A Conversation About Morality
Scene: A classroom at Brooklyn College
Time: 4:00 p.m., May 24, 1989
Characters: An old man. Myself.
Note: This is fiction.
“As soon as a person becomes aware of the objects around him, he considers them in relation to himself, and rightly so, because his whole fate depends on whether they please or displease him, attract or repel, help or harm him. This quite natural way of looking at or judging things appears to be as easy as it is necessary. A person is, nevertheless, exposed through it to a thousand errors that often make him ashamed and embitter his life,” said the old man.
“That sounds fa-goddamn-miliar to me,” I said. “Wasn’t that written by…Hume? In his “On Personal Identity?”
“No,” said the man. He turned slightly from me; he lowered his gaze. “That was Goethe.”
“What was that you said?”
“I said Goethe. He wrote that.”
“Thought it was Hume. I’ve only read Goethe’s poetry and plays, not his pronouncements about philosophy. Anyway, it sounds okay. I mean, how can we deny the element of the subjective in all things sentient? And yet, where is the delineation between subjectivity and self-indulgence, selfishness? Surely the latter have clear moral implications, where subjectivity does not. So when Goethe says, “a thousand errors that often make him ashamed and embitter his life,” is he not also implying that, since shame is a form of moral self-judgement, subjectivity embraces morality also? If, then, morality is purely subjective, it is independent of judgement. This, you will agree, is —”
“A reductio ad absurdum,” the man interrupted. “You are making light of Goethe’s words.”
“Quite the contrary, old man,” I said, rising as I spoke. “I intend to be serious. If there is only a subjective base, if that base is both ‘easy and necessary,’ as Goethe says, then all moral judgements are founded on nothing. Nothing! Does that not disturb you?” I was standing now, not at all in a menacing manner and yet the man sank down lower in his chair.
“Of course,” he began. “I have had those thoughts. They are inevitable.”
“Then I am not reducing Goethe to absurdity,” I said, dryly.
“But what can we put in place of morality?” he asked, still sunken. “Where is the authority, where is the soul’s policeman? How can I write with conviction about the squalid immorality of Klein’s Nursing Home for Adults on Coney Island Avenue, where the warehoused aged sit, tired from fear, behind dulled Plexiglas panes, suspiciously, nervously eyeing every ambulance that pauses outside? Suppose I end up there, without morality as a bayonet to support the white flag of truth?”
“So you compare truth to surrender,” I said, staring at the wall.
“Well, damn it, it is an equation that has caused me much pain,” the old man said.
Without speaking, he got up from his chair and shook my hand. He stood there for a long while. At last he stepped back, put on his hat and coat and, turning to go, said to me, “You know, I really do detest you.” He quickly left.