Hildegarde

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Archive for January, 2010

Responses, For A Moment

with 5 comments

A couple of things here.

First, Cheryl is quite right.  The world is full of serial killer books, and several writers pretty much specialize in them–like Karin Slaughter.

The thing that struck me about the comments, however, was that thing about how Bernie Maddoff and the Madoff scandal is just about a lot of rich and hypergreedy idiots.

It’s anything but.  Yes, those idiots existed, but the nastiest thing about this entire story is the fact that when Madoff’s scam blew up, it took down literally dozens of not-for-profit foundations, mostly small family ones that did things like help cancer patients with equipment and drug costs, run literacy programs in the inner cities, and even (in the case of Elie Wiesel’s foundation, which was put absolutely out of business) worked on issues related to genocide and the Holocaust.

That happened because Madoff marketed his scam largely through what are called “affinity groups”–country clubs, synagogues, and other organizations run largely by American Jews.  He passed himself off as observant and therefore trustworthy, playing on the assumptions of many older people that no Jewish American would ever rob another, and especially would never rob a Jewish charity.

Considering what the rest of Wall Street was doing at the time, I doubt if most of these people would have been much better off with the goyim, but that hardly matters.

Written by janeh

January 15th, 2010 at 11:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Happy Birthday to Greg! Happy Birthday to Greg!

with 6 comments

Okay, you know how it is.  I had to.   I did it with Matt, and what’s sauce for the goose–

No, that won’t work.  They’re both ganders.

But it’s Greg’s birthday today, so we have the post title, and I hope he enjoys it.  Being of a different temperament than Matt, he was so excited that it was his birthday coming up, he stayed up nearly all night–the way he used to before Christmas when he was very small–and we had to sing happy birthday to him over cake and candles at eight in the morning. 

It’s odd to think that neither of them is a child anymore.  I can still remember both of them in diapers.

I want to look for a minute today at a couple of ordinary criminals, except not quite, for various reasons.

I meant it when I said that Bernie Madoff was nothing special–not especially bright, not especially cunning, not especially ambitious.  He was essentially a small time con man whose scheme got away from him and came close to bringing down the world.

But there are a couple of things that keep coming up in the things I read about him, and I find them odd for a…well, maybe from a mystery writer’s point of view.

The first has to do with Madoff’s offices in the Lipstick Building.  If you can find a picture of it online, you can see why they called it that, although not officially.

Madoff had offices on several floors of this building, and on most of those floors everything was fanatically organized, meticulously clean and strenuously controlled.  No other colous but black and grey were allowed anywhere.  Even secretaries had their desk decorations policed and restricted. All the equipment was state of the art and up to date. You could have done brain surgery on the floor of Madoff’s office.

There was, however, one other floor that belonged to Madoff’s company–the floor where the scam was conducted.  THAT floor was a complete and utter mess, dirty, chaotic, dark.  The equipment was so old, it was almost impossible to get replacement parts for it–keypunch machines instead of real computers, for instance, and stuff written down in pen on paper instead of stored in computer databases.

Then there was Madoff himself, who in his regular office and in his private life was a clean fanatic of the nearly obsessional kind, and obsessional as well about straight lines and clean angles.  He once had an entire wall of televisions and computer screens destroyed and rebuilt because the wall was curved–and he didn’t care that the curved wall actually made the screens easier to see.

Now, this is the kind of detail that is so perfectly metaphorical that, if I put it in a book, my editor would probably scream.  And if he didn’t, all the reviewers would.  It’s practically a textbook case out of 1950s theories in psychology, and so close to “out, damned spot” that it feels surreal.

If I was going to write a post about real criminals doing real crime, I would probably say that things like this do not happen, and make a book less believable than if the writer had left them out. 

But this did happen, and if you care about figuring out what was going on in Bernie Madoff’s head–if you care about the how and why of it–it almost certainly matters.

The other ordinary criminal is a young woman named Casey Anthony, the 22-year-old single mother from Florida who was convicted of having murdered her two-year-old daughter Caylee and hiding the body a few miles from the house they both shared.

Casey Anthony is not the kind of murderer I would normally be interested in.  The crime itself is just a variation on the old them of “kill the baby because it’s getting in the way and you’re annoyed,” and Casey doesn’t seemed to have planned out her crime either before or after it occurred.  If she was trying to get rid of the kid because her boyfriend wouldn’t marry her while she had it, then she did an even less impression job of staging the crime and trying to get away with it than Susan Smith, and Susan Smith as pathetic.

What does interest me about the case was a conjecture put forward by somebody on one of the television stations in the day or so after Caylee’s body was found and Casey was arrested.

Caylee was killed with chloroform–but, this person said, when young mothers give their kids chloroform, they almost never mean to kill them.  Rather, it’s a common practice among young single mothers who want to go out to clubs.  Give the kids just enough of the stuff–not too much, and not too little–and they’ll sleep through the night and be perfectly safe and snug in their beds when you get home with your buzz on.

What strikes me here is the idea of an entire subculture in which this kind of behavior–give your infants and toddler chloroform!–is considered completely sensible and normal.  My guess is that these women know that their doctors wouldn’t consider this normal, and that a few other people wouldn’t either.  They do not seem to take any of that to heart, though.

Okay, women like this are not inherently interesting, although I could see one becoming so depending on how she developed over time.  What we’re mostly dealing with is, again, a double dose of stupid.

But I could do something with the situation,  as the basis for a work of fiction.  I don’t mean Casey and Caylee’s situation in particular, but that of the “community” of young women doing this sort of thing to their children. 

A murder mystery about Casey Anthony would not be very interesting.  A murder mystery about something who used somebody like Casey Anthony, who used the entire system of drugging the kids and going out to clubs in order to cover up something else–well, that affords possibilities.

It does interest me, too, that this particular explanation of what happened to Caylee Anthony came and went on the news, and has since been nonexistent in most examinations of the crime.  Maybe that’s because it isn’t true. 

But I think it’s more likely that the problem is that IF it’s true, it makes it harder for us to deal with the death of this child.  A child murderer ought to be Satan Incarnate, at the very least.  There’s something just wrong about the idea of a child murderer who is just sort of addled and not good enough at math to get the dosages right and wasn’t paying attention, exactly…

In the end, the New York courts gave Bernie Madoff a sentence so long, he wouldn’t qualify for parole for a century, and the last I heard, the Florida courts were still messing around with Casey Anderson’s sentencing.  Maybe that’s been fixed by now, but I googled it this morning, and didn’t get a thing but speculation.

Maybe there’s a point to all those Supervillains after all.

Written by janeh

January 14th, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Length and the Breadth of It

with 2 comments

For some reason I can’t figure out, I’m having one of those days when my office is so cold I can’t stand to be in here for long.  I made myself tough it out for real work, but the blog doesn’t have that kind of compelling motivation behind it. 

Usually, it doesn’t get this bad in here unless the temperature outside is in single digits, and low single digits at that.  It’s over sixteen degrees Fahrenheit, so, you know, go figure.

Somebody wrote me off list to say that I sound as if I’m fed up with my work, and maybe on the way out either of the Gregor series or of mysteries altogether.

So let me start with that.  I have been thinking, on and off, of starting a new series, to run concurrently with Gregor, not instead of it.  But Gregor isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  I’ve got the one I’m working on now, the one I’m rewriting, and I’m signed on to do two more.  So, for the next three years, there should be Gregor.

What’s actually going on is the opposite of what this seems to appear to be to some of you.  It’s not that I’m “off” mystery novels lately, it’s that I’m back on them for the first time in a long time.

I think that, up until this year, it had probably been over a decade since I’d read a mystery novel because I wanted to.  I did read a few because I’d been asked to blurb for them, or because it sometimes helps to read them when I write them, or because I was on an award committee.  But I had pretty much reached the point where reading mysteries just made me tired, or bored, or annoyed.

Writing them didn’t make me any of those things, but what did happen to the Gregor series during that time is that it changed significantly from where it was when I started it.  The books got longer, and the focus shifted from the crime to other things the books were concerned with.

Of course, in a way, the Gregor series has always been like that.  One of the earliest, called Precious Blood–one of my top five favorites in the entire series–is definitely a character-driven book with a plot that I can’t even remember, although several people told me it was good.

Around the time that Bill died, however, something odd went on in my head, and you can literally chart the change in the books from there.  Start with True Believers, which is the second book published by St. Martin’s, and you can see it happen.

I’m not interesting in returing to a series like my first one.  For those of you who don’t know, there were five books in those, written about a woman who is trying to make it as a freelance magazine journalist in New York and does it by writing pseudonymous paperback romance novels on the side. 

They were nice enough books, and some people liked them very much, but they didn’t sell very well, and they caused no particular pain that I could see when they disappeared.  They were funny, which is something I don’t get to do very often any more.

But they were also written by a different person, or maybe a me that doesn’t exist anymore.  Bill died.  He got sick–very sick–and he died, leaving me with two small children, a quarter of a million dollars in unpaid medical bills, no book or magazine contracts, no other kind of work (at that point, I hadn’t taught anywhere since 1979) or any idea of what I could do if I wanted to, and a feeling that I was just completely and irrevocably worthless.  After all, it was my job to cure cancer, and I’d failed.

I just don’t think the way I did when I wrote the Pay McKenna novels.  Life does not feel the same way to me.

And it doesn’t help that those novels have caused me endless career trouble over the years.   They were classified as “cozies,” which they sort-of were–they were at least light and funny–and it seems that once you’ve been classified, nobody pays attention to what you’ve been doing.

That’s how I finally ended up getting my first, and only, book club selection, and how that became my last.  Because the book club involved is careful to post little notices on books that might have bad language or explicit violence.

And the book they bought was Somebody Else’s Music, which has both.

But there was no notice, because–well, I can’t be sure,  but my guess would be that it was because people there had read my earlier books, and just assumed I wrote cozies, and there you are.

But I don’t write cozies anymore, and I probably never could have again.

And there is publishing math on the length, too, of course.  No matter how short your book is, the hardcover is going to list for twenty dollars or more, and many readers are adamant that they’d not be getting their money’s worth with the shorter books. 

It’s also just a matter of development.  Agatha Christie’s books got longer as she got older, too, and they got better written.  Eventually, you simply start to see things as important that you didn’t before, and you get to know your characters better than you did before.  The books get longer because you have more to say.

Still, I seem to have reached one of those places in my life where things change in a substantive way.  The big blow up at the beginning of 2009 was what started the shift, but when that was largely over my life didn’t get back to normal.  It got different, even though there was no Big Obvious Change, as there had been when Bill died.

When I came back to rewrite the book I was working on when the mess happened, it was not only a better book–cat litter could have produced a better book than the one I was working on last spring–it was a different kind of book, with much more of a focus on intricacy and clues and detection and a puzzle for the reader than anything I’ve done in years.

I don’t know how that will work out.  I will say that the last phase, the one just over, produced a number of books I’m very proud of (including Somebody Else’s Music), and one short story, the single thing I’ve ever done that I think could possibly be called–I don’t know.  What would you call it?  Good enough to be literature, maybe.

It’s a short story called “Rapunzel,” and it appeared in a book called Once Upon a Crime.  It was never nominated for anything or anthologized, as some of the other things I’ve done have been, but it’s still the single best thing I’ve ever written.

I’m not sure it isn’t the single best thing I’ll ever write.

Written by janeh

January 13th, 2010 at 11:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Clueless

with one comment

Let me start by making a book suggestion.

The book is actually a long essay that Knopf has decided to put into hardcover, under the title Talking About Detective Fiction.

It’s written by P.D. James, who says in the foreward that she wrote it for the publishing arm of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, “in aid of the library.”  I’m not sure what that means, but it’s an interesting liltle history of British detective fiction and meditation on the writing and reading of the same, and it’s got a lot to recommend it.

And I saw that even though it makes the same mistake almost every book on detective fiction makes–it defines the universe of detective novels as split between British traditional and American hard-boiled, as if the British never write hard-boiled and the Americans never write tradition.

Americans actually wrote more traditional than they do hard boiled, and always have. 

The weird perception is reflected in publishing patterns, too–an American who is not writing “gritty realism”  (meaning lots of blood, gore and mangled organs) has a hard time getting published in England, and a Brit who isn’t writing carefully thought out intellectual detection has a hard time selling (though not necessarily) getting published here.  

But I didn’t start this post in order to complain about British and American stereotypes of each other. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what people have said about why they read murder mysteries and what they are and aren’t interested in in them.  Several of you say you’re not very interested in murderers, which makes me wonder why you read murder mysteries, instead of dozens of other kinds of fiction that is equally weighted on the side of entertainment–science fiction, romance, westerns.

But I am interested in murderers, sort of.  What I seem really to be interested in is murders.  I don’t care any more than anybody else about the run of the mill, two idiots got liquored up and had guns, asshole couldn’t stop his girlfriend’s baby from crying all the time sort of thing.

I am interested in murders that are deliberately chosen by people who are not, and cannot be realistically argued to be, mentally ill.

By this I mean that I am not much interested in serial killers.  I was once, when the whole Bundy thing was unfolding, and it all seemed very new.  By now, however, there has been a positive parade of these guys, all with pretty much the same kind of sexual dysfunction, all with pretty much the same standard operating  plan.  Every once in a while, you get a little quirk here and there (Jeffrey Dahmer liked boys and ate them, for instance) but it’s less original than it looks at first glance.

What interests me are the people who decide to kill and go about it conciously and with planning.  And although very few of those plan the kind of elaborate thing that my book is outlining right this moment, they do plan.

There are, to begin with, the three Petersen cases–Lacey Peterson, Stacey Peterson, and Michael Peterson.  Okay, the first two were victims.  The last was the perpetrator, because I can’t remember his victims’ names, and I remember his because he was a mystery writer and we once shared the same agent.

In all of those cases, however, the husband made a straightforward plan to do away with his wife, and also went to some lengths to protect himself from being suspected.  That was true, as well, of the woman in North Carolina who shot her husband in bed and claimed it was a gun accident. 

And the woman in North Carolina and Michael Peterson had something else in common–they had each committed at least one murder before the murder for which they were arrested and jailed, and they had committed that murder in exactly the same way.

Robert’s wrong when he says that I want a slice of life–please, really, no–but he’s also wrong that “the truth, even if it didn’t happen” does not mean “true to the internal logic of the story itself.”

It means that the work of fiction expresses something true about human life.

And the truth about narrative is that it’s a very good way to lie, and lots of people have done it.  When I was very small, I got myself into lots of trouble by staging various incidents meant to get my parents to do something I wanted them to do.  I staged the incidents because I’d seen similar incidents staged on television programs, and seen the way the parents on those programs responded.

Imagine my shock when my parents didn’t respond in any way like the ones I’d seen on TV. 

Later I would realize that the narratives of those old shows lied as a matter of course, as do many of the narratives on similar shows now.  

I don’t think it’s necessary to write about liquored up bar fights or boyfriends killing their girlfriends’ babies to write the truth, even if it didn’t happen, but it is necessary to stay within the bounds of the actual psychological make-up of people who commit murder.

There are plenty of the kind of murderer out there who would fit into a murder mystery, but there are things they do, and things they do not do.  One of the things that strike me about the real-life is that they tend to be repetitive.   If they do Murder A and get away with it, they use the same method to do Murder B, and Murder C.

Sometimes they can get away with this for a very long time.  There are those old ladies who kept killing lonely old gentlemen in order to collect their social security checks, and I think they managed to get away with it for more than a dozen years.  In both the Peterson case and the case in North Carolina, the perpetrator duplicated his or her first murder with his second.  Michael Peterson’s first was at least committed an ocean away in another country.  The woman in North Carolina was duplicating things in her own town.

In this sense, Christie’s A Carribbean Mystery is more “true” than a lot of better written and better honored novels, because her murderer has committed his crime in the same way twice before. 

In another way, however, the book is not so true, because in the case that forms the focus of the plot, the perpetrator commits two more murders, and neither of those is done in the same way as the first, or anything like it.

One of the things the writers of murder mysteries like to do–and I’ve done it myself, more than once–is to include two or three murders in a single novel, with each of them done in a different way.

It’s really hard to write these posts sometimes without knowing what kind of spoilers it’s okay to use.

No spoliers, just a hypothetical example, then:  Our Murderer (hereinafter, OM) first kills his wife by drowning her in the bath.  Then he realizes that his nosy next door neighbor saw him enter his house when his alibi says he was supposed to be at work, so he kills her, by stabbing her in the chest with a kitchen knife.  After he’s done that, the local letter carrier tries to blackmail OM because he saw OM drop the bloody murder weapon in a post box, so OM bludgeons the letter carrier to death with a ball peen hammer.

I probably just spelled that wrong.

It’s not that murderers in real life don’t use multiple methods for multiple crimes, it’s that murderers of the kind murder mysteries are written about don’t.

Professional hit men use whatever will work.  Street thugs use whatever is handy.  Your standard middle class murderer planning a crime tends to stick with what she knows has already worked.

And such a person almost never kills a second time to get rid of a witness.  “He died because he knew too much” may be a good basis for a mystery plot, but in real life it virtually never happens as a secondary murder.  Our middle class murderer will kill his victim because the victim discovered he was running a Ponzi scheme instead of an international company.  He won’t kill his wife and then kill some guy he thinks might have seen something.

I’m really not suggesting here that murder mysteries should be portrayals of the statistically accurate, only that the murder, as a character, should run true to the characters of actual people who actually commit these crimes. 

Maybe that is why I like P.D. James’s novels as much as I do.  She doesn’t give me ordinary street crime, but she does give me both murders and murderers who ring true according to what we know of conscious middle-class murderers walking among us.

And yes.   I do understand that, like Bernie Madoff, a lot of these people are not very interesting in and of themselves.  They do, however, represent a reality we live with.  I am not interested in the person of the murderer so much as I am interested in the reality they create.

And now I’m blithering.  I really am working a lot, and on one of the most elaborate and complex (or complex-seeming) plots I’ve ever done. 

And I’ve still got no idea how Gregor is supposed to find the gun.

Written by janeh

January 12th, 2010 at 8:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Clues

with 2 comments

Here is the basic problem with the murder mystery.

Unless you have a police procedural, where the crime is fairly obvious and the perpetrator is hidden only because you’ve going to have to pick him out of a sea of anonymous faces, then the perpetator must be doing something to deliberately complicated the detection of the crime and of his relationship to it.

That was a very long sentence.

Here’s the thing.  In real life, murderers do indeed attempt to cover their tracks, but they rarely do it by erecting an elaborate scheme that covers several days or weeks and involves much of anything more complicated than an attempt at an alibi.

And most of the time, they don’t even do that. 

It’s not just that people usually kill on the spur of the moment, although they do.  Even those murderers who plan their murders tend not to do so by constructing whole plotline and narrative arcs.  They rearrange a few things.  They leave an extra voice mail message somewhere.  They buy their poison three states over so they hope, even in the day of the Internet, not to get found out doing it. 

What they don’t do is to commit two other murders, each of people with alliterative names (Anna Arkin, Betty Brown) and leave an ABC train schedule pamphlet on each one, so that by the time they get around to the real murder, of Charlie Chesterton, the police will think it’s just the third in a serial murder case. 

That’s a real plot,by the way, from somebody else’s book, and if you don’t know it I’m not going to tell you.   But I could come up with a dozen more, mostly from what we now call the “golden age” of detective novels.

Back then, though, neither the writers nor the readers thought it necessary for the book to justify the elaborate murder scheme.  Elaborate murder schemes were taken for granted.  Of course our middle class adventurer would send a letter to the family of the woman whose money he hopes to marry, pretending to be from their long lost sister in law, then kill the wife who won’t give him a divorce by strangling her and throwing her body off a train onto the property of that self same family, which he wants to do because he goes there often and will have a chance to hide the corpse.

That was a very, very long sentence, but you get my point. 

It’s not that readers mind elaborate murder plots of that kind.   If they did, Agatha Christie wouldn’t still have most of her work in print.  The problem is that these days, readers want to know why the murderer has gone through all that trouble.

There is always the basic reason, which is that the murderer is hoping to escape detection.  He doesn’t want to be suspected, and he certainly doesn’t want to be arrested and convicted. 

Realistically, though, most murderers know they will be suspected.  People almost always murder people they’re close to, or have something to gain from.  The police also tend to suspect the husband or the wife or the boyfriend or the girlfriend or the immediate family first.   Once the police suspect, they tend to have less trouble than you’d think finding.

Someone who is going to construct an elaborate scheme in a murder has to have a good reason for going about his project in a complicated way.  And there are such reasons.  In some cases, the prospective murderer is so screamingly the obvious suspect, and there are so few other people on whom the crime can be pinned, that extra care will have to be taken if he isn’t to be carted off to jail within half an hour after the body is found.

In other cases, even mere suspicion can cause trouble–with career, with family, with the insurance money.  Insurance companies don’t have to prove that  you killed your wife in order to deny you the benefit on her policy.  They’re happy to have you sue them for it if you think you can get away with it without ending up in jail.

In most cases, I think the real “reason” for such elaborate plots–and certainly the reason for them when they occur in real life–has more to do with the personality of the murderer than it does with the requirements of getting away with the murder.

I keep being struck by how much crime is simple.  And I mean high-level crime here, not your average street mugging.  If there’s anything to be taken away from the Bernie Madoff books I was reading, for instance, it’s that Bernie was not a genius.  He didn’t construct some elaborate financial fraud.  He just ran a garden variety Ponzi scheme that grew like Topsy. 

The same is true of the case of Frederick and Rosemary West, who were the big news in England as we left to come home to the States in 1994.  The Wests had a house in Gloucester.  Fred  West was known to do a lot of home improvements, especially in his basement.  For twenty years–note the time period;  twenty years–the two of them would kidnap girls waiting for the bus on the corner of their block, rape and murder them while taping the whole thing, and then bury the bodies in the basement under a ton of cement “improvements.”

In both cases, the crimes were simple and easy to see if you were looking, it’s just that very few people were looking.  A couple of dozen girls went missing from that bus stop over the course of two decades, and as far as I can tell, the Gloucester constabulary didn’t have a clue.  Analyst after analyst tried to point out that Bernie Madoff was committing some kind of fraud–and I’m not talking about company whistleblowers; I’m talking about guys in the regulatory agencies and the stock analyst companies–and they might as well have been talking to their cats.

In a detective story, though, the writer cannot be that obvious.  If she is, her readers are disgusted with her, and she gets forty e-mails a day complaining that it was simple to figure it all out in the third chapter. 

Which leaves us with the elaborate knots, which need to be unravelled, like the Gordian knot.

Of course, the only person who ever was supposed to have untied the Gordian know was Alexander the Great–and he did it by hacking it in half with his sword.

Written by janeh

January 10th, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Yes, It Is All About Me

with 4 comments

Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best way to put it.

Some of you have been around here long enough to remember that at the beginning of 2009, I published a post about the worst week-end of my life–or maybe the worst two weeks.  I don’t remember what the duration was, but I was probably wrong, so that doesn’t matter.

At the time, I promised to post an explanation of what had gone on and how it turned out.  This is not that.  Although the worst of the mess has been safely over for some months, I’m still stuck in a lot of legal questions that aren’t going to go away any time soon. 

What brings it all up at the moment is this:  while all that was going on, I was finishing the book that is due to come out this coming Spring as next in the Gregor series, and I was making a royal, first-class mess of it.

I do not want you to think I’m exaggerating here, because I’m not.  I valiantly plowed on working through all the worst of the craziness, but I did it almost on auto-pilot.  I barely remembered the book after I’d finished it.  It was far shorter than what I usually do.  The whole thing was just…wrong.

Then I turned it in, and it took my editor literally weeks to say anything about it at all.  It usually takes him about two days. 

When he did say something about it, it was, “don’t get me wrong, this is really a good book, I just need you to do some things.”

I was an editor once.  I know code when  I hear it.  But even if I didn’t, I’d have known something was wrong here, because I knew it when I handed the thing in.

So, while I was waiting for the editorial letter, I printed out a copy for myself and read it.  And it was awful.  It was incredibly, unexcusably awful.

I know I’m not the only one who felt this way, because the editorial letter, when it came, was over ten pages long, and my editorial letters tend to run one or two and be mostly full of suggestions rather than pleas for mercy.

But it took the letter months to arrive, and in that time I—okay.  Let me be honest here.

I rewrote the book.

The entire book.

From scratch.

For what it’s worth, I honestly think this was the only thing I could have done.  What was wrong was of a nature that was not going to “fix” in the ordinary, and my plots make more sense when they develop organically.  So I moved the location, changed all but two of the point of view characters, changed the nature of the reality show everybody is taking part in…

You get the picture.

The only way for me to do all that, though, was to go into total emersion mode, and that means that I had to read nothing but fiction while I was writing. 

I don’t know why that is the case, but it is.  Reading nonfiction does not usually interfere with what I write, but it does if I’m trying to get a lot done in a short time.  So I pulled out the novels I had, and that book of Kipling short stories I was telling you about before, and went on to reading fiction and only fiction after I’d finished writing in the morning, except for some magazine articles.

I always feel that magazine articles don’t count.  I don’t know why.  I made my living writing magazine articles for a long time.

For yet another reason that is totally obscure to me, I ended up reading almost nothing but Victorians and wanna-be Victorians:  Kipling and Dickens and Trollope and Henry James.   These were spiced up, on and off, by various Agatha Christie novels, mostly Miss Marples.  Miss Marple is not a wanna-be Victorian, but she’s fond of the same kind of formal mode of address.  So there was that.

This past week, what I’ve been reading is Anthony Trollope’s first novel, called The Warden, and possibly the oddest Kipling short story in the book, called “With The Night Train:  A Story of 2000 AD.”

The Trollope is the first of what came to be known as the Barsetshire series, his series about life among the clergy in the Church of England.  There’s something admirable about Trollope’s wholesale commitment to the public institutions of his time.  His two great passions were the Church of England and Parliament.   He even stood for Parliament once.

The book is very small and very short, which is odd enough for a man who tended to write big doorstopper books with fifty characters in them.  The Warden has only a very few characters, and its plot is thin to the point of being nonexistent.

The Warden in question holds a post as head of a charitable “hospital”–actually what we would call a rest home or nursing home, for the selected poor elderly of the city of Barsetshire.  The post comes with a nice house and a very nice income, and out of that income he gives the old men each twopence a day as a charity, besides using hospital funds as indicated to see to their bed and board.

The Warden is then set upon by a crusading young “reformer” of the town and his friends in the London newspapers, who declare that the money he gets for his living should go directly to the poor instead, and who then get to the residents of the hospital (all but one) to get them to file a suit for that money.

As a matter of fact, the lawsuit cannot succeed, but there is so much public chastisement in the press that the Warden quits his posts to stop from being hounded by it, and the upshot is that everybody is worse off–including the hospital residents, who no longer have their warden’s gift of twopence a day–than they would have been if the reformers had not tried to reform.

Trollope is the man who said that the purpose of the novel is to show us “the way we live now,” and this book comes as close to any novel I’ve ever read to being that and pretty much nothing other than that. 

And it makes its point more strongly than it could have  been made in prose, which is a good thing, too.  It’s not possible to miss Trollope’s meaning, or to find it ambiguous or ambivalent, even if you don’t know that he is making fun of Dickens in a character called Mr. Sentiment and of Macauley in a character named Mr. Anticant. 

Before this, I had read only one of the novels in the Barsetshire series, called Barchester Towers.  I was assigned it in a college class on nineteenth century British fiction.  Other than that, the only Trollope I was ever assigned in school was Phineas Finn, which I got in my master’s program.  Barchester Towers bored me.  Phineas Finn entranced me.  All in all, Trollope was not considered to be an important writer in the English departments of my day.

And if we were to go back to a conversation of what belonged in the Canon on any level, and certainly in a list of works everybody who wants to call herself educated should have read, I would put no Trollope on it.  He’s a servicable writer who gives a remarkably detailed portrait of middle class life in the England of his time, but he produced no Uriah Heep or Becky Sharpe.

Still, the book was incredibly compelling in its way, and its long term impact is, I think, going to be strong.  It sort of crept up on me, really, and the ending made such a difference to the way I perceived the work that I’m glad I have that compulsion to finish everything I start. 

The full title of the Kipling story is actually “With The Night Train:  A Story of 2000 AD (Together with extracts from the magazine in which it appeared)”  That last bit in parentheses is important, because the premise is that this is a magazine story from the year in question, and these are the other things the magazine features.

It occurs to me that I say almost nothing about the Kipling I’m reading except to complain about it, and that isn’t really fair to Kipling.  These are mostly stories from his later career, and they are much different than the children’s fiction I’d read by him before. 

And there are a couple of them that have impressed me, especially one called “The Bridge Builders,” which is actually a conversation among the ancient gods of India about what it is that will banish their worship from the face of the earth.  For that and a number of other things I’ve come across here, I suspect that Kipling was not a believer, at least not by the end of his life. 

There’s also a story called “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” which struck me for reasons that are personal, and that had a lot to say about the permanancy of childhood.

Sort of.

But as to “With The Night Mail.”

I could, I suppose, complain about the sort of thing it is, since it is not my sort of thing.  It’s science fiction of a sort we don’t do too much of these days, or that we do only in things that we don’t call science fiction, like a lot of Tom Clancy’s more technical stuff.

And it is technical, and that made it hard for me to read.  I have a hard time following Clancy, too, and that stuff is at least close enough to the actual so that I can ask somebody to explain it to me.  The action in “With The Night Mail” assumes that we have developed “aeroplanes” that operate in the air the way ships do in water, and that are held aloft by a gas that, if allowed to get out of hand, will shoot them straight to space.  There’s a lot of space given over to descriptions of the various machines and how they work, none of which I understood.

But a couple of things struck me.   First is that the articles from the magazine list ships lost and presumably crashed in the last month–if we ever reached the point tha that many airplanes were crashing in a single month, the governments of the world would probably ground all air traffic until they got the answer why.

Second is what Kipling did not think would change–there are virtually no women on these ships, and certainly no women officers or pilots or technicians.  There are no computers, either.  Orders are still being written out by hand.

I fault Kipling for the first and not for the second–there was, after all, an active movement for the rights of women and an influx of women into the professions in his own lifetime–but it also occurs to me that the familiar may be harder to dispel than the non-yet-imagined.

But the third thing is the key to why this story is sticking in my head today.  Here is what Kipling thinks will have happened by the year 2000:  people will no longer believe in any kind of hell; there will be an international language which all airship crews will speak; and all war will have come to an end.

Here’s another thing I think:  I think Kipling was less of a conservative than the people who beat up on him think he was.

Written by janeh

January 8th, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Consensus

with 2 comments

So, here’s the thing.

Part of me wants to go on with what I was talking about–especially because I think that there’s nothing surprising about people who try to formulate moral principles without know what their foundations are.

In fact, I think that’s what most of us do most of the time.  Most people do not think abstractly about morality.  We big up “right” and “wrong” from the society around us, and we seldom question what we have received. 

In an era in which consensus is widespread, such questioning becomes almost literally unthinkable.  In an era like this one, where there are competing paradigms for what is morally right and wrong, I think questioning is equally unthinkable for most people.  What they do instead is to find reasons to support what they already feel to be true.

And feel is the word.  For all the grand talk about “moral reasoning” in the secular movement and outside it (in, for instance, Catholicism, again), our moral principles tend to be formed early and to solidify over time.  It’s not really all that surprising that John Rawls didn’t reach the level of an Aristotle in constructing a moral system.  The vast majority of human beings on this planet couldn’t if they tried.

I also think that periods in which there is no solid consensus are inherently unstable.  They last for limited periods of time, because they are difficult to maintain.  People do not stay calm when their moral beliefs are challenged.  In fact, that’s putting it mildly.  People go absolutely crazy when that happens.

And I think that’s a lot of the reason why our present political situation in the US is as it is.  We are not deciding between policies, or electing one man over another.  We are voting for the triumph of our moral universe over competing moral universes.  And we have to demand triumph.  Coexistence, over the long run, is untenable.

Well, sort of.

Actually, once a consensus has been reached on the broader moral frame, we can tolerate quite a lot of coexistence.  We don’t mind the Amish going off and doing their thing as long as it’s clear that they’re a fringe group and not to be taken seriously.  We do mind any group espousing moral principles we don’t like who seems to be large and powerful enough to challenge our consensus.

That’s convoluted enough.

But such a consensus does not need to have any coherent foundational principles.  It only has to have the commitment of a large group of people.  It seems “obvious” to us that we should be nice to dogs and cats, care for them and feed them and treat them well.  It seemed just as “obvious” to a denizen of the year 1200 that dogs and cats didn’t matter and it was great fun to torture them with fire. 

If you stopped both groups on the street and demanded to know why their ideas were “obvious,” they’d certainly come up with some fast rationalizations, but under no circumstances would their moral principles have been derived from those rationalizations.

All of this seems to me to be eminently human.  We are moral animals. 

But we are going into a time of competing consensuses, and I find myself in complete agreement with none of the ones on offer.

I’m also continually aware that we live in time when the technology of communication has made it impossible for any of us to pretend that competing ideas are out there.  Get on the Internet for half an hour, and you can find sites advocating capitalism, communism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, atheism, the monster raving looney party…

We are, I think, in great need of a basic moral framework that almost everybody can sign onto, that would satisfy both the atheist and the believer, both the Hindu and the Muslim, and everything in between–not an elaborated moral code that we would all agree on the particulars of, but a set of basic, foundational ideas about who and what is “good” and “bad.” 

Once we get that, we can let the particulars sort themselves out in different ways in different communities.

Written by janeh

January 7th, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Veils, Ignorant and Otherwise

with 3 comments

For those of you who don’t know, the “veil of ignorance” Cathy is talking about is the principle by which a man named John Rawls thought it would be possible to construct the morally and politically ideal state.

Okay, that sounds enormously heavy

Rawls is sort of a bast from the past.  He was the head of the Harvard Philosophy department back in the late seventies or early eighties, and his most important book, called A Theory of Justice, is probably the most influential work of political philosophy to have been written in the second half of the twentieth century.

It’s influential for two ideas, one of which is that veil of ignorance, and the other of which is something that is called “distributive justice.”  Distributive justice is the idea that significant inequality in the resources available to citizens is by definition unjust. 

And if you don’t believe that that’s an idea held by lots of people now serving in our legislatures and law courts, I’d suggest you look again.

The “veil of ignorance” is a method of determining what would be the most just set of social arrangements.  What Rawls wanted each of us to do was to imagine that we were not yet born, and had no way of knowing what we would be born into–rich and talented, for instance, or mentally retarded or otherwise handicapped.

Rawls thought that in such a situation, each of us would choose to live in the most fully functioning welfare state possible, because we would automatically choose to protect ourselves against possible poverty and degradation before all else.

We can talk about the merits of both of these ideas in a minute, but I’d like to point out that neither one of them is a foundational moral concept.

With distributive justice, Rawls proclaims that signifcant material inequality between human beings is wrong–but why is it wrong?  Certainly there are significant inequalities in both inborn talent and behavior between human beings.  Michael Jordan can play basketball, and I cannot–but he can also play basketball a lot better than other people who might have started out as talented as he did but who did not put in the work required to realize the talent.

Even if we assume that all the inequalities between people are inborn–that some of us are born smarter or prettier or with better singing or acting or math skills than others, and that that is absolute fate–it doesn’t automatically follow that “justice” would reside in smoothing out the inequalities in outcomes such inborn traits would necessarily have.

Aristotle, to name only one philospher, declared that in such a case–and he assumed such a case to be true–“justice” would reside in giving each man his due, the most to the most talented, the least to the least talented.

I know why Aristotle believed this–it’s inherent in his concept of human nature; and when Aquinas took that over and Christianized it, he took that over took.  Justice, Aristotle said, consists in treating like persons alike, and unlike persons differently.  And since it is a fact that people are born unlike, rather than equal, then inequality is the only justice.

What Rawls needs for a foundational principle is some explanation of why we should redistribute material wealth in favor of those persons who fall further down the scale of human achievement and endowment. 

But Rawls never provides this.  He simply assumes that all of us will automatically feel that we should take care of such people, and that inequality is wrong.

The veil of ignorance has bigger problems, because on that score, Rawls was simply wrong about people.  He assumed that anybody who met with his hypothetical would reason as would a middle-aged academic–that he would put security above liberty, for one thing, and that he would assume that a fully functional welfare state would be run in such a way to actually benefit the poor and the disabled.

But most people aren’t middle aged academics.  They live in situations and work in situations without anything like the security of a tenured academic job, and that means that they have a much higher tolerance of risk.  The first time I read A Theory of Justice, the first thing I thought was that I’d take my chances–I’d bet that I’d come out well enough to do for myself, and that felt better to me that giving a large centralized power lots of tentacles to reach into my private decisions.

But, you know, by this time, most of you know that I’m an anarchic libertatian nutcase, at least on social issues.

There’s another thing going wrong here, though, and that is the fact that lots of people do not see the welfare state as necessarily benevolent.  Rawls wrote before the present mania for “assisted suicide” and “death with dignity,” but there are enough people in this country who are scared to death that the government will pull the plug on granny (thank you, Mr. President) to save a few bucks to feel that they’d much rather take their chances with family resources and private charity.

The veil of ignorance is, I think, just a bad description of the way people think.  It works for a certain subset of the population, but not for other subsets.  The response to the hypothetical is nowhere near as automatic as Rawls thinks it is.

And, like distributive justice, it doesn’t provide a foundational principle.  Religious people will say that things are right or wrong because God says they are.  The early Humanist said that things were right or wrong judged on whether or not they maximized the happiness of every single human being, because each of us was born onl once and lived only once and could be only ourselves.

But I have no answer to why John Rawls thought “distributive justice” was a moral principle of any kind, any more than I have any idea why Paul Kurtz thinks any of the things he wants are moral principles.  In each case, the philosopher involved seems to have picked things he already thinks are good ideas, and then gone looking for reasons to support them.  

The problem with people like Peter Singer is something similar, although Singer is at least more consistent than a lot of these guys.  Asked why we should take special care of the interests of human beings–he replies that there is no such reason, so we shouldn’t.  Both Rawls and Kurtz give variants of the “conscious mind, autonomy, self-aware” mantra that does not really distinguish most human beings from intelligent dogs, and does make some human beings not really human.

What confuses me about all this is the fact that moral philosophy these days seems to have abandoned the search for foundational principles–it’s ALL about finding reasons to support what you’ve already decided is good, and as for why your idea of “good” is the correct one, well…pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

I wonder how much of this has to do with the peculiarities of the way philosophy is now practiced.  Aristotle was not attached in any way to a university, and although some philosophers in the Middle Ages were, those attachments were nothing like the sinecures they have become. 

University professors live in a highly unusual world and a small and enclosed one.  Too many of them know very few people who live significantly differently than they do, and their reputations and salaries are both dependent on the good will of a suffocatingly small group of people. 

I wonder, sometimes, what somebody like Liebnitz would have made of professor-philosophers–Liebnitz sitting at his workbench grinding lenses, Thomas More walking the halls of power, Aristotle playing tutor to the son of a king and scraping a living where he could when that wasn’t available.  

Maybe the first thing philosophers really need is to live real life among real people.

Written by janeh

January 6th, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Debating Societies

with 6 comments

Well, what can I say?

I’m in favor of reproductive rights–and I’m probably the most radically pro-choice person you’ll ever meet–and I’m screamingly in favor of the equality of women.

I think the first is a legal imperative of any decent society, and the second is a moral imperative, period.

I just don’t think you can defend either of those things by appealing to what all societies agree on, because all societes do not agree on those.

And that’s my problem with  Paul Kurtz–he went looking for a foundation for the moral code he wished to defend and came up with something he cannot honestly use as its foundation, and then he just ignored the contradiction and plowed ahead as if he had made his point.

The issue in all these things–the issue in establishing a secular moral system–is the foundation on which you defend the particulars.  “God commanded it” is one such foundation.  “Human nature demands it” is another (and one used not only by Aristotle, but by Aquinas as well).

But you have to have something.

I’m still not impressed with the “if you get a bunch of people from the Abrahamic religions togerher you get X, but if you get a bunch of atheists together you don’t get X.”

If you get a bunch of atheists together, there will be no guarantee that they will agree on anything.  Jews and Muslims and Christians are each, in their communities, bound together by common philosophies and histories.  Atheists do not share such philosophies and histories just by virtue of being atheists.  It’s like saying, “Jews and Christians and Muslims do X, but if you bring in the next 50 people on the street who happen to be wearing red hats, they won’t.”

It’s not true, however, that moral debate is marginal to the Christian or Jewish traditions–whether it is or isn’t in Islam, I don’t know.

It’s possible that there isn’t much of that sort of thing in Protestantism, which I know less about, but there’s a lot of it that goes on in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and millennia-long tradition of it in Judaism.  That’s why Jews don’t stone rebellious children at the city gates any more (if they ever did).

In Christianity, moral debate is in evidence fro the very early Church, often argued at length and meticulously on many sides of contentious issues, and sometimes with very interesting results.

In Catholicism, for instance, it is a foundational principle that no one can go to Heaven if he dies in mortal sin.  Since suicide is a mortal sin, and suicides do not have time to repent when they kill themselves, then suicides must go to hell and cannot be buried “in hallowed ground.”

Right?

Well, not quite.

In order to commit a mortal sin, a person has to know that what she is about to do is wrong, and do it anyway without compulsion and with full consent of the will.

But most people who commit suicide seem to be under severe emotional distress. Many of them are clincally depressed.  Such people cannot be said to be “without compulsion” or giving “full consent of the will.”  Depression is a mental illness, and it impairs our ability to see questions clearly or to make decisions freely.

So…

This is not a new argument, erected in the twentieth century to bring the Church in line with modern norms.  It’s been around at least since Peter Abelard.

The problem with atheist debates is not that they’re debates, but that they’re too often debates that start in the wrong place–that start with their conclusions, and that do nothing to establish a foundation for the morality they want to support.

Aristotle wrote at length on morality, and he did not use as its foundation “the gods tell me so,” but he did use a foundation–his conviction that human nature is fixed and can be understood, and in being understood can provide the basis for discovering what behavior is right and what is wrong.

I would have no problem with present day atheist discussions of morality if they were being made on that basis, or on any basis, but most of them are not.  Most of them are, like the principles championed by Kurtz, desperate attempts to backfill.  The writers already know what they believe to be right and wrong, and they then go on to produce arguments in favor of those rights and wrongs.

If I gave the ordinary atheist writer in Free Inquiry or The Humanist the following sentence

       It is morally imperative that we treat cats and dogs well and care for them
       because_______________________

and asked them to finish it, they could finish it in a contingent way (for instance, by saying that cats and dogs are self aware and have emotions like ours), but they couldn’t ground it.

Cats and dogs are conscious and have emotions like ours?  So what?  Why should I care?  What makes “being conscious” and “having emotions like ours” things that are morally important for us?

If I asked a Muslim or  Christian or a Jew that question, assuming he agreed with it at all, he’d say something like, “because God made us stewards over the earth, and we are always required to follow God’s law.”

If I asked Aristotle, and he got him to agree with the sentiment, he’d say something like “it is in the nature of the human being to form bonds of feeling with fellow creatures and such bonds impose obligations on us, because to deny them is to deny their nature.”  Or something of the sort.  It’s early in the morning.

Most secular moral philosophy these days has no foundational principles.  There is no final answer to that “because.”

Part of that is that Robert is probably wrong about “the Movement.”  There’s no organized movement of any kind operating here.  What there is is a social consensus among various groups of people that has been arrived at scattershot, without anybody really thinking much about it. 

Most people are not moral philosophers.  They accept the mores of their time and place mostly without question, and are often startled and uncomfortable when asked to justify them.  Since we live in a world where there is no real society-wide consensus about much of anything, people are often called upon to justify what they believe.

That’s how we get to most of today’s moral “philosophy,” which isn’t really philosophy at all.

People know–in fact, they’re sure–that it is morally imperative that we treat dogs and cats well and care for them, but they don’t really know why they feel that, and they feel it more than they think it.  So they come up with a gazillion reasons that seem to fit, without really thinking if those reasons could be used as general principles or what would happen if they were so used.

And since these ideas are often arrived at emotionally to begin with, they’re also often contradictory.  A lot of the abortion debate is like this.  The same people who champion a woman’s right to abortion often want to put her in jail for drinking or doing drugs during pregnancy.  The same people who think that abortion should be legal if the fetus has spina bifuda would recoil in horror at the suggestion that we put to death any children born with spina bifuda.

I don’t think, however, that this is just a case of trying to institute “feel good” ideas.  A lot of the freefloating “obvious” moral ideas now littering the landscape are not particularly feel good.  What they are, very often, is a cross between a Lifetime movie moral and expediency.  It hurts us to see Grandma in pain and we hope she will be released, but if we champion her “assisted suicide” (or tacitly condone giving her a little extra boost of morphine that will finally put her to sleep) we also happen to be saving the insurance company a whole lot of money.

The profesional principles mentioned here once or twice are a slightly better organized case.  Our librarians could tell us that it is professional principles that compel them to assist in the free flow of information (even information they don’t approve of) or to protect the privacy of librarian patrons.  What I never have seen, at least yet, is an explanation of why the free flow of information is a good thing we should support, or why the clients should have privacy.

Once a group has decided on a set of axiomatic principles, it’s easy enough to defend them.  The problem is that clear moral thinking does not allow of axiomatic principles.  Somehow, somewhere, there must be something that fills in the blank–that tell us what is it, outside ourselves and unaffected by our wants and desires or likes and dislikes, that makes any such principles actually “moral.”

Of course, it’s easy to spot this kind of lack in something we don’t agree with, like the quote I posted here.  The man made lots of assertions–morality must be universal to be valid!–that we had no problems arguing with, and that I doubt if he could defend on any firmer grounds.

It’s harder to see the same flaw in things we do agree with–like the principle that we should be kind to dogs and cats and care for them–because the principles themselves just seem so obvious.   When people ask us to defend them, and then to defend what we bring up to defend them, we react as if we’ve been asked to  prove that 2 plus 2 equals 4.

And when that happens, we’ve got bigger problems.  Because almost any secondary moral principle can be defended in a dozen ways, and any one of those ways can be used to reason back to, if not a foundational principle, an axiomatic one, and those can be used…

But here I go again. 

And I’m cold.

Written by janeh

January 5th, 2010 at 8:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Conditions in Place

with 4 comments

Robert wants to know about “secular humanist” organizations for charity–what he really means, I think, is atheist organizations for charity, and that brings me to part one of my problem.

First, unlike a religion, atheism isn’t really anything in particular–it’s the expression for a lack of something.

Simply not believing that God exists provides an individual with absolutely nothing in the way of concepts in anything.  And I do mean anything.  Some atheists even believe in the supernatural–in ghosts, say, or reincarnation–while not seeing anything to believe in that would qualify as God, or even “a” god.

Christian conservatives like to talk about political ideologies such as Communism or fascism as “atheist organizations,” but the appellation is a little squidgy. 

Christianity, for instance, provides a set of scriptures that can be read to determine what God wants, and once that has been determined, institutions can be built on the premises discovered therein.

And what’s more, the number and kinds of such institutions are not infinitely variable.  Granted that anybody can justify anything he wants to do with any philosophy out there if he’s willing to be either ignorant or dishonest about it, the founding documents of Christianity and the content of its tradition allow some things and disallow others.

But atheism neither allows or disallows.  An atheist can be a Communist or a Fascist, but he can also be a social conservative (see Theodore Dalrymple), a libertarian anarchist, a back-to-the-land vegan, or the kind of person who likes to torture cats.  Just not believing in God does not mandate any political or moral outcome whatsoever. 

It was Dostoyevsky, I think, who said that if God does not exist, then anything is permitted–but you couldn’t find half a dozen atheists who accept that idea.  Atheists sign on to all kinds of moral codes for all kinds of reasons.

When atheists do sign on to such codes, however, they don’t do it “because God does not exist.”  They do it because they’ve committed themselves to further ideas that atheism in itself does not require.

So the American Humanist Association puts forward a rather comprehensive outline of the moral life, but the outline is not based on the atheism of its members but on their commitment to a set of other concepts (human equality, for instance) that not only do not derive from atheism but that are often embraced by religious people as well. 

To the extent that there is organized atheism as atheism–rather than secular groups committed to establishing and promoting ethical codes based on other premises than mere atheism–there are only small groups mostly dedicated to advancing the social and legal position of atheists in a society that is largely religious. 

Atheist organizations therefore lobby to have the Pledge of  Allegiance restored to its original wording (no “under God”), because its present wording implies that those of us who do not believe in God are not actually American citizens.  (And also, it’s annoying to realize that the damned thing was written by an atheist socialist who probably couldn’t take it in its present form.)  They lobby for recognition for unbelievers who are conscientious objectors to war.  They lobby to keep the official recognition of God out of public schools so that they can send their children to them.

But a wide variety of people with a wide variety of political and social beliefs can sign on to the things in that last paragraph.  Pro-capitalist economic conservatives have just as much stake in them as pro-socialist economic leftists or welfare state liberals.

The Humanism of the American Humanist Association and the secular humanism of the Council for Secular Humanism are different, because they are in fact attempts to construct moral and ethical codes that can command widespread support from people who do not believe in God, and also from people who do but who might also see the wisdom of the reasoning they give.

And here is where I have my problem.  The issue, for me, is not the atheism.  I am an atheist because I am.  I didn’t start out religious and become atheist in a fit of rebellion.  I didn’t work out a lot of reasons and arguments.  I don’t believe because I don’t.  My family didn’t, by and large, and on the few occasions when I have tried on religion to see what it is like, it has left me emotionally cold.

Okay, I’ll admit it.  It goes farther than that.  There’s a part of me that just can’t not be flabbergasted at the idea that anybody, anywhere takes God seriously.  Maybe I’m missing some part of my brain that other people have, but the whole thing just seems silly to me.

But my problem with the present state of ethical and moral philosophy is a lot deeper than theism or lack of it.  In fact, I find a lot of Catholic moral philosophy to be intellectually compelling.  God or no God, I understand its conception of the moral status of the human person and the obligation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, et al, that follows from it. 

Of course, there are parts of that tradition that I do not find intellectually compelling, and others that I find downright wrong.  But if I can start with the conception of the human person and reach the acts of corporal charity, then the acts of corporal charity can in fact be defended on secular grounds.

My problem with the present state of secular moral philosophy is that a lot of it seems to me to be an exercise is crafting a code that will fit what we’ve already decided we want to be true–the exact opposite of the scientific method that secular organizations claim they are the champions of.

This is certainly the problem with the work of Paul Kurtz, the grand old man of American secular humanism.  I’ve complained about him before, so I won’t go into         his ideas at any length here, but I keep running up against his declaration of the validity of the principles of “common human decency,” by which he means moral and ethical principles that exist in some form in all societies.  He keeps dragging in things–the equality of women!  reproductive rights!–that he declares to be “common” that are common only in the fact that most societies reject them.

But what has really started to happen is even more egregious, from my point of view, in that it has a lot more in common with that quote I posted last time than it does with traditional Humanist ethics of any kind.

I’m not saying that what’s his name–I seem to have forgotten it already–is mainstream as of yet, but ideas like his are getting there, and they can be met with among secular people even outside the organizations these days.  “Someday you’re going to find out humans aren’t so special!” a poster on an Internet forum I sometimes participate in once said to me, and there’s a lot of that thing going around.

What’s more interesting is the extent to which such people are willing to use arguments they reject out of hand when those arguments are applied to concepts they don’t like.

The same people who treat with scorn the statement “You may not be able to prove God exists, but you can’t prove He doesn’t exist either!”  counter any attempt to point out that there is no evidence of animals establishing moral philosophies or thinking in abstract concepts with, “but there isn’t any evidence they don’t, either!”

The quotation I posted is extreme, of course, but it is a good example of the nearly complete denial of reality that is more and more becoming the basis for attempts at secular ethics.  Peter Singer is not a marginal figure and he seems to believe pretty much the same thing, and on pretty much the same terms. 

I also can’t help feeling that the “moral codes” derived from this particular understanding of the human person haven’t got a hope in Hell of ever being adopted by any society anywhere, and that their proponents know this. 

Which brings me to a question:  if the people advocating this sort of thing know that they aren’t going to get it accepted by society at large, why are they advocating it?  What is it they hope to get from making these ideas mainstream, even if they’re not accepted? 

I find myself defending the Catholic Church not because I’m a Catholic, or could ever be one, and not because I think they’re a paragon of institutional virtue, but because I  at least understand how they see human beings and how they define human beings, and it actually accords with both reality and an ethic I could commit myself to.

What scares me about the secular codes of thinkers like the one I posted last time is that their concept of the human person ends up seeping its way into our politics and practice, both professional and otherwise, without our even realizing they’ve done it.

And by now I’m probably making no sense, so I’ll try to make this less abstract and more clear tomorrow, and go off and have some more tea.

Written by janeh

January 4th, 2010 at 8:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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