Avoiding Colin

Frank Kermode

  • Moral Literacy: Or how to do the right thing by Colin McGinn
    Duckworth, 110 pp, £6.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 7156 2417 2
  • The Space Trap by Colin McGinn
    Duckworth, 187 pp, £14.99, July 1992, ISBN 0 7156 2415 6

Once there were popular books with titles like Straight and Crooked Thinking, books in which professional philosophers, avoiding arcane speculation, tried to make the rest of us more sensible by sharing with us their philosophical wisdom. Nowadays such books seem to be less common, and in any case some quite important philosophers, doubting the claims of philosophy to have special wisdom qualifications, would think it presumptuous to write them. Colin McGinn does concede that specialist skills in philosophy don’t in themselves constitute a licence to preach or judge (‘morality isn’t the kind of thing in which you can have a special expertise’), but he seems confident all the same that a professional habit of straight thinking will enable him to advise lay folk whose moral thinking might be crooked, or, as he would prefer to say, stupid.

He assumes that every sensible person would rather be thought to be doing the right than the wrong thing, and that every such person can be expected to agree about disliking ‘badness in people’ and deploring moral stupidity. As George Eliot observed in a famous passage of Middlemarch, ‘we are all born in moral stupidity’; Dorothea Brooke discovered that emerging from this state can be painful, if only because the likes of Casaubon have ‘an equivalent centre of self’ that cannot be ignored. As George Eliot knew, and as McGinn remarks, ‘you have to work to get it right.’

Persons of comparably liberal tendencies will have little difficulty with most of what he says. He dismisses ‘taboo morality’ as irrelevant, accepting only such constraints on individual freedom as can be provided with convincing reasons. Rational morality is his theme. He will have nothing to do with moral relativism, which is self-refuting. So is the notion that religion is the basis of moral behaviour: ‘even God could not make murder right by judging it to be so.’ He himself is an atheist, though more than once he talks about the soul – but if the matter isn’t to become very complicated, he must suppose it to die with the body and certainly not to proceed to judgment, purgation, bliss or the fire.

Morality, then, ‘is a set of rules for harmonising what you want to do with what is good for others’. The application of these rules calls for some imaginative activity. McGinn provides some; he likes to illuminate problems by making up fictions. A chapter about animals contains a fantasy about a species of vampire bat that can live equally well on orange juice or human blood. Though law-abiding in most other respects, they traditionally prefer the blood, and farm humans to ensure the supply. They are said to be guilty of ‘speciesism’: de nobis fabula. They, and we, are also guilty of neglecting something which assumes great importance in this book – namely, sentience. In considering our responsibility to other beings, we need to ask how much they feel. Stones, even trees, have little or no sentience. Animals have; we know this but are able to ignore the knowledge when eating battery chickens and testing drugs on animals, just as our ancestors could switch off knowledge they undoubtedly had access to when condoning slavery and child-labour. Sure, the slave and the child mineworker and the whale suffer and exist, but we can act as if their pain was of no account, as if their existence were ‘not an existence for us’.

Much of what is said here about animals, sex, violence and so on will, as the author expects, seem uncontroversial, even if some of the consequences – for example, vegetarianism – may remain unappealing. Since McGinn invites objections, I will offer a couple, doubtless cannon fodder for the professional philosopher. One concerns some of the exemplary (counterfactual) fictions. Thus: if it were the case that human females got pregnant every month, with catastrophic consequences, would sexual intercourse, in this imaginary case invariably contraceptive in its effects, be regarded as anti-life? Or: suppose women were infallibly to induce conception by pulling their earlobes on a certain day of the month. If they chose not to pull their ears, and so allow the ova to die, could even pro-lifers hold them guilty of abortion? The point is that a rational morality will distinguish between legitimate abortion and infanticide by considering the degree of sentience in the living organism to be killed. Very early termination is what the use of condoms can ensure; very late abortion is infanticide. Sentience comes on by degrees. A rational argument, no doubt; but is it strengthened by the counterfactual fantasies?

If you, the ruler of a prosperous and peaceful country, believed devoutly in freedom of speech for all, how would you respond to the devil if he visited you and demanded slots on prime-time television to persuade the people that they had a duty to be evil? The point of this one is that there have to be limits on free speech. But it hardly helps to make a point that arises in more credible forms in the ordinary course of things: rightly or wrongly, a ruler will sometimes have to inhibit what he or she regards as dangerous or immoral. The real difficulty is simply that some rulers hold views of which one may not approve and want to ban books or behaviour others think they should have no power over. A confrontation with the Pope would have been more to the point.

McGinn tells us that in morality there are no absolutes. To each case one applies reason. True, but he manages to make the application of rational morality a bit unreal. If somebody uses violence towards you, you are, he says, entitled to reply violently: but reason counsels that your violence must not be greater than the violence you have suffered – indeed, it ought if possible to be less, and always exercised ‘with a heavy heart’. But one would have thought that a rational moralist would need to allow for the fact that if somebody hits you on the nose you are less likely to have a heavy heart than to be shocked and angry, and almost certainly unable to measure your response so judiciously. Like Aristotle, McGinn thinks it possible to distinguish just from unjust anger. But rational morality should nevertheless allow for the fact that quite a lot of rationally unsound human behaviour results from people being shocked or angry, perhaps only momentarily unjust or intemperate.

The chapter on sex says what most of us would say: don’t hurt people when pursuing your own satisfactions, always treat your sexual partner as a distinct, highly sentient person. Extreme promiscuity is simply irrational. The difficulty is that saying this, or explaining that what they are really interested in isn’t sex but something else altogether, something they pitiably lack, will not deter extremely promiscuous persons, who often think their conduct ‘natural’ and therefore reasonable.

It is a difficulty also that few of the things one does can be thought to have no consequences for other persons; it is not true, for instance, that you can use crack or even pot or tobacco and absolutely confine the risks of doing so to yourself. Your behaviour may have consequences for other sentient beings. Moreover, this problem of limit evokes different responses in different epochs. The controlled permissiveness of the McGinn moral scheme would have seemed immoral to most serious persons even a couple of generations ago. This is partly because they felt, perhaps presumptuously, that they had a duty to prevent others from destroying their lives or their souls – every man’s death diminishes me – whereas nowadays one is rather inclined to think of self-destruction, soul or body, as one’s own affair if it can be achieved without harm to others, if it ever can. The ancestral reasons for interference, often associated with ‘taboo morality’, may no longer have general appeal: but our reasons for believing they don’t may not hold either.

There are judicious, rational discriminations – for example, on the freedom of the press and pornography. And there are some propositions no less likely to be true for being ancient, though always in need of qualification: for instance, that vicious people tend to be ugly, like Dorian Gray or Caliban, and virtuous people beautiful. But the differences between ancient and modern are more pronounced. In the old world the Cardinal Virtues were Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude. Together with the three Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity, they formed the opposition to the Seven Deadly Sins. McGinn sets out his Cardinal Virtues as Kindness, Honesty, Justice and Independence (roughly speaking, the avoidance of moral stupidity). Naturally he includes no Theological Virtues. To balance the contest, he has only four Deadly Sins, Prejudice, Ignorance, Narrowmindedness and Fear, which replace the old list of Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger and Sloth. It is not presupposed that these vices do not continue to exist, but as formerly stated they lack interest, and are presumably ruled out of contention by the consideration that the just, honest, kind and independent spirit will rationally and easily eschew them.

An admirable though arguable clause in McGinn’s credo is that virtue, contrary to unexamined assumptions about it, is bold and attractive, nothing to do with being dull, grey, suburban. And it is so very unusual that the unvirtuous, the dark-souled, look shabby and commonplace by contrast with the beautiful virtuous ‘maverick’. It is an idea that would have pleased, say, Milton. Why is it pleasant to see modern virtue cut from ancient cloth?

Moral Literacy is written with a certain colloquial dash; its sprightly prose and delight in fictive situations make it less surprising that McGinn should have simultaneously produced a novel. The Space Trap is indeed full of colloquial beans. It is also ambitious, literate, and rationally moral. Its central character is a grey, flabby suburban insurance clerk with a taste for scifi fantasy. He chucks up everything, including wife and son, and swaggers the nutstrewn streets of New York on extended and illicit vacation. He makes himself a new comely body (virtuous?) by frequenting the gym, jogging, and sleeping with a terrifically fit and honest Italian girl.

The metaphysician author is impressively streetwise New York-wise, with an easy command of the patois, mostly obscene, of Spanish Harlem and the Village. The New York of this novel is a lot more gemütlich than Martin Amis’s, and lacks that apocalyptic splendour, but it has some high-grade porn, harmless under the scrutiny of modern rational morality, though it might have run into trouble even thirty years back – no problem now if you keep it away from the children. The girl is fetching, especially after dropping LSD (same proviso), being free of Narrowmindedness, Prejudice, Ignorance and Fear. She shares the author’s predilection for total honesty, a trait which gives the hero Colin some awkward moments, including a mildly embarrassing visit to a dick doctor. The ex-wimp is encumbered with two other selves. One is said to be his ‘phobic consciousness’, and it regularly gives him a counterfactual bad time imagining the horrors underlying his currently pleasant course of life. They are of the order of imagining oneself to be a baby biting off the nipple of a haemophiliac mother; when her blood has drained away she dies, and so does baby, deprived of milk. This is a relatively mild example of the interspersed phobic fantasies, which are written with some intensity. The other self is a shadow brother, a New Yorker who flees to California to avoid Colin, and ends badly when Colin goes home. I had the feeling that, important as he was meant to be to the design of the piece, it would, like the world more generally, have been better-off without him. A pleasing and, once you know what the expression means by reading Moral Literacy, a morally literate novel.