Trees, and Plato, by way of Kant: some meta-analogies

There’s a book I love which I twice stumbled on in the library, decades apart. It draws an analogy between the Darwinian “tree of life”, and the family tree of Indo-European languages; perhaps there was even a third example. I can’t remember what was proposed as the commonality (something in the Zeitgeist, presumably). What fascinated me was the presence of the same pattern in foreign domains.

I have recently posted about the psychology of misdeeds, or interpersonal dysfunction, or something like that (I am torn between the clarity of bygone times and a cumbrous attempt not to prejudge, and it is those poles that are at stake). The word “misdeed” points towards the most general form of the question, namely the problem of evil. Isn’t “evil” just a label for the failure to think through someone’s motivation, perhaps because to do so is unbearable? That is, maybe evil exists in literature, and theology, and (God help us) the internet, but not in the muddle of real life. Plato untranslatably said, οὐδείς ἑκών ἁμαρτάνει, no one intentionally sins (but the connotations of that word are out of time). There is no evil cackle, and the Devil wears no horns when he visits us; to borrow the imagery of the fairy tale, he has no giveaway long teeth. A friend suggested to me that a line is crossed when we knowingly harm others for our own ends, but the devil is in the detail: even in extreme cases that are at first glance open and shut, there is usually some sense of parity or entitlement, or perhaps a grievance against the world itself, where the victim is just unlucky to be there. But in such psychological “close reading” motive and action form a chaotic blur, like the Kantian manifold before the synthesis. Terms such as “manipulative” feel as though they serve a useful organising purpose, even though they fall short in miscasting mental processes as cold that in the wild are almost always hot: it’s their panting incoherence that enables the person on the knife-edge of taking the better course to turn away from it.

The analogy that I want to draw is with language. Its claim to be illuminating is that the domain of language is better understood than (for want of a better term) moral psychology; and the aptness of Kant’s bridge between empiricism and idealism readily apparent. Language inheres in a succession of idealisations. For example, every language (or strictly speaking, instance of language, such as ideolect, though even that is an abstraction from different registers that may be used; but all that is irrelevant for present purposes) has a phonology structured according to oppositions such as voicing, nasality, aspiration, length; but the actual sounds we utter only cluster around their ideal centre, and may come perilously close to indeterminacy. Phonology is an abstraction, but it is a meaningful one and language depends on the process of abstraction. It is in this sense that Chomsky is commonly said to be a Kantian (though of his own flavour).

In the same way (with a relation akin to that between the two or three kinds of family tree), moral thinking exists within a tension between idealised forms such as “intention” and “motive”, or at a further remove, moral schemas such as the Categorical Imperative, or utilitarianism; and the messy state of befuddlement, the feverish velocity, the self-deception that probably underlies almost all wrongdoing, and a high enough proportion of those times when we were lucky enough to make the better call. But still we want to be able to say: that was wrong, not mainly in order to condemn (what, generally, is the use in that?) but in order to cultivate the clarity in moral reasoning that will guide our own choices. We cannot afford to let ourselves get away with succumbing to — shall we call it irrationality? — though it lies within us all. But the main reason it happens is because it is insidious. The elision of complexity and chaos and diabolical charm on which those moral concepts rest makes it seem as though badness would be easy to spot, even in others, but especially in ourselves. It may even come closest to declaring itself in the intoxicating sensation of being in the right.


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