Adorno’s Lesson


“… if you were to press me to follow the example of the Ancients and make a list of the cardinal virtues, I would probably respond cryptically by saying that I could think of nothing except for modesty. Or to put it another way, we must have a conscience, but may not insist on our own conscience.” – Theodor Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy lecture 17 (Adorno 2001, p. 170).

The quote given above is I think the key take-home point that Adorno wants to establish in his 1963 lectures on moral philosophy: he spends these lectures engaged in the ruthless critique of moral philosophy (especially Kantian moral philosophy) in order to tell us, in the final lecture, that we are not really, under presently-existing conditions, formed in such a way that we can, in truth, tell the difference between right and wrong.

This is a lesson that, I think, would be borne out from the ethical experience of most intelligent, reflective individuals. We are constantly, the vast majority of us, attempting to act in such a way as to make the world a better place. But for all our good intentions, we frequently end up, inadvertently, making it worse. This is a problem that seemingly infects all of our action, both individual and collective. Even the most mundane consumer decision – one’s choice of coffee, for example, or the server hosting your blog – might end up making one complicit in corporate greed, oppressive labour practices, and environmental devastation.

Regardless of how much everyone would like everything to turn out for the better, things just seem to get worse and worse; we are the powerless pawns of history, our actions controlled according to the laws of a game the point of which is utterly beyond us, the rules of which we can never hope to understand. Yesterday’s attacks in Paris are the sort of event that really brought this sort of feeling home. Just in that word, ‘Paris’, you must know the sort of horror I am talking about here.

Under such conditions, the temptation can be to assert one’s old certainties over the dangerously new, uncertain scenario that one is faced with. And this is a temptation that, it seems, in the wake of the attacks, social media immediately succumbed to. For atheists, this was an attack that showed how dangerous religion was; for racists, this was an attack which showed how dangerous refugees are; for sarcastic left-twitter Brits, this was an attack the response to which showed how fucking stupid British journalists are (and so on and so forth).

The thing is, I can understand this response. I can even sort-of understand the response of our governments, who have responded (and will continue to respond) by ramping up ‘security measures’, designed to contain the terrorist threat. The events in Paris are fucking terrifying, and part of their horror, at least for western people, is precisely that they are so close to home: I’m sure I’m not the only person who would rather avoid major population centres for the near future. This might have been London which got attacked, it might have been Berlin. When we’re terrified, we want something secure, and safe, that we can hold on to: we want the rock that will keep the tigers away; we want to already have, within our grasp, the knowledge that can look the threat in the eye and show everyone the way, finally, of alleviating it. Ban religion! Ban immigrants! The bad men will go away.

But at least part of Adorno’s lesson – and I would not say I fully understand his moral philosophy, I’m not sure anyone does – but at least part of the lesson is, I think, that can’t really have this sort of knowledge; at the very least we can’t already have the knowledge of what is causing the bad thing to happen and who is, ultimately, responsible. An event like Paris is troubling and new – and in its troubling newness, it distorts our old certainties: it throws them into flux. If we do not recognise this fact, and just stick with some now (thanks to the event!) outmoded explanation for it, we will precisely fail to understand the threat, and our actions will only serve to perpetuate the conditions within which it emerged.

This is, I think, where modesty – as an intellectual virtue – can come into play: the ‘modest’ observer of historical events will be able to be receptive to them in their historical specificity; they will not cling fast to old certainties but will be able to discard them when necessary. In short, the modest observer is perhaps someone who is able to form a hot take on the events, but they will not insist on their hot take. If their take does not match up to the facts, they will abandon it. In putting forward their perspective in a modest and open way, the modest observer will afford us new avenues of understanding: ones which will help us to respond, in solemnity and compassion, to the horror that we are exposed to. If we are successful in doing this – although of course it is a horribly difficult tightrope-trick to manage (and just look at how often Adorno, who is incredibly self-assured as a writer, fails in doing this) – perhaps there really does lie the hope of our building a better world, together.

Or perhaps I’m just as awful as everyone else too, because I’m trying to articulate a perspective on these events through someone I’ve just done a PhD on, so obviously this is just some old certainty that I’m clinging to in order to compensate for the fact that I know nothing about anything at all.

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