Tear-filled goodbyes, insatiable longings for good things to last forever, grasping after time in desperation to make it stand still. These are emotional experiences common to the human condition. I propose that these, and other, emotions, when functioning properly, are reliable ways of knowing the moral dimensions of reality, including knowing what we ought to value (the ought behind our oughts) and thus how we should invest ourselves.
The 18th century British empiricist philosopher David Hume, a renowned skeptic of metaphysical and religious knowledge claims, argued (contra rationalist predecessors like Rene Descartes) that moral truths were not discernable by reason but by sentiments, which he distilled down to feelings of approval (love, esteem) and of disapproval (blame, anger) in response to the contemplation of certain moral traits or actions. As Alberto Knag explains to his pupil Sophie in his lesson on Hume, the problem with the Nazi’s was not that they were irrational, but they were coldly rational, calculating, in achieving their aims. Their problem was not with malfunctioning reason, but malfunctioning emotion: they did not feel the normal sense of disapproval of injustice that arises out the empathy we share with fellow human beings (Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder).
With these philosophical assumptions in mind, what do the emotions I have described in this series reveal to us about moral reality? A couple of simple truths, really:
1. People, and our relationships with them, are more important than possessions, achievement, and entertainment. This statement implies, of course, that there is an objectively real ordering of things’ value in the universe: because people are actually more important, objectively; therefore, they ought to be more important to us, subjectively.
My favorite band Rush would concur. “The Garden”, the final track on their latest album Clockwork Angels, is a reflection on what matter most in life (given credibility from men who are turning 60 and have been producing thoughtful art for 40 years). The chorus rings:
The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned.
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect
2. Our souls will only find ultimately satisfaction and rest in a timeless state of existence. Our relationship with time is so very strange, if you think about it. One moment we are moaning about time going too slow, glancing at our watches or the calendar wishing that time would move quicker. Another moment we are complaining about time going to fast, avoiding the clock, wishing that time would slow to halt. Again, to invoke Rush, this time from the 1987 track “Time Stand Still”:
Make each impression
A little bit stronger
Freeze this motion
A little bit longer
The innocence slips away.
Summer’s going fast
Nights growing colder
Children growing up
Old friends growing older
Experience slips away.
Time stand still.
This groping for the transcendent in the face of the tyranny of the transient is a clear and persistent clue to the meaning of our lives. I cannot put it any better than C.S. Lewis who inferred from such experiences (published in Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy),
A wish may lead to false beliefs, granted. But what does the existence of the wish suggest? At one time I was much impressed by Arnold’s line, “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But surely, tho’ it doesn’t prove that one particular man will get food, it does prove that there is such a thing as food! i.e. if we were a species that didn’t normally eat, weren’t designed to eat, would we feel hungry? You say the materialist universe is “ugly.” I wonder how you discovered that! If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it that you don’t feel at home there? Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Of if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures? Notice how we are perpetually surprised at Time. (“How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up & married! I can hardly believe it!”) In heaven’s name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal.
It is in the context of this argument that we come across the famous line, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
While emotions are often misleading, they can be trustworthy at times, especially in farewells to both loved friends and loved TV shows, to teach us deep moral truths and suggest to us clues about what, and even who, we were made for.