Cataclysm and moral sentiment

Excellent reflection from Susan Neiman in the NYT Magazine on the response to the Tsunami. Neiman begins by comparing our reaction to that of Europeans in the 18th century to the earthquake and Tsunami that destroyed Lisbon 250 years ago.

But Enlightenment thinkers took broader perspectives. Though many denied the existence of a personal Creator, most believed in the wonder of Creation, which was beginning to seem intelligible. Lisbon was no worse than London or Paris. Why smash the one and spare the others? Shattered babies were inert reproaches, not only to anyone wanting to call this world the best of all possible worlds, but to anyone wanting to make sense of it at all. Lisbon rubbed people’s noses in meaninglessness, and a savvier Enlightenment emerged. No longer did nature reflect moral order. The Lisbon earthquake left a breach between humankind and its planet that has been with us ever since. Nature and reason are different in kind, and any meeting they have will be accidental. This is one idea that makes us modern.

Or so we like to think. Reactions to the recent tsunami make me wonder. Everybody who has seen it describes the wrecked expanse as a war zone. (In 1755, there were no weapons of mass destruction; only a natural catastrophe could create that much disaster in such a short time.) True, the numbers of people committed to the Enlightenment seem to get smaller by the day. They face growing competition from fundamentalist Christians who view every disaster as a harbinger of the apocalypse and from radical Islamists who find any flood that washes the beaches clean of half-nude tourists to be divine. But even modernist observers are searching for sense. Some see it as nature’s revenge for the way we have ignored her fragile balance. The tourists are not at fault for being half-naked, but for being rapacious. According to some environmentalists, cheap beachside construction, built to satisfy Europeans’ search for exotic spots in which to spend their long vacations, wrecked the coastal forests and coral reefs that might have broken the tsunami…..

But it would be wrong to reject moral sentiment just because it can be misused, and we should remember Lisbon’s major lesson: if there is to be meaning in the world, we need to put it there. Contrary to cliche, no major Enlightenment thinker thought progress was inevitable. The picture of the future was often dark. Kant’s evidence of our progress was minimalist: not the French Revolution, whose outcome was uncertain, but the hopefulness observers felt when thinking of it — that was sign enough that we had made progress and might make some more. The signs coming out of the tsunami are better than that. Suddenly observers across the globe, in the face of the relief efforts, express sentiments they would very recently have been ashamed to reveal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>