Monday, June 27, 2011

Of Morals and Metaphors: #1

My previous posts on metaphors and persuasion were mostly by way of introducing this next topic. For the sake of brevity, I'm splitting up my thoughts into multiple installments. For the sake of readership, I'll try to end each post with a thrilling cliff-hanger of a question. For the sake of my own self-respect I probably won't try too hard.

We've already established that our rational minds rely on images and metaphors to an impressive and often unconscious degree. This is particularly true when it comes to questions of of morality.

How do we visualize good and evil?

The moral imagination of the modern age is dominated to a startling degree by an ancient Gnostic heresy called Manichaeism. According to the Manichees, good and evil were equal and opposite forces. Good was associated with God and a spiritual "Kingdom of Light;" evil with Satan and a physical "Kingdom of Darkness."

In other words, the Manichees asserted a basically dualistic moral universe. Sound familiar?

The key metaphor in our modern understanding of good and evil is a straight line: good on one end, evil on the other, and a morally gray no-man's land in between. This metaphor is robust, and with good reason: its  strength is its simplicity. But it has one fatal flaw: namely, it just ain't so.

Good and evil are not equal opposites. Every vice is, at root, the corrupted or distorted image of a corresponding virtue. But the reverse is not true: virtue is not at heart merely glorified vice. Likewise, the most successful lie is a half-truth, a fiction spliced with just enough fact to make it persuasive. On the contrary, the most successful truths are judged, not according to persuasiveness, but by fidelity to the real world.

Right and wrong don't even compete in the same weight class.

Thus the question remains: how else might we visualize good and evil? Tune in tomorrow for the answer.

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