Attain the Good You Will Not Attain, part 1

Today we’ll pay a visit to Jeremy Bentham, drop in on a certain ethics seminar in 1990, allude to an episode from my dating life, and then go to Nazi-occupied Poland. We’ll entertain the notion that activism is not, most fundamentally, about producing outcomes, but about living as who we are. We’ll consider what Eastern traditions have to say about that, and visit a scorpion-stung swami by the banks of the Ganges. We’ll give a wave to Mary Oliver’s wild geese, and then stand for a moment on the side of the Misty Mountains with the Fellowship of the Ring that had just emerged from the Mines of Moria. Finally, we’ll join A.J. Muste in the 1960s, on the sidewalk just outside the White House. As always, it’ll be a ride – and I thank you for joining me for it.

1. Jeremy Bentham.

In the 18th century Bentham advanced an ethical theory called utilitarianism. The moral person, he said, is the one who acts so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. If you have ever seriously tried to live by this maxim, then you began to realize some difficulties. How do you measure good? Suppose action X has a 60 percent chance of producing exactly 3 units of good, a 10 percent chance of producing 4 or more, and a 20 percent chance of producing -8 units. Suppose action Y is mutually exclusive with action X (you can't do them both), and action Y has a 50 percent chance of producing 2 units of good and a 50 percent chance of producing -2 units, then do you do action X or Y? You’d spend all your time estimating probabilities and doing the math – and that’s assuming that there was a clear and constant way to know what 1 unit of good was. This is not how humans ever have, or could, decide what to do.

And what about diminishing marginal return – where some result would have 1 unit of good by itself, but the 100th unit of the same thing isn’t nearly so helpful. And what’s our time frame? Short-term goods can turn out to be longer-term negatives, and short-term harms can have longer-term benefits. And how much of the good depends on what other people do in response (which makes the estimating the odds essentially hopeless)?

For all these difficulties, impossibilities, really – of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham’s way of thinking about how to be a good person represented a radical shift with profound implications. His weird idea to imagine that there were measurable units of good came with a corollary: equality. Good is good no matter to whom it happens. The good of, or the harm to, the poorest peasant counts as much the good or harm to a king or queen – unless the effects on the monarch would produce effects on the populace – each member of which, again, counts equally. For Bentham, this even applied to nonhuman animals. He wrote,
“The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”
We spend a lot of our lives thinking – at least a little bit – about what do. When we do, we typically include a rough guess about what sort of effects we might expect. We can and do work for desired outcomes even when we aren’t sure of the odds of attaining them, and we can’t quantify the good.

Bentham’s enduring contribution is to tell us to weigh the interests of other people – indeed, other sentient beings – equally with ourselves – to weigh each as the equal of any. This is also impractical and impossible – but the very idea of it shifted our moral imagination.

As appreciative and grateful as I am for Bentham and subsequent utilitarians for insisting that everyone’s good counts equally, and as much as working for outcomes consumes so much of our life, there’s something else. There’s more to being a good person than producing outcomes – even if your outcomes are way above average, and they benefit everyone. Last month’s theme, integrity, and this month’s theme, trust, invite us to reflect particularly on what is a good life independent of producing results.

2. Ethics Seminar, 1990

On this topic there’s a poem that means a lot to me. I’ve shared it before, but it’s been a few years. Let me tell you how it came to my awareness, and then a little background about the poet, and then I’ll share the poem.

In 1990, I was in a graduate student at the University of Virginia, taking an ethics seminar taught by Cora Diamond. We were considering various angles of critique of utilitarianism when Professor Diamond passed out photocopies of a poem by Zbigniew Herbert: "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito."

I took that photocopy of Herbert's poem home from Cora Diamond’s ethics seminar and pasted it on the side of my metal filing cabinet, and covered it with a protective layer of clear packing tape.

3. Episode from My Dating Life

Ten years and several moves went by, and one evening my date and I came back to my place and she happened to notice my filing cabinet and the poem affixed on the side. Her name was LoraKim Joyner, and I believe that was our third date.

We read together the lines of the poem -- and found ourselves crying. If I wasn't already in love with her, I was then. The poem’s themes -- “attain the good you will not attain” – the importance of what we do, and live for, even if it will produce no results – have been touchstones for us in our life and ministry together.

4. Nazi-Occupied Poland

A word about the poet. Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was born in 1924. He was a month shy of his 15th birthday when the Nazi tanks rolled into Poland in 1939 September, beginning a six-year period of occupation of his homeland. The young Herbert continued his studies in secret classes organized by the Polish Underground and in time became a member of the Polish resistance movement. Later, at age 50 in 1974, Herbert published “Mr. Cogito,” a collection of 40 poems. The titles of the book's poems almost all reference Herbert's everyman, Mr. Cogito.

The book's last poem is "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito." ("Przesłanie Pana Cogito," also sometimes translated as "The Message of Mr Cogito.") Whether the titular envoy is bringing a message to or from Mr. Cogito is not clear. But the message reminds us that life includes more than utilitarian calculation. We are called to an integrity and trust that ultimately transcends producing outcomes.

As I read the poem, I imagine what it must have been like to have been in the Polish resistance. It would demand courage that could not have relied on hope, for realistically the resistance had no hope. In that world, at that time, it was evident that evil had won and would continue. Had members of the resistance acknowledged any moral relevance to utilitarian calculation, they could not have given their hearts and their lives as they did to the task by which they chose to be defined -- for all reasonable evidence pointed to the futility of that task.

A different moral understanding was necessary. Resistance, under such circumstances, is not about winning, not about accomplishing results. It's about the requirements of decency, integrity, and trustworthiness -- about what, in that situation, a decent life, however brief, would be.

Put out of your mind the idea that you might be doing any good, Herbert tells us. To join the resistance is to commit each day to activities that could easily make any hour your last, and to abandon hope that any good could come of this. You join, if you do, because you are called to be a resistor rather than a collaborator. You do it to be who you are -- until they catch and kill you, as they surely will. It’s about being a worthy person, not about getting anything done. It's about the life that leads to death, but also about the death that opens a possibility for genuine and fearless life.

5. "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito" by Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Bogdana Carpenter

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards — they will win
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called — weren’t there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant — when the light on the mountains gives the sign — arise and go
as long as blood turns your dark star in the breast

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap
go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

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