ISIS/Suspension of Ethics

The recent beheadings and crucifixions in Syria and Iraq in the name of religion is atrocious in its own right, but raises a larger philosophical comparison between secular ethics and religion-based ethics, to the advantage of the secular. Of course, most religious people are horrified by ISIS’s actions and consider them to have no basis in religion whatsoever. I will grant the justice of that position, but it leaves open the question of whether a religion-based ethics is more risky in principle than a secular ethics.

To judge the risk requires pinpointing the essential difference between a religion-based and a secular ethics. The Christian theologian and proto-existentialist, Kierkegaard, is most helpful here. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard sees ethics as fundamentally a secular issue, a derivative of universal rational principles. Religious persons can follow those principles but that is not essentially a function of their religious nature. It simply means that they are following a set of rational principles in addition to being a religious person. The key difference is centered on Kierkegaard’s pointed question: “Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?” I.e., can the inscrutable commandments of God overrule “normal” ethical principles?

The paradigmatic case for Kierkegaard is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac.” So Abraham is forced to choose between the universal principles of ethics (against murdering your son) or accepting the “teleological suspension of ethics,” in which he suspends the rules of ethics to satisfy a higher end.

This to me is the fundamental difference between a secular ethics and an ethics based on religion (at least on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Religion allows for the possibility that we might suspend normal ethics in light of a higher commandment from an inscrutable God. Otherwise, it is no different from a secular ethics based on rational principles alone (holding God himself subordinate to the laws of ethics).

Although the acts of ISIS are condemned by people of all faiths, the dangers of a “teleological suspension of ethics” can be generalized to some extent, as a risk inherent in religion-based models. In pre-modern Europe, under the hegemonic rule of the Church, we saw the widespread development of those implements that today fill the torture museums of Europe, implements ingeniously designed to create more and more exquisite pain for the ill-fated heretic.  Then we had the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, brazenly carried on in the name of Church and the states under its authority.

With the 18th century Enlightenment, that largely changed. From the explicitly anti-Church philosophes to Kant, the hegemonic control of the Church gave way to a more humanist ethics grounded in rational principles. The ethics of Western culture today is primarily secular, a product of the Enlightenment. And although far from perfect, it has shaken off the worst abuses of the pre-Enlightenment theocratic ethic. At least now, one cannot break out the torture devices and flaunt them publicly as a general strategy of subjection. At least now, one cannot publicly suspend the normal rules of ethics because an inscrutable God has commanded it.

Now back to Kierkegaard, and to Abraham and Isaac. Although Kierkegaard is a Christian and I am unambiguous in my preference for a secular ethics, Kierkegaard may agree with me up to a point. He himself is almost Kantian in his emphasis that ethics is based on rational principles (unrelated to faith) and is therefore universal. The “ethical” and the “religious” are simply incommensurate categories for Kierkegaard. The ethical has to do with social relations and universal principles. The religious concerns only the individual in relation to the absolute. For Kierkegaard, the “religious moment” occurs when an individual, perhaps like Abraham, lives out his or her life among others, bound by the universal principles of ethics, and then one day something ruptures the plane of that living, and the individual’s identity shoots out in a perpendicular line to the absolute. His relation to the absolute (religious) and his relation to others (ethical) “cannot be mediated,” says Kierkegaard, in a jibe at Hegel and his understudies. Abraham cannot be justified on the ethical plane. He is up against an either/or crisis of the sort that most interested Kierkegaard. There is no gray area. Either you do something completely unethical in honor of God, or you reject God.

Kierkegaard may also agree with me that any social order would do best with a secular ethics based on rational principles. He certainly had no patience for state religion, and often disparaged the Christian state of Denmark and “Christendom” in general for their deployments of Christianity into the political or social arena. But he leaves room for Abraham, the “knight of faith” – not as a model of good citizenship or social order, but as a model of the individual wrenched away from his social identity by a connection to the absolute.

I finally disagree with Kierkegaard and reject the “teleological suspension of ethics” in all of its forms; however, I find Kierkegaard well worth reading and I myself have only scratched the surface of his thought. Moreover, no sound reading of Kierkegaard can ever use the “teleological suspension of ethics” to justify the behavior of ISIS or the Spanish Inquisition. In Kierkegaard, that suspension can never be applied as a public practice, but can only occur as a relation between the individual and the absolute. The problem is that so many groups at so many times and places have used a variant of the idea (God’s commandment allows me to overrule ethics) to vicious ends. In the case of the Middle East, this is further complicated by a historical trajectory quite different from Europe. Whereas the Enlightenment – the rise of secular ethics and secular democracies – in Europe can be seen as a liberation from the hegemonic oppression of the Church, in the Middle East of the past half-century, religion (in the form of a resurgent Islam) is often seen as the liberating force that can throw off the shackles of oppressive Western democracies. This inversion of the role of religion is historically explicable, but the ethical dangers are apparent when we see how easily ethical norms can be discarded when religious zeal is in full cry. Better to have a secular ethics based on rational principles. If you want to layer a religious faith on top of that ethics, fine, but don’t start believing that your faith trumps ethics or you become a danger to yourself and others.

O’Connor’s Misfit and Christian Existentialism

In a scene from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the grandma and Red Sam (“the fat boy with the happy laugh,” as he proudly posts on the signs for his barbecue  joint) lament how hard it is to find a good man nowadays. But from these two master manipulators of the older generation to the self-centered brats (John Wesley and June Star) of the younger generation, it’s safe to say that O’Connor’s point is that it always has been and always will be virtually impossible to find a good man in this world. (SPOILERS ahead, so you may want to click the link and read the roughly 10-page story first.)

But the dearth of good men does not prevent O’Connor from giving us a truly interesting man in the villain of the piece, the Misfit, who gets all the best lines as he pours out his bio and hodgepodge philosophy to the grandma’s family when he stumbles upon them after their car wreck on a rural Georgia back road.

When the Misfit’s father says of the Misfit, “It’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters,” he divides people into two groups – those who live out their whole lives without ever breaking the surface and those whose penetrating intelligence constantly pushes them toward a deeper understanding. The former would include the family, whose comically superficial attitude toward life and death and violence occupies the first half of the story. The Misfit is in the latter group, which leaves us with a knot: the Misfit is in the “good” group, but is clearly not a viable hero.

This brings us to the Misfit’s shrewd response to the grandmother’s comically self-serving claim that he’s a good man: “’Nome, I ain’t a good man.’ The Misfit said after a second as if he had considered her statement carefully, ‘but I ain’t the worst in the world neither.’” This clearly divides people into three groups: the “good,” the “worst,” and some third group to which the Misfit must belong. Understanding the three groups requires unpacking the epigraph (which, unfortunately, is omitted from some editions of the story):

 The dragon is by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.

                                                                                                — St. Cyril of Jerusalem

The dragon represents the existential crisis – the recognition that the world is irrational, morally absurd, and that the lives we live are utterly meaningless. There are three tracks of human existence relative to the dragon. The “worst” off would be those people who coast along from one superficial event to the next and die without ever realizing that their whole lives were lived out on a glassy shallow surface (witness Bailey’s famous last words: “I’ll be back in a minute, Momma”). These never even reach the dragon. Then there are those who do face the dragon/crisis. This requires a deeper intelligence and the Misfit has certainly made it this far. But this by no means gets you home free. At this point one is faced with the only real dilemma that will ever count: irrational faith or despair.

The Misfit has obviously reached the dragon/crisis (thus is “not one of the worst”), but how does he respond? He responds by committing himself to reason and balance. He is driven insane by the fact that “I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.” Regarding Jesus’ claim about raising the dead, we are told, “’I wisht I had of been there,’ [the Misfit] said, hitting the ground with his fist. . . . ‘If I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.’” He wants moral balance, rational certainty. And he is shrewd enough to recognize that this is the path to despair. Indeed, I suppose the unacknowledged ghost in the Misfit’s world view, Kierkegaard, would define “despair” as precisely an insistence upon rational, moral balance in the world. “Beware lest he [the dragon] devour you.”

O’Connor’s point of view is existentialist because it insists that the world is irrational and morally absurd, no matter how many little tricks we use to impose a rational order upon it. And it is decisively Christian existentialism. Jesus, as the Misfit, says, “thown everything off balance. If He did what he said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or . . . .” Jesus throws the whole rational game off balance. We have absolutely no reason to believe anything he said. Indeed, seeking a reason to believe leads us to the Misfit’s path of despair. From the Christian existentialist position, we must conclude that any Christian who believes he or she has good reason to believe must be in group one, among the “worst” who have never truly broken the surface and faced the dragon/existential crisis. Any Christian who seeks a reason to believe, but is smart enough to know that s/he can’t really find one (group 2), has faced the dragon but is continually being devoured by it (as the Misfit). The true Christian (group 3) must choose faith with the full knowledge that such a choice is, in the face of the dragon, absurd.

The story is a bit shaky, despite O’Connor’s overt Christian intentions, on demonstrating the final option – those who have faced the dragon and chosen the irrational leap of faith. The grandmother is supposedly a last-minute exemplar.

“His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ She reached out and touched him.”

Presumably, the grandmother finally breaks through her petty self-interest and chooses a redemptive act. The fact that it’s the grandmother, the heretofore exemplar of manipulative self-interest, reinforces absurdity, unpredictability. The fact that she’s shot in the chest three times in the next sentence reinforces the idea that the point of faith is not to achieve balance in this world (such an objective would be a variant of despair).

Finally, the famous penultimate line of the Misfit: “She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Again, the Misfit very shrewdly sees that the only thing that ever made grandma crack the surface was a gun in her face. This is typical Flannery O’Connor. We need some violent shock to thrust us into crisis – lest we live out our lives in that dreamy, surface complacency. Granted, it’s not pleasant, but it’s the only way: “We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” Thus O’Connor crafts her own recipe for Christian existentialism, like a Waffle House version of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, cut, reshaped, and chicken-fried to the order of the Southern redneck.