christian? This creates a boundary: it separates those who are declared as Christians from those who are not. It makes a clear, sharply cut, dividing line. Then the community of Christians is isolated from the world; it becomes a mystery religion with conditional initiation rites. Most clearly this can be seen in the groups which practice "believers' baptism". The baptism becomes an initiation into the group, conditional upon belief. The line is clear between belief and unbelief (11). Those who are on the inside are the "saved", those on the outside the "unsaved" (12).

But by drawing this line, the community cuts itself off from the world (13). Whatever name it gives itself is of no account; it has become a sect (14). So the attempt to define who is of the Christian community and who is not leads to a split between Church and World, in which the World is largely left to its own devices and the Church to its own - except when it ventures forth from its fortified battlements in the name of "evangelism" to capture people from the World.

How comes this division? It comes about because the attempt to define who is a Christian rests largely upon the 'sin mythology' (15).
According to the sin mythology, all men are sinners; there is however an exclusion clause to this: it says "but not Christians"; although not explicitly stated like this, the logic of the situation follows from the understanding of sin as disobedience to God where to be obedient to God is to be a Christian; by this a Christian is 'saved' from 'sin'." (16)

The sin mythology, by branding all men as sinners except Christians, does two things.

Firstly, it provides a scapegoat explanation for the existence of moral and social evils: evil exists as a result of sin. The world is full of evil because it is full of sinners, people who are not Christians. If everyone became Christians, the world would be a better place. If this seems naive, then it is because it is! But it is often found preferable for personal security to take refuge in a scapegoat explanation such as this, rather than admit ignorance and helplessness in the face of our inability to achieve understanding and mastery of diverse and complex moral and social problems (17).

Secondly, it provides a form for "existential cannibalism" whereby Christians could gain meaning for their lives by invalidating the meaning other people gave to theirs (18). This was enacted by the Inquisition (19).

Sin mythology of varying types plays a large role in most groups with totalitarian beliefs. The importance of both to religious discovery cannot be doubted: it is precisely because totalitarian belief and the sin mythology block religious discovery that we can learn from their mistakes.

The failing of both totalitarian belief and sin mythology lies, I believe, in their idealism. In asking the question "who is a Christian?" we seek to find the universal generalisation rather than the particular instance; we avoid reality. People cannot be sharply divided into 'believers' and 'sinners': reality is not so clear-cut; it appears fuzzy. Like Jesus, we should meet not 'believers' or 'sinners' but, simply, people - in all their concrete complexity; as C.E.M. Joad observes: "Here on earth perfection is not to be found;.. good and evil are always mixed and never pure; that every cloud has a silver lining; that the darkest hour comes before the dawn; and that equally there is always a fly in the ointment, a canker at the heart of the rose; these opinions and sentiments are the stock-in-trade of the secular as well as of the religious wisdom of the ages"(20). And we would do well to be mindful of it.

The tension of submit-or-dominate springs from roots in a collectivist idealism (21). And it is clear that it impedes rather than aids discovery (22) ; it is an escape from reality, therefore an escape from exploration. For exploration necessitates freedom for truth, while idealism must deliberately falsify reality at any cost.

But we have had too much idealism: the price tag is too high! It is folly to mindlessly obey: "the man of duty will end by having to fulfil his obligation even to the devil''(Bonhoeffer (23)); it is folly to conquer: "this brings with it an inward rottenness from which there is scarcely a possibility of recovery''(Bonhoeffer (24)).

Those who conquer evade truth; they wish the world as it is to be a lie, their lie, and they would declare this "truth"! An ethic of domination puts an end to truth and exploration ceases; instead myths of race and destiny abound. "The state has, in general," writes Hegel, "to make up its own mind concerning what is to be considered as objective truth"(25). And so freedom of thought vanishes as the ethic of domination (- here state domination - ) takes root (26). Truth is at a discount; exploration ends!

Those who submit evade truth: with the timidity of a frightened rabbit (27), they avoid the question of truth; they avoid the risk of discovery. Instead, they seek refuge in a pitiful pragmatism, where any commitment to exploration is greeted with questions such as "Will it make me happy?" "Will it help me'.'" "What's in it for me?" - but never is it asked "Will it discover truth?" ! Such pragmatism can only be the basis for the fearful faith of an intellectual ostrich. Of this Nietzsche scornfully observes: '"Faith' means not wanting to know what is true" (28). Truth is concealed; exploration ends!

So while domination silences truth, submission evades truth; one stifles exploration, the other ducks the issue. Neither is an ethic of exploration; for in each is a cowardice that would not know truth.

For exploration and discovery, above all we must prize freedom of thought and the love of truth; this is the ethic of exploration. It demands humility; it demands honesty; it demands reality! But we cannot greedily grasp discovery; there are no easy paths to truth. If we are to discover anything, if discovery is worthwhile, then we must not lose sight of this ethic.

"Man has created new worlds - of language, of music, of poetry, of science," writes Karl Popper, "and the most important of these is the world of the moral demands, for equality, for freedom, and for helping the weak" (29). If we lose touch with these human realities, then discovery ceases; we are captive in a dreamworld of our own making: for in these moral demands set forth by man, and only in these bounds, is the space and freedom to discover: the ethic of exploration knows of no moral vacuum.

Notes on Text
1. G. Steiner "Heidegger" (1978), p.92
2. Kauffman (1975), p.125
3. This was the slogan of F. Nietzsche
4. "Twilight of the Idols" (1977) by F. Nietzsche is alluded to here; justifiably because he is one of the best representatives of this revolt against triviality.
5. The subtitle of "Twilight of the Idols" is "How to philosophise with a hammer."
6. Title of last chapter of "Ecce Homo" (1979) by F. Nietzsche is "Why I am a destiny"!
7. "Ecce Homo" was an autobiography of sorts by F. Nietzsche; this being a deliberate blasphemy on his part. It was written only weeks before his complete mental collapse.
8. "Ecce Homo", the most megalomaniac book Nietzsche ever wrote, has the subtitle, "How one becomes what one is", or in more vernacular speech, how one develops one's personality to the full! And certainly my rendering is in keeping with his intention, i.e. he does assert his personality prominently throughout the book, with chapter headings: "Why I am so wise", "Why I am so clever", "Why I write such excellent books", "Why I am a destiny".
9. C.S. Lewis, "The Abolition of Man"(1978) p.46
10. "A Nietzsche Reader"(1977), p.106ff for detailed analysis.
11. Against this T.F. Torrance advocates infant baptism as a sign of "unconditional grace" - source personal letter from Professor Torrance.
12. This may be modified to "insurance", i.e. inside the Church you can be sure of salvation, but outside you would be uncertain - why take the risk? Against it may be mentioned K. Barth and F.D. Maurice, among others, who hold to an open position on all men. "Peculiar Christendom" says Barth, "whose most pressing problem seems to consist in this, that God's grace in this direction should be too free, that hell, instead of being amply populated, might one day be found to be empty" (quoted in R.L. Short (1974), p.149)
13. Against this, John Taylor, in the "Winchester Churchman" says: "If the Church draws a circle round its regular members, the rest of the community will treat us as a sect. But if the Christians allow themselves to belong primarily to the local community, then everyone begins to feel they are members of a circle whose natural centre is the Church. This is the opposite of a rigorist attitude on the part of the Church, but it does not mean a lowering of standards. When ordinary people are allowed to feel that they belong to a circle whose centre is the Church, they expect that centre to have its standards and make its demands. They realise that they themselves may be nearer to that centre or further from it, either moving inwards or outwards, as the case may be. But near or far, they will be inside the circle, because the circle is the whole community."
14. I am not going to quibble over true meanings of the word "sect", my convention, which relates to the function of the group, is given in the text. If another word is sought, I suggest "elite".
15. I am not denying moral imperfection! What I explain and criticise is this "sin mythology" as outlined in the next paragraph.
16. For confirmation that this logic holds, even if not explicitly stated, see Barr, "Fundamentalism"(1977) p.27ff, p223, p.317ff, p.326f.
17. T.S. Szasz (1977) p.193 on "scapegoat explanations"; also Szasz (1974), pp.47-69 on "the rhetoric of rejection"
18. T.S. Szasz (1977), p.315
19. Szasz (1973) provides many examples.
20. C.E.M. Joad (1952), P.53 "The Recovery Of Belief" (1952) p.63; also Joad remarks "that all of us are wicked in some degree, all of us wicked on occasion, and that we are so because strands of evil are inextricably woven into our fundamental make-up" (same page).
21. For this see K. Popper "The Open Society & Its Enemies: Vol. 1" (1974) on "Totalitarian Justice" pp.86-119; also Vol. 2 (1977) p.24f, and :p.276f where he describes it as "a romantic, combination of egoism and collectivism".
22. A point made by Sydney Smith in his "Mostly Murder" (1959) p.292 about the Nazi war crimes: "The experiments were not merely carried out with gross indifference to the value of human life and callous disregard of human suffering, but were incompetent in both conception and execution from a purely scientific point of view"; see also note 21 above.
23. D. Bonhoeffer "Ethics" (1978) p. 48
24. D. Bonhoeffer "Ethics"( 1978) p.57; see also p.54ff .
25. quoted in Popper( 1977) P43
26. Note the comment of Nietzsche in "Twilight of the idols"( 1977) p.40 on Plato: "I, Plato, am the truth". This is a perfect summary of what happens to truth in the Republic, as confirmed by Popper (see n.21 above)
27. See C.S. Lewis "God in the Dock"( 1979) PP-67-73, ch. entitled "Man or Rabbit" for an analysis of this issue with regard to the truth of the Christian faith.
28. quoted in Kaufmann( 1975) P. 19
29. Popper "Open Society: Vol. 1" (1974) P.65; note the consistency of this with Popper's remarks on education in Vol. 2(1977) p.276: " 'Do no harm' (and, therefore, 'give the young what they most urgently need, in order to become independent of us, and to be able to choose for themselves') would be a very worthy aim for our educational system.. Instead, 'higher' aims are the fashion, aims which are typically romantic and indeed non-sensical, such as 'the full development of the personality'".

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