The Ethics of Starvation: John Gray meets The Joker
(A short extract from Contrivances: Lacunae, Abstracta and Quasi-Being, a work in progress.)
When human beings are starving, their higher brain function – the seat of ethical thought – is severely inhibited. In extreme cases where we can survive only through eating the flesh of other humans, this removal of ethical restraint and the inevitable dissolution of associated taboos has proved crucial. The same can be seen with other true-life accounts of suffering such as those of Varlam Shalamov, recounted in his Kolyma Tales, where it appears that extreme hardship and the constant presence of threat often obliterate the moral faculties of his fellow prisoners; morality cannot, it seems, survive under such pressure. What these observations tell us is that in situations of severe mental and physical hardship we come to see what a luxury our ethical framework is, and how this once seemingly imperious dogma inevitably wavers and eventually perishes in the face of acute physical deprivation and mortal peril. Our ideals, our nerve, and our biology will, we are told, let us down. Although we can, no doubt, come up with some counterexamples where similarly harsh environments allow some moral heroes to show their worth, making supreme sacrifices for the sake of others, these strike us as exceptional for one very good reason: we could not realistically expect the same of ourselves or most other people. Such selflessness often strikes us as inhuman, beyond what we would take to be normal human behaviour, given the conditions in which they occur.
What, then, is the lesson to be learnt from all this, the conclusion to be reached, if any? For John Gray, in his book Straw Dogs, it is this:
Morality is supposed to be universal and categorical. But the lesson […] is that it is a convenience, to be relied upon only in normal times. (Gray: 2002, 90)
While this is, on the surface, a reasonable enough claim, ultimately it misses the point. For starters, moral failings do not negate the universality and categorical nature of morality; they merely show how hard it is to be moral, especially when the test is great. If they did, then such an abiding conception of morality could never have gained any ground in the first place. But the real point is this: the fact that fear for our own lives and extreme physical deprivation can blind us to moral considerations, that the importance we attribute to morality (along with art, literature, philosophy, mathematics and science) is something our physicality, our biology, our instincts can temporarily eradicate given the right conditions, is reason to believe that we, as persons, and likewise as moral entities, are ultimately in bondage to our bodies’ quest for survival. We can see evidence of this very struggle in a line, quoted by Gray, from Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. In the penultimate paragraph of ‘Quiet’, Shalamov states that,
There are times when a man has to hurry so as not to lose his will to die.
The lines preceding this one run as follows:
And suddenly I realized that that night’s dinner had given the sectarian the strength he needed for his suicide. He needed that extra portion of kasha to make up his mind to die. (Shalamov 1994: 442)
The man in question, simply named ‘the sectarian’, has up until the point of his suicide been a “semi-corpse” among “semi-corpses”, a shell of withered flesh almost devoid of personhood. The entire work gang live their lives, such as they are, like weary automatons, stripped of the strength necessary to exercise their wills, to be the persons they distantly remember being. They strive to stay alive without quite knowing why. The extra rations allowed the sectarian to be himself once more, to see clearly what he’d become and what he’d inevitably return to; this momentary and fatal relapse into his person allows him to take control while he still can, before the cold and the hunger consume him once more, leaving nothing behind but his body, a whore to life at any cost.
What Gray concludes and what he wants us to conclude and learn to accept is that our values and ideals are not actually representative of who we really are, and that we are in essence just physical and largely amoral entities whose supposed allegiance to morality is mere narrative convenience, by which “we obscure the truth of how we live.” (Gray 2002: 89) But he too obscures the truth of how we live and who we are. For the people Shalamov describes do not identify themselves with the remnants of personhood that their circumstances have left behind – psychology stripped down to fundamentals, men forced to understand things “not with their minds, but with their bodies.” (Shalamov 1994: 438) – but with the persons they once were and long to be again. The truth is that persons are partially destroyed by such hardships, and not that what was only ever an amoral human being is finally true to itself, divested as it is of its fanciful delusions. For as we see, the so-called delusion is still very much in place, if indeed it is one, ready to return when the debilitating conditions are remedied.
Gray’s position here is almost identical to that of The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The Joker, while being interrogated by Batman, explains himself as follows:
“See their morals, their code, is a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you: when the chips are down these civilized people, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster; I’m just ahead of the curve.” (Nolan: 2008)
The Joker accepts this underlying state of amorality as his default mode; and while he accepts that there is a moral difference between himself and other ‘civilized’ people, he points out that that difference is grounded in a fragile conceit that he has justifiably discarded. Unlike Gray, he doesn’t go on to claim that other civilized people are therefore just like him, for he is, after all, “ahead of the curve.” But nevertheless the mistaken implication is, in essence, the same: that of seeing the strained and ill-functioning self as somehow truer (more representative of human life) than its untroubled and smoothly-functioning counterpart. While Gray’s and The Joker’s observations about the inherent frangibility of moral codes of conduct when confronted with the pressures of existence are undoubtedly supported by the testimony of many, they do not justify the subsequent leap that seeks to explain the essentiality of persons and moral agents by way of this corrupted state. For while most of us, given the right circumstances, would experience a narrowing of our perspective, to a point usually thought more representative of amoral animals than human beings, there is nevertheless a diminishment, and given the conditions of impairment facilitating this diminishment, there is far less reason to identify our essential being (if indeed we presume one) with that diminished than there is with that undiminished. Accepting that persons and their attendant moralities are contrivances does not necessitate that we ignore their pervasiveness, that we disregard how much of who we are they account for: the void of the self is not unbounded, but rather shaped from the inside with excavations tooled by the stories we tell about ourselves. Persons may be nothings, but they are shaped nothings, and to ignore the shape, treat the contours like they too are nothing, is to mistake the very real and figurate procedures of excavation for the empty space created in their wake. Persons are not the masks we’ve unwittingly taken for our faces, but the masks that unwittingly became our faces.