Sunday, February 12, 2012

The ethics of wolfland

I said recently that fantasy is bad, but not all fantasy is bad. G. K. Chesterton's chapter in Orthodoxy on "The Ethics of Elfland" is good on why this is. In fairy stories what has to be is, but what is contingent is often different from the world as we know it. Fantasy can show us what has to be and what does not, which can be a very valuable lesson. 

For instance (and I don't remember Chesterton talking about this, but perhaps he does), fantasy can bring out what it means to be human in a sense that is very important to ethics but irrelevant to biology. One thing I especially liked about Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible is that the characters are all what we might call morally human (they have human concerns, emotions, etc.) even though they are each supernatural, alien, part-robot, or otherwise non-human. This helps to bring out what it means to be human, to live a human life, in a way that is relevant to identifying, for instance, inhumane attitudes and behavior. Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf, disappointingly, is not like this. 

Embarrassing confession: I am in a book club, which is why I read these two books. The Last Werewolf sounded like not my kind of thing at all from the reviews, but (perhaps partly because my expectations were so low) I really enjoyed the first quarter or so of the book. But then a pony-tailed werewolf hunter from California showed up, and vampires, and it turned out that vampires and werewolves don't get along, and I felt as though I had slipped into the Twilight zone. The real problem, though, is not the clichés but the distance from normal life. This is a matter of degree, of course, and any superhero or fantasy story is going to have some of it, but it's possible for (mentally, morally) ordinary characters to find themselves in extraordinary situations. When the whole plot revolves around the problems of being almost immortal, of having to hide the fact that one turns into a monster every month, of having to hide from other monsters, and of the dilemma of having to kill and eat people or die, then the central character's concerns become less ordinary, less human, than one might want. Or so I found. 

Perhaps this in itself is interesting. (I suppose this post is based on the hope that it might be.) It's possible to be more or less recognizably human, internally like us. And, at least roughly speaking, other things being equal, the more like us (the more like the reader, the more like me) the main characters are, the better. (Can that be right?) Not in a (merely) superficial sense: I might like to read a book about people born when and where I was born, who have the same interests, problems, profession, etc., as I do, but this isn't what I'm talking about. (Although when it comes to songs this is a very good guide to what I like, so I don't mean to jump too quickly to the conclusion that I am not superficial and egocentric in this way.) It's more a matter of sharing a certain kind of set of concerns, of ways of reacting to the world and to events, of making similar kinds of judgments in similar circumstances. Can I say "form of life"? Is that too pretentious? Does it help at all? And what does it mean if I say that if a werewolf could write a novel we would not care to read it? I understand him well enough, but only externally. I know what his concerns are, but I don't share them. In that sense I can never find my feet with him: we don't stand on common ground. And in that sense we are two, rather than one, and in that sense he is nothing to me, a mere thing. Not one of us, not a full human being. (Maybe half a person at most.)  Which I suppose is what a werewolf is.    

At the end of that last paragraph I start to go much too fast. Not one of us ≠ a mere thing. There are different categories of us (going out from the middle): the real me, me, my family, my friends, people like me, other people, animals that are like humans in noticeable ways, animals that are like humans in less noticeable ways, living things, somehow impressive non-living things, and so on. (This order is subjective and approximate, or just rough and ready.) And it starts to overlap with the class of things, mere and otherwise. There are problems, too, with this way of thinking. It's one thing to talk about expanding the circle of moral concern, but another to imply that at the center is me. The former is a good idea (at least sometimes), the latter is bad. But if the Golden Rule is important in ethical thinking (and surely it is) then we do need to notice that we can sensibly apply it only to some kinds of being, not to all. "How would you like it if you were a cat and someone did that to you?" does not sound like the right way to think about animal ethics (unless thinking with children). Certainly "How would you feel if you were a rain-forest?" can't be right. Empathy has its proper limits. Which might be why I wonder about Jewel's idea (don't laugh--the Dalai Lama says similar things) that "only kindness matters." It's not a terrible thought though.   


  1. Empathy has its proper limits.

    Well, maybe. Or, sure, in some ways, e.g. if it's a question of applying the golden rule (as you suggest). But then there's Leopold's "Thinking Like a Mountain", as well as David Lurie's looking after the corpses of dogs because no one else is stupid enough to do so. Of course, it might either be wrong or, as you might put it, generous to call those things "empathy." And so maybe in addition to Jewel's kindness, we have to add something like mindfulness (which the D.L. would like), or what Weil called attention.

  2. what up buffy the vampire slayer.

  3. Thanks, Matt (and j., but I can't think of a good response to your comment).

    I originally wrote "Empathy has its limits," but that sounded too much like something a culpably unsympathetic person might say as an excuse. I thought about writing "Empathy has, and ought always to have, its limits," but the attempt to echo Hume sounded too clumsy. Anyway, I want to avoid certain kinds of anthropomorphism, and to recognize that ethics might extend beyond the limits of empathy. I don't know what thinking like a mountain is (not having read Leopold's work--I guess I should do so), and it might be a good idea, but even if no such thing were possible we might still have good reason to care about mountains. I think it's normal and good to have the kind of respect for life that makes abortion appear as, at best, the lesser of two evils. But "thinking like a fetus" seems like a bad idea, a recipe for sentimentalism that would miss the point of the kind of badness or shame involved in abortion and miscarriage. We might think also of respect for corpses. This is surely a good thing, but not because of how corpses feel, nor because of how I might feel if my corpse were treated badly--I don't think I care very much what happens to my body after my death.

    There's a kind of respect, I think, that is good and that, while related to empathy, does not depend directly on it. It might have to do with what is invested in the thing to be respected, e.g. hours of careful work or however many years of evolution went into creating it (this is an idea from Ronald Dworkin). In a sense perhaps I am empathizing with the artist when I treat her work with respect, but this isn't obviously the case with things created by nature. And the respect seems to be rightly directed toward the object, not its creator.

    But, as you say, this kind of respect might fall under the category of mindfulness or attention. I hadn't thought of those connections, but they're good ones.

  4. Sure. My allusion to Leopold was a bit playful; he's not talking about thinking about how the mountain feels, but rather appealing to the idea that the mountain represents a longer, older, more comprehensive "perspective" on the ecosystem that sprawls across it. (The short chapter I linked to is from A Sand County Almanac, and is about, roughly, Leopold's great error in killing off the wolves in an attempt to "manage" the I agree with what you say about "thinking like a fetus" and so forth.

    Maybe your sense that empathy has its limits is really more about the idea that grounding ethics in feelings has its limits? (Or thinking that only feelings matter is a mistake?)

  5. sorry, more articulate version of my comment which probably still doesn't invite a response:

    'buffy the vampire slayer', at least, seems to handle these human-not-human questions in a way that one doesn't want to dismiss.

    i wonder if the focalization matters. on the lives of whom is this book you mention focused? in buffy the focus stays on human beings and 'us' and on those of 'us' who in some way find themselves made other than human or not quite human. though eventually the extent of 'us' is altered to the point that people are admitted to a once-only-human 'us' who are now currently not-exactly-human but at least once -were- human. and then also beings who never were. but the centering on the humanity of the 'us' (regardless of whether actually human) somehow persists.

  6. Matt, those are interesting questions. I don't know whether to say that grounding ethics in feelings has its limits. Without feelings I don't think ethics would make any sense, but it is people, etc. that matter, not feelings about people. Justin E.H. Smith in The Stone might be relevant to this:

    "In the end no one really cares about stuff itself. Material acquisitions — even, or perhaps especially, material acquisitions of things like Rolls Royces and Rolexes — are maneuvers within a universe of materially instantiated ideas. This is human reality, and it is within this reality that mystics, scientists, and philosophers alike are constrained to pursue their various ends, no matter what they might take the ultimate nature of the external world to be."

    The things/feelings distinction might have its limits in a similar way to that in which the matter/ideas distinction has its limits. Yes, thinking that only feelings matter is a mistake. But thinking that empathy is the only feeling that matters is a mistake, too, I think. If I am about to bomb ancient monuments or artworks then I should feel bad about this, and neither because of empathy for the art (whatever that would be) nor merely because of empathy for those who care about it. It seems to me that I ought to care about the monuments, etc., themselves. It's a matter of respect, not empathy.

    And thanks, j. That's what I thought you meant at first, and then I thought maybe I was reading too much into your comment. Yes, I think Buffy's OK. In the werewolf book the focus is entirely on the werewolf, and he is hard to relate to (which might ultimately be all I'm trying to say). He's almost so well imagined that his world ceases to be human: he has no friends for a long stretch of the book, he doesn't particularly want to live (although he has a strong survival instinct), he takes no pleasure in anything, he finds some kind of release in eating people and having sex with women he despises, and so on. Some of this could, of course, be part of a human life. But when that's all there is, it's hard to relate. The story isn't human life plus magic, or plus the supernatural. It's devoid of humanity because of the supernatural elements (and/or a failure of the story-telling art).