About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
There are two sorts of people in this world: those who draw arbitrary distinctions and those who don’t (1). Through thirty years of geek living, I’ve come to see the world through one particular bipolar lens. My view is that the arbitrary distinction most worth drawing is the one between Supermen and Batmen (2).
Those in the Superman camp tend to hold an optimistic view of human nature (Nietzsche notwithstanding). They believe that we’re all fundamentally kind and helpful, and always open to self-improvement. Despite the character’s alien background, Superman stands as this camp’s role model because Superman is a moral saint: he exemplifies all the best traits that a human can have, even if no human can ever hope to have them all.
By contrast, the Batman camp is pessimistic about humanity. Those in this camp tend to believe (to quote one of my favorite sitcoms) that people are “bastard-coated bastards with bastard filling,” and that it’s only through a great deal of discipline and training that our intrinsic fear, loathing, and selfishness can be overcome. These pessimists see Batman as their role model specifically because he’s a moral human rather than a moral saint: the character has shortcomings, but so too do we all. His is an attainable standard.
I would discourage you, dear reader, from turning to Hollywood for any sort of moral guidance; still, one need only to look at box-office receipts to see which camp has more followers. I’ve even heard apparently cogent arguments as to why this is appropriate. “Superman is too perfect,” say many of my fellow geeks. “Nobody’s perfect; nobody can relate to Superman.”
It’s true: there are no moral saints and it’s doubtful that there ever could be. It’s true: we owe our imperfection to deep-seated drives that must be overcome through willpower and discipline (if at all). But my allegiance on this matter should be clear (see attached photo), and I’d be a poor philosopher (or perhaps a good political commentator) if I didn’t make some attempt to justify that allegiance (3).
The relevant question here is one about the importance of role models. Certainly, not every moral theory recognizes any need for particular exemplary people. Deontological ethics demands only that people follow moral rules determined a priori; in principle, even the proverbial stepchild of wild wolves ought to be able to figure those rules out. Consequentialist ethics can also dispense with exemplars: when the only standard for moral right is the increase of utility, actors matter less than actions. Existentialist theories place greater value on the actor, but that actor is meant to determine moral right for herself; following another person’s example would only undermine whatever rational struggle the existentialist has undergone. In virtue ethics, however, the role model takes on unmatched importance.
In my own dealings with virtue ethics, I find it helpful to bear in mind the work of biological taxonomy. After all, the moral theory is most clearly associated with Aristotle (4), and Plato’s star pupil is often (inappropriately) blamed for what many evolutionary biologists see as an archaic practice (5). In classifying organisms into species, taxonomists first identify a type specimen which is meant to serve as a sort of standard against which other organisms are measured; those deemed sufficiently similar to the type specimen are then considered members of the same species. Virtue ethics defines virtues relative to types. This is why the virtue ethicist’s choice of role model is so vitally important. According to the theory, a person is judged as good or bad by their similarity to or dissimilarity from a standard role model.
The question at hand, then, is whether Superman or Batman — the moral saint or the moral human — serves as the better moral type specimen. Nobody’s perfect, so it can’t be the moral saint, or else none of us will ever measure up. Batman it is! Atomic batteries to power; turbines to speed!
Before we go and start practicing our best emphysema-addled voices, however, let’s pause to take stock of what it means to say that “nobody’s perfect.” We all accept it as a truism. But is it an explanation or an excuse?
In everyday discourse, we tend to see the difference between explanations and excuses as purely semantic. If I’m late for an appointment, for example, and say that the reason for my being late was a badly delayed train, your inclination to accept that reason as an explanation or to accuse me of using it as an excuse will depend largely on how charitable you are. Still: the difference is there. Appropriately enough, it has to do with moral content.
Strictly speaking, explanations are devoid of any moral content. If I offer the delayed train as an explanation of my being late, then I’m not asking for any judgment one way or another. I’m merely detailing the cause of my lateness, and any moral content — praise or (more likely) blame — is added by others (you might say, for example, that I should have left earlier and deserve blame for that, and my explanation doesn’t militate against that). But if I offer the delayed train as an excuse of my being late, then I am asking for judgment of a sort. I am saying, in effect, that the delayed train is the cause of my being late, and that because of this fact I should be absolved from moral responsibility for the result.
The bottom line: excuses pardon actors from responsibility; explanations do not.
Meanwhile, back in Gotham City...
If we accept Batman as an appropriate role model — that is, as a standard of virtue — then the fact that no human is actually a moral saint excuses us all from trying to attain that higher standard of moral perfection. Since the purpose of a role model is to set a standard against which we judge ourselves, an imperfect role model (such as Batman) make imperfection exemplary. If I occasionally have lapses of judgment, or sometimes act selfishly, then that’s okay; in fact, since I ought to imitate Batman — who has similar lapses himself — then I’d be doing something wrong if I wasn’t imperfect to some degree (i.e., the degree to which Batman is imperfect). Using Batman as a role model therefore treats “nobody’s perfect” as an excuse: I failed to be a moral saint, but our moral standard isn’t a moral saint, so I shouldn’t bear any responsibility for my shortcoming.
Maybe this sounds hopelessly confusing. If it does, that would be because it is. (Go figure.)
The argument that Superman isn’t a good role model because he’s too perfect is very simply self-contradictory in the only moral context wherein role models mean anything. In virtue theory, the role model sets a standard that should be imitated by all other members of the same kind. That would mean that any role model is by definition a moral saint: the role model sets the standard for morality. Virtue theoretical role models are for all practical purposes perfect.
Batman is certainly a more tempting role model because his is an attainable standard, and many of our sins would be forgiven if the bar for moral perfection were lowered to a more human level. Everyone can be a saint when saints are made human (6).
But there’s something to be said for a standard of moral perfection sufficiently high that reaching it is a practical impossibility. After all, what’s left to do once one attains moral perfection? Does she hang up her tights, lock up the Batmobile, and call it a day? That seems anti-climactic (7).
Indeed, one of the primary points that Aristotle makes in his exposition of virtue ethics is that the quest for truth and justice is a never-ending one. As he wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics: attainment of moral perfection requires “a complete life. For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one fine day; and so too one day, or any short period of time, does not make a man blessed and happy.” The good life is incomplete as long as it’s being lived.
At no point in our lives should we ever stop trying to be better people. That nobody is perfect should therefore only ever be an explanation, and never an excuse: I’m not a moral saint for such-and-such a reason, I may deserve some level of blame for falling short, and so I’ll pick myself up and try again. This is what the adoption of Superman as a role represents: a moral standard to pursue throughout one’s life, with the hope that one has come as close as one can despite the knowledge that one will never quite get there.
Look: I don’t want to denigrate the Batmen of my arbitrary dichotomy too much; after all, there are worse choices for a role model (see note 7). But, like Kant, I am continually filled with wonder by the starry heavens above and the moral law within, and to be a Superman is to bring the one closer to the other.
(1) Apologies to Parmenides, who was either trivially right or empirically wrong (the worst kind of wrong!), but fun to read in either event.
(2) Words are ephemeral, weightless; it’s due to that fact alone that our shared information network hasn’t collapsed under the weight of the commentary that followed the shooting in Aurora (and, to a disgracefully lesser extent, the one in Milwaukee). In light of the cultural context in which the Aurora shooting took place it may be tempting to read this essay as an attempt to pile on. I did originally intend to publish this essay in coincidence with the release of “The Dark Knight Rises,” but decided to delay after the tragedy. This essay is meant to be my final word on a debate that I’ve been having with fellow comic book enthusiasts for decades now; there’s nothing I can say about the recent spate of mass shootings that hasn’t already been said by thinkers more and less competent than myself.
(3) I recognize that there are those among you who have no truck with discussions of moral obligation or any ethics broader than cultural etiquette. There are others among you who think that all philosophical questions were settled by Sam Harris when he conveniently skipped the past three centuries of philosophical progress. To those of you in both camps, I say: thanks for reading this far, and no hard feelings, but your blood pressure would benefit immensely if we parted ways here, and I’d certainly recommend reading that last link.
(4) Apologies to modern virtue ethicists such as Philippa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Martha Nussbaum, but it’s not as if any of them would deny that they’re carrying Aristotle’s torch.
(5) Sources that fancy themselves more enlightened will forgive Aristotle his purported sins against theoretical progress and blame Carl von Linné (aka Carolus Linnaeus) instead for what is known as typological essentialism. Those sources are wrong. Taxonomy’s intrinsic type-essentialism is most directly due to the influence of Hugh Edwin Strickland, a staunch typological creationist whose rules of biological nomenclature were adopted by the British Science Association in 1842.
(6) I was raised Catholic, so I know how that line would seem nonsensical to someone who believes in saints, but let’s not go there today.
(7) It also seems to be Spider-man’s solution to every single problem. I’m not a fan.