Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A perfectly moral man…

Who doesn't even know it.

This is the tale of a man, a sort of Pepé Lapieu of ethics, who consistently does the right thing by sheer accident. In situations throughout his whole life, he happens to be the right man at the right time. He is the human equivalent of a falling icicle that pierces an encroaching murderer. Or a gust of wind that extinguishes a fire while Baby Jones sleeps. And so forth. In one case, he is jostled by a crowd of passengers and diverts a distraught woman from throwing herself onto the tracks. He is in this case, as in all such cases, lauded as a hero. And it becomes him, since he is so guilelessly and genuinely meek about his feats. The way he manages to reconcile his clueless heroism with his nagging sense of heroic meaninglessness, is by unconsciously generating movie-like recollections of the events. He has never actually felt like a hero, since his heroism always catches him off guard, but he has seen countless heroes on TV and the big screen. So he is able to fabricate what he thinks is the proper sense of his feats based on those viewings.

Another important corollary of his 'vacuous virtue' is his equal lack of a sense of evil. He is certainly aware of pain and loss and passing desires to strike back, etc., but throughout his entire life, he has never had adequate experiences to fathom what freely choosing evil over good is like, much less actually having done so. The objects of his lust, greed, hatred, or potential deceit have always been preempted, removed, by some other, often impersonal, means, whereupon he has had no chance to execute a wrong deed. Everyone who knows him agree they have never been wrong by him or seen him wrong others. This sentiment stands out all the more in light of his spotless record of heroism, generosity, etc.

Only in the final scene of the story––perhaps a civic award ceremony in his honor––which is also the end of his moral impeccability, does he at last grasp what it would mean to do something intrinsically evil. He is presented with the simplest temptation, free from witnesses, and he finally seizes the hitherto shrouded fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. His misdeed is a trifle, in terms of its objective consequences. And yet, there it is: the only difference between his action as an objectively harmless transaction and as a moral offense is his newfound inner sense of intention toward good or evil.

This story came to me as a philosophical thought experiment––Could someone be good without ever desiring to do good or avoid evil, yet never actually commits an evil action and can only pull off good? I realized it would be much more entertaining, and perhaps more illuminating, as fiction than as a straight essay in moral philosophy.

For the record, I deny that our protagonist is virtuous; and this, because I deny physicalism and its variously attendant utilitarianisms and consequentialisms.

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