Moral Realism in a Climate of Moral Doubt

120926-calvin.jpg

Introduction

A basic Aristotelian insight taken up and developed by Thomas Aquinas is that animals tend to move toward what is good for animals of their kind, and to avoid things that are bad for their sort of animal.  Aquinas recognized that, among animals, things are uniquely hard for human beings—the intellectual animals.  We get in the way of ourselves, even when we are fully grown and of relatively sound mind and body.  We get in our own way even when we are, as one says, highly functional.  Aquinas understands that even the best of us will have good reason to regret some of what we do or fail to do, say or fail to say, think or fail to think.  This is part of the burden and glory that comes of being the kind of animal that is accountable for a lot of what it does voluntarily, and that needs to figure out what to pursue and why.  It is difficult to manage self-direction in circumstances where even the most basic things about our lives seem increasingly to be matters of choice and it takes us a few years to so much as reliably to distinguish what is edible from what is inedible.  And humans are not just in danger of inefficiency or disappointment in their efforts to move toward what draws them, and avoid what they find repugnant.  They are at moral risk.  As medieval English poets used to notice, when the wolf is drawn to a thing, that thing will tend to be a good sort of thing for a wolf to seek.  When a man is drawn toward something, it could be morally disastrous.

Under these circumstances, young people I have known routinely move around difficult moral questions using the language of etiquette.  They are worried about imposing on others.  They don’t know how even to begin a discussion about topics that involve vital aspects of people’s lives—often aspects that seem at once crucial, emotionally charged, and intimate.  Sometimes they genuinely do not know how to begin thinking their way into a question.

I should note at the outset that rational enquiry into different understandings of good and bad in human life does not constitute an imposition, even if what it reveals is profound disagreement on some points.  It does not constitute failing to respect others.  If anything, thoughtful disagreement shows serious regard for one’s opponents.  And, when it comes to coping with a moral dispute, relying on the traditional point about good and bad can help.

It could be that people who occupy different positions across a vast divide are disagreeing about human good at every level.  I suspect that this is very rare these days.  That we need food, clothing, clean water, clean air, security in our persons, some form of community, something that counts as family, some reliable economic institutions, some measures of freedom of worship, assembly, and expression—that these kinds of things are good for intellectual social animals is usually a shared understanding among contemporary humans.  It is hard to imagine serious, reasoned disagreement on such matters.  But significant background agreement on these points will not be enough to settle all questions.  It is not even enough to settle all questions in personal life, much less in matters of public policy, and human life, lived in the varying contexts of human institutions, is often muddled, homely, and disappointing.

For all that, I suspect that when we find ourselves at odds with others over some moral question we will find substantial agreement about human good in general across the many divides that look to make consensus impossible.  In my limited experience, it helps to begin by acknowledging that more than one sort of good is at stake in moral disagreement, and to take seriously the genuine good or goods at issue in a dispute.  Where those goods are concerned, all of us will tend to be moral realists.

 

What are we Being Realists About?

How much realism do we get from the kinds of points that people are taking for granted in thinking that things have been bad in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria made landfall?  That having access to food, water, fuel, electricity, and stable shelter would improve life for the people there?  We are tacitly committed to there being such a thing as human nature, to a recognition that humans are vulnerable creatures, to an indeterminate number of claims about the badness of the situation for human beings on an island in the wake of a catastrophic hurricane.

We know these things.

This is not a matter of ungrounded opinion.  Our inferences about the situation in Puerto Rico are not beholden to some sort of standard of rational justification that is relative to the cultural markings that we carry in virtue of belonging to this or that community.  Most people in Puerto Rico are struggling to deal with flooding and the like, but we are on solid ground as far as our sense that things have gone badly for them is concerned.

As I say, this kind of baseline is rarely enough to make much headway with difficult moral questions, but it is the sort of thing that does provide common ground across many deep divides.  Objective common ground.  Moral truth.

 

What of the Difficult Questions?  What About Relativism?

But, given that most of the moral matters that tear at us involve questions much more difficult than a question about whether victims of natural or manmade disasters have gone through something bad, how much comfort can we take in having unspoken, shared commitments of the sort that surface whenever anything terrible happens?  What of moral relativism, that specter that threatens to materialize in ordinary undergraduate classrooms at the drop of a hat in introductory ethics courses?

The most extreme form of moral relativism is moral subjectivism—the topic of the cartoons on this page.  This view—that claims to moral truth are merely subjective—lapses into incoherence as quickly as the cartoons suggest.  There are two other forms of moral relativism that have more bite.

Descriptive moral relativism centers on the claim that different cultural groups adhere to different moral codes, frequently embodied in different practices, different standards of justification, different kinship systems, different modes of work and leisure, and different customs, and normally systematically linked to members’ consciences.  This form of relativism has the advantage of being very likely true.  There are significant divergences in moral codes across diverse human communities.  If the first thing to notice about descriptive moral relativism is that it may well be true, the second thing to note is that its truth will not have any effect on moral disagreement.  For example, it says nothing about the relative soundness of the moral codes that diverge. It could be that some of those codes are better than others.  It may be that some are true and others are false.  To notice differences is not to say what we should make of those differences.

Normative moral relativism claims that not only will we find the kinds of divergence that the descriptive relativists highlight, but we ought to see divergence in moral codes in different societies.  Does normative moral relativism have any bearing on the possibility of coping with serious moral disagreement?  It will depend upon how the normative relativist fleshes out the suggestion that moral codes ought to diverge.  For example, one persistent site of significant moral divergence enters in through historical distance.  Even those of us who have come to love the Iliad or the Odyssey—to name two canonical European great books—will likely notice that the moral codes that seem to inform the Homeric epics diverge significantly from the codes we came to inhabit in our childhoods.  If the normative relativist explains this by talking about the dramatically different situations we find ourselves in now, and the social, material, and political worlds that form a kind of backdrop and context for ancient Greek warrior poetry, then the divergence may, to the extent that we can comprehend the differences, begin to feel like the sort of thing that is to be expected of human beings facing these different worldly circumstances.  The pressures on that (likely partly imaginary) civilization, the resources available, the modes of human connection and antagonism that were taken for granted in the poetry were so far removed from ours that the differences make sense.  This sort of observation is one form that normative moral relativism can take.  Again, it says nothing about our prospects for handling deep contemporary moral disagreement, except to suggest that we might do well to develop an imagination for the pressures that those who disagree with us face, and the resources that they have at their disposal for finding ways of pursuing collective goods, and avoiding bad, in their communities before declaring them utterly benighted.

 

The View from one Philosopher’s Seat

Alasdair MacIntyre—a contemporary Anglophone philosopher broadly concerned with ethics—has circled around the topics of relativism and cultural difference for many years.  He has written thoughtfully and well about communities, about the cultural contexts communities provide for moral development, about character, and about the peculiarly shrill tone of contemporary moral disagreement.  In an essay called “Moral Relativism, Truth and Justification”—there are long quotations from it on your handout—he takes up the topic of seemingly intractable moral dispute, linking disagreement to cultural difference.  He begins with an example taken from a 17th century Japanese Neo-Confucian called Kaibara Ekken.  Ekken argues that a man has sufficient grounds to divorce his wife if she is disobedient to her in-laws, if she gossips or slanders others, if she is barren or jealous, if she has a serious illness, and so on.  Ekken defends the view by pointing to role a wife was meant to play in society, to the structure of family life, to the place of that structure in the larger moral and political order, and to the cosmic order in which these institutional arrangements had their proper places.

MacIntyre turns next to the natural law tradition in European thought, grounded in Stoicism and Roman law and given significant development in medieval philosophy—most notably in the work of Aquinas.  MacIntyre points out that Aquinas does not see a wife’s fondness for gossip or friction with her in-laws as grounds for divorce, nor would Aquinas find a sound argument for divorce if she became ill or was barren.

Neither view, MacIntyre points out, seems to have the kinds of resources that would be needed to make its case in terms that the other view would accept.  Each position can be defended in its own terms.  But it looks like the gulf between the two views cannot be bridged by an argument that relies upon the modes of justification internal to either protagonist’s cultural milieu.  The prospects for Aquinas and Ekken settling their imagined dispute look dim, MacIntyre thinks.

Nevertheless, both sorts of view present themselves as true.  Neither of these two thinkers is a relativist.  How, then, are we to square the universalist claim at the root of each position with the difficulty in even imagining how Ekken and Aquinas might have a meeting of minds on the question of divorce?

MacIntyre goes at the question through a serious discussion of the nature of substantive views of truth—the only sorts of views of truth that he takes to be compatible with the tenor and tone of serious moral divergence.  It is a good discussion, and forms the basis of an almost uncharacteristically optimistic account of how we might handle ourselves in the face of seemingly intractable moral disputes.  At least, that is one way to read the essay.  One could also read it as a reduction.

Having insisted—and he is surely right about this—that the protagonists to a serious moral dispute must be seen as claiming truth for their positions, MacIntyre outlines three things that follow from the understanding that they are claiming to be teaching us moral truths:

First, they are committed to holding that the account of morality which they give does not itself, at least in its central contentions, suffer from the limitations, partialities, and one-sidedness of a merely local point of view, while any rival and incompatible account must suffer to some significant extent from such limitations, partiality, and one-sidedness.  Only if this is the case are they entitled to assert that their account is one of how things are, rather than merely how they appear to be from some particular standpoint or in one particular perspective….

Secondly, such protagonists are thereby also committed to holding that, if the scheme and mode of justification of some rival moral standpoint supports a conclusion incompatible with any central thesis of their account, then that scheme must be defective in some important way and capable of being replaced by some rationally superior scheme and mode of justification, which would not support any such conclusion.

Thirdly and correspondingly, they are committed to holding that if the scheme and mode of justification to which they at present appeal to support the conclusions which constitute their own account of the moral life were to turn out to be, as a result of further enquiry, incapable of providing the resources for exhibiting its argumentative superiority to such a rival, then it must be capable of being replaced by some scheme and mode of justification which does possess the resources both for providing adequate rational support for their account and for exhibiting its rational superiority to any scheme and mode of justification which supports conclusions incompatible with central theses of that account.

To make good on our convictions, he argues, we need to be committed to serious rational inquiry.  It will require both philosophical skill and a strong imagination to transcend those aspects of our own views that are one-sided, provincial, and otherwise stained with the local color that characterizes our position.  It is not impossible to do this, he suggests.  It is just very difficult, and it can only be done with the understanding that we may need to alter our own views in light of what rational enquiry reveals to us about our position.

5d6664b176a0afc2856fd079e29f1dce

Two Cautionary Notes from the Sideline

I am a great admirer of MacIntyre’s work, but want to suggest that this discussion of relativism and its possible remedy suffers from two sorts of exaggeration.  First, even though MacIntyre stresses the importance of open-mindedness and imagination in his account of how rational enquiry might help us to remedy our situation, I think that he overestimates the power of rational enquiry.  It may be an occupational hazard for philosophers.  I sometimes think that some of the best of us got into this business because we were hunting for the good argument that could stop manmade bad things from happening—the line of thinking that could settle disputes in our families, or put political strife to rest, or bring about peace and harmony in social life if only people would listen.  I don’t know MacIntyre well enough to have any view about his motivations on this score, but a lot of us who lived by our wits in youth hoped to make the world better by our wits as adults.  It could be that we need more than solitary acts of brilliant thought and imagination to sort out a real ethical tangle.  We might need more than collective acts of brilliance, even.  Some of the ground underlying central moral convictions may exceed the limits of even the splendid, repeated, enduring collaborative exercise of our intellectual powers and strengths.  Aquinas seems to have thought so.  The very first article of the very first question of first part of the Summa Theologiae, for example, urges that we need revealed knowledge to help us answer central questions about how we ought to live, that philosophy alone—by which he likely meant Aristotelian metaphysics—was not enough.  He was, himself, an enormously good philosopher with extraordinary powers of methodical rational enquiry and a vast and fertile imagination.  If he couldn’t do it, it is hard to see why we would expect to succeed.  I tend to think that accepting his counsel on this point is a good idea.

The standards MacIntyre provides for guiding our enquiry are clear analytic philosophical standards.  They are good standards.  But they may demand more of us than moral thought and practice can provide.  Why would one think that the kinds of intellectual standards that are the air we breathe in analytic philosophy are the ones that will help us when faced with deep moral disagreement?

This question brings me to the second place where I think that MacIntyre is inclined to exaggerate.  He has taught us all a lot about the kinds of unity we can find embodied in the people and practices that mark out distinctive moral communities.  And it is likely that some of his acuity in these matters owes a lot to his youthful adherence to some form of Marxism—again, I do not know him well enough to know which Marxism (or Marxisms) shaped his youthful social and political activism.  I don’t know if he read work by Antonio Gramsci or Louis Althusser, by Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg or Mao.  All of these activist thinkers found themselves coping with the fact that, contrary to what they might have expected, European wage laborers did not rise up to throw off their chains.  Worse, in the parts of the world where there were uprisings in the name of Marx, the people who rose up were not wage laborers, suggesting that the whole mode of thinking about class and class conflict that was not quite theorized by Marx—but was strongly suggested by his work—was somehow not quite right.  All of these thinkers, in different ways and with different emphases, urged that neither culture nor class interest was as singular or coherent as Marx seemed to have thought that it could be.  The social fabric, they claimed, was not a tightly woven bolt of cloth with a single seam that could be ripped out if only the masses could collectively recognize their interests.  Instead, the social fabric was a loosely woven, shifting, unevenly fraying thing that did not provide a single, coherent social script for anyone.

I have found some of this work very useful.  When MacIntyre writes about the wonderful community spirit in a remote small fishing village, or the way that ancient Greek thought about virtue had its natural home in the life of the polis, or even of the systematic coherence and wholeness of Ekken’s Neo-Confucian thought about marriage and divorce, to my jaded eye, at least, he has a tendency to see the weave of the relevant social fabric as tighter than social fabric tends to be.  Now if cultures provided something more like scripts and less like patchy, fraying collective contexts in which people seek ways of pursuing common good and addressing human needs and inclinations, then the analytic philosophical demands on standards of reason and argument would look more appropriate.  In dealing with disagreement, we would be trying to cope with a clash between divergent systems that came wrapped up in whole modes of rational justification that may or may not be of a kind that we can match.  Our task might look like the moral equivalent of trying to express Newton’s laws in the terms characteristic of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  It is very hard to do, but with sufficient mathematical skill and imagination, it can be done without too great a loss of content.  If, however, like much of human life, moral thought and moral disagreement is a messy business carried out at the edges of ways of thinking that are in some ways underdeveloped and in many respects provisional, then it will look as though MacIntyre is not fully heeding Aristotle’s advice.  He is looking for something more determinate than what we have a right to expect in ethics.

The ways in which the views in the background of moral disagreement will tend to be less than fully developed and other than entirely logically systematic, however, provides us with real possibilities for moral engagement from that mundane kind of ground we have in our recognition that our opponents are fellow human beings who are working to pursue good and avoid bad.  We are, all of us, doing that.  All of us will fail sometimes.  All of us can use disagreement as a way of developing a better sense for both diverse human efforts to move toward good and the ways in which we can learn from each other’s successes and mistakes.  MacIntyre is dead right, I think, to urge that we approach moral disagreement with humility, honesty, and a willingness to engage in self-criticism at least as strong as our willingness to find fault with others.


Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life. Vogler gave this talk at Vanderbilt University October 5, hosted by the Thomistic Institute chapter in Nashville. 

Candace Vogler to speak on moral relativism at Vanderbilt University October 5

Vanderbilt_bridge.jpg

Our principal investigator Candace Vogler will be at Vanderbilt University October 5 to speak on moral relativism, hosted by the Thomistic Institute chapter in Nashville. Here is the abstract for her talk.

Moral Realism in a Climate of Moral Doubt

The thought that good is to be pursued, and bad is to be avoided is a basic condition on the intelligibility of animal movement generally.  We are intellectual animals—the kinds of animals that need to figure out what to pursue and how to go about pursuing it.  And this means that pursuit and avoidance are harder for us than they are for other kinds of animals.  For all that, making sense of what we go for and what we fear or flee operates in the context of some understanding of what is good for human beings.  These days, in the face of stark and shrill disagreement among thoughtful people about some of the most basic aspects of our lives, it can seem as though people have lost any clear, common understanding of human good.  Moral disagreement can seem completely intractable.  In this talk, I will look at some serious, likely intractable examples of profound moral disagreement, with an eye toward learning how to think about and engage these topics in the secure understanding that disagreement is partly a function of the challenges that intellectual animals face in trying to see what is good for them, urging a kind of modesty that does not require setting aside one’s own convictions.

Racism and Negligence

 

Torches_Charlottesville
Torch-bearing white nationalists rally around a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017. (Edu Bayer/New York Times)

For those who thought the racial tensions that have long shaped the fault lines of American politics could continue to be ignored, Charlottesville was the seismic event that shook up this complacency. Like many an earthquake, much of the damage was not limited to the initial event; the political aftershocks have done equal, if not greater, damage. For when torch wielding Nazis and white supremacists march in large numbers, chanting racist slogans, screaming slurs, and threatening violence against minorities, when one of them drives his car into a crowd, killing one and injuring nineteen others, we should be able to expect our President, at the very least, to denounce them immediately and unequivocally. And yet this did not happen; incredibly, the opposite did.

 

Civility and a commitment to equality for all are American values that transcend partisan interests. We have a right to expect our leaders to form a government for everyone, and strive to keep the peace for all of the people. President Trump appeared to be trying to do this, denouncing “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, many sides” (emphasis mine). However, this initial response was, as many have pointed out, disastrously off base: the bigotry was clearly on one side, and there is no moral equivalence between the promulgation of fascist and racist ideology and principled opposition to it. While the counter-protest was far from perfect, it was not worthy of our president’s equal condemnation.

 

Presidents are supposed to unify their citizens in times of crisis, but in the aftermath of Charlottesville the only thing that seemed to unify most Americans was disappointment in the president’s inability to carry out this vital task. In a rare moment of concession to his many critics, Trump later denounced the hate groups by name. But this rare act of humility was short-lived. Just a few days later Trump lashed out at the press and doubled down in defense of himself; notoriously, he even went so far as to claim that there were “some very fine people” involved in the “unite the right” rally. And just in case anyone doubted what his true priorities were, the following week Trump held a rally in Phoenix, not primarily aimed at defusing racial tensions or uniting a divided populace in turbulent times, but solely in defense and even celebration of his troubling remarks.

 

We are about a month on from Charlottesville; nuclear threats, destructive hurricanes, and football now dominate our news feeds, and it would be all to easy to forget about it. But forgetting about it is a kind of political negligence, a failure to give it the importance it deserves. Negligence is a too little considered feature of our moral and political life. It is also important to the analysis of what was so awful about Trump’s post-Charlottesville behavior.

 

Consider his defense of some of those marching for “historical preservation” in Charlottesville. Negligence is a key to grasping why these defenses are indefensible. Let us set aside the issue of whether it is legitimate to support confederate monuments, as it is beside the point. As is well known, the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville was organized and promoted by white supremacist groups. The names listed to speak at the rally comprise a veritable who’s who of fascist and racist political leaders in America. These are men who openly admire Hitler, adopt Nazi imagery and rhetoric, and who advocate some form of racial apartheid in our country. A rally that is organized, promoted, and features speeches by such men is arguably a racist rally, no matter what cause it serves; but it is most certainly a racist rally when the cause is the defense of the statues of men who devoted their lives to the perpetuation of enslavement of blacks in the South. Any right thinking person who merely cared about preserving historical monuments as a testimony to history would not make common cause with Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists.

 

Even if we concede the very remote possibility that one of these warm hearted historical preservationists somehow missed the fact that the organizers, promoters, and speakers at the rally were all extreme racists, at best we could say their actions were grossly negligent, which makes them very far from being “very fine.” Failure to know what’s going on isn’t admirable, nor does it inoculate one against censure or blame. Ignorance doesn’t always excuse.

 

Determining culpable ignorance is an important aspect of morality and the law, and is part of any theory of negligence. Negligence comes from the Latin phrase “nec eligens” which literally translates to “not choosing.” Negligence is a normative and not merely descriptive word. There are an infinite number of choices I didn’t make this morning, but most of them, like the choice I didn’t make to begin writing the next great American novel, are of no consequence. Only a very small range of what I don’t do counts as a blameworthy failure, and the determination typically depends on the roles that can be legitimately assigned to me (for instance, as a parent, I am culpable if I oversleep and fail to get the kids to school on time).

 

We know as a matter of common sense morality and the law that we are responsible for what we fail to do, even when that failure is completely unintentional. Now, a prudent citizen should be well informed about the kinds of civic engagement he participates in; therefore a failure to notice that an event is organized by and prominently features white supremacists is a classic case of culpable ignorance.

 

Even so, one might still argue that culpable ignorance does not necessarily imply racism. Fine, but footage of Charlottesville reveals that once there one could have had no doubt that this was an event for promoting racist ideology. At that point, one is further at fault for not realizing that marching in the rally not only would not advance the cause of preserving history, but would also deepen racial tensions in Charlottesville and possibly lead to racially motivated violence.

 

To march alongside virulent racists shouting racist slogans and slurs displays a culpable lack of concern for members of the minority groups being targeted. We need to be clear that one is a racist not simply if one has active animus directed towards racial minorities, but also if one lacks active good will towards them; one lacks such good will when one does not care at all, or does not care enough about their well being and security to act (and not act) towards them in certain ways. One should care enough about minorities not to march alongside those that seek to marginalize and defame them. Failure to care enough about the manifest harms to these communities by placing the importance of historical preservation above their safety and well being is racist.

 

Charlottesville should still deeply trouble us. We cannot make racial progress, however, if we cannot come to a reasonable agreement about what racism is. If elements on the left can sometimes be blamed for making us all racists just in virtue of being born into a racially unequal society, elements on the right can sometimes be blamed for making the racist into a fantastical unicorn by imagining criteria for it that almost none of us will ever meet. A sensible understanding of the complexities of racism would steer a steady course between these two extremes, and we need such an understanding if we have any hope of having a reasonable public discourse about race in this country. A small step in this direction would be to acknowledge that racism of neglect is a real and damaging.


Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

VIDEO: Jean Porter, “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

Moral theologian Jean Porter gave the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago.  The video below includes Candace Vogler’s introduction and the audience Q & A following the talk.

Cooperation in evil and Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of justice

AdobeStock_144823529.jpeg

We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars presented and discussed at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Kevin Flannery, S.J., is Professor of the History of Ancient Philosophy, Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

As the participants in our seminar may recall, I am writing a book on the ethics of cooperation in evil. At an earlier meeting of the seminar, I discussed some of the problems contained in the treatment of such cooperation as found in the manuals of Catholic moral theology of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. On that occasion, I expressed agreement with Elizabeth Anscombe’s criticism of that tradition as vitiated by what she calls “Cartesian psychology,” according to which “an intention was an interior act of the mind which could be produced at will.” I also expressed then a preference for an analysis in terms rather of Thomas’s Aquinas’s understanding of the moral virtue of justice. In my presentation, I would like describe how I understand this virtue and how it helps us to determine when a person’s—or indeed an institution’s or a government’s—cooperation is immoral. This will involve an explanation of how justice, according to Thomas, stands in relation to the other virtues, especially prudence. It will also involve an account of how justice, which is a virtue of the will, bears upon the consciences of individuals.

“What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life”

30790030072_def498d0c6_k

Moral theologian Jean Porter (University of Notre Dame) will give the talk “What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life” on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago. An audience Q & A will be followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room. This talk is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

The talk and Q&A will be live-streamed at 7pm central time. For more information and to RSVP, go to https://virtue.uchicago.edu/porter

Here is the abstract for her talk:

 

Courage is pre-eminently an individual virtue. Yet we can also describe a community or a nation as courageous in its response to a threat or an attack. To take one well-known example, the behavior and attitudes of the English during the Blitz of 1940-41 offers an outstanding example of collective public courage. Somewhat to the surprise of government officials, the civilians subjected to intensive German bombing were not only relatively free of trauma, they were able to carry on with their lives, and even to be cheerful in the face of repeated attacks. The collective courage of the English under the Blitz was of course dependent on the courage of countless individuals, and yet it cannot be reduced to the sum of so many courageous acts and lives. The government promoted, and individuals cooperated in creating a set of practices and expectations that encouraged bravery and perseverance. At this point, England was a brave society, which both drew its courage from individuals and communicated it back to them.In my remarks this evening, I want to examine another example of public courage and public cowardice, which began to develop within the memory of many of us and is still unfolding today.  I am referring to public reactions to the threat of terrorism since the attacks of 9/11.  During and immediately after the attacks themselves, the men and women at the scene, together with the police, fire fighters, and medical personnel, behaved with exemplary bravery in the face of an unimaginable danger.  These clear, unambiguous examples of courage do not call for extended analysis. However, at another level, public reactions to the threat of terrorist attacks present a more complex and ambiguous example.  I want to suggest that we as a nation responded initially to terrorist assaults and the threat of further attacks with another kind of courage, not physical bravery but a firm resolve to hold onto central values, including equality, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. However, over the past fifteen years, our attitudes as a civic society, as expressed by the actions taken in our name, reflect a growing unwillingness to live with risk and, correspondingly, a willingness to do almost anything to our supposed enemies, in order to secure our own safety.  In other words, we as a nation have moved from courage to a kind of cowardice when it comes to our attitudes towards these threats. I will consider some of the possible causes of this development, and suggest some ways in which we might reclaim our initial courage.

Moral Art

This post was written after a visit to ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago, at the Alphawood Gallery, 2014 North Halsted Street, Chicago. The show runs through April 2, 2017.

 

sin will kill you.jpg
“AIDS—JUDGMENT HAS COME, Slidell, Louisiana,” 1989, Inkjet print, Ann P. Meredith. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

It is hard to enter the space of the ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago exhibit without experiencing outrage. The massive human tragedy caused by years of governmental and mainstream social indifference toward a disease that wiped out an entire generation of young men here and abroad, as well as women and children, and that still rages on today, draws comparison to the callous use of soldiers as machine gun fodder by the decrepit British generals of the First World War, or the stubborn insistence by the Johnson and Nixon administrations that teenaged boys by the truckload be shipped off to die in Vietnam. In 1980, 31 people had died of what would later come to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Ten years later, the death toll in the U.S. alone was 18,447, and continued to rise throughout the 1990s. People living with and dying of AIDS included all sorts of people–gay men, male and female IV needle users, straight and gay women, hemophiliacs, and children born to HIV-positive mothers. Still, the disease was perceived as particular to gay men, and as a result of the stigma associated with them, the U.S. government failed to respond quickly to the crisis.

 

clock.jpg
“Every 12 Minutes,” Nayland Black, 1991. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Artists responded to the crisis by making overtly activist and political art. Many works in this show foreground issues of exclusion, stigma, and injustice. Entering the exhibit, one is immediately confronted by Nayland Black’s 1991 “Every 12 Minutes,” a clock on the wall with STOP IT! written in the middle, its face divided into 5 equal sections by the words “ONE AIDS DEATH.” The clock exhorts us to stop these deaths, but it also commands us to stop all the other behaviors contributing to the crisis, from spreading misinformation to having unsafe sex to stigmatizing people with the disease.

 

Turning from the clock, visitors can see a shimmering bluish beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Water), 1995, that stretches across a wide entryway, separating the entryway from the room beyond. Yet through the clear and bluish beads this next room is also gauzily visible, glowing and beckoning from beyond a veil.

 

beaded curtain.jpg
“Untitled” (Water), 1995. Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

In a small, adjacent room Native American symbols speak to both stigma and loss. David Wojnarowicz’s gelatin silver print “Untitled” (Buffalo), 1988-89 is a photograph of a diorama of the Native American hunting practice of herding buffalo off a cliff, suggesting the intentional killing of people with AIDS not only through indifference, but through active hostility and homophobia. Ronald Lockett’s “Facing Extinction,” 1994, made of chalk, metal, and wood, shows a ghostly buffalo, a recurring symbol for Lockett of hunted creatures. It stands on a too-solid three-dimensional cliff, gazing into our space as its body begins to disappear into the background. “More Time Expected,” 2002, by Sicangu Lakota artist Thomas Haukaas, shows figures riding singly and in pairs surrounding a riderless horse, symbolizing those felled by the disease.

 

IMG_3913

“More Time Expected,” 2002. Thomas Haukaas. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Part Gonzalez-Torres’s beaded glass curtain and enter a large open space with soaring ceilings. On one wall, a recreation of ACT-UP NY/Gran Fury’s 1987 video and neon installation “Let the Record Show” shines like a dark window, dominating the room. At the top a neon pink triangle glows steadily over white letters spelling out the famous ACT-UP logo, “Silence = Death.” The projection of an arched crescent and decorative columns around the outside of the logo gives it an architectural quality, like a temple or a church nave, beneath which long panels stretch down like stained-glass. Here photographs of six people from the Reagan era are superimposed on an old photograph of the Nuremburg Trials depicting Nazi war criminals seated in a courtroom guarded by Allied soldiers. An electronic panel with running titles in red shows AIDS statistics and epidemic facts. The superimposed photographs light up and go dark, alternately revealing the faces of Senator Jessie Helms, columnist William F. Buckley Jr., Cory Servaas of the Presidential AIDS Commission, an anonymous surgeon, and President Ronald Reagan. These are the war criminals of the AIDS crisis. Underneath each face is an offensive quote made by each one about disease victims, such as Buckley’s infamous assertion that people with AIDS should be “tattooed on the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals,” or the surgeon’s quip that AIDS provided a better reason to “hate faggots.” To underscore the work’s declaration that silence equals death, there is no quote from Reagan, who famously said nothing even as the worst health epidemic in centuries raged around him.

 

silence death
“Let the Record Show”, 1987. ACT-UP NY/Gran Fury. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Other mixed-media and video works include a bank of screens with headphones and seating for projects such as T. Kim Trang Tran’s “kore,” 1994, which swoops in and away from grainy black and white moving images of Asian men relaxing at the beach or walking through cities, zooming out every so often to show these figures, distanced from us by time, being watched by other men and boys on hand-held screens and scrolls. The gaze created here suggests that cruising after AIDS cannot be dispassionate; the look of curiosity, appreciation, and desire for Asian men created in and by these images is now tinged with melancholy, memory, and loss.

 

IMG_3919

Still from “kore,” 1994. T. Kim Trang Tran. Photo by Jaime Hovey

 

In what is thought to be the first AIDS painting, Izhar Patkin creates in his “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity” a surface of erupting skin lesions fashioned out of rubber paste, latex, and ink. Moved by the symptoms he saw in patients at his dermatology office, he documented their wounds a year before there was any public announcement about the disease or its victims. Here the sores break open the skin of the painting to ooze and glisten in the light, pushing through from underneath as if something monstrous is housed inside. The painting is shocking, but it also forces the viewer to confront the disease at the level of skin, pain, and the body.

 

Izhar Patkin.jpg
“Unveiling of a Modern Chastity,” 1981, Izhar Patkin. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

The cumulative effect of these works is to move viewers from outrage at homophobic and indifferent responses to the epidemic to admiration at the courage and resilience of AIDS artists, activists, allies, and survivors. In these works we see creative, political, and deeply moral reactions to the absence of justice, to the withholding of compassion, and to the celebration of love in America at a time when huge numbers of people were suffering and dying.

 

Kia LaBeija, "Eleven, October 2015".jpg
“Eleven, October 2015”, Kia LaBeija. Originally posted on Refinery 29 here.

 

Religious imagery shapes many of the works, speaking to the gulf between the moral response of the queer community–which involved projects such as public safe sex education and meals on wheels for the homebound–and the judgmental condemnation and indifference of government officials and mainstream religious groups, which shuttered bathhouses and gay clubs in a misguided effort to stop gay sex from happening. In “AIDS—JUDGMENT HAS COME, Slidell, Louisiana,” Ann P. Meredith documents a set of billboards she saw in Louisiana as she traveled to photograph women living with AIDS. Her print shows the harsh messages of the billboards as undercut by a graffiti tagger who writes “Love” and “Peace,” and slyly quotes from Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” a verse that when it appears in the Bible is followed by the words, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.”

 

Haring Triptych.jpg
“Altar Piece,” 1990, Keith Haring. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Keith Haring’s gleaming silver “Altar Piece,” the last work he completed before he died, shows a weeping Mary with a shining heart and multiple arms holding the infant Jesus under a cross in the center panel of a triptych. Here the Trinity is reimagined to include her, and below her crowds raise their hands in anger and supplication as angels fly and fall.

 

Echoing the theme of Icarian angels, Daniel Goldstein’s “Icarian I Incline,” fashions a Shroud of Turin from the leather cover of a weight bench that once belonged to the Castro gym Muscle System, nicknamed Muscle Sisters by patrons. Stained with the sweat of a thousand gay men, many of whom have since died, the cover bears the ghostly image of their bodies, framed here as a relic memorializing the exuberant communities that flew too close to the sun, flourished before AIDS, and came together to support each other during and after the crisis.

 

shroud.JPG
“Icarian I Incline,” 1993, Daniel Goldstein. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Martin Wong’s 1988 “I.C.U.” shows an eye in a triangle floating over a brick building. Echoing the pink triangle in the nearby “Let the Record Show,” the eye above the building here resembles the eye on a dollar bill, but appears amidst constellations, like the eye of God. A pun on “I see you,” the letters are also the common abbreviation for Intensive Care Unit, the place in hospitals where so many gay men lay dying during the epidemic. In this work, most of the brick building is dark, and only the wing with fire escapes is lit and accessible. The eye of providence seems not to know or care about what is inside; in any case, here God is only potentially available upon exit.

 

icu.jpg
“I.C.U.,” 1988, Martin Wong. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

This is not to suggest that the show is tragic; indeed, the entire exhibit is a triumph of creativity, defiance, and love. Artists pay tribute to the fallen in painting, video, textiles, and sculpture, remember those who were there, and call out those who refused to be present. Charles LeDrey’s teddy bear in a box from 1991 suggests both mourning and the end of innocence. In Rosalind Solomon’s gelatin silver print “Silence Equals Death, Washington, DC,” 1987-90, a young man covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions confronts the camera wearing full protest regalia, including ACT-UP buttons, a straw hat, and a paper Star of David. Frank Moore’s “Patient,” 1997-1998, shows an empty hospital bed painted with leaves and snowflakes, where environmental devastation and AIDS are emergencies that require equally urgent care.

 

Patient.jpg
“Patient,” 1997-1998, Frank Moore. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 

Kia LaBeija’s glossy technicolor photographs, such as “Eleven, October 2015,” and “Kia and Mommy” (below) document her dignity living with hospitals and doctor visits, and celebrate fashion and makeup as creative gestures that make everyday life beautiful.

 

kiamommy14__large
“Kia and Mommy,” 2014, Kia LaBejia. Photo Kia LaBejia – Visual AIDS here.

 

The pieces gathered here span three-and-a-half decades and include work by people still living, as well as cataloging the talent of too many who died too soon. Their project is a deeply moral one: to remind viewers that sick people are human, that no one deserves to suffer, that death comes for all of us, and that the proper response to tragedy is always—must be—art, compassion, and action.

 

Patrick Webb By Punchienello's Bed detail.jpg
Detail from “By Punchinello’s Bed”, 1992, Patrick Webb. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

 


Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago runs through April 2.