August 2, 2013

Henry Geiger - An Ancient Question (1986)

Henry Geiger (1908?-15 February 1989) was the editor, publisher, and chief writer of MANAS Journal which published from 1948-1988. Abraham Maslow called him “the only small ‘p’ philosopher America has produced in this century.”
Below is an excerpt from, "An Ancient Question" by Henry Geiger. Source: MANAS Journal, Volume XXXIX, No. 13. March 26, 1986.
There are two reasons for turning to Albert Einstein from time to time, and musing over his thoughts. First, he was the greatest scientist of our time. Second, he had an acutely alert moral sense and the part he played in providing the theoretical basis for the atom bomb weighed heavily upon him. A third reason would be that he thought deeply about the origin of the moral sense and examined the justifications for the judgments in which it results. Actually, this third reason for consulting him may be the most important of all, since thoughtful humans of our time are nearly all now concerned with the means of confirming the reality of ethical principles or the existence of what we call moral law. As Wendell Berry pointed out in a recent essay, we all know enough not to step off a roof—we would fall and break a leg or worse—but many people find it natural to "regard their neighbors as enemies or competitors or economic victims." This, he remarked, is because if there is a penalty for such attitudes and actions, it does not come at once, like falling off a roof, but is deferred, and "deferred justice is no justice; we will rape the land and oppress the poor, and leave starvation and bloody vengeance (we hope) to be 'surprises' or 'acts of God' to a later generation."

How, then, can we assure ourselves that there is a moral law—or that there is not? In 1950 Einstein wrote a brief statement, "The Laws of Science and the Laws of Ethics" (reprinted in Out of My Later Years ), which gave his understanding of the difference between the two. He said:
Science searches for relations which are thought to exist independently of the searching individual. This includes the case where man himself is the subject. Or the subject of scientific statements may be concepts created by ourselves, as in mathematics. Such concepts are not necessarily supposed to correspond to any objects in the outside world. However all scientific statements and laws have one characteristic in common: they are "true or false" (adequate or inadequate). Roughly speaking, our reaction to them is "yes" or "no."

The scientific way of thinking has a further characteristic. The concepts which it uses to build up its coherent systems are not expressing emotions. For the scientist, there is only "being," but no wishing, no valuing, no good, no evil; no goal. As long as we remain within the realm of science proper, we can never meet with a sentence of the type: "Thou shalt not lie." There is something like a Puritan's restraint in the scientist who seeks truth: he keeps away from everything voluntaristic or emotional. Incidentally, this trait is the result of a slow development, peculiar to modern Western thought.

From this it might seem as if logical thinking were irrelevant for ethics. Scientific statements of facts and relations indeed, cannot produce ethical directives. However, ethical directives can be made rational and coherent by logical thinking and empirical knowledge. If we can agree on some fundamental ethical propositions, then other ethical propositions can be derived from them, provided that the original premises are stated with sufficient precision. Such ethical premises play a similar role in ethics, to that played by axioms in mathematics.

This is why we do not feel at all that it is meaningless to ask such questions as: "Why should we not lie?" We feel that such questions are meaningful because in all discussions of this kind some ethical premises are tacitly taken for granted. We then feel satisfied when we succeed in tracing back the ethical directive in question to these basic premises. In the case of lying this might perhaps be done in some way such as this: Lying destroys confidence in the statements of other people. Without such confidence, social cooperation is made impossible or at least difficult. Such cooperation, however, is essential to make human life possible and tolerable. This means that the rule "Thou shalt not lie" has been traced back to the demands: "Human life shall be preserved" and "Pain and sorrow shall be lessened as much as possible."
But where do these primary ethical rules come from? They are, Einstein says, "by no means arbitrary from a psychological and genetic point of view." They come, he says, from our inborn tendencies to avoid pain and from the emotional reaction of people to the behavior of their neighbors. He concludes:
It is the privilege of man's moral genius impersonated by inspired individuals, to advance ethical axioms which are so comprehensive and so well founded that men will accept them as grounded in the vast mass of their individual emotional experiences. Ethical axioms are found and tested not very differently from the axioms of science. Truth is what stands the test of experience.
This does not seem a very strong statement, although Dr. Einstein's ethical sense was very powerful indeed, having a decisive influence on his life. He often spoke of intuition as being the source of great scientific discoveries, and why, one wonders, did he not use this term to describe the emergence of strong ethical conviction such as he possessed?

Consider another of his statements which was published in Living Philosophies (1931) under the title "The World as I see It":
How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people—first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. I am strongly drawn to a frugal life and am often oppressively aware that I am engrossing an undue amount of the labor of my fellow-men.

      .   .   .  everybody has certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavors and his judgments. In this sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves—this ethical basis I call the ideal of the pigsty. The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. . . . The trite objects of human efforts—possessions, outward success, luxury—have always seemed to me contemptible.
At the end of a tribute to H.A. Lorentz, the famous Dutch physicist, delivered on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, in 1953, Einstein quoted some of Lorentz's sayings:
"I am happy to belong to a nation that is too small to commit big follies."

To a man who in a conversation during the first World War tried to convince him that in the human sphere fate is determined by might and force he gave this reply:

"It is conceivable that you are right. But I would not want to live in such a world."
This choice among Lorentz's sayings seems at least evidence that Einstein's deepest convictions were founded on something more fundamental than the desire to "preserve life." The ethical sense no doubt has its pragmatic justification, but mere survival is far from being the ground of the highest ideals. Yet there is certainly a difference between scientific certainty—the certainty that gravity will operate on all bodies which lose their physical support—as when you step off the roof—and the moral certainty possessed by some, but not others, that death is better than a dishonorable or compromised life. The immediacy of physical law is often lacking or imperceptible in the result of a moral violation, and there are cases, as in various forms of self-indulgence, where the ill-effects are deferred for years. The onset of diabetes is an example.

Nations, too, may be deceived by the deferment of the effects of their policy, if the moral law is left out of account. Yet the accumulating results of the misuse of power eventually come to the surface of history, although they may not be recognized as such but blamed on malignant forces which national leaders declare must be erased from the earth. As Wendell Berry puts it:
If some Christians make it an article of faith that it is good to kill heathens or Communists, they will sooner or later have corpses to show for it. If some Christians believe, as alleged, that God gave them the world to do with as they please, they will sooner or later have deserts and ruins in measurable proof. . . .

That it is thus possible for an article of faith to be right or wrong according to worldly result suggests that we may be up against limits and necessities in our earthly experience as absolute as "the will of God" was ever taken to be, and that "the will of God" as expressed in moral law may therefore have the same standing as the laws of gravity and thermodynamics. In Dryden's day, perhaps, it was still possible to think of "love one another" as a rule contingent on faith. By our own day such evidence has accumulated as to suggest that it may be an absolute law: Love one another or die, individually and as a species.
The question arises: If we must wait until all the evidence is in before we make our decision as to the reality of moral law, will it then be far too late? How many will still be alive to learn the lesson at last? But what is the alternative? Berry considers this question:
Because moral justice tends not to be direct or immediate, obedience to moral law, whether or not we think it divine becomes a matter of propriety: of asking who and where we think we are, and on whose behalf (if anyone's) we think we are acting. And it may be that these questions cannot be asked, much less answered, until the question of authority has been settled, there being, that is, no need to ask such questions if we think the only authority resides in ourselves or, as must follow, in each one of ourselves.
Well, ultimately, the authority does lie in ourselves, since we are the ones who have to make decision. Yet there is some help in the religious scriptures, philosophies, and certain of the psychologies of the world. But in a decision of this sort, we are unable to rely on borrowed truth. This is the stern contribution of our scientific age at its best: we must think for ourselves. But again, we may have help in learning how to think. There is need, in the case of the moral law, to transfer the rigor of scientific inquiry to the investigation of metaphysical possibilities. Freud, it was said by one of his students, named the Buddha as the greatest psychologist of all time. The Buddha declared the moral law, yet insisted that each one must make his own decisions about its reality and operations. Perhaps the clearest statement of that law is in the opening "twin verses" of the Dhammapada:
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: all that we are is founded on our thoughts and formed of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain pursues him, as the wheel of the wagon follows the hoof of the ox that draws it.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought; all that we are is founded on our thoughts and formed of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness pursues him like his own shadow that never leaves him.
It is difficult to disregard or regard casually this verity. It rings with truth, with its own authority. Yet it must be admitted that the Age of Faith is over and done with. We have worn out nearly all our beliefs. We refer all the great questions to ourselves. But now we are overburdened with them and look back nostalgically to the days of easy and firm belief. But at the same time, we cannot really go back. And now, in the closing years of the twentieth century, we very much fear to go forward, because the way we have made in our proud independence is indeed frightening. It has no invitation in it, but only horror—a horror which learned men find quite incalculable. We want, we say, certainty above all. Yet reflection shows that premature certainty is both fraudulent and dehumanizing. While the teachers of a sure thing philosophy can always attract large crowds, the crowds are made up of people in whom the authentic human spirit has not yet come to life. The best and wisest humans of the modern world are the uncertain ones. Is that because, as Cervantes said, the road is better than the inn?