Blair: Precarious Principles

by Peter Blair | 4/10/12 10:00pm

Like probably most of Dartmouth, I saw "The Hunger Games" (2012) when it came out in theaters a few weeks ago. It was pretty good, but it did unsettle me in several ways. Most disturbing was the shocking juxtaposition of the high level of technological sophistication and material prosperity in the capital with the horrifying spectacle of the Hunger Games. These games, for those living under a cultural rock, involve teenagers fighting to the death for the amusement of the residents of the country's capital.

The contrast between prosperity and cruelty in the film was shocking. It is a cherished narrative of our culture that material prosperity and moral progress go together. As we become more prosperous and technologically advanced, we expect to become more peaceful, leaving our moral backwardness behind. The most popular recent example of this idea is psychologist and author Steven Pinker's latest book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." Pinker argues that the modern world has seen a remarkable reduction in violence, and he chalks it up, in part, to innovations in trade and commerce.

The equation of material and moral progress is so firmly entrenched in our cultural consciousness that at times, the premise of "The Hunger Games" might strike many of us as deeply implausible. We cannot imagine such an event happening, for example, in the contemporary United States. "The Hunger Games" should be praised for stretching our cultural imagination in this respect, as it is crucial for us to realize how precious and precarious our moral inheritance is and how much we have to work to keep it constantly alive.

The ancient Romans saw no contradiction between their unprecedented wealth and power on the one hand and their horrifying cultural practices on the other. The Romans had, of course, their own version of the "Hunger Games," in which people fought and died in the gladiator rings for the amusement of the citizens. They also had no qualms about exposure: the practice of leaving children to die, unprotected out in the elements. Even Aristotle, justly lauded as one of the greatest philosophers in Western history, cheerfully defended exposure.

In fact, our society is unique in its rejection of violent cultural practices. Our moral norms are, in a sense, profoundly unnatural they are not the natural position humans take. As theologian David Bentley Hart writes, "If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was in purely pragmatic terms a more natural' disposition toward reality."

Hart does not mean to praise moral naturalness in this sense. He's arguing against it, in favor of our attitude toward life. But he does want to awaken in the reader a sense of just how powerfully contingent and fragile our moral norms are. Indeed, even our society, which is morally superior to the world of "The Hunger Games," embraces and depends a good deal more on morally savage practices than we are willing to admit. Western culture has been a great moral achievement, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that our achievement is permanent, complete, natural or effortless. Slavery, albeit of the sexual kind, still exists in our world in deeply disturbing numbers. Environmental destruction underwrites much of our material prosperity. And recently, two Australian philosophers published a piece in a peer-reviewed ethics journal arguing that infanticide, not even abortion, is morally licit.

We have inherited an absurdly impractical, beautiful and unique moral ethic as our patrimony, but we will lose it if we did not constantly take up the battle to renew its influence on our lives. This is, I take it, one of the roles of our education: to preserve our precious moral birthright and equip us with the tools to override our natural drift toward apathy and moral atrocity.

In his book "Lost in Transition," sociologist Christian Smith notes that many young adults and college students have trouble seeing civilization as an achievement, as something that has to be positively won by common effort. They see it rather as a natural given, as something they can count on to always exist. If "The Hunger Games" does not succeed in disabusing us of the notion that civilization is permanent, this violent, morally corrupt society may not be so implausible for future generations.