"After the Rain - How the West Lost the East"
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The British philosopher Ryle attacked the sceptical point of view regarding right and wrong (=being in error). He said that if the concept of error is made use of – surely, there must be times that we are right. To him, it was impossible to conceive of the one without the other. He regarded “right” and “wrong” as polar concepts. One could not be understood without understanding the other. As it were, Ryle barked up the wrong sceptic tree. All the sceptics said was that one cannot know (or prove) that one is in the right or when one is in the right. They, largely, did not dispute the very existence of right and erroneous decisions, acts and facts.
But this disputation ignored a more basic question. Can we really not understand or know the right – without as intimately understanding and knowing the wrong? To know a good object – must we contrast it with an evil one? Is the action of contrasting essential to our understanding – and, if it is, how?
Imagine a mutant newborn. While in possession of a mastery of all lingual faculties – the infant will have no experience whatsoever and will have received no ethical or moral guidelines from his adult environment. If such a newborn were to be offered food, a smile, a caressing hand, attention – would he not have identified them as “good”, even if these constituted his whole universe of experience? Moreover, if he were to witness war, death, violence and abuse – would he have not recoiled and judged them to be “bad”?
Many would hurl at me the biblical adage about the intrinsic evilness of humans. But this is beside the point. Whether this infant’s world of values and value judgement will conform to society’s is an irrelevant question to us. We ask: would such an infant consistently think of certain acts and objects as “good” (desired, beneficial) – even if he were never to come across another set of acts and objects which he could contrast with the first and call “bad” or “evil”. I think so. Imagine that the infant is confined to the basic functions : eating and playing. Is there any possibility that he would judge them to be “bad”? Never. Not even if he were never to do anything else but eat and play. Good things are intrinsically good and can be immediately identified as such, even without the possibility to contrast them with bad things. “Goodness” and “evil” or “wrong-ness” are extensive parameters. They characterize the whole object or act. They are indispensable to the definition of an object the same way that its spatial dimensions are. They are a part of the character of an act the same way that the actions comprising it are.
Moreover, the positively good can be contrasted with a “non-good” neutral background. The colour white can be discerned against a neutral background as well as against a black one. A good action can be compared to a morally or ethically neutral one (to clapping monotonously, for instance) and still retain its “goodness”. There can exist genuine articles where no counterfeit ones are to be found. Copies of the same software application are both genuine and counterfeit, in the fullest sense of these two words. The first such item (diskette of software application) to have been produced, chronologically, cannot be defined as “The Original”. This is more so if all the copies are manufactured at the same instant. Replicated works of art (graphics or caricatures) are originals and copies simultaneously. We can conceive of a straight line without knowing about crooked or curved ones. The path of light-rays in vacuum in a part of the universe devoid of any masses constitutes a straight line. Yet, it cannot be contrasted to a crooked or to a curved line anywhere in its proximity.
There is a group of concepts, however, which are truly polar. One cannot be defined without the other. Moreover, one GENERATES the other. Take “Up” and “Down”. As one moves up, what one leaves behind MUST be down. “Down” is generated by the “Up” movement. It is really a temporal definition: “Down” is the past tense of “Up”. Movement must be involved in the process of discerning this couplet. Even if we do not move physically, our eyes are bound to. Thus one truly cannot conceive of an up without a down. But no understanding is involved here. No issue of essence is resolved through this distinction. The deep meanings of up and down are not deciphered by the simple act of contrasting them. Rather, down is another, earlier, phase of up. It is a tautology. What is down? – that which is not up or sideways. But, what is up? – that which is not down or sideways and so on. Polar concepts are tautologies with a deceiving appearance. We feel, wrongly, that they add to our knowledge and comprehension, that there is a profound difference between left and right or past and present or one and many. In nature, such differences can have profound manifestations and implications. A right-handed molecule could function very differently compared to its left-handed sibling. One soldier cannot win a war – many, usually, are better at doing it. But one should not confuse the expression with that which is expressed.
It seems that we can generalize: