How desperate should we be?

Author:Ryn, Claes G.
Position:A Symposium: Morality Reconsidered

This article is based on an after-dinner speech given at the annual meeting of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters in June of 2014. The invitation had come from the president of the Academy, who had also proposed the above title, an allusion to my then-recent novel A Desperate Man. The structure and tone of the text is due to the setting for my remarks and my somewhat awkward assignment, which was to discuss the novel as a work of fiction and relate it to our historical situation. As the novel is relevant to the state of America and the Western world in many ways, I might have explored possible parallels between the stark, fictional circumstances of the narrative and our actual predicament, but I used the occasion primarily to set forth a philosophical argument. I concentrated on a philosophical problem that has long occupied me and that the novel raises in acute form. The topic is relevant to any historical circumstances, but trends in today's American society seem to me to give it urgency.

The subject is as large as it is difficult: the meaning or form of morality, particularly as it relates to politics. My concern is with what I consider a dubious tendency in Western moral philosophy since the ancient Greeks. That tendency seems to me detrimental to morality's ability to find its way in actual circumstances, especially in highly charged and hard-to-understand situations. What is questionable is the habit of defining morality as adherence to a preexisting rational or ideal standard. The problem is not with the assumption that human beings must respect a moral imperative over which, in a crucial sense, they have no control. Morality does have a universal dimension and its own morally binding authority. The problem is with a particular, abstract, reifying conception of that authority Under this conception, moral actors are to apply supposedly universal "principles" or standards to specific moral choices. But so removed and different from the specific and changeable and often confusing and stressful situations of real life are these supposedly unchanging, dispassionate moral norms that they are hard to apply. In practice, they are usually ignored or become an obstacle to good conduct. Politics as ordinarily understood is but one area of life in which situations are often so complex, unstable, and tense that they threaten simply to overwhelm abstract or ideal moral notions and trigger rash, desperate action. I contend that what makes a decision moral or immoral is different from what is assumed in moral theories of the mentioned type. Morality demands respect for a universal moral authority, but morality is misconceived as conformity to ready-made norms or models.

Why a Novel?

The argument to follow will not assume familiarity with A Desperate Man, but in order to explain the argument's connection to the novel I will briefly discuss the impetus behind the novel and give a description of its contents without depriving potential new readers of suspense by giving away too much of the plot.

A prominent aspect of the story is the moral perturbations and anguish of the central character and the morally challenging circumstances of several others. These people face nerve-racking, highly complex choices for which their experience and moral inclinations have not prepared them and that are ill-served by allegedly fixed preexisting rational or ideal norms. The desperation that the novel describes is attributable to the fictional perilous state of America, but also to a wrenching disorientation. The situation of the main protagonist illustrates concretely the kind of problem that a dubious notion of morality will accentuate.

Why would a person like me who has spent his career on issues of philosophy want to write a novel in the first place? Other than that the novel badly wanted to be written, my reasons for starting and finishing it are not entirely clear, not even in hindsight. For long periods I could not work on it at all, but it kept pulling me back. Whatever other need it satisfied, I think it helped me articulate what is happening in America and Western society and what kind of developments might ensue. Specifically, working on the novel let me explore in experiential terms an issue of deep and growing concern to me, the predicament of civilized persons who are caught in historical circumstances that seem to conspire against everything they value. What I wanted to say seems to have required the form of fiction.

Those who know something of my scholarly writing are familiar with the epistemological theme that the imagination and the arts are ultimately more influential and more fundamental in human consciousness than the conceptual, reasoning mind. But I did not start writing a novel because of impatience with the limits of philosophy and political theory. I was not moved by the thought that appealing primarily to the imagination, as in a novel, would improve my chances of persuading others. I certainly did not intend to produce a manifesto in the form of a novel, following the path of an Ayn Rand. I did not envision the characters of my novel as spokesmen for ideas. Besides, I can confirm what other novelists have reported: that the characters in a work of fiction tend to acquire a life of their own. Nevertheless, I undoubtedly wrote this story about decent human beings in a declining, increasingly perverse society in order to say something about life. It must have been a desire to express that something in the most tangible, concrete way that made me choose fiction.

I knew from the start that the narrative would feature an essentially admirable but flawed male protagonist, a person of some prominence and privilege who lives with his family in Washington, D.C. As I wrote, I discovered that this man, Richard Bittenberg, had deep family roots in Charleston, South Carolina. He is a professor of history at National University. He is profoundly troubled by what he thinks is his country's precipitous decline. Richard loves America and feels morally obligated to help change its course. But how? He is pained by his inability to make a difference. Beginning to despair because of his powerlessness, he seizes an opportunity to act that he could never have foreseen. He is thrown into events for which his earlier life has not prepared him. A man of conscience, he has difficulty finding his way in new, intensely stressful, and increasingly harrowing circumstances. He conceals from his wife, Helen, that his life has taken a sharp turn. She can tell that he is under great pressure, but she is used to his making too many professional commitments and attributes his preoccupied demeanor to a particularly bad case of overwork. Helen is highly intelligent, strong-willed, and a good wife and mother. She does not really disagree with her husband about the state of America, but she will not let worries about her country weigh her down. She tries to shield their two children from Richard's sadness and often acerbic comments about the signs of American decline. At the same time, she tries to make her husband relax his hectic pace.

The novel starts in Paris where the family is on a brief vacation to which Richard, the supposed workaholic, has miraculously agreed, though at the last moment. The milieus of the novel are Washington, D.C., first of all, but also Paris and environs, and Charleston. Among the other notable characters are a group of alienated Washington insiders, a South Carolina congressman who is also Richard's best friend, two Paris detectives, a senior American diplomat at the American embassy in Paris, and a French nobleman. Before telling the story of Richard's new life, protracted ordeal, and crisis, the novel describes his early life and family background, which help explain his love for America and his willingness to endure great pressure and danger to defend it. Helen has to face a nightmare of her own.

The novel might be classified as a political thriller and a "mystery," but is, at bottom, a moral and psychological drama in which the chief protagonist is driven to desperation. In the novel, destructive trends familiar to today's Americans have intensified and done more damage to the country's fabric. America seems to Richard to be in a precarious state. He is initially despondent, at his wit's end trying to figure out what he should be doing to help save the situation. The novel shows how his personality and frame of mind influence his conduct. He and other key characters see themselves as acting in catastrophic circumstances.

I believe that I wanted to give vivid experiential expression to certain central problems of our time and to disconcerting potentialities inhering in them. I was drawn to the moral challenge that this hypothetical historical situation would present. Despite its dystopian aspects, the America of the novel is sufficiently close to current conditions that readers should have little difficulty relating to it. As if by design, but without obvious premeditation on my part, the events of the novel bring the previously mentioned issue of morality to the fore.

A Dubious Moralism

It is time to turn to philosophical analysis of the questionable tendency in traditional Western thought and sensibility. Whether predominantly classical or Christian, the rationalistic or idealistic strain of moral speculation seems to me to be philosophically defective and to stand in the way of dealing at once morally and effectively with concrete situations, notably with the darker potentialities of life, including those of politics. One of the reasons why I have been so concerned to demonstrate this weakness is probably an intuition that current trends in the Western world may be unleashing such darker potentialities on a large scale. There are reasons to fear that morality, if it will have anything at all to do with handling the burgeoning crisis, will be, because of the mentioned philosophical and practical...

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