Who’s afraid of the Deodand?

Sometimes Philosophy hides in plain sight; interesting questions emerge, unbidden, when you least expect them. A few months ago I was waiting in a line to order a coffee in a poorly-lit shop, when the woman behind bumped into me as she struggled to read the menu posted on the wall over the counter.

“They don’t make it easy in here, do they?” she grumbled in a token apology.

I turned and smiled; I’d been having the same difficulty. “I should have brought a flashlight,” I added, trying to make light of it.

“Photons should be free,” she mumbled. “It’s not like we should have to carry them with us to get a coffee…” She looked at me with a mischievous grin creeping across her shadowed face. “I mean they don’t have to pay by the pound for them like bananas, or anything…”

I chuckled. “Photons have mass…? I didn’t realize they were Catholic.” It was a silly thing to say, I suppose, but it just popped out.

She actually laughed out loud at that point. “That’s very clever…” she said, and despite the dim light, I could feel her examining me with more interest.

But I found myself standing in front of the barista at that point, so I ordered my coffee, and headed for a table in the corner. A moment later, the woman from the lineup surfaced out of the darkness and sat beside me under a feeble wall light at the next table.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” she asked, not really waiting for my reply.

I smiled pleasantly in response, but in truth, I had been looking forward to the solitude usually offered by a dark coffee-shop corner.

“I’m sorry,” she said, immediately sensing my mood. “It’s just that you cheered me up in that horrid line, and I wanted to thank you…”

“It was a bit of a trial, wasn’t it?”

She nodded as she sipped her coffee. “Your comment on the mass of photons was hilarious -I’m a Science teacher at the Mary Magdalene Women’s College, so I enjoyed the reference to Catholics. My students will love it.”

I looked at her for a moment and shrugged. “I’m afraid it’s not original, but thank you.”

She chuckled at my honesty and picked up her coffee again. “I don’t recognize it,” she added after a moment’s reflection, still holding her steaming cup in front of her and staring at it like a lover.

“I think maybe it was one of my favourite comedians who said it…” But I wasn’t sure.

“Oh? And who might that be?” she asked, smiling in anticipation of a shared interest.

I thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know… Woody Allen, perhaps.”

She put down her cup with a sudden bang on the table and stared at me. Even in the dim light, I could feel her eyes boring into my face. “A horrid man!” she said between clenched teeth. “How could you ever think that anything he said was funny?” she muttered.

I was beginning to find her eyes painful. I was aware of the controversies about Woody, of course, but I suppose I was able to separate them from his humour. And yet, I have to admit, that when the woman reminded me of his behaviour, I felt guilty -as if by laughing at his jokes, I was tacitly approving of his other activities.

It’s a puzzling, and yet fascinating relationship we have with things used by, or even owned by people we consider evil: deodands. The word, once used in English Common Law, was originally from Medieval Latin –Deo dandum -a thing to be given to God. The idea was that if the object had caused a human death, it had to be forfeited to the Crown, and its value would equal the compensation given to charity, or the family of the victim.

The question, though, is why we feel such revulsion for something that, through no fault of its own, was used in the commission of a crime? It could have been any knife, say, that was used in a stabbing, so why is this particular knife somehow different? Does the aura of what it did cling to it? Haunt it…? Would Woody Allen’s unrelated jokes -or, for that matter, Bill Cosby’s- be funny if we didn’t know their sources?

I have to admit that humour is a lot more reflective of the personality that created it than, for example, an assassin’s gun, or a criminal’s knife, but in isolation -ie divorced from context- is there really any difference? I certainly have no answer, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised that the issue was not one that I was puzzling over on my  own. I came across an essay in an issue of Aeon by Paul Sagar, a lecturer in political theory at King’s College London that looked at first as if it might be helpful: https://aeon.co/essays/why-do-we-allow-objects-to-become-tainted-by-chance-links

He wrote that ‘It is not uncommon to find that one’s enjoyment of something is irrevocably damaged if that thing turns out to be closely connected to somebody who has committed serious wrongs…  knowledge of somebody – or something – having done a bad thing can deeply affect how we view the status of the thing itself.’ But why should that be?

Obviously, the answer is not easily obtained, and in a roundabout way he throws himself on the mercy of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith, and his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). ‘Smith thought it undeniable that we assess the morality of actions not by their actual consequences, but by the intentions of the agent who brings them about.’ And yet, if a person were to throw a brick over a wall and hit someone accidentally, he would also be judged by the consequences even though he hadn’t intended to injure anyone. ‘Smith thought that our moral sentiments in such cases were ‘irregular’. Why do we respond so differently to consequences that have bad outcomes, when those outcomes are purely a matter of luck? Smith was confident that, although he could not explain why we are like this, on balance we should nonetheless be grateful that we are indeed rigged up this way.’

Have patience -this may slowly lead us to a sort of answer. First of all, ‘if, in practice, we really did go around judging everybody solely by their intentions, and not by the actual consequence of their actions, life would be unliveable. We would spend all our time prying into people’s secret motivations, fearing that others were prying into ours, and finding ourselves literally on trial for committing thought crimes.’ Only a god on Judgement Day should be allowed that privilege.

Also, it is good be bothered by consequences rather than just about hidden intentions for social reasons: you have to do good things to get praise, not just intend to do them. And conversely you have to do the bad things to get the punishment. Uhmm… Well, okay, but that doesn’t really explain deodands, or anything.

At this point, Sagar kind of gives up on Smith’s attempts at moral philosophy and heads off on his own wandering trail to find an answer. ‘It is good that we feel aversion to artifacts (be they physical objects, films, records or whatever) associated with sex crimes, murders and other horrors – even if this is a matter of sheer luck or coincidence – because this fosters in us not only an aversion to those sorts of crimes, but an affirmation of the sanctity of the individuals who are the victims of them.’ Somehow that makes us less likely to act the same way? Whoaa…

In the last paragraph, he essentially throws up his hands in frustration (or maybe those were my hands…) and as good as admits he doesn’t know why we would even think about deodands.

And me? How should I have responded to the woman in the coffee shop? Well, probably not by talking about Adam Smith -but changing the subject might have been a good first step, though…

The time is out of joint

It came as a great shock, of course -Youth  does not easily admit defeat: it lives as if there is always a tomorrow, will always be a tomorrow. The sun will rise after any darkness; day will always follow night. Youth is immortal, although perhaps it is that death is further away than they can see. It is beyond the horizon of a land so vast, it barely recedes as they wander along the rainbow of their still-wet days.

At least that’s how Elissa saw it in the years I knew her. We met at university in our freshman year -some club or other, I suppose -although we also took many of the same classes, I recall. And then after three years, she transferred to another school and I lost track of her -until one day I saw a face that shouldn’t have been where I saw it.

I had just started doing my first ward rounds on a neurology rotation in my fourth year of medical school, and there, tucked in a sunny corner of a four-bed room, was a pair of eyes that suddenly twinkled with recognition. Almost everything else I’d seen that first morning on the ward was depressing: asymmetrical faces, immobile bodies, eyes that stared unseeing, and perhaps uncaring, at the ceiling tiles -a ward of scarred, and time-ravaged bodies.

But there she was: a more mature, but still beautiful version of the Elissa I knew. Her auburn hair was shorter than I remembered -but partly shaved and bandaged near the crown. And her face told me she had gone through a lot since we had last seen each other.

I glanced at her chart. The beds on the neurosurgery unit were filled, and so she had been placed on this ward after her brain biopsy a few days previously, until something became available for her on the surgical ward. The biopsy results were depressing -definitely not encouraging for a 29 year old just beginning her PhD program in Psychology.

“Is that who I think it is?” she asked as I approached her bedside.

“I guess that depends on who you’re hoping for,” I answered lightly, and with a smile.

“So…” She ran her eyes across my face and then over the short white coat that medical students wore when visiting patients in those days. “Are you a doctor now?” she asked, even though her expression told me she knew I wasn’t. “Sit down and tell me what you’ve been doing,” she added, before I could answer.

We talked about our lives for a while -well, about everything other than why we were meeting after all this time in a hospital. Elissa could sense my discomfort.

“It’s okay to talk about it, you know…” she said, after an awkward silence when I’d seemed to run out of things to say.

I smiled weakly and shuffled around in my chair.

“Nobody wants to… They crowd around the bed and tell me how well I’m looking, and if anybody dares to mention my cancer, it’s to tell me I am going to beat it.” She glanced at the chart I was holding and smiled. “But I’m not, you know.” She studied my face for a moment. “I can see the subject makes you uncomfortable, too.” She sighed gently and then reached over and took my hand. “I find myself comforting my visitors more than describing how I feel about dying; they don’t really want to know.” Her eyes landed briefly on my cheeks and then hovered over my head before they returned. “I don’t think they’d understand anyway, you know…”

She smoothed the sheets on her bed with her free hand and sighed again. “The really hard thing is that I’ve accepted my fate, but nobody else has. They won’t let me…” She stared out of the window. “You don’t know how hard that is. I almost feel guilty for letting them down.”

She squeezed my hand. “But you know, what it really makes me feel is so very alone… I can’t talk to them about that -not my friends, at any rate.”

Suddenly she stared into my eyes. “Oh, I don’t mean you!” She smiled like the old Elissa. “It’s just that I’m still entitled to an opinion, don’t you think? And I don’t want to live forever, you know…”

I nodded, and stayed quiet and let her talk. I’d never felt so… so close to her.

Then her eyes began to twinkle again. “I mean I have a few quibbles about the timing and everything, but I think I could accept even that, if they’d only stop trying to console me all the time… and just listen.”

Her face was almost radiant as she poured out her feelings onto me, and we continued talking until a nurse tapped me on the shoulder to remind me I had rounds to do on the rest of the patients.

It was then that Elissa leaned across the bed and kissed me on my cheek. “Thank you, G,” she whispered, using my nickname like it was a caress. “Thank you for just listening…

Elissa died only a few weeks later -there wasn’t much to treat brain tumours with in those days, and she slipped into a coma only days after we’d talked. But our discussion has coloured my thinking ever since.

And one topic we discussed -the unfairness of our allotted lifespan- still surfaces from time to time, even all these years later. Most recently, I suppose, in an essay by Paul Sagar, a lecturer in political theory in the department of political economy, King’s College London. He was writing in Aeon, an online publication, outlining the fears that surround both death and its converse, immortality: https://aeon.co/essays/theres-a-big-problem-with-immortality-it-goes-on-and-on

I suddenly remembered Elissa’s feeling about immortality. I don’t want to live forever -just long enough… Until I’m ready, I guess. So I was pleased to learn that the attitude she taught me was neither anomalous nor unusual.

‘[T]he English moral philosopher Bernard Williams suggested that living forever would be awful, akin to being trapped in a never-ending cocktail party. This was because after a certain amount of living, human life would become unspeakably boring. We need new experiences in order to have reasons to keep on going. But after enough time has passed, we will have experienced everything that we, as individuals, find stimulating. We would lack what Williams called ‘categorical’ desires: ie, desires that give us reasons to keep on living, and instead possess only ‘contingent’ desires: ie, things that we might as well want to do if we’re alive, but aren’t enough on their own to motivate us to stay alive.’

I’m reminded, of course, of Bill Murray in that famous movie Groundhog Day where he lives the same day over and over again. As moral philosopher Samuel Scheffler at New York University points out, ‘because death is a fixed fact, everything that human beings value makes sense only in light of our time being finite, our choices being limited, and our each getting only so many goes before it’s all over. Scheffler’s case is thus not simply that immortality would make us miserable (although it probably would). It’s that, if we had it, we would cease to be distinctively human in the way that we currently are. But then, if we were somehow to attain immortality, it wouldn’t get us what we want from it: namely, for it to be some version of our human selves that lives forever. A desire for immortality is thus a paradox.’

And yet, is that it? There must be something else about, well, death -apart from fearing it- that makes us long to avoid it. Sagar mentions the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno feeling ‘outrage and anger that something is being taken away from him (‘they are stealing my I!’). Unamuno is imagining the situation that most of us do when we are contemplating our own deaths: not a distant point of decrepitude, aged 107, trapped in a hospital bed, in an underfunded care home – but rather death as claiming us before we are ready.’

As Sagar concludes, ‘ We are not simply afraid of death, we also resent it, because it is experienced as an assault on our personal agency. We can fully control our own deaths in only one direction – and that, of course, is usually no comfort at all.’

I wonder what he might have thought had he met Elissa that day in the hospital so many, many years ago… Those who are dying may also have an opinion.