One of the great failings—or gifts!—of humanity is that we have the ability to imagine important questions to which it may be impossible to find answers. The fact that only few people notice this, and the implications of it, makes it no less true. The people that tend to notice these questions most of all we call “philosophers”. I mention in the header of this blog that “philosophy”, along with classical music and popular culture, is one of the interests of the blog. But I should hasten to say that, while I am fairly indisputably a classical musician, I am not much of a philosopher. I am, in fact, something of a hack in that field. A “hack” is someone who does something without fully accepting or mastering the necessary technical components of the field. A hack guitarist is someone who plays badly (or some things badly), but manages not to care enough to fix it.
So I am a hack philosopher, as I have been told by a real philosopher. But despite this, I am pretty sure that bringing a bit of philosophy into the occasional post here at the Music Salon is worthwhile.
I have just been reminded of the benefits of philosophy by an absolutely brilliant book review by Arthur A. Leff of the Yale Law School of Knowledge and Politics by Roberto Mangabeira Unger, also a professor of law. What sets this book review apart from every other I have read is that Prof. Leff adopts the persona of the Devil and the review is in the form of a memorandum from the Devil. He was likely inspired to do this by the way in which Prof. Unger ends his book, with the words, “Speak, God.” When I first started browsing through this fairly lengthy review/memorandum, I was inspired myself to write a similar essay titled “Memo from Apollyon.”
But I have just now been reading the review more carefully and my appreciation grows and grows. Here, in a nutshell, is the problem: setting aside the possibility of universally agreed upon objective value and divine revelation, is there any way of grounding the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil? Or, as the Devil puts it:
“How does one tell, and tell about, the difference between right and wrong? Why ought one-a person or a society-do any particular thing rather than any other? How can one ground any statement in the form "It is right to do X" in anything firmer than the quicksand of bare reiterated assertion?”
The relevance to my writings is that the problem of good and bad in ethics or morality is very similar to the problem of good and bad in aesthetics, which I talk about at great length here. I have to confess, therefore, that the Devil’s argument poses as great a problem for me as for Unger. How can I prove or demonstrate anything regarding why one piece of music is better than another than by simply asserting it? I suppose I can’t. Nor can anyone else.
Mind you, as you might expect, I can do a great deal of singing and dancing around the question. I often put up two contrasting examples and invite the reader/listener to make their own aesthetic judgment. Surprisingly, this often works—well, enough, at least. For my purposes it is as if there is no god but Music and Bach (or Beethoven, or Mozart, or Haydn) is his prophet. Hey, it works for most religions! But while this may be persuasive, it is no argument. I suppose what I foggily assume is that there is a kind of intuitive realization that is provoked by hearing good music that it is good music. Especially when contrasted with bad music. But this is, at best, hack philosophy. Indeed, I’m afraid that confronted with the skepticism shown by the Devil in this review, even Socrates would struggle.
Or would he, because I am beginning to think that there may be a way of dealing with this problem and it is a way typical of Plato and his dialectic. The Good is always defined by contrast with Evil or the Bad. As the Devil points out, you cannot define the Good as what is because Being does not get you to Good—it just as easily gets you to Bad, as anyone who has visited Chibougamou or Cincinnati already knows.
I think I started thinking along these lines when I was thinking that, where it would certainly be impossible to define good as corresponding to a universal perception of humankind, perhaps it could be isolated within an appropriate context. This piece of classical music is “good,” within our general understanding of the character and boundaries of classical music. But this is just an example of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. If you define a Scotsman in any specific way, and someone provides a counter-example (“I knew a Scotsman who didn’t X”) then the fallacy occurs when you claim that that Scotsman was “no true Scotsman”.
But then it occurred to me that universals, such as the Good, the True and the Beautiful are not susceptible to definition because they are how we define other things. They are transcendental. The only way to define them is by their opposites: the Bad, the False and the Ugly. These contraries provide the context for understanding.
But this still fails to escape the trap: you either intuit the Good and distinguish it from the Bad, or you don’t and, in the absence of objective value and divine revelation, there still seems to be no way to guarantee it.
So what is the value of all this? I think the value is enormous. What we are left with after striving unsuccessfully to answer the question of what the Good is truly grounded on is skepticism and the tendency to ask difficult questions. I can think of few healthier states of mind! Imagine how different politics, education, the arts, every part of our culture would be if people, or most people or, heck, just a few more people, knew how to ask these kinds of questions. The mind boggles.
Imagine the improvement in politics alone if more people realized that the grandiose claims made by nearly all politicians are grounded on precisely nothing or, as is startlingly common, grounded on some variety of Evil. Which leads me to think that what we really need is a thorough discussion of Evil perhaps more than this one about Good…
As the Devil sagely ends his review:
But while you try to live as best you can until His revelation, perhaps you will accept some practical advice from me. Look around you at your species, throughout time and all over the world, and see what men seem to be like. Okay? Now take this hint from what you have seen: If He exists, Me too.But we don't want to end up as nihilists either. In fact the Devil's argument is all too successful--remember, he is the Devil! Every day in ways large and small we have to distinguish between Good and Bad and Good and Evil and even if how we do it is ad hoc and lacking Universal Validity, we still have to do it. Every time we walk over to our self of CDs or go online or fire up the iPhone, we have to pick out one thing to listen to over all others. And while we might think that it is just a matter of personal taste or mood or marketing, perhaps there are some aesthetics involved.
And I can't help but think of the famous words of Bertrand Russell about ethics:
"I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it."Why don't we end with a good piece of music? Here is the Quatuor Mosaïques playing The Seven Last Words of Christ for string quartet, Op. 51: