Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Bone to Pick with You, Camus

We have in the past discussed the "problem" of murder for the absurd; i.e., if nothing matters, then what's to stop one from going on a killing spree, and clearly that is wrong, ergo the absurd is not a valid (or at least not consistent) philosophy. Our response has been to cite Camus' own rejoinder to this, discussed at length in The Rebel, which is basically that once one chooses to go on living (rather than commit suicide), one has thus adopted at least a minimum set of values (that life is preferable to death), and cannot impose a separate value judgment on others (by taking their lives).

However, something about this always nagged at us. While we liked the elegance of the theory, there was a part of us that felt it was a bit of smoke and mirrors; a trick of the light, if you will. Moreover, we have made a separate argument against killing elsewhere--namely, in order to choose to kill (and here we are talking about premeditated, or at the very least willful actions) one must believe one's own state of affairs will be improved by the killing, and this is clearly inconsistent with the absurd.

But, it now occurs to us, given the second reason, what need have we for the first? In other words, the question is not whether the absurd man is "free" to commit murder, but rather why one who believes all to be meaningless would ever feel the urge to commit such an act. Indeed, the true absurd man should not view others as separate and distinct from "himself," but rather as equivalent beings. One could even argue the absurd man should, insofar as he recognizes the futility of life and others do not, place others' wants and needs above his own.

Now that we have got over our own mental hurdle--basically, that we were so desperate to avoid advocating murder that we accepted what seems now like a clumsy and half-baked theory--it seems apparent that to adopt Camus' view here is to invalidate much, if not all, of the absurd itself! For how can one argue that it is permissible to kill all animals except humans, unless one holds that humans are someone "better" than other animals? And isn't the point that such a view is incompatible with the meaninglessness of existence?

Ah ha! you say, haven't we simply laid a trap for ourselves? For since we have just argued, much as Camus did, that the absurd man would not commit murder, then how can we eat meat (or step on an ant)? Isn't all life equal? Are we, or are we not, drawing the same inconsistent conclusion?

We are not. Instead, we are arguing something likely far more troubling to some--that the idea of human "morals" are an illusion, as we are animals like any other, no more or less culpable for our actions than a mosquito, ant, or vulture. Notice the distinction here - we are not saying it is "wrong" for the absurd man to kill, but rather that we cannot conceive of a circumstance where the absurd man would feel any interest in this act, at least in part because he can empathize with the pain and emotions of other humans, even as he knows such things are illusory. But to kill a cow in order to eat seems no more "wrong" than a spider trapping insects in its web. It is only our illusion of consciousness that gives us the false belief our actions "matter" more than those of other animals.

To address the obvious rejoinder--yes, we are saying it would not be wrong to kill and eat another human in the absence of other food. But nor would it be wrong to do so with abundant supplies of food--the concepts of right and wrong, while compellingly seductive, are simply not compatible with the view of existence as illusory and meaningless.

What do you know - looks like we're nihilists after all...