Meaning and morality

Suppose that meaning suddenly drained out of life — your life, everyone’s life, the whole of human existence.  Nothing mattered:  nothing to live for, nothing to die for, nothing to incline one’s behavior in one particular direction rather than another.  What would be the consequences?

In these circumstances, morality would make no sense.  Morality is the search for the good life by an individual within a community.  It invariably entails deferring some desires, and sacrificing others — sometimes, life itself.  But if neither the individual nor the community held any meaning, if no pursuit appeared more important than another, what would be the point?

Freedom and equality could reasonably be traded for gain.  Why not?  If Bill Gates offers me a million bucks to lie for him, or vote for him, or even bow down before Windows as the salvation of the human race, what internal principle will prevent me from accepting?  If exploiting race prejudice will get me my heart’s desire, what higher law stands in the way?

And what about paying taxes?  In a world where nothing matters, the ideal situation would be for all citizens to pay their taxes dutifully — except for me.

In fact, if life were devoid of meaning no crime would be loathsome enough to merit condemnation.  What is lost in murder or even genocide, if the lives of individuals and of entire peoples are equally meaningless?  Where is the horror in child abuse or incest?  Why shouldn’t we, as Swift proposed, eat our own children for Sunday brunch?

The question is whether such a loss of meaning could ever occur in the real world.  We are biological animals:  our desires have been ordered by natural selection to prefer certain objects and states, and to detest others.  But we are also symbolic animals:  and every day we struggle to restructure our desires to bring them — and hence our behavior — into a pattern of life that is both coherent and meaningful.

We crave integrity.  The wish for it is as powerful a driver of human action as the urge  to reproduce.  When we fail — when, for example, we run away from a fight out of cowardice — we feel it keenly, and we accuse ourselves, something no other animal, I think, is likely to do.

To live without meaning is to suffer a pathological condition, one which resembles clinical depression.  No community will tolerate this condition for long:  the pain is too great.  If our way of life won’t deliver a sense of worth and dignity — of playing an important part in the drama of the world — alternatives will be found.

I find it exceedingly curious, consequently, to observe in the European chattering classes a kind of fanaticism, even a missionary zeal, for meaninglessness.

In part this is manifested in a harsh intolerance of religion, which traditionally has provided the symbols of shared meaning for the community.  Richard Dawkins, a brilliant writer and theorist of science, has become a bore on the subject.  He describes religions as “mind viruses,” and takes pains to let the reader know the “contemptuous and hostile” character of the phrase.  With remarkable smugness and zero detectable anguish, Dawkins embraces a meaningless environment:  “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, but blind pitiless indifference.”

Grant the amoral indifference of the universe.  Grant the overthrow of religion.  How, then, must we behave?  What morality should replace our current, religion-based way of life?  The ancient Greeks, who drew logical conclusions far more crisply than Dawkins has, believed that if nature was pitiless, then rule by the strong was the natural law.  Is that what should replace Christianity?

Not surprisingly, the answers tend to be muddled, along the order of, “Stand by.  Let us think about that.”  Dawkins himself proposes as the replacement for religion a vague set of “liberal ethics,” a watered-down version of Christian morality that, torn from divinity and tradition, seems little more than an act of intellectual levitation.

Ultimately the answer comes back:  “Whatever.  Nothing matters.”

Some European writers embrace meaninglessness directly, and with passion.  I recently posted on a so-called philosopher called Baggini, whose pontifications on The Simpsons included this bizarre judgment:  “To speak truthfully and insightfully today you must have a sense of the absurdity of human life and endeavour.  Past attempts to construct grand and noble theories about human history and destiny have collapsed.”  Doomsday, he seems to be saying, has already come, and we were all found wanting.

Similarly, Brendan Gill, writing in spiked online (link through spiked homesite), reveals the “truth” about the 7/7 terrorist bombing of London:  “it was meaningless.”  “It is time to stop reading meaning into 7/7,” Gill demands, “and get over it.”  The bombers were inscrutably disaffected youths, like the teen killers at Columbine.  They acted for no discernible reason.  The mother of Theo Van Gogh, murdered by another Islamic terrorist, is quoted as decrying the fact that her son’s assassin was really just a “loser” and an “incoherent person.”

“And yet,” Gill complains, “people still try to project meaning on to 7/7.”  The bombers, one would suspect, surely projected meaning on their actions.  Gill labels them nihilists, but a nihilist is someone who believes in nothing, whereas the 7/7 terrorists acted on behalf of harsh and dogmatic principles, nursed by violence, and shared with many others around the world.  They killed and died in a grab at ultimate meaning, and so may be considered viciously anti-nihilistic, embodying a radical solution to the problem posed by the belief that nothing matters.

In that respect, the perpetrators of 7/7 are no different from the anarchists, syndicalists, fascists, Nazis, and communists before them.  They filled with violence the void left by the keepers of their culture.

But what would persuade the keepers of a culture as rich as Europe’s to embrace the “absurdity of human life and endeavour”?  Christianity, Claire Berlinski recalls, was once the great unifying source of meaning for the continent.  When religion fell out of favor with the intellectuals, nationalism and socialism became serviceable replacement faiths.

But nationalism led to the catastrophe of the world wars, and is anathema today, and socialism — Baggini’s “grand and noble” theory — did indeed collapse, with the Soviet Union, in 1991.  So Christianity has been rejected, but the substitute religions, Berlinski rightly observes, have failed.  Nothing remains but a colossal wreck.

Loss of meaning is an affliction of defeated peoples.  After the destruction of the first temple and the exile to Babylon, the shaken Israelites reconstituted their image of God, from a leader of armies and bringer of victories to a source of compassion and righteousness.  Others have suffered disasters that wholly cut them off from their own past.  I remember reading about an aboriginal people in Australia who claimed they had forgotten how to paint the ancient symbols on the desert rocks.  The latter were quite simple to reproduce; what the speakers meant was that they had lost the meaning.

The Europeans appear prosperous and free, but they are a defeated people.  A century ago, Europe was the only part of the world that mattered, in terms of wealth, power, knowledge, technology, art, and music.  Today nothing coming out of Europe matters, even to the Europeans.  That disaster, all of it of their own making, has shattered their faith in their old gods, and left them loathing their past glories.

The results are plain to see:  a lack of interest in God or religion, work, country, marriage, and reproduction.  They have forgotten right behavior in the most fundamental aspects of survival.  They have lost the meaning of who they are, and the void has opened up beneath their feet.

The wonder is that they call for the rest of the world to join them, and seem surprised when we beg off.  The postwar existentialists, contemplating the void, called the experience “anguish.”  The current crop of Europeans is too jaded and superficial to understand their own predicament.  They think time will stand still for them, in the golden glow of their decline.  They will soon learn otherwise.  No one can foretell what will follow their present state of moral confusion, but we know enough about human nature to see that a great transformation is in store.


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