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April 16th 2017 print

Anthony Daniels

Absurd Logic Meets Moral Exhibitionism

Lovers of humanity in general don’t seem to be very happy in themselves. How can they be, from the strictly ethical point of view, with so much misery to commiserate? “Now that we talk of dying,” asked Eliot, “should I have the right to smile?”

obama goofyAn acquaintance with whom I am in correspondence about the evils of modern architecture sent me by e-mail a brilliant cartoon by Louis Hellman, the British architect and cartoonist who has long exposed in his cartoons the brutality of modernist architects whose aesthetic effect has been particularly devastating in Britain. Those architects have taken as a program a slight adaptation of Dr Johnson’s graceful epitaph on Oliver Goldsmith, that there was no genre of writing that he did not touch, and none that he touched that did not adorn: they have built something in every town, and built nowhere that they did not ruin.

The cartoon had two picture panels side by side. The first, called “Architecture”, was the interior of a modernist apartment as conceived by Le Corbusier. It was bare, unadorned, clean, light, cold and surgical in atmosphere (the requirements of TB sanatoria early in the twentieth century had a profound effect on modern architecture, as if life were an illness and a house a sanatorium). The second panel, called “Life”, was the same apartment after it had been inhabited by a family: cluttered with ornaments, clothes, a baby chair, dishes, and in general with the detritus of daily life.

I am increasingly, and rather late in life, an admirer of cartoons, and especially of cartoonists. At their best their work has a hinterland of meaning and I cannot but admire the concision and elegance with which they express it. There used to be not far from where I live a little shop in which a commercial artist in his retirement sold cartoons from Punch from about 1910 to 1950 which he had skilfully coloured. I bought several of medical interest or subject matter and only regret, now that he has gone, that I did not buy more. In one, from the late forties, a child psychiatrist is bending over a small boy of particularly malign appearance as he and his mother, a respectable middle-class lady dressed in a fur, are leaving his consulting rooms.

“And remember, Mrs Jones,” he tells the mother, “if that doesn’t work, give him a good clout.”

Could pretensions to the understanding of human behaviour (with us still) be more succinctly exposed?

In another, from the 1920s, a tall, confident and elegant surgeon lights a cigar with obvious complacency by the marble fireplace of a drawing room, while a more diffident and less distinguished-looking general practitioner sits on a sofa. Underneath is a short dialogue which starts by the doctor asking the surgeon what he operated on Jones for:

 Surgeon: A hundred pounds.

Doctor: No, I mean what had he got?

Surgeon: A hundred pounds.

If brevity is the soul of wit, cartoonists are high-souled indeed. The ability time after time, often week after week or day after day, to distil often complex ideas into a sketch and a few words is admirable, and it is not one that I could ever have, even if I were able to draw. Only once in my life did I have an idea for a cartoon, and it came to nothing because of my lack of graphic ability. In it, Leonardo stands back from the easel upon which he has just finished the Mona Lisa. A friend looks at it and says, “That’s very nice, Leonardo, but is it art?”

To return, however, to the Hellman cartoon and its exposure of the yawning gap between life and theory (and modern architecture is nothing if not highly theoretical): that gap exists in all fields of human endeavour. The attempt to reduce human experience and activity to a few simple principles is, if not eternal, at least age-old: as is its failure. The idealist philosopher F.H. Bradley famously defined metaphysics as “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct”; but he not quite as famously added that “to find these reasons is no less an instinct”. In other words, we as self-conscious beings are tied to a task that is Sisyphean in form, if not in content, namely to find a theory of the universe and ourselves that explains everything, including how to conduct ourselves. True, some metaphysicians such as Freudians, Behaviourists, Darwinists and Neurochemists confine their speculations to Man alone, but this is a sufficiently wide field to be getting on with. The metaphysicians masquerading as scientists usually implied that success was just round the corner, that the essentials were known and that only a few details remained to be filled in. The mystery of human existence was not only soluble but solved, though (mysteriously) life itself seemed just as complex and incalculable as it had ever been.

The striving for metaphysically unifying ethical principles has probably never been greater than it is today. In medical ethics, for example, by far the most important principle is now the patient’s autonomy, his desire, ability and even responsibility to choose for himself. Of course there is an element in this that is to be welcomed; no one wants surgeons going round cutting people’s legs off just because they think that their legs ought to come off whether they want them off or not. But mostly we go to the doctor not to be presented with a vast menu of possible courses of action, but to be told what best to do. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, said T.S. Eliot: nor, he might have added, choice. No one wants to have to choose the bacterial and mineral count of his water, the train timetable, and the voltage of his electricity supply, among the million other decisions that are taken off his hands; and anyone who has been really ill knows that what he wants is not an array of choices, but utter dependence upon someone he can trust. In other words, circumstances alter cases, and anyone who hopes to cover all cases with his principles will soon become like the mapmaker in the story by Borges who reproduces what he is supposed to be mapping inch for inch.

A foolish consistency, said Emerson in one of his pithier and more comprehensible moments, is the hobgoblin of little minds; but while consistency is unachievable, we cannot help but strive for it also—for if inconsistency is not to count as a refutation of an argument, what is to count as such?

There is a type of temperament that, starting from certain premises, arrives at a ludicrous or horrible conclusion by means of seemingly valid reasoning—and prefers to believe the conclusion rather than re-examine either the premises or the reasoning. This temperament has never been as prominent as it is today, thanks to the spread of tertiary education. The result is a kind of moral exhibitionism.

Let us start off with two premises that seem innocent enough: first that all humans are of equal moral worth, and second that we have a duty to show compassion towards all humans who suffer. Would anyone dare to argue that all human beings are not of equal moral worth, in some ultimate and no doubt metaphysical sense, or that we should not show compassion towards all those who suffer? By what right, then, do I feel and exhibit more concern for the suffering of my child or my neighbour than for a person unknown to me in the Sudan who, in fact, suffers far more than either of them, and what is more is only one of millions to suffer in the same way? I forget the lesson of the famous Wedgwood cameo of the slave in chains: that they are men and my brothers. Surely by doing so, moral duty towards others having nothing to do with proximity, I abandon in practice at least one of my premises, if not both.

The effort of compassionating the hundreds or thousands of millions who suffer rather than merely the few sufferers who come within our limited purview is, however, rather tiring; hence the well-known paradox that those who love humanity seldom seem to love the individual instances of the genus very much.

Lovers of humanity in general don’t seem to be very happy in themselves, either; how can they be, from the strictly ethical point of view, with so much misery to commiserate? “Now that we talk of dying,” asked Eliot, “should I have the right to smile?”

Anthony Daniels’s latest book is Migration, Multiculturalism and its Metaphors: Selected Essays (Connor Court), published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.