Sapere audi

Sapere audi – ‘Dare to know’, as the Roman poet Horace wrote. It was later taken up by famous Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and it seemed like a suitable rallying cry as I negotiated the years that led from youth to, well, Age. Who could argue that ignorance is preferable to knowledge? That understanding something, better facilitates an informed decision about whether to believe or reject? To welcome, or close the door?

Admittedly, knowledge can be a moving target, both in time and perhaps in temperament as well. Whatever ‘knowing’ is that determines the appeal of a particular political philosophy, say, is not immutable, not forever carved in marble like the letters in Trajan’s column. One could start off in one camp, and then wander into another as the years wear thin. Perhaps it is the gradual friction of experience rubbing on hope that effects the change- but however it works, exposure can alter what we believe. If nothing else, it speeds adaptation, and enables us to habituate to things that we might once have shunned. And it is precisely this ability to acclimatize that may prove worrisome.

An essay by the philosopher Daniel Callcut drew this to my attention a while ago:

‘There are at least two senses of ‘morally unthinkable’. The first, that of something you have no inkling of is perhaps the purest form of moral innocence. Not only can you not contemplate doing X: you don’t even know what X is. This is the innocence that parents worry their children will lose online… Then there is the worry that if something becomes thinkable in the imaginative sense, then it might eventually become thinkable in the practical sense too… If virtue depends in part on actions being unthinkable, then the internet doubtless has a tendency to make unvirtuous actions all too thinkable… The idea that being a decent person involves controlling the kinds of thoughts you allow yourself to think can easily be met with resistance. If virtue depends on limits to what is thinkable, and a certain free-thought ideal celebrates no limits, then the potential conflict between freethinking and virtue is obvious.’

Of course, one of the several elephants in the room is the pornographic one -the ‘public discussion of the internet’s potential to undermine virtue focuses on the vast amount of easily accessible pornography… Porn, the research suggests, has the tendency to encourage the prevalence of thoughts that shouldn’t be thought: that women enjoy rape, and that No doesn’t really mean No. More generally, it has the tendency to encourage what the British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in the 1970s dubbed the ‘male gaze’: men staring at women’s bodies in a way that bypasses concern for a woman’s consent.’ And, not only that, there was the intriguing suggestion that ‘Liberals, worried about potential censorship, can sometimes find themselves defending the implausible position that great art has great benefits but that junk culture never produces any harms.’

As Callcut writes, ‘What we imagine is not inert: what we think about changes the people we are, either quickly or over time – but it still changes us.’ So, ‘If the image you are looking at is disturbing,’ he asks, ‘is it because it is explicit and unfamiliar to you, or is it because it is wrong? When are you looking at a problem, and when is the problem you?’ There is a definite tension ‘between virtues that by their nature restrict thought and imagination and the prevailing spirit of the internet that encourages the idea that everything should be viewable and thinkable.’

In other words, is it better not to know something? Is Sapere audi anachronistic, inappropriate -dangerous, even?

I find myself drawn back in time to something that happened to me when I was around 13 or 14 years of age. There was no internet, in those days, of course, and word of mouth, or naughty whispers with subtle nudges were sometimes how we learned about adult things.

A somewhat duplicitous friend had lent me a book to read: The Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers, I think it was called. His parents had given it to him when they’d found his stash of overly-suggestive magazines hidden in a closet. I wasn’t sure what to make of the loan, but at that tender age, and in those pre-social media days, there was much about life that remained mysterious and hidden from me. I hadn’t yet given much thought to girls; it was still an innocent time.

I remember being embarrassed even handling the book -especially since it didn’t look as if it had even been opened. My first instinct was to hide it somewhere my mother wouldn’t find it. Obviously the closet hadn’t worked for my friend, so, since it was summer, I decided to put it at the bottom of my sock drawer where I kept the ones I only used in winter. She’d never need to burrow down that deeply.

But, oddly enough, a few days later, I discovered the book had acquired a folded piece of paper in the ‘How babies are made’, section. ‘Read this,’ the note said in my mother’s unmistakeable cursive.

The next morning at breakfast I could hardly look up from my plate, but to her credit, she acted as if it was just another summer’s day: the radio on the shelf was playing some music softly in the background, and my father was buried behind his newspaper.

But the discovery triggered an embarrassing walk with my father who had obviously been delegated by my mother to deliver the Talk, as my friends termed it in those days. And although it turned out well, I couldn’t help but think I had crossed a line in my life. And judging by the gravity with which he approached it, I had just been initiated into a hitherto forbidden club.

In this case, fortunately, the not-yet imagined realm was discussed sensitively and, with many blushes on both our faces, placed in a realistic context -and with what I would later realize was a sensible perspective…

Despite my age, and after all these years, I continue to be naïve about many things I suspect, and yet I still feel there is a need to defend the ‘Dare to know,’ exhortation. Virtue does not depend on actions never considered, nor on a drought of as-yet-unimagined things; decency does not simply require controlling what you allow yourself to think, any more than pulling the covers over your head at night protected you from the bogeyman in the room when you were a child.

Virtue -morality- isn’t the absence of temptation; there is, and probably will continue to be, an allure to what we do not know -to what is kept hidden from us. There will always be a struggle, I imagine, and the more you know about it -and about the world- the more you enable yourself to understand context. I still wonder what type of adulthood I might have wandered into had my mother not found that book and realized there was an opportunity.

Sapere audi, I almost wish she had written instead, in that note to her already nerdy child -I think I would have loved the Latin.

Oh coward Conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Every once in a while, buried in all the fake news and confirmation biases, I find something that rings true. Something that transcends the routine moral admonishments that usually find me wanting. It’s not that I don’t aspire to morality, or whatever, it’s just that I’m sometimes not very good at it: I forget things from time to time, and yell at other people, or the dog.

And anyway, being good only exists in contrast to something else so it’s important to keep other stuff around so you know where you sit. I do not know any moral saints, you understand -they must run with a different crowd- but then again, I’m not sure we’d get along as friends. The American philosopher, Susan Wolf, defines these ‘saints’ as people whose every action is as morally good and worthy as possible, and she writes in her eponymous essay Moral Saints: ‘I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.’

It turns out that her essay is the subject for another essay, this time by Daniel Callcut in Aeon, rather than The Journal of Philosophy so I felt less of a stranger in a strange land in reading it:

Wolf seems to be suggesting that the moral saint would likely never give you a break if you weren’t constantly altruistic, so I enjoyed Callcut’s paraphrase: ‘The problem with extreme altruism, as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said about socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.’

‘If you don’t have enough time for friendship or fun, or works of art or wildlife, then you are missing out on what Wolf calls the non-moral part of life. Wolf does not mean to suggest that non-moral equals immoral: just because something doesn’t have anything to do with morality (playing tennis, for instance) it does not follow that it is therefore morally bad. The point is that morality is, intuitively, focused on issues such as treating others equally, and on trying to relieve suffering. And good things these are: but so is holidaying with a friend, or exploring the Alaskan rain forest, or enjoying a curry. Moral goodness is just one aspect of the good things in life and, if you live as if the moral aspect is the only aspect that matters, then you are likely to be very impoverished in terms of the non-moral goods in your life.’

I am taken with Callcut’s take on Aristotelian ethics: ‘Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others.’

However, some of Callcut’s arguments -and especially Wolf’s- go deeper than what most of us non-philosophers would likely accept, let alone understand. What I took from the essay was that ‘a line has to be drawn between what is morally required of you and that which is morally praiseworthy but not morally required… Morality doesn’t require you to have no other interests besides morality.’ And ‘The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person.’ Most of us walk the middle ground.

I remember one cold day a few years ago when I was in town -fairly close to Christmas, I think. The street was full of shoppers, charity Santa Clauses, and on every block, Salvation Army volunteers with their little pots slowly filling with money. Unfortunately, the contrast with the street people among them was jarring -especially the old man and his dog sitting on a busy corner. Everybody passed the two of them without a glance. He had no cup, and he looked too cold to leave his hat down on the sidewalk for donations. Perhaps in his sixties, or seventies, he was unshaven and dressed in a torn, mud-stained grey-brown overcoat and was huddled close to his dog, his hands trying to find some warmth in his coat, while his feet sought refuge under the dog. A rumpled blue toque, obviously too small for him, was pulled over his head, but it wasn’t large enough to cover his ears, and he was visibly shivering.

I had just bought a few presents and could feel some change jangling in one pocket, and my conscience in another, so I decided to empty both of them in the Salvation Army pot nearby.

I glanced at the man and his dog as I walked over to the pot.

The volunteer saw me looking at the man. “I’ve tried to convince him to come to the shelter,” he explained, before I had a chance to empty my pocket. “But he won’t…”

“Can he bring his dog with him?” I asked. The dog was obviously important to him.

The volunteer nodded. “But, only to our shelter on the other side of the city, unfortunately -too far away from where he lives in the park.” He smiled at the old man. “He says he’s waiting for some friends, although I haven’t seen them in a couple of days…” We both stared at the old man. “He just got out of hospital -actually, I think he probably discharged himself. He was worried about the dog.”

“But look at him,” I said. “He’s cold now; he’s going to freeze tonight!”

The volunteer sighed. “He refuses to go back to the hospital, so I offered to drive him and the dog to the shelter in my van, but…” He shrugged.

“Let me talk to him,” I said and walked over to where he sat. I started to extend my hand to greet him, but the dog growled protectively.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” I asked, being careful not to approach any closer.

A pair of sad, rheumy eyes slowly emerged from under the curtain of his lids and stared vacantly at me. His thin, chapped lips twitched and I wondered if he was talking softly to me. His skin was sallow and bruised; he didn’t look at all well. “Dog,” he seemed to be saying, although I couldn’t be sure. But even the effort of whispering seemed too much for him.

“Dog…?” I said, to help him out.

His head slowly nodded. “Dog,” formed on his trembling lips, and then his eyes receded again into his skull, and his head fell forward onto his chest.

I hurried back to the Salvation Army man. “He’s really sick,” I said, and dialled 911 for the ambulance. But before they arrived, the dog began to whine and lick the man’s face.

When the paramedics arrived, it was too late -the old man had died, but the dog wouldn’t let them take him away, so they had to call the SPCA to restrain him.

“What will happen to the dog?” I asked as the official bundled it into his van.

The SPCA man shrugged. “Usually put them down, eh?”

“But…” I struggled for words. “Can’t it be kept for adoption?”

“Too many of ‘em,” he explained, his eyes sad. “And this one’s a bit old…”

I stared at him with disbelief. “But… But the last thing he said to me was… well, he wanted to make sure the dog was taken care of, I think.”

The driver was obviously a kind man. “You can donate some money for a kennel…” he said, and produced a card with the phone number. “Who knows, maybe someone will want an older dog… It’s Christmas, eh?”

I nodded and took the card. The man smiled like he was relieved. “I hate it when we have to put ’em down,” he said, closing the door to the van. “Thank you, sir,” he said, getting into his seat behind the wheel. “I’ll tell them you’re going to phone.”

The Salvation Army man walked over to me as the ambulance drove away and the crowd that had gathered, thinned. “You know,” he said, smiling at me and shaking my hand, “That was the most meaningful donation I’ve seen this Christmas…”

And I think it was the most meaningful gift I’ve ever given…