The Good and the True: A Reflection

A friend, Joan Schenkar, who’d been in touch recently, just died, suddenly and unexpectedly, in Paris, at the age of 79. Her death, which these days seems so early, is just another testament to the total unfairness of the universe, but it’s led me to a further reflection.

My first thought after hearing the news, was that I hoped she’d seen or heard about the recent edition of the London Review of Books, in which the reviewer of an apparently mediocre biography of Patricia Highsmith referred to Joan’s biography of Highsmith as “a masterpiece.” Wow! At least to have had that moment of joy, of fulfillment.

But then, I sadly reminded myself, so what? Dead is dead. There’s no more, and from the no longer existent standpoint of the deceased, there never was. Any moment, any joy, and sorrow: they’re all gone. “Red roses flung riotously, gone with the wind.”

This is, you might conclude, the curse of the rationalist, the atheist, to know that in the end nothing comes to nothing, and whatever meaning there might have been was an illusion. And this thought of an–shall I say–elderly person leads directly to the criticism that has always been hurled at us unrepentant atheists: that we can have no serious, no truly meaningful ethical thought, because our judgments are merely subjective feelings, with no objective ground to stand on, from which we can assert, “this is how I know what is right and what is wrong.” No God to issue us righteous demands. Like not dancing on the Sabbath, or not allowing a menstruating woman social intercourse, or having slaves, or slaughtering infidels, or forcing women to give birth against their will; all those other objective commandments of this or that god.

Still, I’ve never come across a completely satisfactory answer to the criticism. because of course there is none. But the other day I encountered an answer that, to me at least is satisfactory enough. It comes, oddly perhaps, from the pen of Virginia Woolf, in her great novel Mrs. Dalloway. The eponymous Clarissa Dalloway, to whose thoughts we are privy (or are they not sometimes maybe Woolf’s?), reflects that she has “evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.”

Yes, that will do. And how do we answer the inevitable riposte, then? Okay. I have a friend who advocates, quite disruptively sometimes, for homeless people in the city where he lives. He is engaging in ethically rightful behavior. You disagree? Explain yourself. Lots of luck. Another person I’ve known, a schoolmate who once ran unsuccessfully for President, led a sit-in against the only barbershop in our college town, to force it to integrate–the argument of the barber being that he “didn’t know ho to cut black men’s hair.” You disagree, you think racial discrimination is OK? Explain yourself.

Some students at Smith College organized a mass movement to force the College’s divestment from businesses that, among other things, supplied deadly weapons to the armed forces of South African apartheid; a movement that resulted in the seizure of College Hall and the disruption of normal College business for a week. You disagree? Explain yourself. Where did “goodness” lie, with the apartheid regime, or the people who were oppressed by and resisting it?

In all these cases, and so many more I would be happy to explore, there will be sensible arguments on both sides, but will also be an ultimate right and wrong–except in those truly tragic situations in which there is no satisfactory way out in any direction. Moral lunatics like Tucker Carlson aside, they have been settled, in the sense that we only get strategic or practical counter-arguments (your actions were self-defeating, etc. or too disruptive, etc.), but no one rises up to say, “the hell with the homeless, they’re worthless,” or, “racial discrimination is perfectly OK, because it’s God-given,” or “apartheid is a good way of life.”

The development by which these once-accepted beliefs have been overcome is, as the philosopher Maria Pia Lara has described it, a process of “reflective judgment.” (See her book, Narating Evil: A Postmetaphysical Theory of Reflective Judgment, 2007). They have, as she puts it, been tested and resolved over time, in the course of human affairs. Not in every case, but we’re not searching for perfection.

But how do I, how do we, navigate our way through the crowded valley of ethical judgments? Through our experiences, including the various kinds of learning to which we’re exposed, as children and adults (“fairness,” e.g., is a concept often understood first in childhood versions of team sports.) Above all, though, we see the suffering of what we think of as undeserving victims, and we apply Kant’s categorical imperative (perhaps as modified by John Rawls’s notion of the “original position,” in which we would not know our social circumstances) to our vision: would I be willing to subject myself to that treatment; would I be willing for all human beings to be subjected to that treatment? I don’t think we need to read Kant, or Rawls. If we are searching for the right or the good, it’s an instinctive approach.

Of course all these discriminations are arguable, and counter-arguments have to be explored. Some issues are not so simply decided. The argument against capital punishment, for example, is not based on the “innocence” of the victims, in any ordinary sense. The same is true of the pacifist case against war in general. But as Dwight MacDonald pointed out in his World War II essay, “The Responsibility of Peoples,” the victims of saturation bombing, not to mention atomic bombing, were by any standard “innocent,” and “goodness” could never include their destruction.

If actions of mass destruction or execution are to be justified, that will have to be on utilitarian grounds that stand up to examination–as they rarely do. In the case of capital punishment, for instance, there is a negative correlation between whether a state in the U.S. has abolished it, and the rate of homicide within the state. And the post-World War II study of strategic bombing (John Kenneth Galbraith was one of its authors) concluded that it had not resulted in a lessening of the German war effort.

Of course there’s always “vengeance.” But the atheist has no trouble with that: “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” It is a ground that stands outside any ethical conception of “goodness.” The point is not how I feel; it’s how I would hope people in the mass would feel. In an editorial in the magazine Commentary, which had never ever published an editorial before, the new Editor Norman Podhoretz denounced a Quaker couple who’d gone into court to please for clemency for the murderer of their daughter. My father, never exactly a bleeding heart, read it and pronounced: “It’s blood-lust; he’ s a savage.” One or the other was defining “goodness.”

You’ve got to make a choice. And whichever choice you make defines your rejection of the other: that becomes part of the ground on which your conception of goodness stands. And can be defended.

There is one final point to be made here, The concept of what is “right” or “good” is inseparable from the concept of what is “true.” Except the latter is more than concept, it’s a reality. A fact. The good or the right cannot be based on the false. Most arguments against racial discrimination, for example, are based on a truthful account of what goes on in its presence. Denials of their existence and its pernicious effects (comparative life expectancy, for instance) are like denials of global warning: no statement of what constitutes “the good” is acceptable if it’s based on a denial of unquestionable facts.

The unfolding disaster in the United States is not ignorance, not even the denial of obvious truths, but beyond all that the contemptuous repudiation of any attachment to truth whatsoever. Without truth, any conception of the good is out of reach. Only unmitigated and merciless power can be fruitfully pursued.

That “goodness,” as Clarissa Dalloway put it, may not be easily attainable, or that the costs of attaining it may be high, especially in complex societies, is often imaginable; sometimes likely. The road from aiming at goodness to achieving it may be too difficult to bear. But speaking as an unrepentant atheist, I have no difficulty in defining it provisionally, and have never noticed that judgmental and oppressive religionists have any such accomplishment in that regard as to make me have any trust in their concept of the Good.

Emeritus Professor of Gov’t, Smith College, Visiting Professor, The New School, Editorial Board, The Nation,