Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The One True Path by Cullen Murphy

Moral certainty ignites every inquisition and then feeds it with oxygen. One might argue that there’s less moral certainty in the world today than there was fifty (or five hundred) years ago. The power of the Church is vastly diminished. The power of the great secular “isms” – communism, fascism – has dissipated. Moral certainty seems to lack the institutional base it once had. But as a personal matter –as what individuals actually believe – it is as pervasive as ever, even if certainties are in collision.

Moral certainty underlies the idea of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. Surveys consistently find that a large proportion of Americans – about a third – believe the Bible to be unerringly true in all particulars – the “actual word of God” and something to be “taken literally.” After authorizing the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush was asked if he had consulted his father, the former president, for advice as he weighed his decision. Bush answered that he had not – but that he had consulted “a higher power.”

For some, the higher power is not God per se but the forces of history, or democracy, or reason, or technology, or science, or a subset of science such as evolutionary psychology or genetics – and these people are no less certain in their convictions. Sometimes its even hard to tell the various parties apart: one mutates into another in surprising ways.

How different are the certainties of the ancients from those of the moderns? Writing in The New Yorker some years ago, Louis Menand posited the breakdown of traditional monotheism into “genetic polytheism” in which personal behavior is attributed to an individualized genetic pantheon. Where once there was a god of anger, now there is a gene of aggression. Where once there was a god of wine, now there is a gene of alcoholism. In ancient Greece, Phobos was the god of fear. Today he is gene SLC6A4, whose specific Olympian dwelling place is chromosome 17q12.

There is another way of looking at the certainty issue – by flipping it on its head. The presumption is now widespread, though rarely articulated in these terms, that lack of certainty is unacceptable. It is the presumption that if we only knew enough, and paid enough attention, and applied sufficient resources, then ills of all kinds would disappear. Anti-terrorism measures are built on this assumption, and so new forms of search and surveillance are added continually to the older ones. U.S. foreign policy has long been premised on the assumption that a threat to America anywhere is a threat to us everywhere. Though its proponents failed to consider that taking action entails as much uncertainty as taking no action, the policy of preemption, articulated by the Bush administration, was built on the proposition that uncertainty cannot be countenanced. The catalyzing moment was caught by the writer Ron Suskind, reporting on Vice President Cheney:

Cheney listened intently, hard-eyed, clamped down tight. When the briefing finished, he said nothing for a moment. And then he was ready with his “different way.”

“If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response,” Cheney said. He paused to assess his declaration. “It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence,” he added. “It’s about our response.”

So, now, spoken, it stood: a standard of action that would frame events and responses for years to come. The Cheney Doctrine. Even if there’s a one percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. . . .

A few years ago, the political philosopher Michael Sandel published a small book called The Case for Imperfection. Its ostensible focus is on genetic engineering and other scientific methods for ensuring that human beings who walk the planet are as good as they can be – as close to perfect as we can make them. But the larger purpose is to raise the question: Is perfection desirable? Yes, of course, it is a worthy goal to diminish disease, incapacity, and other afflictions. But the quest for perfection goes well beyond such efforts, even as we disagree on what “perfection” actually means.

More to the point, Sandel asks, shouldn’t we pause to consider the contribution imperfection makes to the betterment of the human condition? Our individual qualities and flaws are distributed unevenly. For now, they are also distributed randomly. We deserve neither full credit for what is good about ourselves nor full blame for what is bad. No one does. This aleatory quality – each on of us in some sense represents a throw of nature’s dice – has important consequences. Rightly understood, it puts a premium on what we do have in common: to begin with, our moral equality as beings, regardless of specific attributes. Because all of us come up short in some dimension, it conduces to tolerance. “One of the blessings of seeing ourselves as creatures of nature, God, or fortune is that we are not wholly responsible for the way we are,” Sandel writes. “The more alive we are to the chanced nature of our lot, the more reason we have to share our fate with others.”

The Inquisition – any inquisition – is the product of a contrary way of seeing things. It takes root and thrives when moral inequality is perceived between one party and everyone else. Inquisitions invite members of one group – national, religious, corporate, political – to sit in judgment on members of another: to think of themselves, in a sense, as God’s jury. Fundamentally, the inquisitorial impulses arises from some vision of the ultimate good, some conviction about ultimate truth, some confidence in the quest for perfectibility, and some certainty about the path to the desired place – and about who to blame for obstacles on the way.

Inquisitions have a tangible component as well as a notional component. On the one hand, there are the laws, the bureaucracies, the surveillance, the data-gathering, the ways of meting out punishment and applying force. One can imagine “reforms,” “restrictions,” “guidelines,” and “safeguards” in all these areas, to keep abuses in check. Some already exist, to limited effect. Individuals and organizations all around the world are engaged in efforts to enact legal curbs of one kind or another, I wish them well.

On the other hand, there is the idea that some single course is right, that we can ascertain what it is, and that we should take all the necessary measures to compel everyone in that direction. The drafters of the U.S. Constitution – fearful of rule by one opinion, whether the tyrant’s or the mob’s – created a governmental structure premised on the idea that human beings are fallible, fickle, and unreliable, and sometimes to be feared. Triumphalist rhetoric about the Constitution ignores the skeptical view of human nature which underlies it. The Church itself, in its more sober teachings on certitude and doubt, has always raised a red flag: Human beings are fallen creatures. Certitude can be a snare. Doubt can be a helping hand. When the Church says it has “no fear of historical truth,” the point it should be trying to convey is this: it has no fear because if historical truth demonstrates anything, it is that we will keep taking the wrong path – and to acknowledge that fact helps to keep us on the right one. Humility is the Counter-Inquisition’s most effective ally. It can’t be legislated, but it can come to be embraced.

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