Saturday, 1 September 2012

Martini & Eco: ethics for (non)believers

Martini eco

The passing of one of the princes of the Church is always a call for me to find out a bit about them, if I didn't know of them already, and Cardinal Martini, whose dies natalis was yesterday, is no exception. I'll leave it to you to find out about him for yourself (and there is certainly interesting material widely available across the internet) and will instead spend a couple of paragraphs talking about a topic very close to my own heart: the relationship between believers and nonbelievers, which is also the subject of a great book (or rather pamphlet as it is only 60-odd pages in length) containing the correspondence of Carlo Maria Martini and one of my favorite writers and an agnostic, Umberto Eco. The book is entitled “Belief Or Nonbelief ” and I highly recommend it to you in full.

The two points I would like to pick out here (and I may return to others covered there in the future) are what constitutes (non)believers and whether one can think of a common basis for ethics that can be shared by all.

In the introduction, by Harvey Cox, Martini is quoted as saying the following about (non)believers:
When I think about “believers” and “nonbelievers,” I don't have two different groups of people in mind. In all of us there is something of the believer and something of the nonbeliever, and this is true of this bishop as well.
As soon as I read this, I knew that I was going to enjoy the whole book - and I was not disappointed. After tackling topics like hope, human life and the role of men and women, the pair – who deliver a masterclass is dialogue (neither trying to trip up or ridicule the other, striving to deepen their understanding of each other’s positions) - turn to the question of whether there is common ground in terms of the ethical basis of believers and nonbelievers.

The question is posed by Martini, who asks: “what guides a secular person[, who does not recognize a personal God or appeal to an Absolute, to] profess moral principles, principles so firmly held that the person would give his life for them?” Martini acknowledges that all have ethical foundations and that even believers would often not seek recourse to God when making decisions under ordinary circumstances. What interests Martini is what happens in extremis - when one’s life is at stake – and he also pays homage to nonbelievers who have sacrificed their lives for their moral convictions or performed acts of great altruism. He is particularly keen to drill down to the foundations, which kick into action when things are pushed to their limits and wants to sweep away the consequences of “custom, convention, usage, functional or pragmatic behavior, even social necessity” and get to life and death choices which these can’t underpin.

To answer his question on behalf of believers, Martini points to inter-religious efforts that have looked into it and that point to it being “transcendental Mystery” that forms the basis for moral action. For Christians this is the Trinity, which provides us with “God the Father, Creator of All, and our brother Jesus Christ,” who give us an impulse to closeness and solidarity with others and who express that “the other is within us.”1 Quoting Hans Küng, Martini also points out that this basis makes ethical values “binding unconditionally (and not simply when it’s convenient) and hence universally (to all classes, ranks, and races).”

Eco’s2 response kicks off with an admission of his, now lost, Catholic roots and the realization that their past presence cannot be factored out. Given such caveats, he states that there can be a sense of the scared and of “communion with something greater even in the absence of faith in a personal and provident deity,” but he rightly comes back on track by reiterating the focus on that which is “binding, compelling, and unrenounceable” in secular ethics.

Eco cleverly and appropriately widens the scope of the question to universals and not just their application to ethics and proceeds with a magisterial introduction to “universal semantics3 – i.e., that “notions common to all cultures exist” (citing examples of referring to our position in space - up, down, left, right, …). After postulating the universality of perception, memory, desire, fear, pleasure, pain, … Eco steps back and draws our attention to there being not only universals applicable to the “solitary Adam,” but that sex, dialogue, parental love or the loss of a loved one provide social ones too. Poignantly Eco exposes the underlying implications of the semantic basis so far - that of focusing on ‘us,’ and on restricting the “other” or Martini’s “the other is within us” to those from our own tribal group, ethnicity or circle. Those outwith are inhuman and may therefore be treated barbarically even while members of one’s own group are afforded respect. Eco places the growth of who is considered a member of one’s circle at a millennial scale and cites even Jesus’s coming as having been conditioned by when humanity was ready for his teaching of the Golden Rule.

To get to the basis of what can drive a nonbeliever to give their life for a moral principle, Eco cites the example of a “communist” whom he asked how he, an atheist, can make sense of “something as otherwise meaningless as his own death.” “By asking before I die for a public funeral, so that, though I am no longer, I have left an example to others.” Eco argues that it is this “continuity of life,” a sense of duty to those who come after us, “because in some way what one believes or what one finds beautiful can be believed or seen as beautiful by those who come after.”

In essence my take on this exchange is that Martini threw a bit of a curved ball, knowing that Eco’s answer can but elaborate the consequences of his own beliefs about the roots of morality since he also believes that God is present in all - whether they believe in him or not. Eco did hold his own though by turning the situation around and highlighting the value of the Christian story, whether it is true or not. What they have done together is present a case for the Golden Rule both from divine revelation and from semantic analysis. I only see winners in this exchange: Martini’s “the other is within us” and Eco’s “continuity of life” form a pair of insights that, I believe, enrich all (non)believers :).

1 See my take on the epistemological parallel of this concept here.
2Please, note that, unlike Cardinal Martini for Catholics, Eco is not an official representative of nonbelievers and his answer therefore cannot be taken even as being intended as an answer on behalf of all nonbelievers. I, therefore, also don’t take it as such and don’t presume that, if you are a nonbeliever, it represents you. If you do happen to be a nonbeliever reading this and either agree or disagree with Eco’s take, I’d very much appreciate hearing from you in the comments. Thanks! :)
3 Semantics being the “study of meaning.”

Somewhat off-topic is another gem from the book - a reference of Eco’s to Kant’s take on atheism: how can one not believe in God, maintain that it is impossible to prove his existence, yet also firmly believe in the nonexistence of God, claiming that it can be proved :)

I would, finally, also like to dedicate this post to my bestie, SH - the most sincere agnostic I have ever met and a man who to this day teaches me humility by consistently beating me at scrabble, typically by a factor of two ...