08/14/13

Elysium: Everybody Loves a Good Death

Don’t worry. I won’t spoil it (all), although you already know the story. I actually enjoyed the movie, even if the preview made the plot look more nuanced than it actually was. You could make a number of criticisms that are not unique to Elysium. They are the hallmark of any action movie. Any action movie that takes on something larger than mano-a-mano combat still has to has that combat to bring about the ultimate resolution. Zizek said as much of The Fugitive years ago, the same was true of The InternationalElysium_Poster (which I watched mostly because of the Istanbul shots over the grand bazaar, but now everyone does that), and it is true of Elysium. Apparently, structural and societal changes are made when people get together and punch each other in the face.

Hey, I watch them frequently, so there’s obviously something appealing to me—and many others—about these scenarios, but I’m probably fooling myself if I think the movie is a deft critique of the growing discrepancy between rich and poor. Certainly it aims to be, but the scenario in which the critique is portrayed allows us to think that social and economic polarization is only due to a handful of clearly insane power-hungry monsters rather than embedded in the Joe Shmoes of society like you and I.

Okay, so this part is a bit of a spoiler. The president of Elysium represents the kind of “let die” response to those living on Earth. We won’t do anything to help them, but we won’t do anything to harm them either, and then we don’t have to feel bad about others’ lack in the midst of our safety and security. That would be a realistic—and certainly more common—representation of how most of us deal with the world. But then comes along the Defense Secretary of Elysium, the tyrant who is delusional with dreams of controlling everything, and we think that it’s evil people that corrupt an otherwise decent system. Yet every person on Elysium knows of the millions who don’t have access to the same level of care and live in relative squalor, eking out an existence.

Oppression isn’t just tyranny. As Iris Young notes in “Five Faces of Oppression,” it “refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions…the normal processes of everyday life.” It’s not as if we’re talking about a warning for “our” future. For many or most, this is right now.

And like all dramatic tales, how does Elysium make us care in a way that life does not? Through the portrayal of death. But not just any death, and not anonymous death, and not mass death. Singular, important death. As is common in action movies, many who the protagonist considers friends will die. We see his pain, but we think, at least he is still alive. And of course many countless others must die in the terrible conditions we see portrayed, but their deaths are left unnamed and implied. We are made to care about the deaths of the very good, and the very bad, those for whom we are given a narrative, a story.

But it’s not just that we’re made to care about certain deaths. It’s that the death allows us to render a final judgement, to see the final tally and make a decision, since there will be no further evidence. In the case of the protagonist, we can usually decide that it was worth it for him or her to die. We make a martyr for a larger cause. With the adversaries, we grant that they got what they deserved. These deaths have meaning. What of the others, the countless extras and nobodies who perish along the way? They were at best plot vehicles, with no significant meaning of their own. Considering the question of their deaths opens up a question of meaning, and when we cannot encode labels such as hero, villain, or martyr, we must ignore the death, for it cannot but mean.

My takeaways (in no particular order):

  • Death is way more important to us than we like to let on. Plots and narratives are advanced in relation to death, and death is the given against which we make meaning.
  • Certain deaths “count,” and others do not, and our valorization of those who we give the ability to die “well” allows us to ignore the rest who are not afforded the opportunity.
  • Jodie Foster’s accent is…not good.

I am probably thinking of this in ethical terms since I am preparing to teach a course on ethics for undergraduates. My background in ethics was relatively poor until fairly recently, as is the ethical background of many who are given the answers early on. After all, why continue to look for other ways to frame the question when you already have the answers? I guess the question I am mulling over is what criteria we do, and should, use when determining the value of a life. The perhaps well-intentioned human rights approach, based on life’s inherent dignity or human self-consciousness, seems no more tractable than religious approaches. Although we think we do, I’m not sure we really want to solve the problem that Elysium fictionalizes in the first place.

08/5/13

Is science the key to morality?

81vhPlG1sNL._SL1500_The only one of the “New Atheists” I have ever read is Sam Harris. I recently finished his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I think it was the seeming audacity of the title that drew me to the work. As a student of religion (and the humanities more generally), I am reluctant to believe claims that science can directly replace the position that religions have traditionally held in society, even as I am a failure at religion myself. I have written on the topic before, as well as the relation of scientific knowledge to the senses.

After reading The Moral Landscape, I looked at my notes for the other Harris book I read back in 2007, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which is the work that first put Harris on the map. Though the earlier work talks more specifically about religion, they both contain some of the same ideas, namely that religion is an illogical and insufficient guide for morality, and does more harm than good (or at least it does enough harm to outweigh the good). Even reading his book back then, as a Christian, I conceded that he did seem to have a genuine concern for the growing violence in the world and its connection with forms of religion. However, I had several general objections at the time, all of which I now consider insufficient (and all of which he anticipates in The Moral Landscape).

First, I objected that Harris criticizes faith for not being testable, when the very definition of faith—at least in one Pauline Christian interpretation—is belief in things unseen, belief despite lack of evidence. Harris also noted that the extent to which religious adherents are tolerant is the extent to which they don’t believe what their tradition tells them. I am much more inclined to agree with this statement now than I was as a Christian.

The other major objection I lodged is embarrassingly common among religious adherents. If you take away a person’s religion, what else will they have to give them a reason to live? It is easy to see that this is not an adequate defense of religion; it is simply a plea to allow people to continue believing something that cannot be proven. The frequent complaint lodged against atheists is that it is just mean to pick on someone’s beliefs if they aren’t hurting anyone and it gives the person comfort. One response is that it does hurt society for people who don’t existentially rely on religion to continue to affirm belief in it, both because of the systemic forms of intolerance and violence it can support, and the continued support it gives religion in general for those groups we would label as “fundamentalist.”

My conclusion in my review of End of Faith was that, despite good arguments that Harris made, science was simply not advanced enough to replace religion as a source of values. Religion has traditionally been that source, and that gives it a historical advantage. Looking back, that amounted to dragging my heels and applying a standard to science that I exempted religion from because of its lengthier history. My reading of the Moral Landscape affected me in a different way.

The gist of The Moral Landscape is that our brain, our consciousness, is the primary determinant of how we view, interact with, and understand our world. As that is the case, it is science that offers us the best method for understanding the way we operate, particularly the way we interact with the world and each other. We call the standards that guide us morals, and many think those are given by God or a religious tradition, but for Harris, we must look to science for keys to a more sustainable well-being than religion has offered.

At the beginning of the work, I found myself making the same critique: science doesn’t lay out an exact map of morality. I am much less confident than Harris in the ability of science to help solve moral quandaries, especially “science” in the generalized way he seems to be using it. His focus on the brain seems a little too cold and clinical at times. For example he explains that the chemicals oxycontin and vasopressin have to do with the way we emotionally bond to others. Children raised in orphanages do not experience the same surge of these chemicals when interacting with adoptive parents as other children do with biological parents. While to me, as with Harris, it is clear that this altered chemical makeup affects the emotional and psychological responses of these children, the implications of solving these problems on a chemical or biological level would look much different than solving them on a psychological one, and involve looking at the human in a different way. At the least, this shows that while our morality may depend in part on the human brain—and a complete picture of morality may not be possible without it—it does not depend solely on the brain.

However, the critiques that Harris makes of our current moral hang-ups are poignant, and offer experts in religion a significant challenge. He strongly criticizes the kind of moral and cultural relativism that seems to prevent any critique of a particular value system. The idea that we cannot criticize the head-to-toe veiling of women is preposterous, Harris argues, based on any system that would suppose to value societal well-being. He dismisses the response that these women may be happy with their situation by contending that even if this were the case, it is quite clear that we often do not know what is best for us.

This is dangerous territory for Harris, who might be accused of playing God, but no more or less so than the major religious traditions themselves do. What is overwhelmingly practical about his approach, however, is that it does not claim to have the right answers, although it certainly does admit to their possibility. Rather, Harris sets broad parameters and says it is clear that a world in which everyone’s well-being was maximized would surely be better than a world where everyone misery would be maximized. We know the direction to go, although we may not have the definitive answer to every moral dilemma. Maximizing well-being is good, maximizing misery is bad.

The study of religion, and that of morality in general, is heavily influenced by anthropology and its story of the noble savage, the cultures and tribes that we cannot judge since they are culturally independent. Who are we to say they are unhappy, even if they are sacrificing each other to appease bloodthirsty deities? This complex is in part rooted in a reaction to a past history of Western imperialism, to be sure. However, Harris suggests it is also connected to a confusion between ontology and epistemology. Our experiences are subjective, but this does not mean we can know nothing about them, particularly in a comparative sense. Harris seems to take this approach much farther than I can, seeming to claim that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality. In a conditional sense, I would agree. In a universal sense, I cannot, if only because I don’t see us being privileged with anything approaching that level of knowledge in the near future. However, this doesn’t and shouldn’t stop us from making moral judgements.

As I prepare to teach a class on ethics, Harris’s commitment to “changing people’s ethical commitments” resonates with me. Where we differ is that Harris thinks our ethical commitments can and should be grounded in science. We should be nice to one another because that rewards us with the highest level of such-and-such chemical in our brains, and the presence of such chemical is the highest indicator of subjective levels of happiness based on multiple experiments. I am skeptical that we can ever explicitly base our morality on this. As Harris seems to admit on some level, we may need a more elaborate story, some sort of Nietzschean tragedy to found our morality. I think, though, that we might be happier with founding our morality on the level of social construction, with the help of scientific insight of course. Brain chemicals just don’t make the same story that Joseph Campbell’s hero myth does. This doesn’t prevent criticizing the inadequacy of our current stories and searching for better ones, ones more inclusive of current culture.

In any case, there is much to recommend in Harris’s book and little to fear.