anotherlongshot (anotherlongshot) wrote,

Literature and Philosophy

It is impossible to read a John Banville novel without some writing device of sort in one hand - that is, if one were the kind of reader who underlines and/or highlights particularly impressive passages or sentences. They can be impressive in different ways; for me, they are impressive stylistically always, and are usually impressive in stating some truth about the condition of being human, whatever it may be.

In Ghosts, Banville explores the mental state of a character from a previous novel, The Book of Evidence (to which Ghosts is a sequel), who kills a servant, gets sent to jail, serves a 10-year prison sentence, and is now a free man. Banville nails the interiority of his thoughts, of the illusory nature of freedom for an ex-prisoner who no longer has any ties to the 'real world', of his wraith-like existence, floating through an indifferent world, dehumanised:

I need these people, the Sergeant, and Mr Tighe the shopman in the village, even Miss Broaders ... They had substance, which was precisely what I seemed to lack. I held on to them as if they were a handle by which I might hold on to things, to solid, simple (yes, simple!) things, and to myself among them. For I felt like something suspended in empty air, weightless, transparent, turning this way or that in every buffet of wind that blew. At least when I was locked away I had felt I was definitely there, but now that I was free (or at large, at any rate) I seemed hardly to be here at all. This is how I imagine ghosts existing, poor, pale wraiths pegged out to shiver in the wind of the world like so much insubstantial laundry, yearning towards us, the heedless ones, as we walk blithely through them.

What is existence without people? Can you exist by yourself? This passage on the sense of freedom from looking at the sea sums up how I feel when I am sitting on a beach, looking out at the 'limitless ocean':

The sun was hot. Nothing happened. We just stayed there for that minute, poised between sea and sky, suspended somehow as if in air, no, not air, but some other, unearthly element, and it seemed to me I had never known such happiness, and never would again, though happiness is not the word, not the word at all. That is where I would like to live, on some forgotten strip of sandy shore, with my back to the land, facing out into the limitless ocean. That would be freedom, watching in solitude the days pass, marking the seasons, observing the spring tides and the autumn auroras, weathing the summer sun and the storms of winter. Pure existence, pure existence and nothing else.

There is not much of a plot, though. But I read novels principally for the prose; the characters are next in line, and the least important thing is a plot. I honestly don't know what happens in the book, but it is immaterial to me because Banville's style is beautiful, and he draws you in to the psyche of his narrator and it is as if you are the ex-convict, struggling to re-integrate into the world that you'd wronged.

I need to read more of his novels. I love his style. The beauty of his language takes my breath away.


On another note, my Saturday was spent trying to restructure my never-ending 377A/common good/communitarianism paper, but I ended up reading Patrick Devlin's The Enforcement of Morals (the relevant bits anyway), then re-reading Dworkin's response and George's reinterpretation of his social disintegration thesis. I still have no idea how to restructure it.

But I am so interested in practical reasoning, the way we go about deciding what to do in a given situation. I wondered if there was a link between George's explication of practical reasoning and his argument that morals legislations can legitimately enforce moral views that are true; namely, whether the former helps to explain how we determine the latter (what is a moral truth). So I re-read his account of practical reasoning in his Introduction (to his book, Making Men Moral).

I don't think it illuminates how one determines what is a moral truth, but it was interesting anyway. There are basically a hierarchy of reasons that determine the rationality - the reasonableness - of a particular course of action: basic human goods, followed by moral norms, and followed by non-moral reasons for action. That basic human goods are reasons for action are self-evident, and George borrows Finnis' list of 7 basic goods. I don't have anything to say about this because I am still making sense of it.

What piqued my interest is the idea that we can practically reason about which course of action we ought to take, and still act in a manner that is practically unreasonable because our reason can be fettered by what Finnis calls 'feelings'. George calls them subrationality, I think; this includes our emotions and desires, impetuses for action that are not rational. So we may have a non-moral reason to do x, but a moral norm mandates that we shouldn't do x, and if we do x anyway, the decision to do x is unreasonable.

I don't really have a point, save that the stipulative nature of philosophical arguments makes them so difficult to universalise. It is tempting to always look for the one solution to all moral problems, to solve all reasonable disagreements over moral issues; but can philosophy provide it, assuming it exists (probably not)? George stipulates Finnis' 7 basic goods to argue that we should always act in a way that fulfills these basic goods, but why should we accept this premise? Even if we do accept it, why should we accept Finnis' list of basic goods? Philosophical arguments tend to be internally coherent, but unacceptable to those who would challenge and disagree with their premisses. I would like to think that there is a way of practical reasoning that would yield the same outcome for all; but I think that we are fettered not just by our feelings, but by our own comprehensive worldviews. We cannot leave them behind. They inform our moral norms as much as they influence our feelings.

This brings me to the discussion I had with John about the morality of sex outside of a committed relationship. It seems to me that the only objective truth that we can establish is that any sexual act carried out without the consent of both parties is immoral. So if two people agree to casual sex, then this arrangement in and of itself is not immoral, even if people can agree to bad deals. But a bad deal isn't necessarily an immoral one. Casual sex can be a bad deal for the parties for non-moral reasons, such as prudential reasons: one of them may catch feelings but the other isn't interested in anything beyond casual sex and so the interested party ends up getting hurt. But the person who did the hurting isn't acting immorally, for he or she did not promise anything that he or she couldn't deliver at the outset (this scenario assumes no deception, no lies, no half-truths, all STDs diclosed). So how can we come up with a good reason for the immorality of casual sex in this scenario without stipulating a contestable premise or definition of what is morally-permissible sex? On the other hand, it seems less stipulative, more objective, that the definition of morally-permissible sex is when both parties consent and the consent was not obtained by deception, etc.

But what if both parties agree to extra-marital sex? Party A is single, agrees to sleep with Party B, who is married. Party A knows that Party B is married. Party B's spouse knows nothing of this extra-marital arrangement. Clearly, the immorality of the situation lies in the deception of Party B's spouse, and Party B's betrayal of his or her trust. But this situation doesn't defeat the general principle; it only modifies it - namely, consent cannot vitiate the immorality of a dishonest situation.

I wonder, though, if Party A is acting immorally by having sex with Party B? If so, it seems to presuppose that Party A owes some duty to Party B's spouse, who is a stranger to Party A. But what is this duty based on? Is it some notion of how we ought to treat others how we would like to be treated? If so, it doesn't seem to be a moral principle, at least not necessarily. Its moral content seems parasitic on the situation in which it arises, and so one shouldn't lie because one wouldn't like to be lied to; but it seems to me that the underlying moral principle is doing all the work here - that lying is wrong because dishonest.

So if Party A shouldn't sleep with Party B because Party A wouldn't like some hypothetical unknown person in the future to sleep with Party A's hypothetical spouse to Party A's hypothetical ignorance, and this hypothetical situation gives rise to a duty on Party A's part not to sleep with Party B...once again, it is the underlying moral principle that dishonesty and deception are bad that is doing the work here. If so, then perhaps we can say that Party A is acting immorally because he or she is aiding the deception, facilitating it, allowing it to happen.

Anyway. I am too tired to continue with this. But yes, these are the kind of things that I think about when I ought to be thinking about my PhD. I am still bothered by my inability to come up with a good reason for my intuition that sex outside of a committed relationship is somehow wrong and/or immoral. It is at times like these that I doubt the faith that has been placed in rationality and reason...but then again, I think I did say that I am prepared to accept that whether sex is moral or not is a social construct, but its socially constructed meaning doesn't necessarily undermine its normative significance.

Still, it's not as powerful as a home-run reason for the immorality of sex outside of a committed relationship, for if it is socially constructed, then it implies some kind of moral relativism. not good.


Okay. I need to sleep. I wanted to write about formal at Sidney on Friday but I ended up writing all those other things. In short, then: the food was fantastic. Best formal food I've had so far. The company was great too: Josh, Ivan and Pablo, such a hilarious bunch. I had a lot of fun.
Tags: books, cambridge, friends, literature, philosophy, quotes, sex

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