That Elusive Mark By Which To Distinguish Good People From Bad

In Journey to the End of the NightCéline‘s central character, Ferdinand Bardamu is confronted with uncontrovertible evidence of moral goodness in Sergeant Alcide–who is nobly working away in a remote colonial outpost to financially support a niece who is little more than a perfect stranger to him. That night, as Bardamu gazes at the sleeping Alcide, now once again, in inactivity, utterly unremarkable and undistinguishable from others who serve like him, he thinks to himself:

There ought to be some mark by which to distinguish good people from bad.

There isn’t, of course. But that hasn’t stopped mankind from continuing to hold on to this forlorn hope in the face of the stubborn difficulty of making moral judgements and evaluations about our fellow humans. Sometimes we seek to evaluate fellow humans on the basis of simple tests of conformance to a pre-established, clearly specified, moral code or decision procedure; sometimes we drop all pretence of sophisticated ethical analysis and take refuge in literal external marks.

These external marks and identifiers have varied through and across space and time and cultures. Sometimes shadings of skin pigmentations have been established as the distinguishing marker of goodness; sometimes it is the shape of the skull that has been taken to be the desired marker; sometimes national or ethnic origin; sometimes religious affiliation. (If that religious affiliation is visible by means of an external marker–like a turban for instance–then so much the better. West Pakistani troops conducting genocide in East Pakistan in 1971 were fond of asking Bengali civilians to drop their pants and expose their genitals;¹ the uncircumcised ones were led off to be shot; their bodies had revealed them to be of the wrong religion, and that was all that mattered as the West Pakistani Army sought to cleanse East Pakistan of those subversive elements that threatened the Pakistani polity.)

Confronted with this history of failure to find the distinguishing external mark of goodness, perhaps emblazoned on our foreheads by the cosmic branding authority, hope has turned elsewhere, inwards. Perhaps the distinguishing mark is not placed outside on our bodies but will be found inside us–in some innard or other. Perhaps there is ‘bad blood’ in some among us, or even worse, some might have ‘bad brains.’ Unsurprisingly, we have turned to neuroscience to help us with moral decisions: here is a brain state found in mass murderers and criminals; innocents do not seem to have it; our penal and moral decisions have received invaluable assistance. But as a growing litany of problems with neuroscientific inference suggest, these identifications of brain states and their correlations with particular behavior and the explanations that result rest on shaky foundations.

In the face of this determination to seek simple markers for moral judgement my ‘There isn’t, of course’ seems rather glib; it fails to acknowledge the endless frustration and difficulty of decision-making in the moral domain–and the temptation to seek refuge in the clearly visible.

Note: R. J Rummel, Death by Government, page 323

Zoë Heller on the ‘Shocking’ Role of ‘Aesthetic Grounds’ in Moral Judgments:

I quite enjoyed reading Zoë Heller‘s review of Janet Malcolm‘s Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers but I’m not inclined to join her in all the hosannas she sends Malcolm’s way. Consider for instance, the assessment she makes of a judgement offered by Malcolm:

In the absence of moral certainty, Malcolm suggests, our sympathies are assigned on what are essentially aesthetic grounds—on the basis of who has the more attractive language, or the more engaging style. This is a rather shocking proposition and it is meant to be.

I am perplexed by why Heller finds this such a ‘shocking proposition.’ Even if no one has ever expressed the sentiments underlying this claim using precisely the same sequence and composition of words that Malcolm has,  it is underwritten by a host of observations about our sensibilities and judgments that almost tend to the commonplace.

For instance, the distinction between the formal structure of an argument and its rhetorical content, which goes back to Aristotle, has long made it clear humans are persuaded by much more than logic – no matter what the subject matter. This is why the trivium of old consisted of the study of grammar, logic and rhetoric. If not, the study of the first two might have been all that was required.

Or consider that in science, when empirically equivalent theories are candidates for adoption, the choice between them might be made on the basis of an assessment of their simplicity. (‘In the absence of empirical certainty, our theoretical sympathies are assigned on essentially aesthetic grounds, on the basis of which theory is phrased in the more readily comprehensible language,  presented in the more engaging style or makes fewer claims upon our pre-theoretic credulity.’)

For yet another example, note that we prefer the company of, and extend our moral sympathies more readily to, those creatures that remind us the most strongly of ourselves. (‘Lacking certainty over which creatures have inner mental and emotional lives like ours, we are more likely to extend kindness to those that more closely externally resemble us than others.’)

For a mind conditioned by these sorts of reminders that the formal, the empirical, and the moral by themselves do not give us conclusive reasons to pick one option over another, Malcolm’s claim that aesthetic sentiments color our moral judgments will not come as much of a surprise. Indeed, the history of literature, and the complexity of the moral judgments recounted therein should also have primed us to not be taken unawares by such a notion.

Most fundamentally, Heller assumes that moral certainty is more common than it is. But more often than not, we are confronted with moral perplexity; we seek guidance in religion, in popular nostrums and bromides, in teachers, ‘role models’ and punchy slogans. In short, we attempt to solve the problems of moral judgment with a grab-bag of shortcuts, tricks, and satisficing solutions.  The aesthetic dimension of a particular choice cannot but have a prominent role in our final selection.

Malcolm’s keen eye has merely pointed out the existence of such a desideratum in a very particular situation.