The absence of Good

Posted on: 17 May 2011 by Alexander Hay

Stephen Hawkins and Strauss-Kahn's defenders lack a proper moral perspective

Humans are very good at filtering out what's least convenient

Morality is a hard question to answer. Empathy is a good yardstick in most, but not all cases, and being honest and sincere goes some way too. Yet life is complicated, and so we must judge each case by its own merits.

Take the latest outpourings from celebrity and occasional physics professor Stephen Hawking. His moral failing is that he confuses mastery of a particular area with a licence to pronounce on every other area. Yes, according to the man who wrote the book everyone bought but never read, there is no heaven and when you die, you're like a computer burning out.

We are faced with many problems. Firstly, this isn't very scientific. The scientific method, for those who didn't know (mainly journalists), is based on testing a hypothesis and demonstrating the results in a repeatable fashion. It is perfect for understanding our surroundings and indeed has done more for rationality and civilisation in the last 300 years than religion did in the previous two millenia.

As we explore our universe (and perhaps others), we will no doubt encounter all strange sorts of phenomena, and perhaps life, that we have no way of expecting or preparing for. No physicist of Hawking's stature would try to prejudge what lies ahead, though they are perfectly entitled to make educated guesses like Astrobiologists do, and yet this sensible worldview doesn't translate into other areas in Hawking's case.

Put simply, he doesn't know what he's talking about. None of us do. The world that may, or may not, exist beyond our rational senses can't be quantified. If I were visited by a Babylonian deity and spent the afternoon discussing cricket with her, would there be any proof she was there?

The simple answer is that we don't know, and the complicated answer is that we're not going to find the answer from someone who understands HOW the clock works, so to speak, but can't tell us WHY a cuckoo pings out every hour, or even if there is a WHY in the first place.

Hawkings' immorality, then, lies not in having a strong opinion about something, but in claiming authority over a subject which he has no right to claim. Like that other brilliant man turned fatuous pub boreRichard Dawkins, he is famous not for what he should be noted for, but the controversial things he says as the cameras point at him.

Another kind of immorality takes root in the public glare, and it is hypocrisy. Namely, the hypocrisy of IMF President and French presidential contender, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Or rather, the hypocrisy of those around him.

It seems Strauss-Kahn's alleged habit of preying on hapless women was both well known and often covered up, in part because of a cultural bias towards protecting the 'good name' of the French establishment and a rather chauvinist tolerance for poweful men acting like 'rutting chimpanzees'.

In France, the hypocrisy grows worse - last night's Newsnight had two French commentators (both women) spending more time being distressed over Strauss-Kahn being seen in handcuffs (a terrible thing if you're a Very Important French Politican) and no time at all considering the welfare of the woman Strauss-Kahn is claimed to have assaulted.

One of the commentators even invoked France's rather self-serving privacy laws, of the kind Judge Eady must surely dream of, repeating the perhaps far too convenient line that what goes on between a politician and his mistress should be seen as a private matter. No it should not.

Not only should Caeser's wife be above reproach, but Caeser had better housetrain himself for good measure too. Sexually incontinent politicians are a liability and should be held to account accordingly.

What the commentators were defending was the deferential treatment of a certain class of people. A rape suspect from suburbia or the banlieues would not be given such leeway.

What links Professor Hawkins with the apologists and defenders of Strauss-Kahn? Both have a skewed version of what is true, or rather what can be known to be true.

For Hawkins, his absolutism extends to all spheres, even those he has no particular knowledge in, whereas the apologists think that maintaining a somewhat false, dubiously pragmatic reality is a good thing, despite evidence to the contrary.

But if morality has any core ideal, it's not one shared by the subjects of this article - being good requires a grasp of the truth of the matter, or at least an honest attempt to reach it.

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Alexander Hay

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