Towards a morality of the absurd
The idea of the absurd attracts a large amount of criticism from people.Typically, I find people tend to roll their eyes whenever I bring it up.
Nine times out of ten the conversation stops pretty quickly because most of my friends refuse to listen to my pretentious pronouncements. However, the one person in ten takes me up on the matter and will normally say “you can’t seriously be suggesting that life is meaningless”.
Here we have the understandable fear that acceptance of the meaninglessness of the world involves a rejection of our moral concerns - a sort of nihilism where everything is permitted since nothing matters.
This rejection irks me, since in the first place it is based on a misunderstanding of the absurd, and in the second place it is not true.
The absurd requires us to accept the two contradictory poles of the meaning we read into life and the apparent lack of meaning in the universe. We cannot slip into either side of the paradox completely, because in so doing we fail to accept the absurd.
We must instead accept the two contradictory ideas that life has meaning and life is meaningless - that’s why it is an absurd philosophy, because we have reached an absurd conclusion.
In answering the first issue, we have, to some extent, arrived at an answer to the second issue; we are not required to throw our morality out of the window, we are required to keep to our moral codes and accept that they are ultimately meaningless.
Still there will be some confusion as to what it means to accept that our moral codes are ultimately meaningless.
Donna Tartt expresses this nicely in The Goldfinch, where she investigates the plausibility of bad actions leading to good and good actions leading to bad.
Her claim rests upon the premise that the consequences of our actions ripple out across the cosmos, falling into an order that far surpasses our understanding of the world.
It is, essentially, the butterfly effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in America and there is a hurricane in Japan.
In choosing to do a “good thing” you can in no way account for all of the consequences of your actions because the pattern of cause and effect reaches way beyond your comprehension.
In saying, then, that our moral propositions are meaningless, I am not claiming that you should simply stop doing good things because you don’t know whether or not they are really good.
Rather, I am saying that you have no way of knowing whether or not an action is intrinsically good, since your innocent flapping of wings could result in a monstrous natural disaster in Japan.
Talk of morality from a basis of action becomes meaningless because the results of your action far outstrip your comprehension and knowledge of the world.
One cannot call themselves a good person, just because they do good things since the actual effects of your actions will never be known.
Linking morality to actions seems like a natural starting point, since moral situations will often require us to act in a certain way.
However, this is only half the picture. In reducing morality to action, we do away with a whole host of internal operations that involve motivation and understanding of the world.
Iris Murdoch dubbed this internal world one’s “vision of morality” and argued that morality is a positioning in the world that sets out what we see as salient opportunities for action and response.
I was initially drawn towards this response because it places an emphasis on how we do things rather than trying to identify a specific code of what to do and when.
In addition to this, there is space to account for deepening in understanding of ourselves as moral agents, since vision can be taught in much the same way that we can be taught to see a sense of balance in Kandinsky, or taught to read possible paths in a cliff face when rock climbing.
There is also an opportunity to express nicely the heartbreak we feel when we see people doing things we deem to be morally reprehensible.
For instance, it is not the fact that someone has done something selfish that upsets us when we encounter selfishness. It is the fact that someone views the world in such a narrow minded framework that they can only see themselves as important.
If we look at morality as a mode of vision, then, we see that our moral utterances, our sense of right and wrong functions as means to communicate our moral vision to other people.
In that endeavour we see that our conception of morality has no other meaning than that which humans bring to it.
Morality is not a matter of absolutes and universals, but a means of relation and understanding.
In such a manner, then, we see morality as something deeply human, where we must work hard together to ensure that our moral visions remain intelligible to one another.
In accepting that our moral propositions are ultimately meaningless, we accept that they are fundamental to what it means to be human.
As a result, we are bound to our morality, for it is all that we have to remain comprehensible to one another.
It is in this sense that Camus says “The absurd does not liberate; it binds”.