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Ethics, Evil, and Fiction.

COLIN MCGINN. Pp. x+186. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. [pounds] 19.99.

Ethics Evil and Fiction is about moral judgements, the relation of ethics to aesthetics, beautiful souls and monstrous bodies, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is a pleasingly fearless book. One begins to write, 'Colin McGinn is an ethical objectivist and proud of it', but that is inaccurate; pride does not enter the picture. McGinn is objectivist for the objectivist's reason: he thinks objectivism is true. Certain actions are not wicked because we collectively condemn them; rather, we collectively condemn them because they are wrong in themselves. Hume fatuously pointed out in the Treatise that it is an error to suppose that an ethical conclusion can be derived from non-ethical premisses: you can't get an 'ought' out of an 'is'. It may be said, 'But we do this all the time; "Cigarettes cause cancer; therefore cigarettes ought to be banned"'. Hume would gently observe that the conclusion does not follow logically unless we build in as one of the premisses, 'Cancer ought to be avoided'. The fact that this is an automatic assumption for most people does not mean that it plays no part in the sequence. This Humean insight was developed by G. E. Moore in our own century as the doctrine of 'the Naturalistic Fallacy'. It is not that ethical language is supernaturalist as religious or mystical language is supernaturalist, transcending this world; rather, it is 'non-natural', in that it systematically resists or eludes reduction to 'naturalist' explication, in ordinary descriptive terms. At the same time, however, goodness is a real characteristic of certain things, a 'nonnatural' property. McGinn describes Moore's analysis as 'incontrovertible and absolutely essential to a sound theory of moral value'.

It is a philosophy which works by ascribing primary authority to the internal logic of ethical statements. To respect this logic is deemed to be more important than explaining why such statements are made. When McGinn writes, 'I judge of pleasure that it is good, but that is not to say that "good" means "pleasant"', one is immediately reminded of Moore in Principia Ethica: 'Whoever will attentively consider with himself what is actually before his mind when he asks the question, "Is pleasure . . . after all good?" can easily satisfy himself that he is not merely wondering whether pleasure is pleasant.' For McGinn, Moore's analysis refutes in advance the ethical psychologism of A. J. Ayer and Gilbert Harman, that is, the view that 'This is good' simply expresses a sentiment of approval in the subject and says nothing about the object. Can we be sure of this advance refutation? A. J. Ayer, in a phrase which McGinn himself calls 'admirably forthright', described goodness as 'a pseudo-property', which is as much as to say, 'I grant that you people think you are referring to something in the object - but you are deluded'. Here the authority ascribed by Moore and McGinn to the inner logic of ethical statements is deliberately withdrawn. The difference between 'pleasure is pleasant' and 'pleasure is good' is now merely the difference between a straight description and one clouded by conceptual confusion. In other words it remains open to the psychologizer to argue that the whole field of ethical discourse is an epiphenomenon upon natural discourse.

It is a possible conclusion, but to many it will appear upon reflection to be a desperate one. This is a suicidal ethics, which proceeds swiftly to the elimination of the ethical. McGinn, who is a moralist, quite properly finds it morally appalling. But, it may be said, the appalling account could still be the true account. It becomes a question of the location of the burden of proof. Normally the person who says the unusual thing is the person expected to supply proof. Here without doubt the reductive psychologizers are saying something contrary to the assumptions of ordinary language, in which seriously offered moral judgements are pervasive. It rapidly becomes clear that, while the reductive philosophy may be possible, it is not the only view possible; nothing forces us to reject ethical objectivism. Indeed it would seem curiously unthrifty to throw away such wealth.

Moreover, as McGinn shrewdly brings out, those who privilege the emotion as alone really fail to understand that very emotion, as long as they refuse to take seriously the fact that an attribution of value to something other than itself is essential to its nature; as McGinn says, it is a 'feeling that something is good'. This alters, as it were, the colour of the emotion: the emotion of approval differs from the emotion of liking, qua emotion. The obstinate priority of the ethical asserts itself even here. No doubt the psychologizer could repeat his/her analysis and ascribe the 'difference of colour' to the presence of an element of delusion in the sentiment of approval, but the whole exercise begins to look less briskly sensible than it did, more strained. We know that murder is wrong more certainly, McGinn says, than we know the 'truths' of physics.

What then of cultural variation in morals? McGinn is unworried: 'Humans enjoy a spontaneous, natural knowledge of ethical truth.' The variations, he suggests, are superficial; the 'deep structures' (analogous to the 'deep structures' of Chomskian linguistic theory) are constant. I have argued for this myself for years, even using the phrase 'deep structures' in conscious allusion to Chomsky, so I must begin by declaring strong sympathy with what will appear to many readers to be an eccentric position. I write subject to correction from anthropologists of course, but it looks as if it is very difficult indeed to find a society which morally approves of the gratuitous torture of children, say. Yet McGinn is too confident. He breezily includes theft in his list of fundamentally wrong actions. Even Thomas More, saint and martyr of the early sixteenth century, could argue in Utopia that theft is not necessarily wrong: in a distorted, unjust economy (such as that of England) the weaker sort of pauper will beg but the spirited man will steal. The wickedness of theft is not absolute but is dependent, apparently, upon context.

At the same time McGinn seems imperfectly aware of a possible implication of his parallel between linguistic and ethical knowledge. He suggests that we know that stealing is wrong as we know that 'we was' is ungrammatical. The reader senses a shift from knowledge to competence, from the model of the mind confronted by something other than itself (essential to objectivism) to a kind of skill in operating a complex instrument. It may be true that our knowledge that a certain form of words is ungrammatical is more secure than our knowledge of the second law of thermodynamics (since the history of physics is the history of falsified theories - remember phlogiston), but this very security can begin to appear strangely hollow. We are sure only because we made the linguistic system. George Watson argues powerfully in The Certainty of Literature (1989) that literary judgements (for example, 'Shakespeare is better than Barbara Cartland') are more certain than the propositions of science. He and McGinn are obvious allies. Watson happily cites Wittgenstein: 'It has no meaning to say that a game has always been played wrong.' The word 'game', the sceptic might say, betrays much; the strength of such knowledge is exposed at last as the vacuous strength of a tautology; we merely discover an internal accord with rules we have ourselves devised.

Two courses are open to the objectivist. One is to affirm robustly that, since 'good' is not a mere social fiction produced by the conventional agreement of an entire society, it follows that, conceivably, whole societies could advance erroneous ethical propositions. This would mean that if we did find a society which approved of the torture of children we could simply say that that society was wrong ethically. The other course is to continue to place reliance on 'folk wisdom', to urge that the objectivist position is properly corroborated by widespread agreement on fundamentals. McGinn says at one point that pleasure is one of the fundamental goods. There have certainly been long periods in history when this would have seemed far from obvious (periods of intense religious asceticism, for example). McGinn, whose knowledge of the past seems to be neither vivid nor detailed, says nothing of such times, but he does consider the 'Victorian kill-joy' moralist. Here he takes the first course: such people, he explains, were ethically wrong, exalted by 'erroneous standards' only. Whole societies, then, can be wrong. But could all humanity be wrong? Much weight is placed by McGinn on the fact that there is no logical contradiction in saying 'everyone thinks x is good, but x is not in fact good'. This shows indeed that the logic of 'good' in ordinary usage is objectivist; there is a built-in presumption that the meaning of the term is not constituted by conventional agreement. But the sternest objectivist grows pale at the suggestion that everyone may always have been wrong (gratuitous torture, say, may really have been good all the time). It is not just that the postulated error of humanity is so colossal; it is the sense, which comes flooding back, that this makes nonsense of morality. As soon as we admit this sense we are giving respectability to the idea that the force and content of the term 'good' is after all ultimately determined by agreement, switching back, as it were, from correspondence theory to coherence theory. Perhaps, however, these propositions are misleadingly extreme. Common sense can still say that it is reasonable to assume (since one must assume something) that what most people think is true is true - and not just because they think it.

Predictably, McGinn is strong on the priority of morals over aesthetics. But he also thinks that good people have beautiful souls. Our moral vocabulary is full of aesthetic and quasi-aesthetic terms ('vile', 'fine', 'splendid', 'gross', etc.). The lesson of this for McGinn is that goodness really is beautiful and vice is ugly. He pauses briefly to consider whether every positive aesthetic characteristic of the soul will be virtuous, and decides that for practical purposes one can assume that they all are. It is a brave position, but again it is too confident. What exactly is covered by 'soul'? Does it include all mental operations? One could surely imagine a person of 'magnificent' (aesthetic term) mathematical abilities wholly destitute of moral warmth. McGinn innocently observes that while the devil may be shown with a handsome face he is never shown with a fine soul. He appears never to have heard of Blake's and Shelley's response to Paradise Lost, to know nothing of those countless readers who were thrilled both morally and aesthetically by the words of Milton's Satan: 'Courage never to submit or yield' or 'For who would lose, | Though full of pain, this intellectual being, | Those thoughts that wander through eternity'. McGinn is as confident about the unconditional ugliness of violence as he was about the unconditional wickedness of theft. Blake (again) and Nietzsche seem not to have crossed his mind.

Because McGinn believes the good soul to be beautiful, it is a mild conceptual shock to him, as it clearly was to people in the late sixteenth century, to encounter a wicked spirit in a beautiful body. This receptiveness to primitive mythic elements makes him an admirably responsive reader of The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which, by a Faustian pact, the pictured face grows old, reflecting the hideousness of Dorian's moral life, while Dorian remains externally beautiful. Wilde's book, as read by McGinn, provides exactly what he requires: first the notion of the ugliness of vice but then, because of the manner in which the immoralist-aesthetic views of Lord Henry are exposed, clear rejection of any idea of the aesthetic overriding the ethical. The reader may ask, 'Does he not know who Oscar Wilde is - the prophet of aestheticism?' This time, however, McGinn knows very well what he is about. He understands the common view of Wilde as aesthete and continues to insist (as Richard Ellmann did) that The Picture of Dorian Gray is an austerely moral fable.

McGinn offers a fascinating analysis of the climax of the story, in which we are told first that Dorian 'stabbed the picture' and then that, when the servants ran in, they found an undamaged picture and a dead man. Here McGinn poses a question which some will find coarsely misconceived: 'What actually happened?' Did God or the devil reconstitute the slashed picture and then redirect the knife to Dorian's heart? No, says McGinn, we can take everything literally once we understand the full mythic transposition entailed by the fable. Dorian simply stabbed himself. 'He . . . stabbed the picture' is true because by this stage Dorian is the picture - the false semblance - and the painting, with its ghastly visage, is the reality. This is in a way a demystifying reading - no God, no devil, no magic reconstitution - but of course McGinn cannot get rid of the fact that the servants find not the body of the handsome master they knew but a hideous old man, not the portrait of evil but one showing a beautiful youth. This transposition happens at the level of event and is of course magical.

Meanwhile what are we to think of Lord Henry? He is, says McGinn, simultaneously over-aesthetic and not aesthetic enough. He commits the sin of believing that the aesthetic can properly usurp the place of the moral and at the same time wholly fails to see that, to those who really understand the aesthetic in its full richness, there is a moral component in beauty itself. Thus the entire argument in which the psychologizing reductionist was shown not to understand the very emotion he was so eager to privilege is in a manner mirrored here. McGinn's reading is profound. He sees how the fable in which, by a monstrous conceit, a work of art takes on the moral qualities of a human being exactly echoes the sterile philosophy of Lord Henry, in which the aesthetic merely appropriates the ethical.

On Frankenstein McGinn has good things to say about the monster as simultaneously Other and Ourselves, and on the body as mere meat or matter variously rearranged, but there is a loss of critical impetus. He might have thought further about the fact that Frankenstein (the story of a scientist subjected to a gnostic temptation) is as much a Faustian myth as is The Picture of Dorian Gray. Had McGinn concentrated more on Victor he might have found his way to a richer development of his original thesis. The song of the Sirens to Odysseus was beautiful, but the temptation it offered was, like that offered in Eden by Satan, intellectual: he who listens to the song will go on his way 'knowing more things'. If there is an aesthetics of the soul then idolatry, perhaps, is not confined to the sensuous world; there may be an idolatry of the central impulse of the soul, the hunger for knowledge itself. When this appetite is fetishized it becomes a parody of itself, an arrogant construct is substituted for humble understanding, an artificial monster for a son, a diagram of a man for a human being. But then this diagram after all takes on life, can accuse his maker. These are, to so speak, McGinnian thoughts, started by the discussion of Dorian Gray but never pursued by McGinn himself (of course he might repudiate each and every one of them).

This is a work of strong reasoning, vivid readerly response, and occasional ineptitude. McGinn writes with a simplicity which is often refreshing but occasionally scarcely defensible. In a post-structuralist world in which literary realism itself is commonly regarded as just one more convention, he can write: 'Literature deals supremely with human life as it is lived.' I fully agree with him but I tremble like a fond parent at the innocent absence of any prophylactic qualification or argument. He offers a preliminary division of mankind into 'E beings', who find pleasure in the pain of others, and 'G beings', who find pleasure in the pleasure of others. The question immediately arises, 'Do the G beings take pleasure in the sadistic pleasures of the E beings?' After all, these are real pleasures. A classical Utilitarian might answer, 'One simply applies the hedonic calculus; the pleasure felt by the torturer will appear on the plus side but it is likely that it will be far outweighed by the pain felt by the victim; similarly the G observer may properly welcome the joy of the torturer but will find that pleasure instantly erased by distress at the victim's pain.' When McGinn thinks of this difficulty he does not turn to the calculus; he simply excludes the situation by adding an extra ad hoc rule: there can be no virtue in knowing that the torturer is happy, no links must be allowed in the chain which interrupt the pain-pain and pleasure-pleasure principle. Bentham, who disliked the idea of privileging some pleasures as being more high-minded than others, would say, 'What is the rationale for such a rule?' McGinn himself, obliviously, writes a few pages later that it is always good to promote happiness, 'no matter whose it is'.

The lack of detailed grounding in history and literature shows in his discussion of the peculiarly gratuitous malice of Claggart in Billy Budd. He knows that Iago is an analogue but oddly pulls back on the ground that Iago is 'underdescribed'. We are given nothing on Shakespeare's amazing depiction of a person searching musingly for plausible external motives for his own conduct - although this exactly fits McGinn's thesis. Meanwhile, on the philosophical side, he says nothing about Butler's conception of disinterested malice (McGinn similarly says nothing, in the course of his discussion - or dismissal - of cultural variation, about the long debate on this subject between Locke and Shaftesbury). A knowledge of the poetry of ecstasy (Romeo and Juliet, Keats . . .) might have caused him to hesitate before affirming that, while pain can make a person wish to die, pleasure can never do this ('Now more than ever seems it rich to die . . .').

McGinn explains that he, a philosopher, was drawn into the world of the novel because of the richness of the ethical material: 'The novelist must constantly treat of moral questions, and take some position on them.' The first part of this sentence is true, but the second part, which betrays the philosopher's peremptory need for a thesis, is not true at all. The novelist, unlike the philosopher, does not have to declare his or her hand. For all that, it is invigorating to encounter a powerful mind which is willing to stoop to the vulgarity of a strong assertion. Where McGinn is right, he is fundamentally right; where he is wrong, he requires a fundamental answer. This is, indeed, a very moral book.

A.D. NUTTALL New College Oxford
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Nuttall, A.D.
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Words:3175
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