We have art for the same reason we put windows in houses. We need to see outside. Just as a window allows us to see the physical world outside of the narrow confines of the walls surrounding us, art allows us to see out into the world of ideas, and sometimes the view is appalling. I was reminded of this a few days ago when a friend told me he had not watched more than one episode of Breaking Bad because the squalor and violence depicted was unbearably depressing. He said he finally grasped why the program might be worth watching further when he read my post, Walter White: Consequentialist. Yes, the squalor and violence in that series were awful, but they served the artist’s purpose, which was to examine an ordinary man’s spiral into ever-increasing evil once he decided the end could justify the means.
Great art is not always beautiful. When an artist examines an ugly idea, his art will reflect that ugliness. Consider the movie Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s best film. If you like your existential nihilism served especially bleak and full of despair, you can hardly do better than this. In a small Wyoming town two cowboys disfigure a young prostitute. Denied justice by the local sheriff, “Little Bill” Daggett, the residents of the brothel pool their money and offer a reward for the death of the cowboys. William Munny is an aging gunfighter turned Kansas farmer, who once killed women and children during a train robbery. Munny, his friend Ned, and the “Kid” travel to Wyoming, kill the cowboys, and collect the reward. As he is about to return home, Munny learns Little Bill has captured Ned and tortured him to death. Munny goes back into town where Ned’s body is on display outside the saloon. This enrages Munny, and he goes in and kills the saloon keeper, Little Bill and several of his deputies. Munny walks out, warns the townspeople to give Ned a proper burial, and the movie ends as he rides off into the rainy night.
Two lines of dialogue and the epilogue capture perfectly the nihilism at the heart of the film. In the final scene Munny is standing over a wounded Little Bill Daggett about to administer the coup de grâce. Daggett says, “I don’t deserve this . . . to die like this.” Munny replies, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” and shoots him dead. A few minutes later at the end of the film a text epilogue scrolls across the screen. It says that Munny moved away from Kansas, “some said to San Francisco, where it was rumored he prospered in dry goods.”
Munny is a Nietzschen “ubermensch,” the nihilist superman. Deserving has nothing to do with it indeed, because justice is an illusion, part of the outdated “slave morality” that does not bind him. God is dead. There is no good. There is no evil. There are only the strong and the weak, and at that moment Munny has the gun, and Daggett is disarmed, wounded and lying on the floor. Munny has killed women and children. He has just murdered an unarmed saloonkeeper and several deputies in a fit of pique. Now he’s going to murder Daggett in cold blood. And none of these things will prevent him from moving to San Francisco where he will prosper in dry goods.
Our materialist friends say that “good” and “evil” are entirely subjective concepts. Frequent commenter Pro Hac Vice puts it this way:
I don’t believe “bad” is an objective statement, any more than “tasty” is. “It is tasty” is a subjective statement. So is “it is bad,” if you start from the assumption that “bad” is a subjective quality.
When I say Brussels sprouts are tasty, I mean nothing more than that I prefer the taste of Brussels sprouts. It is an entirely subjective statement. PHV is right about that. He might say that Brussels sprouts are “bad,” and if he did he would not be heaping moral opprobrium on Brussels sprouts. He would merely be saying that he does not prefer the taste of Brussels sprouts. Is there any standard by which we could somehow arbitrate between my view of Brussels sprouts and PHV’s view to determine once and for all if they are good or bad? Of course not. There is no standard to judge between subjective preferences.
Will Munny murdered women and children for personal gain. He murdered two cowboys for the reward money. He killed an unarmed saloonkeeper. He murdered several deputies, and in the end he murdered Bill Daggett. Let’s call all of these things “Munny’s Crimes.”
I am certain PHV would say that Munny’s Crimes are “bad.” I am equally certain that he would say that when he asserts that Munny’s Crimes are “bad,” he is using the word “bad” in the same way he used it when he referred to Brussels sprouts. In other words, all he is saying is that he personally, for whatever reason, does not prefer to commit Munny’s Crimes. An inevitable logical corollary to PHV’s position is that if someone else (let’s call him “Frank”) were to say that Munny’s Crimes were good, PHV could say that he personally disagrees with Frank. He might even say he strongly disagrees with Frank. But he cannot logically say that some standard exists to arbitrate between his view on the matter and Frank’s view. After all, whether Munny’s Crimes were good or bad is, under PHV’s rules of analysis, nothing more than an expression of personal preference, ultimately no different from whether to eat Brussels sprouts or leave them on the plate.
Now someone might say PHV’s conclusions are illogical, but they would be mistaken. PHV’s conclusions follow from his premises like night follows day. Let us examine his argument:
1. Particles in motion are all that exist or ever have existed.
2. This means there is no God.
3. Since God does not exist, transcendent ethical norms are not possible.
4. It follows that when we describe a behavior as “bad” we are not saying that it is a transgression against an objective standard of ethical norms, because no such standard exists.
5. The only other possibility is that when we describe a behavior as “bad” we are merely expressing a subjective personal preference, i.e., we do not prefer the behavior.
6. Therefore, when we say, for example, that blowing up a train and killing women and children for personal gain is “bad” we are saying nothing more than that we do not prefer such a thing.
7. Finally, if someone else says that blowing up a train and killing women and children for personal gain is “good,” while we may disagree with them, there is no objective standard by which our views could be arbitrated.
Dostoevsky, though a Christian, would agree that PHV’s premises lead to his conclusions: In Brothers Karamazov he wrote:
‘But,’ I asked, ‘how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?’ ‘Didn’t you know?’ he said. And he laughed. ‘Everything is permitted to the intelligent man,’ he said.”
We see, then, that PHV is correct. If God does not exist, if materialism is true, if the entire universe consists of nothing but particles in motion, then the concept of an objective standard for ethical norms is meaningless. Indeed, the very concept of libertarian free will is meaningless, and if libertarian free will – the ability to have done otherwise – does not exist, no one can be held morally responsible for their behavior because, by definition, they could not have done otherwise. As Munny says to Daggett, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” And why shouldn’t Munny move to San Francisco and prosper in dry goods in spite of all of his crimes? After all, he has done nothing evil.
If we heard that a hairy ape in Africa killed a dozen other hairy apes with a rock, we wouldn’t demand “justice” for the dead hairy apes. Munny is nothing but a jumped up hairless ape who happens to be cleverer with firearms than the hairless apes he killed. On a materialist worldview, there is no difference between the hairy ape and the hairless ape, and the fact that our subjective reactions to the two massacres might differ cannot be based on anything other than pure sentiment, certainly not because there is a moral difference between the two acts.
Richard Dawkins summarized the theme of Unforgiven in his River Out of Eden:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
Munny’s innocent victims got hurt, and he got lucky in the dry goods business.
We see then that PHV’s argument is perfectly valid, even airtight, given his premises. But is his argument sound? Now that, dear readers, is another question, and the answer to that question depends on whether PHV’s first two premises are true, and there are many good reasons to believe they are not. The self-evident existence of transcendent moral truth is one such reason. I have stated several times in these pages that it is self-evident that torturing infants for personal pleasure is evil. By “self-evident” I mean that to deny the proposition leads to absurdity. By “absurd” I mean “the quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.” Mark Frank has asked me several times what “absurdity” results from denying that it is evil to torture infants for pleasure. I have answered him several times, and I will answer him again: If torturing infants for personal pleasure is not evil, then the universe is absurd – the entire world is meaningless and irrational.
In the quotation above, Richard Dawkins insists the universe is, in a word, absurd. StephenB, KF, I and others have been arguing that the universe is not ultimately meaningless. We believe that our intense intuition that torturing infants for pleasure is evil in all places at all times for all people is not merely a strongly held personal preference. We argue that our intuition is based on our perception of a fundamental reality that is part of the very warp and woof of the universe. God is not just good; he is very goodness. When he created the universe his goodness pervaded his creation leading him to announce “it is good,” and even in the universe’s current fallen state, the Creator’s goodness continues to pervade it, and we perceive that goodness. Indeed, it is impossible not to perceive it. There are some things that we cannot not know. That torturing infants for pleasure is evil – that it transgresses the moral law woven into the fabric of the universe – is one such thing.
There are many reasons other than the existence of self-evident moral truth to believe that God exists. We admit, however, that none of these reasons to believe establishes that God exists with apodictic certainty. It follows that there is some possibility that PHV’s first two premises are correct and that the universe is ultimately meaningless and irrational. But just as we cannot be absolutely certain we are right, PHV cannot be absolutely certain we are wrong. Even Dawkins is honest enough not to insist he has certain knowledge about God. He says only that there is “probably” no God. The smug certitude so many materialists display on these pages is unwarranted, and it follows that we should be very careful indeed before we choose on which side of Pascal’s wager to place our chips.