The key question behind today’s moral debates

As I have thought about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling and about the other moral confusions of our day—is it OK to kill children? can I kill grandma so long as she is helpless? should I have surgery to change me from boy to girl?—I have become steadily more convinced that the root lies far away, where no one would suspect it. You could start somewhere at random, anywhere you please, and there find the key to unlocking all these debates.

Consider my cat as an example. If I glance up and see him, without reflection I think: “A cat!” He seems to be one animal with various parts, including legs, tail, and teeth, that serve his purposes.

But if I look at him more analytically, and especially if I recall my high school biology courses, I recall that he is composed of many systems: muscular system, skeletal system, nervous system, digestive system, and so on and so forth. These systems themselves are composed of a multitude of cells, and the cells in turn are composed of some unimaginable number of atoms, which in turn are composed of something smaller whose name I forget, which in turn is composed of something even smaller whose name maybe nobody knows—but let’s just stop at the level of atoms. My cat is composed of some unimaginable and incomprehensible number of atoms.

The key question is: Which comes first, the atoms or the cat?

In high school, we were taught to think that the atoms come first. On this model, a cat is like a car, a complex system of parts that work so well together as to achieve an appearance of unity. What really exists are nuts and bolts and belts and so on; “car” names the cumulative effect of these parts in relation to each other. Similarly, what really exists are atoms; “cat” names the cumulative effect of the atoms. The atoms are first, and cause the cat. On this theory, my cat is not a cat, but the appearance of a cat; or to put it more precisely, “cat” is the name of an appearance. This is the first and original atom bomb: the one that blew up my cat.

But suppose we turn it around, and say that the cat comes first and the atoms second. On this model, what really exists is one thing, namely a cat, and the atoms are effects arising from that one thing. In this case, the atoms are the sensible radiation or working out of one thing, like the visible glow that testifies to an electric charge in the air. However comprehensible as mechanisms, the various systems in the cat are nothing other than the cat itself working itself out in the mechanical arena. On this theory, my cat is a cat, not a “cat.”

How can we decide which is true? A change in theory would make no difference in the arrangement of atoms, so we can’t leave it to scientific studies or super-duper microscopes or any other version of seeing, touching, feeling, hearing, or smelling. The world around us relentlessly (and unknowingly) advocates that the atoms are first. But how can we decide?

Of all the animals in the world, we have an “insider perspective” on one only: ourselves. Hold up your hands; clap them together. Look with your eyes, and realize that you are looking with two eyes rather than one. You experience yourself as one thing, no matter how many parts you may have; if anyone pokes your hand or your eye, you will say, “You poked me!”

It may seem unscientific or even mystical, but it’s an immediate experience that trumps any later argument: I am first, and my atoms are second.

Does this seem arcane? This one question—which is first, the atoms or the cat?—decides whether moral evil exists, whether we live in our houses, whether we know anything at all. People have no idea.

To say that life is nothing but a property of certain peculiar combinations of atoms is like saying that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nothing but a property of a peculiar combination of letters. The truth is that the peculiar combination of letters is nothing but a property of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The French or German versions of the play “own” different combinations of letters.

 – E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed

Share Button