Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 10, No. 1, 2011
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dubé
David Solway
Sylvain Richard
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Denis Beaumont Marcel Dubois
Bernard Dubé
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
David Solway
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somverville
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Excess on occasion is exhilarating.
It prevents moderation from acquiring
the deadening effect of a habit.
Somerset Maugham

With the exception of the unregenerate cynic and die-hard absurdist, we rather easily go about our lives as if life is meaningful. Even the most insidious or ingenious efforts to convince us otherwise meet with swift and decisive defeat. And on those rare occasions when argument, usually philosophical, forces us to concede that life isn’t meaningful -- meaning we can’t prove it is meaningful -- our actions betray us: we do not, as absurdist logic predicts, commit suicide en masse or discover ourselves suddenly wanting in the will to live, despite utterances of the kind offered by Herr Gloomster Schopenhauer:

Human life must be some kind of mistake . . .Were it of any value in itself it could not thus end in mere nothing . . . It is only in the microscope that our life looks so big. It is an indivisible point, drawn out and magnified by the powerful lenses of Time and Space.

Nonetheless, if it were within our competence, we would happily prostrate ourselves before any means or proof that would demonstrate that life is indeed and in deed meaningful. In that self-same spirit, if I could I would prove to you that painting X is not only beautiful, but more beautiful than painting Y. But I can’t. Kant, in his monumental Critique of Judgment, challenged himself to produce the necessary criteria that would vouchsafe the rationalization of aesthetic judgments, knowing in advance that he would fall short of that lofty goal because it is impossible to prove or universalize subjective judgments or taste. How can I prove, as in 2 + 2 = 4, that Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor (Opus 34) is more beautiful than Ravi Shankar’s (endless) Raga in G minor if the listener loves and is exalted by the latter and rendered sclerotic by the former?

So if we begrudgingly concede that it lies outside our ability to prove that life is meaningful, does it follow that right and wrong (good and evil) are destined to remain immune to the ratiocination that would keep them from falling into the clutches of subjective judgment, of mere opinion? Life would be so much simpler if we could categorically state (rationally demonstrate) that to murder is wrong, instead of having to make do with the more relative (subjective) ‘in my view’ or ‘according to written law’ to murder is wrong. And simpler yet if we could prove that God exists and that He proscribes murder.

That we are ‘apparently’ unable to supply a sure handle for decisions that presume rectitude and fitness in matters that bear on crime and punishment and life and death should, in theory, be a major cause of concern regarding both the nomological (science of law and legislation) and sociological implications.

We observe that our laws and commandments -- the overworked offspring of reason and theology -- vary from culture to culture because they are subjective mental constructs; and even where a particular law enjoys universal approbation, the argument of consensus falls rudely short of the criteria required of absolute proof. As much as we wish it were otherwise, in their effects and operations, right and wrong are ‘relative’ to culture and the particularities of circumstance, and against this obdurate cliffside the finest jurisprudence in the world has no purchase.

Unless, of course, we have been looking far and wide instead of within our own experience for the principle that would provide for the existence of absolute right and wrong.

In 1885, the philosopher Nietzsche dared to ask what lies beyond good and evil. He could have just as easily asked what, if anything, is prior to good and evil.

In order for good and evil or right and wrong to exist, they will have already been identified as distinct from each other consequent to what is unlike in their natures. If they were equal or self-identifying there would only be one word for them, and there would be no choice. One cannot choose between identical objects. In what is often a sacred gesture, we assign names to things in recognition of their differences which come to our attention through our significant encounters with them: the Inuit have assigned no fewer than a hundred names to account for the various textures and densities of snow and ice they have to negotiate in their daily life. Without differentiation, choice would disappear, just as the concept of temperature would disappear if it were constantly 25 Celsius (a condition that suits this winter-weary Canadian just fine).

What makes a choice either categorically right or wrong is its relationship to the élan vital, identified by Henri Bergson as the irrepressible life force that is imbedded in all living creatures. Choices that vitally bear on the life force can be characterized as either life-affirming or life-negating. Which doesn’t mean that in the course of daily life there won’t be any number of choices that do not bear directly on the life force and are therefore not subsumed by right and wrong: choosing a grapefruit over an orange is a matter of taste and not ethics. And since I cannot command myself to fall in love or command love, Kant is correct in placing inclination outside the sphere of ethics. But I can certainly choose not to act on an inclination, especially if I deem it harmful.

Even though Kant did not uncover the biological basis for right and wrong, his famous categorical imperative -- a restatement of the biblical injunction “do unto what others what you would have them do unto you,”-- intuits the primordial relationship between right and wrong (choice) and the life force, and more importantly offers both the skeptic and non-believer a foundation for their ethics. In Critique of Practical Reason he writes: “act only to that maxim which you could at the same time will that it should become universal law.”

Since the life force is a biological construct, it stands to reason that when an activity comes to be viewed as either positive or negative in its relationship to it (the life force), one cannot decide to suspend judgment on that said activity (distinct from refusing to act on the judgment) because right and wrong are a priori coexistent with the life force, meaning prior to experience. That one shouldn’t smoke is not an opinion nor is it an injunction simply because science and medicine have entered as fact into the public domain the negative effects of smoking on health. Smoking is wrong because it stands in negation of the life force. And to the smoker’s argument that he enjoys smoking more than longevity, and that smoking is merely one of many popular life-negating activities, the pursuit of which lends support to Freud’s theory that man harbours a universal death wish, we must caution ourselves from confusing the latter with the pleasure principle which is often in conflict with the life force. But as it concerns smoking, gambling and drinking and their compelling pleasurable effects, it is incorrect to characterize them as enslavements or uncontrollable compulsions (said of addiction) since they are choices.

Conscience, from the Latin com (with) and scire (know), means ‘with-knowledge.’ Conscience is an indispensable adjunct of ethics. Once I become aware of having a conscience, I can rightly choose to evolve it or wrongly choose to ignore it. A muscle like any other that requires regular exercise if it’s not to turn flabby, conscience allows us to productively engage in matters of right and wrong (good and evil). If I am witting to the fact that I am harming myself or others or my environment, conscience determines to what degree, extent and duration.

To the question: What is beyond, and, by implication, antecedent to good and evil? The answer is good and evil. As soon as the world appears to consciousness there is right and wrong, which is prior to written, subjective law. And concerning those actions that are manifestly life-affirming or life-negating in relation to the life force, Kant says we can only choose what is right because reason commands it. And when we choose wrongly, it is always consequent to actions that force the conclusion that we have not fully understood what reason commands. Has the genuinely remorseful thief existentially understood that it’s wrong to steal if he continues to steal? Have I understood what it means to be charitable if I don’t give? If I continue to drive to the corner store for milk when I could walk or bike have I truly understood the negative effects of carbon dioxide and monoxide emissions on health?

also by Robert J. Lewis:

The Eclectic Switch

Philosophical Time
What is Beauty?

In Defense of Heidegger

Hijackers, Hookers and Paradise Now
Death Wish 7 Billion
My Gypsy Wife Tonight
On the Origins of Love & Hate
Divine Right and the Unrevolted Masses
Cycle Hype or Genotype
The Genocide Gene



BENEFIT CONCERT FOR HAITI, SALLE GESU, JAN. 20TH (Papa Groove, Ariane Moffatt, Bďa, Kodiak, Echo Kalypso, Doriane Fabrig (ex-Dobacaracol), Claude Lamothe, Ian Kelly, Pépé: Box-office 514.861.4036 = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting, no down time/top security, exceptional prices
Film Ratings Page of Sylvain Richard, film critic at Arts & Opinion - Montreal
Montreal World Film Festival
Festival Nouveau Cinema de Montreal, Oct. 10-21st, (514) 844-2172
CINEMANIA(Montreal) - festival de films francophone 1-11 novembre, Cinema Imperial info@514-878-0082: featuring Bernard Tavernier
Montreal Jazz Festival
Listing + Ratings of films from festivals, art houses, indie
Montreal Guitar Show July 2-4th (Sylvain Luc etc.). border=
Armand Vaillancourt: sculptor
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