The Body of Morality

As I mentioned in my last post, Terry Eagleton’s After Theory provides me with virtually no end of quotes to post on this blog. The quote below deals with the topic of the universality of morality, against both much of what is stated in postmodern theory and the disembodied ideals of much of the Enlightenment. Instead, it is in the body itself that we find a universal, objective starting point for morality. Eagleton makes his case for this and teases out one implication regarding technology in the second paragraph:

It is because of the body, not in the first place because of Enlightenment abstraction, that we can speak of morality as universal. The material body is what we share most significantly with the whole of the rest of our species, extended both in time and space. Of course it is true that our needs, desires and sufferings are always culturally specific. But out material bodies are such that they are, indeed must be, in principle capable of feeling compassion for any others of their kind. It is on this capacity for fellow-feeling that moral values are founded; and this is based in turn on our material dependency on each other. Angels, if they existed, would not be moral beings in anything like our sense.

What may persuade us that certain human bodies lack all claim on our compassion is culture. Regarding some of our fellow humans as inhuman requires a fair degree of cultural sophistication. It means having literally to disregard the testimony of our senses. This, at any rate, should give pause to those for whom ‘culture’ is instinctively an affirmative term. There is another sense in which culture can interpose itself between human bodies, known as technology. Technology is an extension of our bodies which can blunt their capacity to feel for one another. It is simple to destroy others at long range, but not when you have to listen to the screams. Military technology creates death but destroys the experience of it. It is easier to launch a missile attack which will wipe out thousands than run a single sentry through the guts. The painless death for which the victims have always hankered is now also prized by the perpetrators. Technology makes our bodies far more flexible and capacious, but in some ways much less responsive. It reorganizes our senses for swiftness and multiplicity rather than depth, persistence or intensity. Marx considered that by turning even our senses into commodities, capitalism had plundered us of our bodies. In his view, we would need a considerable political transformation to come to our senses.

Terry Eagleton, After Theory, 155-6.

WordPress Default is proudly powered by WordPress

Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS).