Monday, January 5, 2009

"If you want more meaningful art, build a more meaningful world."

I found myself with some time to kill in a bookstore recently. Mostly I read philosophy and theology books, but brick-and-mortar bookstores rarely carry a very good selection of such books. I have to go to Amazon to find most of the stuff I'm looking for. So I often turn to the periodical section to kill my browsing time.

This time I ended up reading the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Adbusters magazine. I've been a fan of the Adbusters anti-capitalist artwork (such as the image above), but I've never read the actual magazine. There were several really interesting articles in this issue.

The first one that caught my eye was about pop art (foreshadowed by Ducham's dadaism) as a critique of American capitalism's implicit nihilism. Author Sarah Nardi quotes Warhol as saying he "wanted to paint nothing" and Murakami as saying he tries to "express hopelessness." You can read the article here.

But a more thought-provoking article was "Virtual Morality" by Andrew Tuplin. Tuplin explores the phenomenon of violent video games such as Gand Theft Auto and amoral virtual worlds such as Second Life. These and other computer programs allow users to act out violent and sexually deviant fantasies.

Tuplin points out that the Enlightenment conception of morality (which most Americans have) is more or less libertarian: the purpose of morality is only supposed to allow us to pursue our own freely chosen goals while preventing us from hurting others in the process. In short, something is morally wrong only if it harms someone. And "harm" is defined as doing something against someone's will. Note that on this view it is conceptually impossible to "harm" oneself (as long as you are not acting out of some sort of confusion or insanity such as addiction). So for those with this conception of morality, there could be nothing wrong with acting out fatasies of rape, torture, pedophilia, etc. if these fantasies are simulated and do not harm any actual person.

Then Tuplin argues that religious ethics can provide an alternative to this view. According to Tuplin, religious ethics teaches that something is wrong if it offends God and that God is offended by our thoughts and desires as well as our actions. On this view, it is morally wrong even to want to rape or torture whether you act on those actions or not. So for those who have this conception of morality, there is no significant difference between virtual and actual behavior.

Now, I see what Tuplin is going for. The subtitle of his essay asks the question "Are we free to do anything we want in a virtual world, or are some things inherently wrong?" So he is attempting to reject the ethical view called "consequentialism" according to which something is wrong only if it harms someone. Instead he want to affirm a form of "deontology" according to which actions are inherently right or wrong regardless of their consequences. But he doesn't seem to understand that one need not be religious to affirm deontological ethics.
And he doesn't seem to understand that one need not hold to a divine command ethics in order to be religious. Historically, the majority of Christian theologians have rejected the sort of ethics Tuplin calls "religious". Indeed, I would argue that, it is logically incoherent to think that morality is based on what offends God.

But Tuplin is on to something when he says "The humanist or secular view of morality is concerned only with what we do. True religious morality is concerned not only with what we do, but with who we are, with what we desire to do." If we disregard his characterization of the two views as religious vs. secular, Tuplin has indeed given us a good alternative to Enlightenment ethics. The point is that for pre-Enlightenment views morality is as concerned with character as with behavior. (Note that this was the view of the Greek philosophers and is not essentially tied to religion.)

The important difference between this view and the Enlightenment view is that morality is not simply about preventing harm to others, but involves preventing harm to oneself. "Harm" on this view is doing something against an ideal, not simply doing something against one's will. This is a health model of morality. If you act in a way that is not healthy (i.e., it is not living up to the ideal of human nature), then you harming yourself and are acting immorally even if you don't harm anyone else.

This view gives us a way to criticize violent and sexually deviant fantasies: it is an abuse of one's own character to have immoral desires even if one never acts on those desires.

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