A Basin of Nice, Thin Gruel

I want to talk just a little more about this question of morality and motivation. The more I think about it the more of a wall it seems. A dead stop, an aporia, a permanent undecideable. A six of one half dozen of the other. Norm Geras put it very well:

I have read that in the Nazi camps, those who did best at maintaining their moral bearings, at not going to pieces in face of the horrors they daily had to experience, were people of very firm and definite convictions: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish rabbis, hardened communist militants. On the other hand, intellectuals, liberal and professional people, sometimes suffered a precipitous moral collapse…To have had to get used to conditions of life and death in places where there was no why would have been hard enough for anybody; but it may have been especially testing and cruel for those educated in the norms of a sceptical rationality. Would we want to say, though, that the religious or quasi-religious forms of certainty which have helped to save some people in such conditions are, on that account, to be given an unqualified pass as ethical motivators, when we know what else, what horrors, such certainties can themselves lead to?

That’s just it, you see. It’s precisely the qualities that enable people to maintain their moral bearings in an unspeakable situation, that also enable people to eliminate doubt, ambiguity, complexity, uncertainty, caution. That can be a good thing, even a splendid thing – but it can also be a bloody nightmare. Maybe overall, thin gruel is really a safer dish than stronger meats. Maybe all those lions with blood dripping from their jaws, all those dedicated impassioned righteous soldiers (one thinks of Opus Dei, and shudders slightly), are simply too dangerous, for all their courage and self-sacrifice. Especially since the things they believe in, the things that motivate them, are not testable or investigatable, not questionable or revisable. If they get it all wrong there is no one to tell them so; no one they’ll listen to anyway. Thin gruel is not an exciting dish, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t scald your insides, either.

33 Responses to “A Basin of Nice, Thin Gruel”