I came across this summary of our modern ethical position in Bernard Williams’s Shame and Necessity. It seems to me to be an elegant and realistic (characteristically of Williams) sketch of our ethical state:
‘We are in an ethical condition that lies not only beyond Christianity, but beyond its Kantian and its Hegelian legacies. We have an ambivalent sense of what human beings have achieved, and have hopes for how they might live (in particular, in the form of a still powerful ideal that they should live without lies). We know that the world was not made for us, or we for the world, that our history tells us no purposive story, and that there is no position outside the world or outside history from which we might hope to authenticate our activities. We have to acknowledge the hideous costs of many human achievements that we value, including this reflective sense itself, and recognise that there is no redemptive Hegelian history or universal Leibnizian cost-benefit analysis to show that it will come out well in the end.’
It also reminded me of an interview with Tony Judt, in which he said the following about history:
‘History can show you that it was one pile of bad stuff after another. It can also show you that there’s been tremendous progress in knowledge, behaviour, laws, civilisation. It cannot show you that there was a meaning behind it. And if you can’t find a meaning behind history, what would be the meaning of any single life? I was born accidentally. I lived accidentally in London. We nearly migrated to New Zealand. So much of my life has been a product of chance, I can’t see a meaning in it.’
Williams’s view can be contrasted with Raymond Geuss’s, who (again, characteristically) has a more cynical, and critical, take on it:
‘People make up the most implausible tales and theories to give some apparent meaning to their lives, they would also prefer even radically masochistic, self-abnegating interpretations of the world to acceptance of its sheer irreducible fatuous pointlessness; they would rather make their own lives vales of tears than find them empty.’
All three are responses, in a literary sort of way, refer back to Nietzsche’s famous declaration that ‘gott ist tot! gott bleibt tot! und wir haben ihn getötet! wie trösten wir uns, die mörder aller mörder’ (‘God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him, the murderer of murderers’). It’s interesting (fast and loose with ‘interesting’, Nat) to compare Williams’s almost regretful analysis with Judt’s cheerful resignation, and both with Geuss’s proselytising nihilism (although Geuss spurns the nihilist label). It also gives an insight into three significant thinkers’ differing responses to the fractured character of modern ethical life and our relationship with history and our ability to derive meaning from it.