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...


  1. A very nice and thought-provoking article, there! The thing that I loved the most in it is this line -

    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.

    That's true, indeed! :)

  2. Hi everyone,

    I am following this blog for some time and I feel much sympathy for the absurd position.

    That said, I do feel, that the issue of murder, or more general, behavior that is uninhibited, impulsive and widely considered negative, needs to be examined more deeply in the context of the absurd.
    These would include actions like aggressive behavior, assault, rape, murder and others along that line.

    First I would make a point against the argument of Camus:
    …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).

    The conclusions drawn in this line of argument do have some plausibility to them and of course seem desirable, but they are in no way necessary!
    1. I might conclude for myself in person to prefer to go on living above suicide. But that does not entail that I grant this for the life of other people. Of course I can (and in our world many people do) impose a separate value judgment on others.
    2. Even if I come to respect the right of others to live due to my decision to go on living, I might not refrain from other negative actions, like the ones mentioned above.

  3. (cont)

    My basic concern is as follows:
    In some situations it is the case that we need reason in order to inhibit impulsive behavior, rather than needing a reason to do so.

    In many ways our bodies sensations and basic levels of the mind approach us/our consciousness with direct needs and demands.
    Some of these demands, will be present to our consciousness as some sort of discomfort (i.e. hunger, unfulfilled sexual desire…) or pain, either physically or mentally.
    To free the body/mind from these “negative” /painful sensation one is directly inclined/urged to take actions that seem suitable to overcome these pains. Even if these actions might hurt other people in some way.
    Our current society tries to control/limit these unwanted impulsive chain reaction by social, ethical and legal constraints of various kinds.
    Without these constraints, “negative” behavior would become more common and extreme.

    War is a situation where – admittedly, together with other special circumstances - these constraints are rendered inoperative. The cruel consequences, like the well-known war crimes, are obvious.

  4. (cont)

    1. A person that is bodily inferior tries to physically attack someone. Our society/ethics/law regulate what kind of counteraction of the superior person would be acceptable – like appropriate self-defense.
    Without these limitations the attacked person might be overwhelmed by impulsive anger and severely hurt or even kill the attacking person.

    2. One goes out to town to meet women. Unfortunately the girls might not be interested and out of frustration and unfulfilled sexual desire and without any “system of values” (arguing everything, whatsoever, is fine and ultimately nothing matters anyway)- one might decide to force that girl into having sex.

  5. (cont)

    Could you please comment on my arguments?


  6. I'd like to point out a few disagreements.

    First of all, Camus clearly explains that an absurd man defies any illusions of an afterlife and(or) infinite existence. Therefore an absurd man understands that this life is all that he and all the other living creatures have. So for an absurd man to kill is more wrong than for those who claim a meaning of life which could transcend this life (i.e religion, absolute moral value, etc). Because he can't even argue to himself that by killing someone (not just to get food) that he's somehow helping that person(animal) reach an afterlife or some other form of infinity. This deep respect for this one life that we all have forbids the absurd man to take it for granted - take it from other people, who might not know, like he does, that it's all that there is.

    Secondly, Camus explained that once one understands the absurd and continues to live recognizing it, he claims that all that matters about life is it's duration, and on a side note, intensity. So he then tries to fill this life with lots of various activity, given the examples of Don Juan, actor, conqueror. Understanding this position clearly makes it wrong to shorten other people's lifespan, because as shown in the first argument, even if people don't know that this is their only life, an absurd man does. And therefore would understand that depriving other people of this short period of existence is cruel.

    My personal opinion is that the absurd is a very fine philosophy. It strives on appreciating the inevitable clash between our abstract brain trying to connect the dots of nature into some structure which it can understand and feel safe in, and on the other hand, the unavoidable failure of this act. Understanding the absurd merely means understanding the futility of life, but together with that - it's extreme value to us and it's very short period of time, because afterlife and gods are just 'leaps' which people have devised to better deal with the absurd reality by wishing for and believing in an eternity.