Words for Good and Evil, Part II

Continued from yesterday

“Why is it possible,” asked Richard Feynman a year before he won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics, “for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?”

Feynman fretted that people cannot embrace wonder if they do not imbibe science. In my church there is a young man who cannot speak; he can only point and hoot. He claps his hands during the liturgy; he waves recklessly at people he recognizes. His mother keeps a grip on his belt loop, lest he knock over candles, or wander into the choir. Sometimes he points at the ceiling, gesturing wildly for the rest of us to look, and in those moments I am certain he sees angels.

Knowledge is no precursor to wonder. Science is no guarantor of joy.

Yesterday I mentioned a low-IQ man who will soon be sterilized, and a retarded child who will die because she isn’t allowed access to the kidney transplant queue. We have lost the language, I said, necessary to talk about these decisions in terms of their morality. [Read more...]

Words for Good and Evil, Part I

In the months to come, England’s National Health Service will sterilize a young man with a very low IQ. In Philadelphia, a three-year-old who will soon die without a new kidney is barred from entering the organ transplant waiting list because she is mentally disabled. I suspect most of us have lost the moral language necessary to talk about either. We don’t know how to discuss these facts any more than we know how to discuss God or the soul or beauty or art, and if you want to understand the slow dissolution of human communities you can begin with the disintegration of moral imagination, and with it a language for good and evil.

Our lack of moral language should not be mistaken for lack of moralizing. In fact, the opposite relationship holds true—our rhetoric about what is moral yearly escalates because volume triumphs where authority has gone missing. Likewise for our words about God; heresies large and small proliferate in near-exact proportion to the growth in blogs opining about what God thinks about what we imagine he must be thinking about, which almost certainly must be the things most important to those of us who have blogs.

Everyone is too busy composing his memoirs, meanwhile, for there to be much conversation about what is art, other than to say that surely it is that which I like. [Read more...]


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