Monday, December 30, 2013

"In Winter in the Woods Alone"

In Winter in the Woods Alone


In winter in the woods alone
Against the trees I go.
I mark a maple for my own
And lay the maple low.

At four o'clock I shoulder axe
And in the afterglow
I link a line of shadowy tracks
Across the tinted snow.

I see for Nature no defeat
In one tree's overthrow
Or for myself in my retreat
For yet another blow.

Robert Frost, from In the Clearing


 I’ve never been hit by a tornado (the closest passed by a few miles away) or flood or forest fire or other natural disaster.  I’ve weathered a few hurricanes and blizzards in my time and I’ve suffered through heat and humidity.  But blind luck and modern conveniences have spared me any serious harm from nature’s worst. 

What has taught me the most about the dark side of nature is no dramatic event, but rather the long, cold, dark, unrelenting Minnesota winter.  I’m now experiencing my thirty-fourth, having lived in Minnesota since 1979.  Some have been milder or shorter than others.  The last one was extremely long, as a series of heavy snowfalls reached into April.  This one started early with a heavy snowfall in early December followed by bone-chilling temperatures below zero that we usually don’t experience until January. 

I’ve learned how to dress for the cold and have never had frostbite, though, frankly, I find a damp cold closer to 32 degrees F above worse than a dry cold below zero.  Nonetheless, day after day of frigid sub-zero temperatures is a stark reminder of nature’s silent, potentially deadly, power.  It only takes twenty minutes for exposed skin to get frostbitten in such temperatures.  If you somehow get stranded outside or if your furnace fails, you are in a no-nonsense, life-threatening situation.  You learn, not only how to dress for the cold, but how to keep an emergency kit in your car if driving any distance,  get your furnace checked on an annual basis, and keep a supply of wood handy for the fireplace just in case.

Robert Frost’s New England winter poems seem mild by comparison.  No one would be “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” when it’s ten below! (See post December, 2010)  But if Frost captures the meditative calm of winter in that poem, he captures some of the human struggle with nature in this one, published in 1962. It hardly gives us a dramatic image such as “nature red in tooth and claw,” or Thomas Hobbes’ image of the state of nature as “nasty, brutish, and short,” or Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.”  Instead the image of a man in conflict with nature is rendered in rather simple, muted terms of moving “against the trees” to chop down a maple, presumably for winter warmth.

In this “one tree’s overthrow” Nature suffers “no defeat,” and in one man’s “retreat” there is likewise no defeat for the human species.  This encounter of “man against nature” ends in a draw.  Though nature throws its worst at us, it also provides the means by which we survive.  In Frost’s world there is a balanced reciprocity in the human “battle” with nature.  The same could be said of our Minnesota winters, assuming we use our wits and our best resources to contend with them.  Nature tests us, teaches us, and disciplines us, and as we rise to meet the challenge we grow stronger and, perhaps, wiser.

That last line of Frost’s poem troubles me though.  The human axeman retreats “For yet another blow.”  If it’s another balanced blow in proportion to Nature’s power, then it continues the cycle of human survival (and perhaps advancement?).  But if it’s a blow that upsets the equilibrium of Nature, if it’s a blow such as the excessive exploitation and destruction of the natural environment in recent decades that has resulted in an accelerated rate of climate change that threatens our very survival, then it’s an ominous blow.

Did Frost foresee the possibility of human excess upsetting the balance of nature to the degree that we see today?  I don’t know.  It’s certainly not apparent from this poem.  Only in retrospect does the thought arise that the human “battle” with Nature may be out of control. 

Which will prevail, human power or human wisdom?  If it is human power that prevails, then it may well backfire and lead us backwards to a more brutish life, if not extinction.  If it is human wisdom, then it may not be too late to restore some semblance of balance.  Science tells us that time is running short.

One thing we can be sure of.  Nature will have the last word.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ethical Egoism

Is happiness the highest good? (See previous post.)  Aristotle says yes because it is the only good that is an end in itself.  Virtue, like other goods, is a means to the end of happiness.  But, is it possible to be virtuous and unhappy?  Further, have you ever heard someone praised for being happy?  We may be happy for them, but is happiness a praiseworthy achievement?  Happiness is a state of being, but virtue is a trait of character that we find praiseworthy regardless of whether the virtuous person is happy or not.  Which is the higher good, to be happy and dishonorable or to be virtuous and unhappy?

Virtue ethics focuses on character rather than rules or acts or consequences.  If one develops an honorable character, one will act ethically.  Motive is more important than consequences.  Character is a central element of fiction, and we have considered it in previous posts on literature and ethics.  Does the character of the lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener” (Sept. 2013) merit salvation? Is the character of the bishop in “The Bishop and the Candlesticks” (Oct. 2013) too good to be true?  Can the character of the soldier in “A Horseman in the Sky” (Nov. 2013) be separated from his actions? Is Stockmann’s character superior to the townspeople in “An Enemy of the People” (Nov. 2013)? What exactly is the character of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (Dec. 2013), or, for that matter, of those who don't?  

In those cases, we assume we know what constitutes good vs. bad or strong vs. weak character.  Ayn Rand is an author who puts our conventional views to the test.

In Part III, Chapter VII (“This is John Galt Speaking”) of her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, she presents a defense of Ethical Egoism, in which virtue is equated with the rational pursuit of individual happiness without regard for the welfare of others.  We are each responsible for our own happiness, not for others’, and selfishness is a virtue.  (See previous post, Sept. 2012.) 

As a secular materialist and atheist, Rand explicitly rejects the Christian ethics of humility, charity, and altruism.  Similarly, the notion of “duty” to be found in deontological ethics is anathema to her since it bases morality on obligatory principles rather than freely chosen means to one’s own happiness.  She likewise rejects the Utilitarian ethics of the “greatest happiness for the greatest number.”   It is individual happiness that is the greatest value.  She offers her own version of virtue ethics, replacing such commonly accepted virtues as love, compassion, humility, generosity, moderation, fairness, reciprocity, self-discipline, gratitude, etc., with such characteristics as self-love, radical individualism, and value production.  The praiseworthy individual is the “producer” of value who pursues his or her own happiness and resists the “parasites, looters, and moochers” who seek to live off the producers.  In Rand’s world, the “producers” equate with owners of property and capital. That these owners produce value off the labor of workers, who serve as means to the end of the producers’ happiness, utterly escapes Ayn Rand.

Such a philosophy assumes that we are all equal in our abilities and opportunities, that suffering is the result of our own failures, and that happiness is the reward for rational selfishness.  Random luck and systemic injustice have no place in this universe.  They are merely excuses used by the losers to rationalize their failure.

Ethical egoism can serve as a corrective to an ethic of extreme self-denial and self-sacrifice, but it goes to the opposite extreme of self-aggrandizement and self-exaltation.  It completely overlooks the interdependence of individuals, the value of social cohesion, and the role of reciprocity in healthy social relationships.

When Aristotle relegates virtue to a means to the end of happiness, he acknowledges that individual happiness is dependent, not only on the individual’s virtue, but on the virtue of others.  For Aristotle both virtue and happiness are socially shared goods.  Individual virtue contributes to the common good, and the common good contributes to individual happiness.  We praise a virtuous character because it benefits the whole.

So which is better?  To be happy and dishonorable or to be virtuous and unhappy?  Ayn Rand would probably choose the former; a strongly religious believer would likely choose the latter.  In Aristotle’s world, however, those without virtue will pay a social price that reduces any happiness and those who are virtuous will reap a social reward that mitigates any unhappiness.

This ends the series of blog posts since September on literature and ethics, covering five theories of ethics: authority based divine command, deontological ethics, relativism, Utilitarianism, and virtue ethics.  In practice we use all these theories to one degree or another.  Atheists would not appeal to the authority of divine command, of course, but they might arrive at similar values by an appeal to reason.  Likewise, religious adherents, upon finding themselves in an ethical bind when caught between conflicting divine commands, might have recourse to independent reason.  Different situations might call for the application of different ethical criteria.  This conclusion may sound like relativism, but reason tells us that relativism, by definition, cannot be absolute.  There may be few, if any, ethical absolutes (rules that apply without exception), but there are surely general ethical principles (guidelines with sensible exceptions) based on reason and shared human interests.

One value of literature is that it can dramatize the abstractions of ethical theory, enabling us to think about it in concrete terms, bringing to consciousness what we take for granted, raising our awareness of unanticipated complications, and enhancing our understanding of what it means to live an ethical life.

Friday, December 6, 2013

"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

In this 1973 short story Ursula Le Guin dramatizes the Utilitarian idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number at the expense of a minority (see previous post).  Omelas is a town in which all but one are happy.  Their “utopia” is only made possible by the suffering of a child who is kept imprisoned in miserable conditions behind a locked door.

The residents of Omelas know the child is there:

 “…they all understand that  their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” 

The situation is explained to the children of Omelas between the ages of eight and twelve.  They are taken to see the suffering child and told that such is the price of everyone else’s happiness.  Though they are “always shocked and sickened by the sight,” though they “feel disgust…anger, outrage, impotence,” though they “may brood over it for weeks and years,” most of them eventually come to accept the terms which guarantee the happiness of the majority.

There are a few though, adolescents and adults, who decide to walk away from Omelas:

“They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back.  The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the place of happiness.  I cannot describe it at all.  It is possible it does not exist.  But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

According to Wikipedia (, Omelas is “Salem O” backwards, that is Salem, Oregon, which Le Guin saw on a highway sign from her rearview mirror.  Salem, of course, reminds us of Salem, Massachusetts, famous for the witch hunt that resulted in nineteen townspeople being hung and one man, who refused to enter a plea, being pressed to death by heavy stones on his chest.  In this classic example of scapegoating, the upstanding citizens of Salem projected their own guilt onto a few and sought to purge themselves by victimizing those few.

Is it possible to walk away from Omelas?  Or is it an unavoidable reality that the happiness of the many depends on the “necessary evil” of suffering by a few? 

Is Omelas a utopia or is it an image of the real world in which prosperous countries exploit the resources and labor of poor countries, in which the wealthy hoard their riches at the expense of the needy, in which the security of the majority depends on those who put their lives at risk in the military, in which the privileged enjoy their status by looking down on those with less, in which the fortunate give themselves the credit and blame the unfortunate for their adversity?

Is the true utopia one in which suffering does not exist, or is at least always relieved, or is at least equally shared?

Are the ones who walk away from Omelas “into the darkness” the ones who are unable to come to terms with evil in the world and live out their lives in despair?

Are they the idealists who live in a dream world refusing to accept the reality that full equality is impossible and that one person’s gain is always someone else’s loss?

Or are they the ones who work for economic and social justice instead of accepting the world as it is, the ones who “seem to know where they are going” as they seek amelioration of suffering and injustice, if not its absolute erasure.

Is Utilitarianism based on the inevitable reality of necessary evils or does it simply rationalize unnecessary evils for the benefit of the majority?

For that matter, is happiness the greatest good, especially if it is contingent on another’s misery?  What about virtue?  Is it better to be happy and unethical or unhappy and virtuous? Are the ones that walk away from Omelas seeking a higher good than happiness? (see next post)

An Enemy of the People II

Another way of reading An Enemy of the People (see Nov. 12 post) is as a scapegoat story, in which the townspeople project their own guilt onto Dr. Stockmann and punish him in order to relieve their own psychic tension.

Kenneth Burke ( argues that all rhetoric, including literature, features some level or degree of victimage, either self-mortification or scapegoating an external enemy.  Burke makes it sound like this universal feature of rhetoric reflects or expresses a universal human nature.  As humans we always fall short of our ideals.  Thus we demand some kind of sacrifice in order to achieve “redemption” or “atonement” for our “sins,” even if the ones we sacrifice are innocent.

As readers or spectators of the play, we identify with Dr. Stockmann, a physician, a healer, and a man of principle.  As a scapegoat, his sacrifice becomes that of a heroic martyr. 

From another perspective, though, Ibsen “scapegoats” the townspeople.  Though they target Stockmann as an “enemy of the people,” we know that they are actually the enemy—of truth, “right,” and moral principle.  As humans, we often fall short of truthfulness, righteousness, and principled moral behavior.  We thus project our own failings onto the townspeople, identify with the sacrificial hero, scapegoat the townspeople, and thereby achieve redemption from our own guilt.  Just as the townspeople raise their status by targeting Stockmann, we raise our own status by lowering that of the townspeople.

Thinking back to “Bartleby the Scrivener” (see Sept. 28 post), we can see how Bartleby serves as a scapegoat for the guilt of a so-called “Christian” society which puts its capitalist pursuit of money and prosperity ahead of its professed religious values.

And in “A Horseman in the Sky” (see Nov. 1 post), Druse’s father serves as a scapegoat for the guilt of a nation that has turned against itself in a violent Civil War.

Regardless of the psychological implications, almost every ethical dilemma involves the “necessary evil” of sacrificing some “good” in order to achieve a perceived greater good.  It is necessary to incarcerate Bartleby in order to maintain the social order for everyone else.  It is necessary to sacrifice the horseman in order to protect the Union.  It is necessary to sacrifice Stockmann in order to protect the town as a whole.  In some cases we may agree that, indeed, the sacrifice is necessary, as in the case of Carter Druse.  In other cases, we may see the sacrifice as unjust, as in the case of Bartleby or Stockmann. 

There is one ethical theory that is based on the “necessary evil” of sacrificing some good.  Utilitarianism, the principle of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” assumes that the welfare of the majority depends upon the suffering of a few.  For the Utilitarian, such is the nature of reality; it cannot be escaped.  But not everyone is willing to accept such a state of affairs.  (See next post.)