Many scholars believe Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is the greatest novel ever written. I don’t know if that is true. I am not qualified to judge, but I do know the novel moved me as no other ever has. So I was intrigued when SteveB referred to a passage from the novel in a comment to my earlier post. In this passage Ivan is exploring man’s capacity for cruelty, and he says to his brother Alyosha (warning, not for the faint of heart):
People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it. These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children, too; cutting the unborn child from the mother’s womb, and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mother’s eyes. Doing it before the mother’s eyes was what gave zest to the amusement. Here is another scene that I thought very interesting. Imagine a trembling mother with her baby in her arms, a circle of invading Turks around her. They’ve planned a diversion; they pet the baby, laugh to make it laugh. They succeed, the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk points a pistol four inches from the baby’s face. The baby laughs with glee, holds out its little hands to the pistol, and he pulls the trigger in the baby’s face and blows out its brains. Artistic, wasn’t it? By the way, Turks are particularly fond of sweet things, they say.
I have read that Dostoevsky did not make this up. This actually happened and he adopted the story for his novel.
SteveB asked Jack Krebs whether he believed the soldiers were wrong. Jack said they were, and then he said something very interesting. He said, “I choose my moral standards.”
I replied: “Jack, this is an interesting statement. Are you suggesting that it is possible for you to choose moral standards in which it is good for the soldier to kill the baby?”
Jack responded: “And no to Barry’s question – I could not choose moral standards that would make it ‘good’ for the soldier to kill the baby.”
I probed further: “You say ‘I could not choose . . .’ OK. But what about our soldier? Is he free to choose moral standards just like you, including moral standards in which baby killing is good?”
To which Jack responded: “He is free to choose, and he may think what he does is ‘good,’ but I will . . . strenuously disagree”
This is, of course, nonsense. There are certain things that, as Dr. J. Budziszewski says, “you can’t not know.” You can’t not know that ripping babies from their mother’s arms, throwing them in the air and catching them on a bayonet is evil. Everyone reading this post knows this to be true without the slightest doubt or reservation. Jack is simply and obviously wrong when he says a soldier is free to choose moral standards in which such an act is good. There is no such freedom.
Anyone who says that it is not self-evident that the soldier’s act was evil is lying. It is quite literally unthinkable to imagine a moral system in which such an act is good.
Just as the statement “two plus two equals eight” is wrong in an absolute sense, the soldier’s act was evil in an absolute sense. The fact that the soldier’s act was evil transcends time, place, circumstances, opinion, and every other variable one might imagine. From this I conclude the act violated a transcendent moral standard, and from this I further conclude that a transcendent moral standard exists.
Most of the first 62 comments completely missed the point of this post, so I will try to focus the discussion onto the point of the post by posing the question in a debate format:
A soldier amuses himself by ripping a baby from his mother’s arms and tossing it in the air and catching it on a bayonet.
Resolved, it is self-evident that the soldier’s action is wrong in all places and at all times.
Commenters are free to argue the affirmative or the negative. They are not free to change the subject by, for example, dragging us into a discusion of the Old Testament or changing the facts and asking “what about this?” Comments after comment 62 that do not argue either the affirmative or the negative will be deleted.